The Holy and the Marketplace

On a Veteran’s Day a number of years ago now I led a Webelos scout hike in New Hampshire. We were headed up Mt. Waternomee to a B-18 bomber crash site. Five weeks after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, a pilot  lost his bearings due to inclement weather and poor visibility. He and his crew of six other men flew a couple hundred of miles off course from their destination at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA. Realizing his mistake too late—there were mountains where they weren’t supposed to be—the pilot crashed near Woodstock, NH. Remarkably due to the pilot’s quick thinking, five of the seven crew members survived. They were aided by the people in the area who trekked out in the dark cold night up that mountain to rescue them. Our hike that November day was also cold and damp, and one of our fifth grade scouts expressed his deep yearning for a Starbuck’s drink as his pace slowed to a crawl. 

“You know,” said one of the dads on the excursion, “you’re in luck! There’s a Starbuck’s at the top of the hill!” The scout spun around quickly. “Really! Oh boy! I can’t wait!” The adults simply looked at each other with smirks and raised eyebrows as the boy began hiking with a bit more earnest detailing his specific order. Within forty minutes we had made it to the debris field, large parts of that B-18 spread out across the woods, and not a Starbuck’s in sight. The boy didn’t complain much, however, as he saw the wreckage. A somber and respectful attitude enveloped all of us on that hike as we explored the area, and read the plaques about the two young soldiers who’d died and the other five who survived and went on to live full lives afterward. 

A Starbuck’s or Dunkies or some other sort of coffee shop would have been an egregious addition to that sacred ground where two young men lost their lives. But I bet if the site hadn’t been a good three miles up the side of a mountain, someone would have tried to cash in with some tacky souvenir shop for you to get mementos of your visit, and offer you a hot or cold beverage of your choice along with a bag of Doritos or a pastry for a small fee. The marketplace likes to seep in wherever it can if there’s a buck to be made.

And the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Jesus and his disciples have made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem in our reading today. They’re getting ready for the Passover celebration in a few days away. But when they got to the Temple, they found that sellers and money changers had set up their tables hawking their wares to the pilgrims who had come to honor their religious convictions. I’m sure somewhere along the way the powers that be decided that allowing the ones with animals to sell for the required sacrifices could just have a small corner in the Temple grounds itself. And then, since the offering at the temple couldn’t be made with Roman coins, they decided that the currency exchange people could set up shop too. This was a service of convenience for the ones who would have travelled so far to worship God. It was the least they could do. And since they were being so nice, they could get a small cut of the profits as well.

But Jesus is having nothing of it. He pulls together some cords to make a whip and then starts turning over their tables, tossing out their coins, and letting the doves and the cows and the sheep go free. To put it blunt, he’s ticked. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he shouts. The market had nefariously made its way onto the sacred ground dedicated to the worship the Living God. The Temple had been set aside as holy.

In the Ten Commandments we heard this morning the command about keeping something holy relates to the Sabbath, and interestingly, as Prof Cameron B.R Howard puts it, “it is the market—production for the sake of economic gain—that impinges on the sacred” once again. In this case, it is the time of the worker that is determined to be sacred, and God commands there to be a stoppage of work for 24 consecutive hours each week in order to rest and to reconnect with God. Theologian Walter Bruggeman describes why this is important: “Sabbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion.” Interestingly, in this case, it’s the systems of productivity that are consuming us, and not us consuming the goods produced by the markets. And it’s leading to our exhaustion.

Last week I came across a description on social media of what is currently the norm for many of us, and has been for nearly a year now. “We’re not working at home during Covid;” this person wrote, “rather, we’re living at work.” We can plug in at a moment’s notice to check email both on our laptops and our phones. When we wake too early in the morning, we think it a great opportunity to get a jump on the day and fire off a few emails before the sun comes up. The time we previously used for a commute before last March—time we envisioned would somehow magically shorten our Covid work days—has been consumed and then some. Weekends off are fewer and further between—we can’t go anywhere, right?—so why not work when the designated office space is just a few steps away from the bedroom. We’re getting consumed by the marketplace. And it’s slowly moving in to more and more areas of our lives. It seems nothing is sacred.

How have we gotten to this place? Or, maybe I should ask, how have we found ourselves here again? What is it about making a buck that has allowed the capitalistic system to push deeper and deeper into the fabric of our society and of our lives? Why haven’t we learned the lesson from Jesus in the temple, or internalized the commandment of Sabbath rest, both for us and for the land?

Prof. Howard  suggests that it’s due to the “long-dominant cultural message that more work, harder work, is always a virtue, a moral end unto itself.” She continues, “Work bleeds into every hour of the day…. Work harder—work all the time!—and inevitably you will find happiness.” We all know that happiness isn’t really at the end of that equation, but the siren call of the marketplace continues to lure us in. And so we don’t seem to notice when the market that consumes us and our sacred places and time takes more and more.

I know this isn’t even remotely easy. I struggle nearly every week with my sabbath time and not checking email or doing something for my vocation as a priest. “It’s all good work” I’ll say to myself, “Someone might need me.” And while my work isn’t technically the marketplace—we don’t sell religious goods and services here—the cultural norm that hard work will bring fulfillment seduces me too. But at what cost? 

Pushing back against these societal norms and expectations is not easy. The insidious call to work more and more permeates every aspect of our lives, even lives primarily spent at our homes as we negotiate a pandemic.  Prof. Howard has some advice for us: “In these days when many of us are unable to congregate in our traditional sacred spaces, and when remote work has further blurred the lines [between our work and leisure time], it may feel especially difficult to find places and times that are set apart for holiness. We can do our shopping and our worshiping, our working and our movie-watching, all in the same room—on the same screen! But sabbath rest is not something else that we have to produce. Sabbath rest is a gift to us. Holiness is the resting state of God. We are called simply to be with God and not with the marketplace.”

I’d like to challenge you—and myself—to enter into that rest for some time each week for these next few weeks of Lent. Step back from your work, and from being a consumer. Put the marketplace on hold. It’ll be there for you 24 hours later, there’s no doubt about that. But who you become in that 24 hours can be significantly different if you take time to nurture those things that are sacred and holy in your life. Can you do it? Can you step back from both the consuming and the being consumed? Can you make space to be with God in the beauty of God’s holiness and be refreshed instead?

Image by Bruno Lazaro Satan from Pixabay

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