At some point late in my middle school career – sometime in seventh or eighth grade – I attended what folks from other places probably know as “cotillion.”
We didn’t call it that in Brooklyn Heights, but so what, that’s what it was. Cotillion. A formal dance class.
Of course, if you know cotillion, you know that it’s much more than that.
Cotillion, called as such or by any other name, is sort of the minor leagues for the debutante circuit, which is itself a form of entrée into polite society.
More immediately, cotillion also addresses a particular kind of problem about the debutante circuit.
Because if there are going to be debutantes, young ladies who debut, there need to be young gentlemen who know how to escort them properly.
And there are skills involved.
To be an escort involves knowing how to tie a tie, how to pin a corsage (flowers pointing down, stem toward the shoulder), how to offer a young lady your arm, how to check coats, how to ladle punch and bring it with a napkin across the room to a seated young lady, how to shake hands with adult hosts and hostesses (making good eye contact and warmly thanking them for a pleasant evening).
And while you’re at all that, you know, you might as well learn how to waltz, foxtrot, lindy, and hustle.
Bless them, I think they threw the hustle into the mix in a bid for “relevancy.”
I am glad they did.
Being twelve years old, we weren’t really getting to Studio 54 as often as we’d have liked, so it was good that they were making sure to keep us “current.”
It really was.
For me, personally, the highlight of the whole experience was dancing with Eve Morgenstern, who was beautiful and mysterious and taller than I was.
That aside, the whole thing wasn’t for me.
Sad to say, I blew my chances at advancing to the major leagues of Brooklyn cotillion by turning down an invitation to the Yuletide Ball somewhere or other.
To decline, it seems, was to choose permanent oblivion.
After that, you were off the list.
Well, I survived.
No disrespect to others who did cotillion and went on either to debut or to escort someone who was making their debut – I hope you remember it fondly.
Dipping my toe in those waters gave me the skills to dance the lindy with my grandmother a couple of times over the years, which was fun, and I’m glad I could.
But for me, that was really about it.
Except there was a seriousness to the whole thing that I have never forgotten.
For the adults organizing and overseeing my class, sure, it must have been cute to see seventh graders in suits and dresses, practicing “cutting in” during a foxtrot.
But there was this sense that knowing how to do that and all the other stuff really mattered.
Come to think of it, the only other thing in my childhood that was approached with the same level of seriousness was driver’s ed.
Now that seems crazy. The point is that it didn’t then. Not to those particular grown-ups, anyway.
To them, cotillion was, actually, not unlike driver’s ed: it was a patient introduction to the rules of the road, designed to keep you safe and get you where you wanted to go.
There are some things in this world that you need to do correctly if you’re going to do them at all.
I can’t imagine what would have happened back in 1982 if someone had come into cotillion…if they’d skirted past the chaperones lined up by the door…if they’d started turning over tables…if they’d lunged for the big crystal punch bowl and hurled it onto the indoor tennis court…went for the hi-fi and twisted the arm off the record player…or frisbee tossed the records out the windows onto Montague Street…
I can’t imagine having an interloper interlope like that.
I’m sure I would have been freaked out, to say the least.
And when I try to imagine this morning’s gospel story of an interloping Jesus, suddenly appearing and overturning the tables in the Temple.
Had I been there, I know I would have been freaked out then, too.
It’s important to remember a few things about it as we try to picture the scene.
The first is that, in fact, the money-changers were not doing anything wrong by being where they were, doing what they were doing.
They were not opposed to the Temple and its purposes – they were very much part of the system.
The Temple did not permit people to bring money with the image of some foreign ruler anywhere closer than the outermost gate, which was tricky if you were coming there from anywhere else, as indeed, many were.
Similarly, coming to the Temple often involved bringing animals for ritual sacrifice by the priests there.
Many, perhaps even most people did not bring these animals all the way from home – they purchased them there – and they knew to do that because people had done it for years.
The Temple was not a perfect institution by any means.
Prophetic questioning of the Temple and its righteousness was not unique to Jesus.
In fact, John’s Gospel this morning refers to several moments in the Old Testament in order to explain what Jesus is up to.
But the issue was not really its commercialism or the money.
To some extent, we Christians tend to read that in.
We need to be cautious there.
So let’s step back for a moment.
Because if the story isn’t about money, then what is it about?
Go back to cotillion with me for a moment.
What was wrong with cotillion?
From the perspective of today, there is probably plenty we could name.
Who was invited to take part at all, for one thing.
Also, there were the very carefully defined roles which those of us who were invited were then instructed in how play. How to be boys and how to be girls. Hetero boys and girls. Rich boys and girls. Connected boys and girls.
That’s it, isn’t it?
In its own way, cotillion offered a vision of the kind of future into which we were supposed to put our hope—hope we could find, as it happens, in a very particular understanding of pedigree.
Make of that what you will.
My point is not so much what was wrong with cotillion.
It’s more that it wasn’t right in the ways it thought it was.
And I think this is some of what Jesus is trying to say about the Temple.
The real problem with the Temple, as he saw it, was that it wasn’t right in many of the ways it thought it was.
It’s not that God could not be found there.
But the roles the Temple taught people to play, the future to which it seemed to point, even some of the ways in which it seemed to enact righteousness itself were all open to question.
Holiness asked something more personal, more searching than many people wanted to bother with – even many of the most important religious figures of the day.
Much later in the story, a Sanhedrin full of men like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea would never have put Jesus on trial, much less handed him over to the Romans.
Sadly, it would turn out that such humility and holiness were in short supply.
Events to come would prove what Jesus already saw so clearly: that some of what a holy life required needed reimagining.
God’s call to the great but always profoundly personal work of seeking God’s will needed to be heard again. By each of us and all of us.
Somehow, too many of us were learning to hope for the wrong things. Or to put our faith in the wrong ways.
As he saw it, it didn’t need to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Because the world that was to come was not some far off thing that would only arrive on some distant day.
It was already here. For us, it could be now. Even at this moment, it was within and among us.
The Temple at its best had always said so. The prophets had always said so.
But now if the Temple seemed to be saying something different, then perhaps it was time to reimagine the world, maybe even without it.
For Jesus, the urgency of finding a way to the source of all that was good, all that was true, all that was real made everything else pale by comparison.
Along those lines, I wonder what we need in order to reimagine our world.
What have we learned to hope for?
How is it that Jesus breaks into our lives?
And what is it that might be getting in our way?
When is the last time you felt like you had space to breathe, and what needs to happen for you to start breathing again?
Some people have a gift for dreaming big. Some of us don’t.
That doesn’t mean that our own corner of the world cannot be different – that Jesus is not interested in meeting us where we are, working toward the redemption of anything that’s holding us back.
There is plenty that stands in need of reimagining.
With that in mind, today’s Scripture isn’t just about the Jerusalem Temple.
It reminds us that there is no Temple to which God will not seek admission.
But there’s a hard truth that goes with that.
More soberingly, today’s Scripture reminds that if it seems like God isn’t doing any of that…
if it seems like God isn’t at work in our hearts, or turning over any of our tables…
if it seems like God isn’t interloping and smashing the occasional punch bowl, disrupting our easy assumptions…
if it seems like God isn’t right here, right now…
trying to enlist us in the work,
trying to get us to walk along the stony road toward the Kingdom
or trying to teach us the steps to a very different dance, well…
maybe it isn’t God that we’re really listening to.
Because God is at work.
God doesn’t wait to be invited to the party.
God hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things.
God sees past the illusion and confusion, the hurts and hang-ups of God’s children.
And so, invited or not, polite or not, our God shows up, wherever we are, always talking about a more excellent way – a way that smashes the idols of any other way.
That’s how this works. That’s who God is.
At every moment, God calls us onto the floor to take our place in the dance of Creation, watching for the moment when we put aside our punch glass and rise at last.