Sunday, March 04, 2018

"Untimely, Unwise, Unnecessary:" Sermon, March 4, 2018

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, English Standard Version

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:13-22, English Standard Version

Our text from the Good News According to John is known as the Cleansing of the Temple. Jesus becomes angry when he enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religious life, and finds animals being sold for sacrifice and money being changed within the Temple precincts. He drives the moneychangers and sellers out with a whip, along with the sheep and oxen they were selling, flips over the tables and scatters the coins of the moneychangers, saying “don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” In Matthew’s Gospel he cries out, “It’s written, my house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”

Now, I could go through how this buying and selling going on in a sacred space offended Jesus, and how his driving out the sellers and moneychangers fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But I think what strikes me most about this reading is that, coming as it does in the season of Lent when we are preparing for Holy Week and Easter when Jesus is arrested, tried, executed, and then is raised from death, it offers us an opportunity to consider Jesus in his fullness. Because here, wielding his whip, overturning tables, Jesus is showing a, shall we say, definitely less placid side. And I’m sure that a lot of us find this disconcerting. We’re not comfortable with it. So many of our hymns and our imagery about Jesus comes from a time in the mid-19th century when Jesus was depicted as pure, meek, and humble. The “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” of Away in a Manger grew up to become the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” of another hymn. There’s nothing wrong with showing Jesus as merciful and modest, but emphasizing one part of the personality of Jesus means we miss out on the picture of him as a fully rounded person – and of course a person who is more than a person, who is both human and divine.

So we may in fact disapprove of anyone acting in the way Jesus does, even if they are trying to correct an injustice or push back against corruption. People disapproved at the time. The religious elite thoroughly disapproved of what Jesus did, which they saw as an attack on religious ritual and the proper worship of God. Mark and Luke both say that after this, the chief priests, legal experts and other religious leaders were so worked up that they were seeking to kill Jesus.

And, reflecting on this, things haven’t changed much. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement weren’t just up against the power of American states, they encountered the disapproval of the majority of white Americans at the time. The movement for rights for Black people wasn’t popular, even with religious leaders. Clergy called Black leaders “outside agitators,” they said that civil rights marches were untimely and unwise, that sit-ins and demonstrations were unnecessary as negotiations were a better path.

Today, many people disapprove of Black people protesting the shootings of unarmed Black men by police. Again, a Black people’s campaign is called untimely, unwise, unnecessary, even racist for saying that Black lives matter. Black people demonstrate in the streets, and many people disapprove. So Black athletes silently kneel during the national anthem, and many people disapprove, criticizing them as unpatriotic, as insulting the flag and the military, as being ungrateful that they are paid to play sports. Many people disapprove of Indigenous protests for justice in the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, and to pressure Canada to meet the obligations of treaties with Indigenous peoples. On Valentine’s Day a mass shooting at a high school in Pakarkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff. Since then, students who survived have spoken out, demanding actions to stop these massacres taking place. And many people disapprove. These teenagers have been accused of being actors in a conspiracy, or paid agents of opponents of the Administration. Their families have received death threats. They are called publicity seekers who have inserted themselves into a national debate when they are too young to understand the issues. Their requests to feel safer at school are said to be unhelpful, counter-productive, missing the point. These teens are told to respect their elders, although it is their elders who did nothing when 20 six and seven year old children were gunned down in Sandy Hook, who did nothing when 26 worshippers were slaughtered in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, who did nothing when 58 country music fans were killed in Las Vegas.

Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when he responded to such criticisms from other religious leaders in a letter. He told his fellow clergy that Black people had not made a single gain in civil rights without determined pressure, that painful experience had shown that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor – it must be demanded by the oppressed, and that Black people being told “wait” almost always means “never.” And when other clergy called civil rights actions “extreme,” King asked, wasn’t Jesus an extremist for love? So, King said, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? He reminded other religious leaders that three men were crucified on Good Friday, all three for the same crime – extremism. Two were extremists for immorality. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.

Untimely, unwise, unnecessary, extreme. People said that about Jesus, about Martin Luther King, about Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists and the Parkland students when they were extremists for justice and came up against the powers that be. Their actions were, are, seen as a stumbling block, as foolish, just as the cross of Jesus was. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Jesus says that the real temple of God isn’t the building that he cleared out, but his body. His flesh is where God dwells. God the Father is in him, and he is in God the Father. And when his witness to love and justice becomes so threatening that the authorities try to silence Jesus by killing him, his body is raised from death after three days. When we become one with him, God the Father is in us and we are in God the Father, and we become part of his body, the church. Here in the church - as we say in A Song of Faith of The United Church of Canada - we seek to continue the story of Jesus by embodying his presence in the world, seeking justice and resisting evil – however untimely, unwise, and unnecessary disapproving people may think that is. For we follow Jesus Christ, an extremist for love, truth and goodness.