March 8, 2012

Clearing the Clutter

Filed under: Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 4:44 pm

The temple at Jerusalem didn’t start out like this. It used to be an ordinary place of worship for the locals. But over time, it somehow morphed from a temple, to the temple. Local temples were fine as outposts for the country folk, but they were mere representations. Jerusalem had the real one.

So it’s no surprise that it was a total tourist trap.

You only have your local currency, no problem! We’ll change it for you….

Two doves? You know, for just a little more you could do a sheep—probably not a lamb, but I could give you a deal on a sheep…..

And Jesus loses it.

Jesus loses it not just for the obvious reason, that the merchants and moneychangers are defiling the temple, making a marketplace of the holy, but for the more subtle—and for us, more powerful—reason—they’re cluttering up the spiritual and emotional space between God and God’s people.

They are in God’s way.

For Jesus, the measure of this would have been the fundamental covenant between God and God’s people, the Law of Moses. Throughout his ministry and his teaching, Jesus was clear that he took the Law seriously. Just a day or two after this, in fact, he would be asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And he would answer by citing the two most important Hebrew verses in daily prayer; the verses that Jewish parents teach their children to say when they go to bed at night and which, by tradition, are the last words of dying Jew—the sh’ma and the w’ahav’ta.

To this he adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These words ring so true, reach so deeply into the soul of Judaism, that the scribe is moved to agree: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Jesus had made his point: For those who followed him, there would be no more clutter getting in the way of God’s relationship with his beloved.

Now, we might not literally have moneychangers and merchants set up in the narthex, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that we, too, have cluttered relationships with one another and with our God. What Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel reading is that however it happens, whatever form it takes, we have both the power and the responsibility to knock it over…chase it out…get it out of the way.

A year ago I made a commitment to a congregation that wanted to undertake an intensive process of strategic development for mission and ministry. As is my custom with leadership groups that are forming community for work and worship, I set them the task of working together to compose a prayer for discernment. This would be “their” prayer, prayed at the beginning of each of their meetings and available as a moment of recalibration whenever they felt themselves getting too tangled up in the “business side” of their charge.

They included this petition in the final draft of their prayer: Inspire us with patience, courage, humility, and good humor, stripping away all that is not you, to become the (church) you call us to be.”

This took my breath away. As we got further into our research and sought input from the congregation, the wisdom of insight and foresight in this petition came back to us over and over. We sorted through a lot of red herrings. But by both seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and stripping away that which was not true, we avoided those paths that would have in the long run cluttered up the spiritual and emotional space between God and God’s people in that place.

And sometimes…sometimes the clutter is not in the public square of the temple, or in the hard work of the committee table, or in the trappings of religious practice.

Sometimes the clutter is inside us.

“Clearing the temple” can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.” It can be a Rite of Reconciliation of the Penitent, a purging of tremendous sin, or the heartfelt confession of sins committed in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone.

When the spiritual and emotional space between God and our offerings of worship as God’s people is clutter-free…

When we strip away all that is not God, to become the people that God calls us to be…

When we embrace our lives as stewards of the Gospel….

We are free to move into a baptismal place, from which our very energy ripples outward to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace.

And it is from that place of wholeness that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts become joyfully acceptable in the sight of our Lord, our strength and our redeemer.



  1. How true and so beautifully articulated.

    Comment by Joline — March 8, 2012 @ 5:24 pm |Reply

  2. I’m quoting most of this in my sermon this week.
    Giving you credit, of course.

    Comment by Nancy Moore — March 9, 2012 @ 6:21 pm |Reply

    • LOL–I’m quoting all of it in my sermon this week! What I can’t wait to see is whether what I envision for the flow from sermon to confession actually works. I thought about saying that directly–in a few moments we will pray together the Prayer of Confession…blah, blah, blah. But I decided I would rather let that happen in the listeners hearts and minds and not whack them with being so blunt.

      Comment by Lisa Meeder Turnbull — March 9, 2012 @ 6:42 pm |Reply

      • I framed my blatant sermon-stealing as a “teaser” for the upcoming visit of guest preacher LMT in a few weeks…Really is a brilliant way of framing the story in a way that calls us to self-examination and repentance.

        Comment by Nancy Moore — March 11, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

      • In my congregation the priest picked up the clutter theme in making the Eucharist dedication; it was moving for me because he had not seen the text beforehand and was connecting spontaneously. And as an accident of someone’s coughing attack I ended up with chalice as well, making a meaningful “package” that people did tune in to.

        Comment by Lisa Meeder Turnbull — March 11, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

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