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The Problem with Convenience

March 9, 2015

“The Problem with Convenience” John 2:13-22© 3.8.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

After the elimination of my presbytery position in 2007, I was unemployed for two years. Most Sundays I managed to get a preaching assignment to help ends meet, but on those weekends when I had nothing, I often attended the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection (ECOTR) in Starkville. What can I say? I love the sensory richness of the liturgy and the beauty of the vestments, plus a good friend was one of the priests there. A nice surprise when I visited Resurrection the first time was that all worshippers were given a booklet that contained the entire service, made with software from the Episcopal publishing house called “The Rite Stuff,” in which were the texts of all the prayers, hymns, responses, scriptures, when to kneel, when to stand, and so on. So those not familiar with the Episcopal liturgy were offered a great deal of help and saved the trouble of juggling a hymnal and a prayer book. I suspect the members of the parish didn’t complain about what was offered, either. The pamphlet took some time for the administrative assistant to produce, but it was a sign that the church wanted to offer hospitality to guests. It was easily followed. I would call it “user friendly.”

On the other hand, I have here an inexpensive guitar effect pedal made by the German company Behringer. This particular one has six different kinds of reverb which are easy to switch between with the turn of a knob. You can also tweak the parameters of the sound, like level, tone, and time, quickly. The manual is the front of one sheet of paper. It has a small footprint, so it fits well on any pedal board. So far so good. But what makes this unit not user-friendly are two things. For one, the LED “on” indicator is so laser-bright it blinds you when you’re trying to see the knobs. For the other, the battery compartment is underneath the footswitch, and God help you if you need to change the battery. You have to take a ball point pen and insert the tip into the tiny hole on one side and pop the top of the pedal off, then you must make sure you seat the spring just right when you put the thing back on. That would not be such a hassle if the box didn’t eat batteries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I finally bought the hard-to-find, oddly configured and placed power supply and gave up on batteries, then abandoned the unit completely and bought this one from TC Electronic. The battery compartment is easily accessed on the bottom with a screwdriver, plus it takes a standard power supply. Convenient!

Convenience is a good thing. Who doesn’t enjoy parking right at the door of the Sprint Mart or some similar place, grabbing a cheap cappuccino from the machine, maybe even picking up lunch if it’s a store with chicken fingers or catfish, and getting out of there in no time? We prefer anything in these complicated, confusing days that makes life easier. We don’t like to have to figure out too much, go out of our way, make too long of a trip, search for the right aisle in the store, read a poorly written fifty-page, small-print manual. We want to get the computer or tablet up and running and on the Internet right now, the furniture assembled, the batteries changed, the shopping trip over and done.

And we like our churches to offer the convenience we crave, too. That’s why megachurches back in the day had food courts, bookstores, and visitor centers, even valet parking and shuttles from Zone ZZ in the Disneyworld-sized lots. Convenience is why congregation of various sizes offer clear signs telling how guests can get where they need to be after they have parked in their reserved spaces near the door. Why ECOTR printed those booklets. Convenience.

That’s what was going on in the Temple courts. Convenience. Being user-friendly. At Passover, large crowds of pilgrims from a number of countries came to Jerusalem for the feast. They couldn’t be expected to bring with them the doves, sheep, and cattle required for sacrifice. Nor could the foreign faithful be asked to exchange their money for Roman currency only to have change it again at the Temple gates. The rule was that money with the image of Caesar on it could not be used to give offerings in the house of God. You needed official Temple currency for that.

So some merchants had set up booths in the outer courts of the Temple where you could buy the right ritual animals. Also, moneychangers would make sure you had the appropriate coinage. And the pilgrims were grateful. It was convenient. Fast. Easy. Well worth any commission the moneychangers charged, which was about 2-4%, less than today’s typical real estate commission and a great deal less than the interest we pay on credit cards.

The religious leaders, who had worked all this out with the merchants, congratulated themselves on being so sensitive to the needs of out-of-towners. They were making it possible for people to worship God without a lot of hassle. The quality of the animals could be checked by the Temple establishment, the rates for exchange controlled. It was a fine system. And a necessary one, not just for the worshippers, but for the authorities to keep things running. The bottom line, though, as everyone saw it, was convenience.

Everyone, that is, except Jesus. He had no problem with the businesspeople trying to make a living by trading in animals and changing money. Unlike in the other three Gospels, John does not have Jesus call them “thieves.” Maybe he also had no problem with convenience per se. What bothered him instead was the way the presence of the sellers had turned the Temple into a supermarket for the in crowd. The shops were set up in what was called “the Court of the Gentiles,” which was the only place non-Jews could worship the God of Israel. They couldn’t come into the inner court with the Jews. If the area were packed with stalls and tables, where were the worshippers to stand and sit? The Jews were buying their goods and going on inside, where there was plenty of room. Meanwhile sincere worshippers from outside the establishment were being inconvenienced by convenience.

Jesus dared to think and believe that God’s house belonged to God. He saw clearly the tragic irony of what had happened with the religious leaders and with Temple worship. The trappings of ceremony and propriety—the “right” animal, the “correct” money—had actually become more important than the devotion those things were meant to promote and enable. That was his problem with convenience.

It was to make a strong point about the desperate need for restoration and renewal of worship that Jesus drove out the animals and moneychangers. The prophet Zechariah had said that when the Temple was restored, there would be no traders in it. Jesus’ whip of cords was a tool to bring to pass that saying. Again, Jesus was not angry at abuse or extortion. He was challenging the authority and faithfulness of the whole system. He was saying that the people of God had abandoned or at least forgotten their mission, which was to bless all nations, to provide a house of prayer for all peoples.

Our Lord’s action disrupted worship on one of the most important festivals of the year. No wonder the establishment religionists quizzed him on his right to do what he did. “Show us a sign,” they demanded.

That’s always what the defenders of the status quo want to know. Those who have concluded that the institution, its practices, and its survival are of utmost importance always wonder about authority. “Who gave you permission to make that change, to throw that away, to say or do whatever?” “To whom are you accountable?” “Who do you think you are to question the way things have always been done?”

It’s natural for us to invest institutions, practices, buildings, and documents with great authority and meaning. We are people who perceive reality through our senses, and we need concrete reminders and helps when we deal with the transcendent divine. That’s especially true in this age of special effects, graphics, icons, and Emojis, when what we see is more compelling than what we read or hear. But even if none of that were true, we would still rightly feel a special attachment to the building where our son or daughter was married or our children were baptized. We would still cherish the translation of the Bible that was current when we learned the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer at the feet of a beloved Sunday school teacher. We would feel a sense of security in a frightening world when by coming into the church we can be transported to a time when everything made sense, because within these walls, nothing changes or does so only very deliberately.

But investing any human construct—be it of mortar or paper, be it custom or decision by an official council—investing any human invention with ultimate authority does not honor God, who alone can claim our utmost and our highest. The irony is that in seeking to ensure that we and our neighbors worship well and truly, live and act decently and in order, we may in fact prevent devotion to the One who wants most of all not our sacrifices or our structures, but the loyalty and faith of our hearts.

The blogger Christian Piatt recently made that point well and forcefully. He observes: “Right thought or belief is generally called ‘Orthodoxy,’ while right action is called ‘Orthopraxy.’ And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

“In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I’m coming to embrace the sense that ‘Orthopathy,’ or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Further, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we’re seeking for the other two

“Perhaps we focus on orthodoxy and orthopraxy more because, in many ways, they’re easier to measure. Also important is that they are easier to wield over others, in assessing whether or not they are worthy of salvation, inclusion, or (fill in the blank).

“But the act of living into perfect love is terrifying, partly because it is perpetually unfinished business. Also, it is radically subversive, because the rule of Love (rather than the rule of Law) cannot be used to consolidate and exert power over one another.

Whereas our application of the Old Laws – or Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy – can be used to control or conform, Love inherently releases and liberates. And in the best ways possible, it subverts the very systems of power we have built to contain, control and even marginalize those without power and privilege” (Christian Piatt, “What if Following Jesus isn’t Primarily about Beliefs or Actions?” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianpiatt/2015/02/what-if-following-jesus-isnt-primarily-about-beliefs-or-actions/).

Before I was even ordained, I witnessed what Piatt is writing about, the way a system seeks to control in its exclusive and uncritical reliance on documents and standards. It was the day I came under care as a candidate in what was then Southwest Georgia Presbytery. On the docket ahead of me that afternoon was a man who had been called as pastor of the Donaldsonville, Georgia church. He looked very Calvinist indeed in his somber black suit, which draped his thin frame. He spoke in quiet tones about his faith and viewpoints. Above all, he was honest. And for that he was punished severely by the presbytery. When asked if he would baptize an infant, he said “no.” When quizzed if he had ever spoken in tongues, he said “yes.” During the discussion of whether to admit him, one preacher jumped up with what was then called the Book of Church Order and pounded on it, proclaiming “This is bedrock.” “No,” countered another, holding up a Bible, “this is bedrock.” On and on it went, until finally the presbytery declined to approve the church’s choice, and the man was out of a job and the church was without a pastor before he even started.

Of course, neither preacher was right about bedrock. The Book of Confessions, the Book of Order, not even the Bible is that kind of foundation. Only Jesus Christ is the Chief Cornerstone, the Solid Rock.

Matters of authority and practice are important. But they cannot and must not take the place of devotion to Jesus Christ, who is “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” That’s according to The Barmen Declaration, found in our Book of Confessions. Papers and practices, rituals and ways are tools to help point the way to Christ. So we do not ask first of all about authority and rules, but about how people can be led to saving faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t make it our priority to ensure practices are convenient and easy, but worthwhile and transformative. And all the while we keep the focus not on you and me and our needs, but on God made known in Jesus Christ, the God before and besides whom may be no other. Anything we do and anywhere we do it is supposed to bring glory to God.

That was the point the leaders missed in Jesus’ day. They had good intentions in trying to provide for worshippers. But they were focusing on minutiae in the big scheme of things. Jesus spoke a profound truth about himself, and all they could do was grumble about his credentials and remind him of the troubles of their building program.

No matter how faithful we seek to be, how well-intentioned we are, it’s also possible for us not to get it. Thank God at times like that, Jesus comes along, in some guise or other, with a whip and a shout and a forceful arm, to inconvenience and challenge us and remind us what we’re all about.

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