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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

7of7, Healthy Accountability

7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, a 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday August 6, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


Context

This Summer, we are studying 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, how alive we are as a congregation, and how much life we add to the community around us.

We have covered six.


1. Lifelong Spiritual Growth… always learning and studying God.

2. Intentional Authentic Loving… engaging all people as born of God’s spirit.

3. Active, Outward Focus… actively take love, welcome, and inclusion into the world with us.

4. Shared Gifts and Power… helping everyone participate, and letting no one hold too much power too long.

5. Spirit-Inspired Worship… showing up to remember and praise God, and give ourselves over to the sacrificial spirit of God in word and truth

6. Genuine Caring Relationships… being honest and vulnerable enough with each other to become true sisters and brothers in Christ.

And today, 7. Healthy Accountability


Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…


Prayer for Illumination


Scripture John 2:13–22 (Exodus 20)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves and (some) money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”


17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”


18 The Jews then said to him, “What warrant can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scriptures and the words that Jesus had spoken.


This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)


Sermon Healthy Accountability

As a younger 20-something in the corporate world, I needed to be managed. At the time, I didn’t really believe that, or like it, but I did. There was a manager over me, a manager over our whole department, a manager over our plant, a manager over all the plants in North America, who reported to the CEO and the Board.


Within a few years, I had a different role. I was still being managed, but I also became responsible for managing others. I went to weekly trainings by our HR department, and was sent to a short course at the University of Michigan. I learned something that has stuck with me. I’ve seen it reaffirmed across the corporate world, non-profits, and even church. In management, if you’re going to give someone responsibility for something, then you should also give them the authority to accomplish it, and hold them accountable for doing it well… Responsibility, Authority, and Accountability are the three-legged stool of healthy management.


I love this story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple. It includes responsibility, authority, and accountability.


First, good Jews coming long distances to the Temple for Passover felt responsible for offering an animal as a burnt sacrifice, but it wasn’t practical for them to travel with an animal. The temple leaders set up stands just inside the walls of the temple where worshippers could more conveniently shop and buy an animal of their choice as a sacrifice offering.


Notice, Jesus isn’t opposed to worshippers bringing or buying an animal, or the burnt offering ritual. He is opposed to changing the worship space to a shopping mall. If you want to buy an animal to offer, marketplaces in Jerusalem have a huge selection. Go there and buy whatever you wish and freely give it as you enter the Temple, or enter without giving anything at all. But it was the responsibility of the religious leaders to preserve the worship space for worship, prayer, study, and fellowship with God and God’s people, not shopping and buying. Jesus drives out all the animals from the temple.


Second, the way John tells the story, those with religious authority, who wanted to urge people to buy an animal, also did not want them to bring Roman or Greek coins into the Temple, on the assumption those coins are idolatrous and Jewish coins are acceptable. So, the temple leaders also put money changing tables just inside the Temple and let people trade Roman or Greek coins for Jewish coins to buy the animals just inside the temple.


Notice, there’s no mention in John of the money changers embezzling, or charging unfair rates. That’s not the problem. The problem is those with authority put cash registers just inside the worship space. Jesus wasn’t opposed to money at Temple. Remember how he celebrates the woman who offers two coins. Nor was Jesus opposed to Roman or Greek money. Remember how he said about a Roman coin, give to Caesar whatever is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s. Jesus IS opposed to judging people at the door by the amount or type of money they bring to offer. When Jesus flips over their tables, he dumps out all the coins, Greek, Roman, and Jewish, on the Temple floor.


Now third, accountability. The temple leaders had responsibility for the temple, its worship and rituals, and budget. They wanted to make it easier for people to give, so they brought animals inside the Temple. They wanted to avoid idolatrous images, so they arranged inside the Temple for Greek and Roman coins to be exchanged for Temple-approved coins. They were probably proud of their clever solutions.


When Jesus drives all the animals out and spills all the coins on the floor, some translations say by what “sign” are you doing this, but the better term is “warrant.” Hey, Jesus, do you have a warrant for doing this? By what authority are you challenging how WE run this Temple?


His reply is indirect but scathing. “Tear this Temple down and I will build it back in three days.” They reveal their assumptions about Temple when they do the math. “This Temple has been under construction 46 years, and you think you can build it in 3 days?” Now we know, they feel more responsible for preserving the temple building and its budget and its traditions than for building THE kingdom of God. They’ve been using their authority more to judge what is or isn’t allowed here, who is or isn’t worthy, than to welcome and teach and love and nurture all that dare enter. Jesus holds them accountable to the mission, the will of God, which welcomes all, and loves and nurtures and forgives all, and sends all beyond the temple to the ends of the earth to do God’s will here as it is in heaven.


Too often church people, or some of us church leaders, forget our higher purpose. There’s a feeling across the whole American church that things are slipping, numbers are dwindling, people aren’t coming or giving like they used to. In church board meetings, conversations often fall back to budgets and buildings, and the worry becomes we must do everything we can to “keep the church open,” meaning we need to make it easier to give offerings, and we need to make sure we keep the building in good shape, and we need to keep doing the rituals and traditions we’ve always done.


In Georgia, I was part of an Administrative commission that closed one of the oldest churches in Georgia, Lexington Presbyterian. The manse of that church was the founding location of Columbia Seminary. When that congregation closed there were only three members. They worshipped together 4 times a year. Two of the three were married, and the other was related to one of them. They didn’t even like each other anymore, something about a disagreement over how to use church money.


When the 40 or so people came together to close the congregation, I heard stories of what the church used to DO, how it helped people, married and buried people, how it was a community center of spiritual study, live music, and political debate. But at some point, they lost their way and spent all their effort and time and money just trying to keep the building open. The commission, we designed a gentle funeral for the church, but I couldn’t help but wonder, how many times did Jesus try to shoo away the obsession over offerings and staying open, and try to get this congregation back to a house of prayer, worship, and service.


If Jesus came to our church, what would he whip out the door? What expectations of people to change as they enter would he flip upside down? What plans to maintain would he interrupt? What traditions and habits would he dismantle? How would Jesus hold us accountable to be a resting, restoring, and relaunching place for people of God to remember the mission, and have the courage to go do it? God has given us the responsibility, and some authority. God will also hold us accountable.


So to this God, be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen?


Charge


Benediction

Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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