“Giving Up Money for Lenten: A Spiritual Excercise”
Prayer and Money
I had an uncomfortable experience this week. Some of us are doing a 21-day money fast. We're trying to not spend any money that it isn't really necessary to spend and we have given up credit cards and debit cards. I've given up all plastic except my Metro card.
I stopped at the grocery store this week to buy a few groceries and as I was making my way through the store, I suddenly realized I might not have enough cash on me to pay for what I had in my basket.
My first thought was one of gratitude – that I'd realized this before I was at the check out counter. Cause if I was at the check-out counter without enough money to pay my bill, swear to God, one of you would have been in line behind me to witness my embarrassment.
So I had to go back and put some things back on the shelves, and exchange some things for cheaper brands, and decide what I really needed and what I could do without.
Shopping for a few food items took me twice the time it usually does. And I had to think about what I was buying in a way I really haven't had to ever since I wrote my youngest child's last tuition check.
I had a moment or sympathy for those who have to think about every food purchase when they are feeding their families. When I shop, when I'm considering what to buy, my biggest question usually is "How many calories does it have?"
So I've been praying about hunger and would like to ask you to join with me in a prayer today. Please put a hand on your stomach, if you would, while we pray:
I've been thinking this week, O Creator, about the families even here in America who struggle to put food on their tables. One in four children in America lives in households at risk of hunger. Some of us, O God, have to work to make sure we do not eat too much. Fix this, O God. Help us to fix it. We pray for the Department of Agriculture and its work to end hunger. Bless those who work in the Department of Agriculture. We pray for Bread for the World and all the non-profits and all the anti-hunger nonprofits. World hunger is staggering, hunger in America is impossible for us to understand. Fix us, O God. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
We only have a few minutes this morning and I want us to understand what happened on the first Holy Week Monday.
Palm Sunday the crowds are cheering "Hosanna in the Highest." Friday they are shouting "Crucify him." The thing that happened in between was Holy Week Monday.
It was Holy Monday that got Jesus crucified. It was the final straw.
Every religion starts out simple and then seems to get more and more complicated. Israelite religion started out simple. It practiced sacrifice.
In the beginning, people brought God the best of their harvest and the best of their flocks, and the cereal offerings and animal offerings were sacrificed to God. It was based on an anthropomorphic understanding of God. It was based on the idea that God needs to eat too. And it was based on the idea that God deserves the best. In its context, it was sort of poignant. People wanted to give God the best of their harvest.
The centuries pass. Eventually a temple is built in Jerusalem and people travel to Jerusalem from all over Israel and eventually from all over the world, and they can't bring animals with them anymore to be sacrificed, and lots of people aren't farmers anymore anyway, and don't have animals to bring to sacrifice anymore.
So a sort of service industry developed in which people raised animals for sacrifices. They set up booths in the outer courtyard of the temple to sell animals to people coming from around the world for them to purchase to offer as sacrifices. And it gets to be a thriving enterprise. I have no doubt they began out of a sincere desire to provide a service to worshippers.
And because only Jewish coins were accepted as offerings in the temple, money changers set up tables in the courtyard of the temple to exchange foreign currencies for Jewish money. I have no doubt it began as a service.
But it eventually grew into a significant source of income for the families who ran the businesses and for the temple that received a portion of the profits.
The area of the temple where all this commerce was allowed to happen is a section of the temple grounds called the courtyard of the goyim, or the courtyard of the gentiles, or the courtyard of the nations.
The day after Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, tomorrow, Jesus goes into the courtyard of the goyim and begins to attack and drive out the money changers and those who sold sacrifices. He gets closer to being violent than most of us are comfortable with. He physically drives them out.
The temple authorities make a decision there and then that Jesus has to go.
What I want us to understand is exactly what it is that Jesus was objecting to.
The heart of Jesus' objection and anger is not just the tackiness of doing business in the courtyard of the temple, but that it was happening in the courtyard of the goyim. We might miss this because of the way the Greek is translated.
In Mark 11:17 it says:
He was teaching and saying; "Is it not written:
The phrase "a house of prayer for all nations" should be translated "a house of prayer for all goyim." “A house of prayer for all gentiles.”
The temple was organized into courtyards and rooms and at the center of the temple was the room called the holies of holies. Goyim, gentiles, non-Jews were allowed only as close as the courtyard of the goyim. Then there was a courtyard for women, then there was a room for Jewish men, then there was a courtyard for priests and then only the high priest was allowed into the holies of holies.
Jesus' problem on Holy Monday that brought him close to violence was that the temple authorities had taken the courtyard of the goyim and turned it into a stock market, a place of business.
Mark is very careful to make the specific point that Jesus drove out of the courtyard of the goyim "those who were selling and those who were buying." It wasn't just the entrepreneurs trying to make a buck that upset Jesus. It was also those who were going from table to table of those selling animals for sacrifice trying to find the best price and those going from money changer to money changer trying to find the highest exchange rate.
What Jesus was upset about is that the commerce of the temple had taken away the goyim's place to pray.
What I want us to remember this morning is that what we have to offer people that is more important than anything else, is a place to pray. This is our heart.
I love our mission. We spread across the city yesterday and it was great. But our mission is fruitful when it comes from an understanding that we are serving the children of God – when it comes from a place of prayer.
I was the pastor of a church once that was in the heart of what people called the ghetto. We had lots of people in crisis who came to our church for help. I worked hard at getting people fed and getting people shelter.
After I had been there for some time, my staff-parish relations committee said they wanted to have a conversation with me. This always makes a pastor a little nervous.
The committee chair said to me: Pastor, we see you working hard to help people get fed and housed and you work hard to help people get educations and find jobs. We support you in that 100 percent. We are grateful that you minister in these ways.
But, she said, we've noticed that we don't see you praying with these people very often. We are concerned that you don't pray with them.
"Well," I said in my good liberal way, "I don't want people to think that I am forcing religion on them. I don't want them to think that they have to be religious to get help from us. I don't want to impose on people."
Of course not, she said, that's why you ask people if they'd like you to pray with them before you pray with them. Pastor, we'd like you to offer to pray with people.
The next Saturday I was in the church office when the doorbell rang. It was a woman with five small children. They were staying in a shelter but they had to leave the shelter everyday after breakfast and could not get back in until after suppertime and the children were hungry and she had no money for food. Could I help them?
We kept some gift certificates for a nearby restaurant for just this kind of situation and normally I would have given them a gift certificate and wished them well. But I remembered what my SPRC chairperson had said.
So I walked with them to the restaurant, sat with them as they offered their food. As they waited for their food, I asked them if they would like me to say grace for them.
The mother said, "Oh, Reverent, please pray for us."
I prayed. After my prayer, on an impulse, I invited them to church and Sunday school the next Sunday.
"You mean it would be okay for us to come to that church?" the mother said. "Dressed the way we are?"
Sure, I said. Our congregation would love to have you worship with us.
And they did come to church and Sunday school the next Sunday, and every Sunday they stayed in that shelter. And after they moved from the shelter, because they had become part of our church, they found another Methodist church to become part of.
I am convinced that becoming part of church impacted those children's life more than a hundred meals would have.
Not that the food and shelter and education and jobs aren't important, but the most important thing we have to offer is inclusion in the grace of God. The most important thing we have to offer is the good news that God hears their prayers and cares about the deepest longings of their hearts…that they belong to God.
In the midst of all the good mission work we do, let us not forget to be a place where, along with everything else, we offer people the love of God.