“Conflict of Values” John 2:13-22
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
When I was in seminary I was blessed to have a class with the late Robert McAfee Brown, theologian, author, social justice activist. And, years later, I returned to Berkeley for the annual Earl Lectures where his wife, Sydney Thomson Brown was a presenter. She was highly regarded as a labor activist and as a teacher. She told the story of a man by the name of Theo who was an intern in her Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. He spent three years working in Chinatown in San Francisco. He became educated about tourism, about poverty and about the misery of people who live in desperate situations in that extremely high density neighborhood.
One day Theo announced that he was going to go to seminary. He was asked to go before the Presbytery, and they asked him, “What is your call.” And he responded “outrage”. The long time leaders responded, “No, no, what’s your real call?” And, again, Theo responded “outrage.”
Sydney Thomson Brown spoke about how that led her to do a poll within her various communities of activists. She began asking the question of membership of three different groups, “What keeps you in this work?” Over and over she heard the participants talk about outrage. She also spoke to the importance of the community for each of those activists. She told us how communities need to be aware of the Spirit because the Spirit is there whether we bother to notice or not. It is the Spirit and the community that enables participants to find and live into courage.
If Jesus’ family was anything like ours, I suspect that when he got to the temple they were not prepared for his actions. This passage from John, known as “The Cleansing of the Temple” is a whitewashed title. The truth is, it’s about outrage—outrage that was his motivation for action. It was the prophetic side of Jesus that compelled him to claim his values and live out of them—thus making a powerful statement.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke this story is told near the end of each Gospel where it becomes a precipitating factor in the decision to kill Jesus. However, John places this story up front.
The setting of the story is the Passover celebration. The crowds are pouring into the city. Scholars inform us that Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 to 180,000 for Passover. Every hotel, hostel and B and B did a brisk business. We need to back up and understand what is going on politically. In an attempt to win over his “ungrateful subjects” Herod the Great had begun a massive restoration and expansion of the temple that was still underway in Jesus’ day.
In spite of the priest burning incense, myrrh, cinnamon, saffron and frankincense, nothing could mask the stench of slaughter. No one present at the time of Jesus wielding his whip of cords would have forgotten the encounter. Jesus’ anger fuels his actions. He begins to make his political and religious statement. The sacrifices came to a halt. Stomping mooing cattle, panicked sheep, all scrambling in a chaotic mass while servants attempted to herd them to safety over manure covered floors. The butchering ceased. Cages of squawking birds began to be moved to a safe location. And, while more and more officials scrambled to make their way through the throngs to put a stop to the wild man, the money changers frantically sought to gather their scattered coins. The money changer business was about exchanging the worshiper’s coins into the only coins that could be used in the temple. They are horrified at Jesus’ destruction of their business.
As Reza Aslan states in his book, Zealot, “Think of the Temple as a kind of feudal state employing thousands of priests, singers, porters, servants, and ministers while maintaining vast tracts of fertile land tilled by Temple slaves on behalf of the high priest and for his benefit.” If one looks at the Temple Tax along with the profits made from the money changers (which enabled the Temple to take a cut) …it is easy to catch a glimpse of just how threatening Jesus was to the whole system.
All those stunned witnesses of that long ago day were baffled by Jesus words: “Destroy the temple and in three days I will raise it up.” No one got it, including his distraught family and followers. It took the death of Jesus for the disciples to understand that he was talking about his own body.
Ever since the Church began, we have been wrestling with these stories and have attempted to make sense of them and to discern what it has to say to us today. Jesus was living into his values and vision by breaking the rules that kept the poor destitute and powerless. He overturned the structure of his day and demanded a new way of life that authentically followed God.
Somehow, because the Temple is a place where one goes to meet God, I always get squirmy dealing with this text in a worship service. Jesus didn’t even have the common courtesy to set up a Task Force to deal with the issues that were bothering him. Surely, there must have been some version of the Pastoral Relations Committee he could have gone to. Whenever I preach on this text, I feel the discomfort of looking at the structure and function of the church I am serving…and then I’m forced to look at myself. I have to ask where am I still playing it safe. Where am I not willing to create too many waves? Where am I staying numb?
If one listens to the founder of MADD, Mothers against Drunk Drivers, one can clearly see that one woman’s rage over the injustice of her daughter’s death led to the development of a cause that fights for justice for those who have become victims.
I cannot reflect on the prophetic side of Jesus with his passionate outrage without thinking of Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund 42 years ago. Whenever I listen to her, I am moved by her passion…and I’m always fully aware that there is no one who she will let get in her way of advocating for children. Whenever she is interviewed she is a force to be reckoned with as she demands that her interviewer hear her statistics that are offered in a rapid fire manner: “The United States has the 2nd highest rate of poverty among 35 industrialized countries despite having the largest economy in the world. A child in the U.S. has a one in five chance of being poor.” I’ve never seen anyone try to argue with her statistics because they know they won’t win. For 42 years she has held that energy, passion, and outrage over the plight of so many children in this country.
This past week we celebrated the group representing the Justice and Witness Team that went to Salem to take a stand along with other churches on the Interfaith Climate Advocacy Day. They met with state legislatures to advocate for what the World Council of Churches calls the “pilgrimage towards climate justice”. I am grateful for all those who participated in the UCC denomination meeting that brought together various churches who are working on environmental issues.
It was last August when I viewed the documentary of Yolanda Morales who some 20 years ago fled a violent situation from her home in Guatemala. She found employment in Los Angeles and worked to raise her daughter Annabella who was born in this country. Over the years she spent $8,000 seeking to become a citizen of the United States. But, due to incompetent professional help, she was unable to achieve that goal. In 2007 she was threatened with deportation. Annabella was 15. The documentary tracks the journey of Yolanda and her church, Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. The church voted to become a sanctuary church. The created a room for the mother and daughter…and seven years later when the film came out they were still waiting to secure Yolanda a place of belonging in the U.S. This story has haunted me ever since I viewed it. I have spent a lot of hours scanning websites, trying to educate myself. I have found the stories of refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to be heart wrenching.
The piece that the Choir sang this morning, titled “The Children Come” was inspired by the crisis in Central American that has caused over 70,000 children to take the dangerous journey to the US in the past months. Hymn writer, Carolyn Gillette, has led mission trips to Honduras for the past 16 years. The brother of a child that Carolyn sponsored in Honduras was recently killed there. The hymn’s reference to “on one boy’s belt, a number carved in leather” is taken from a news report of a body of a dead child found with his brother’s phone number on his belt. With the fatigue of running from the chaos in their own country, the exhausted refugees often find themselves entering the US to shouts by angry crowds demanding that they go home.
This past week I caught up with a seminary colleague and friend, Mylinda Baits, whose ministry is working with women in Latin America who have been victims of domestic violence, or have been caught up in human trafficking. Her call is working to bring healing through retreat work using art to help in the recovery work of women and children who carry such deep physical and emotional scars. She had just returned from Deborah’s House located on the outskirts of Tijuana where she has been asked to come many times to not only work with the women who have escaped various forms of violence, but she has found that the staff needs to have a listening healing presence in order to keep on doing their work.
Deborah’s House is the outcome of a stand taken by the Mexican Baptist women who refused to accept the “No’s” of the male leadership who did not see the need to care for those women who have been violated and who found themselves caught in systems with no support. Deborah’s House not only offers a safe refuge, but it also offers a place to learn furniture making, jewelry making and sewing so that the women can support themselves and their children upon leaving and beginning a new life.
On the other side of Tijuana is a House of Immigrants run by a Catholic order which has been working with men who have been deported from the US who need a place of refuge and healing.
On this trip, my friend, Mylinda, worked with women who have been deported from the US and are grieving the separation from their children. Construction has begun to double the size of the home by volunteer labor.
All of these stories follow in the way of Jesus. They each are about what Jesus was about. He was grounded in the traditional, but the traditional didn’t contain him. He constantly pushed both the religious boundaries as well as the political boundaries. He was more than a nice young man who saved a wedding party from disaster. He was more than someone who offered a few folks a change in a career. He was a radical. Yes, he did love, but it wasn’t based on being nice. He offered the kind of compassion and care that called folks to a new life…a transformed life. He had the audacity to confront the religious structures because the temple crowd had manipulated them to suite their own needs. He took on the dis-ordered systems of his day. Every stand for justice seems to take some kind of boundary pushing. And, every stand takes courage. To take a stand for justice demands a letting go and an openness to God’s transforming call to action.
Are we open to being re-shaped by God? In this in-between time, what is God’s call on this community of faith? What are we being called to let go of…and where are we being invited to take on a new venture? We come with our weaknesses and our strengths. We come struggling to make the right choices. We long for meaning and many of us desire transformation. We come knowing that to be a part of a faith community offers us an opportunity to grow. Next Sunday when we offer our gifts for the One Great Hour of Sharing, may we unite our hearts and our monetary gifts as we celebrate the fact that we are part of many denominations contributing to critically important acts of justice around the world. Amen.
Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan,2014 Random House Trade Paperback Edition