Responding to Troubling Times

030721 Lent 3 

The sermon begins at minutes 21:20 of the video

Exodus 20:1-17; I Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

 

  • 2000 years ago, Jesus cleansed the temple. He was killed by agents of the system he was denouncing. 
  • 56 years ago today 600 people tried to cross a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Many of them were killed by the forces representing the system they opposed. 
  • 2 months ago thousands of people raided the capitol because many of them had become convinced that an election was stolen and that the system was rotten. Only one of them was killed in the melee.  
  • Tomorrow the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is scheduled to begin. Most white police officers have been protected by the system when they have killed black people under questionable or indefensible circumstances. 

Those historical factoids juxtapose different ways to uphold and protest systems. Today’s readings do the same. I’m often struck by the brilliance of those who created the lectionary. The readings on Ash Wednesday call into question the very spiritual practices that Lent is meant to cultivate. Brilliant! Today’s readings juxtapose the ten commandments with the cleansing of the temple, forcing us to ask what it means to be law-abiding, pious and obedient. When Jesus cleared the temple, he was being all three; but not in the way the religious leaders understood.

By their reckoning, in the course of his ministry, Jesus had disobeyed almost all ten commandments, and a whole bunch of other laws as well. By wreaking havoc in the temple court that day, Jesus was being as scandalous to them as those who ransacked the capitol on January 6 were to us. He attacked the heart of the legal and religious system, as the insurrectionists saw themselves doing through their actions. 

The law is not primarily about being nice, or even obedient. Many folks in Jerusalem resented the crooked practices of the money- changers in the temple, just as many Americans resent the high salaries of corporate executives, the shady practices of investment counselors and the backroom deals of politicians. Both Jesus and Paul taught Moses’ Law to a society ruled by groups that turned laws into legalistic icons that were ends in themselves. Focusing on false purity destroys any sense of community. The human tendency to be on the wrong side of justice in the name of law led Jesus to clear the temple.

The problem is that protestors always believe that they are on the side of justice, and that the system, or the law, is upholding injustice. How do we determine which side is promoting true justice when we’re in the midst of the debate? That was Paul’s concern in the letter to the Corinthians. The church was divided into factions, both sides claiming to be right. Paul’s response was to upend the criteria of wisdom and foolishness, and claim that we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. And to claim that we have the mind of Christ.

That argument might have held water in Corinth, where the whole community recognized Paul’s authority. But that’s no longer the case in this country, for the church or the citizenry. Christians who support the Jan 6 uprising claim to have the mind of Christ, as do those who label it insurrection. Citizens supporting the uprising call it patriotism; those who oppose it call it sedition. Protestors even compare it to Jesus clearing the temple.

     Retired Dutch Reformed Pastor, Daniel Meeter, wrote, I don’t remember newscasters ever calling the Capitol “the temple of American democracy” before, but they certainly began to do so on January 6, and they kept it up two weeks later. After the riot, the temple had to be cleansed, and so it was for the Inauguration, although it was the rioters who unfortunately evoked Jesus turning over tables. Lauren Kerber Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation’s Capital and Redeem a Christian America) went on to write, I’ve heard a lot of people ask, How could they desecrate this space? “They” refers to everyone at the Capitol. [But] for white Christian nationalists, and for people involved in this insurrection, the Capitol had already been desecrated… because there are people governing the country from that space who aren’t enacting God’s will or the will of the people according to myths about election fraud. They were going in to turn the moneylenders out of the temple. That was their M.O. in a really violent and terrifying way. [Stop the Steal] positions injustice at the center of the conversation; the idea that something has been done wrong and needs to be righted. 

    How do we discern the mind of Christ in this moment? How do we determine what is both true and wise? How do we find the way forward after Jan. 6? Our friend, Richard Rohr, recently reflected on Paul’s description of foolish wisdom and wise foolishness, and offers useful criteria for evaluating sources wisdom and truth: Holy fools are persons who are happily, but not naïvely, innocent of everything the rest of us take for granted. They alone can trust and live the new work of God because they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals). They no longer fit or belong among their own. Yet paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” [They are]individuals who know their dignity and therefore do not have to polish or protect it; men or women who have true authority and don’t have to defend it or anyone else’s authority. [They are] children of God who have met the One who watches over sparrows and fashions galaxies, and therefore can comfortably be children of God. They and they alone can be trusted to proclaim the Reign of God

     Maybe Jesus was being a holy fool when he cleared the temple. We tend to find holy fools in strange places. But if we allow them to move us, we might find the path we are seeking. Let this story of one holy fool move you:

Once upon a time in a concentration camp there lived a prisoner who, even though he was under sentence of execution, was fearless and free. One day he was seen in the middle of the prison square playing his guitar. A large crowd gathered to listen, for under the spell of the music, they became as fearless as he. When the prison authorities saw this, they forbade the man to play. 

But the next day there he was again, singing and playing his guitar to an even larger crowd. The guards angrily dragged him away and had his fingers chopped off.

Next day he was back, singing and making what music he could with his bleeding fingers. The crowds were cheering. The guards dragged him away and smashed his guitar.

The following day he was singing with all his heart. What a song! So pure and uplifting! The crowd joined in, and while the singing lasted, their hearts became as pure as his and their spirits as invincible. So angry were the guards this time that they had his tongue torn out. A hush descended on the camp, a something that was deathless.

To the astonishment of everyone, he was back at his place the next day swaying and dancing to a silent music that no one but he could hear. Soon everyone was holding hands & dancing around this bleeding, broken figure in the center while the guards stood rooted to the ground in wonder.

When that prisoner started to make music and ended up dancing as a bleeding, broken figure, he showed us what really matters. Rather than saving himself or anyone else, he focused on creating whatever quality of life could still be found in a life that didn’t have much quantity left. His story invites us on a Lenten journey that may help us discern the difference between truth and opinion, patriotism and sedition, opponents and enemies, and the path of life and the path of death. Perhaps we will bear more fruit by becoming holy fools than by analyzing all the data that helps us decide. Neither path is easy; but one may yield more life.