The Third Sunday in Lent 3-07-21: Jesus Cleansing the Temple and the Dynamics of Guilt and Shame

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus made a whip out of cords, walked into the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple, and drove out the merchants and money changers yelling “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He also poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, chased away the sheep and the cattle. Our Jesus was pretty upset. It is hard to find any other story quite like this one about Jesus. What was it that would make this nonviolent man so desperate that he would shout and turn over tables in the national temple during the feast of the Passover? He may well have provided a clue in the well-known story of him welcoming the children as the adults were pushing them away. Immediately after saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” he sternly warns, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones…. it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

Jesus pulls out the whip because the temple he saw was not what it was supposed to be for the people. They needed the temple to be the temple. In thinking about what Jesus did that day in the temple, it is not much of a leap in logic to conclude that his actions were directed at the temple priests. It was they who were at fault and not the sheep and cattle and the people in attendance. They were the ones putting stumbling blocks in front of those they were meant to serve.

We read this story about the cleansing of the Temple and the chastising of the temple clergy during Lent as part of this season’s task of introspection and the taking of a personal inventory. Who are we as a church? Here at All Saints’ we are about to start a serious period of reflection in the coming months involving everyone seeking to understand what exactly makes our church the church it is and what kind of leadership is necessary for All Saints to continue to be what we all need it to be.

It continues to astonish me how frequently I hear one of our members sharing how happy they are to have finally found this place, a place that is safe for them and their families, a place where they can bring their joy and their tears without fear that they will be judged as falling short of some ideal, a place where they are so welcomed that a desire wells up in them to share who they are and to serve those in need both near and far away and to invite others to this place.

That exuberance, however, is frequently followed by a nearly unforgettable story of somewhere else where they were deeply hurt, or diminished, or unvalued, or unwanted for some reason or another, often by a member of the clergy of some form of Christianity. I have no doubt that if Jesus made the rounds on Sunday mornings, he would find a use for his whip and wonder why we would continue to put stumbling blocks before the “little ones” he was so clear mattered more than anything.

I have a lot of these stories and, by and large, keep them to myself in my box of things said privately and kept in priestly confidence. I once served an Episcopal church that was right across the street from another large church. It was a St. Francis Day and the clergy of both churches blessed animals on that day. At the end of the day when I was walking to my car, I saw an older couple making their way across the busy street, quite anxious, and yelling at me “Father, Father.” I paused and waited for them. They then asked me if I would please bless their dog. I knew they were not members of our church so I assured them that they could have their dog blessed at their church across the street. They protested and told me, “oh no, we were told that Father will not bless any animals after 5pm. So we were turned away.” I immediately knelt down and improvised my best poodle blessing. In the big picture, it’s a trivial story, but it speaks volumes. As a priest I was angry because I knew it takes longer to turn a parishioner away than to bless a poodle. What precisely was the point being made in turning them away? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to be the one explaining it to Jesus.

Occasionally I come across a rather gruesome television show about plastic surgeons who are redoing the surgery that appears to have been carried out by some purported doctor who should not be practicing medicine (before you judge me, what are you doing the pandemic?). It’s too hard for me to watch, but each time I wish that that poor vulnerable person had only found the right surgeon sooner. And I’m sure the plastic surgeon on the show must be as angry at the butchers calling themselves doctors as Jesus was with the temple priests. All the stories of religious harm I hear are different and I continue to be surprised by new depths of horror, but the word I hear most for the name of the pain is “guilt.” Wonderful, remarkable, person after person, tells of guilt being used against them like a weapon where they were judged as falling short. They, and sometimes even their children, would be reminded in multiple ways of their guilt and the second class status that accompanies it.

I spent some time seeing if I could come up with a vaccine of sorts that I could share this morning that might not only promote healing, but also protect against future pain or harm. So here it is. What doesn’t quite add up in these stories is that they come from people who do not, in fact, feel particularly guilty otherwise. They have put in the work with God and their own conscience, they’ve done what they feel like needs to be done and said what they feel needs to be said. The word “guilty” might be the word used by those who hurt them, but it may not be the right word for what was actually happening and that misplaced word prevents us from finding the real pain. We need another word that better identifies what is happening here.

The experience I keep hearing described is really an experience of being shamed rather than found guilty. We tend to use these words interchangeably, but that doesn’t help us understand our experience. Shame has to do with what you see when you see someone looking at you. And what you see in those eyes is a negative judgment about you and your worth. The shamed persons eyes are cast down, or the head is turned to one side, because the eye contact with the one judging is just too painful. The other key ingredient to the precise experience of shame is that the shamed person has an inner sense of dignity and worth that rebels against the judgment perceived from the person looking at him or her. I feel shame because I know I am worth more than what is being said of me. I am better than that! This is why one can be free of guilt with a strong sense of self-worth, and still feel the lingering wounds of shame. We don’t need the church to shame us to feel shame because many of us have plenty of it already in our own families or workplaces or neighborhoods.

So what to do to get free of the shame? Unfortunately, we are usually only given two options here, either accept the shamer’s negative judgment of “shame on you” or resist it by learning how to live shamelessly. We must choose between being shamed or shameless. As appealing as living without shame appears to be, a shameless life is one where you don’t care what you see reflected back at you in the eyes of others. As much as some would have us embrace a shameless society, and others wish that we had more shame to support public morality, I suggest that we find a third way that is ancient and Christian. That would be where you find a community where the human eyes you see looking at you affirm the sense of worth and dignity that you know you have. In fact, this is what many of you have already found here at All Saints’ and this is why the experience of belonging here has been so healing to so many. This is also why it matters so much to us here that at every point we love one another in a way that every one of us not only is aware of his or her own value, but also feels valued by others. Jesus instructed his inner circle saying, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13).

Lastly, in this Lenten run-up to Easter, we should not forget that Jesus was crucified not just to execute him (there were lots of ways to do that), but also to shame him publicly as he carried his own cross through the streets only to hang on it in front of everyone. He was guilty of nothing, but thoroughly shamed anyway.

Instead of parading himself about shamelessly, Jesus carried the shame put upon him and converted it into massive compassion for others. Which is the only true triumph over the shamers. This redeemed shame become for Jesus and those who followed him a vast wellspring of love connecting them to the vulnerability of all. This transformation is the true basis of the Christian church and the kind of experience available here when the church is being the church.

So may Jesus never need his whip here and may he never need to overturn our tables, because we never put stumbling blocks before his little ones, and may All Saints’ instead continue to be a place of healing for all who find it, and my you always look at each other eye to eye and feel valued as Christ’s love for us redeems every hardship and fuels our love for one another. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet