Cleansing for JusticeA sermon for Lent 3 March 7, 2021
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- Pr. Sebastian
A long time ago, in a far-off land,
there was a coastline that was notorious for being very dangerous,
there were countless rocks and cliffs along that coastline,
which it made it treacherous for any ship to navigate anywhere near it.
And there were hundreds of shipwrecks, all up and down that coast.
One day, a group of people living in a small village near the coast
decided to do something:
they built a small search and rescue station for the shipwrecked.
They started out small, and they only had a single boat.
With this tiny boat, the courageous band rowed out to sea,
day and night, to save the shipwrecked sailors and passengers.
It didn’t take long, but soon this small rescue station became known,
far and wide.
Many of those who had been rescued and other people from the surrounding communities gave generously,
to help support the work of these brave rescuers.
The list of sponsors grew and grew.
With all the money that came in, the search and rescue station was renovated and enlarged, every few years, always more beautiful and with more amenities.
Eventually, it became a popular destination,
and turned into a sort of club house.
Yet, more and more of the membership refused to go out in their boats to save the shipwrecked sailors and passengers.
They wanted even to cancel the rescue operations completely,
because it was unpleasant work and hindered the normal club operations.
A few courageous members, who believed that the lifesaving activities should be primary, left the club.
Not too far away along the coast, they began,
with the limited resources they had, to build a new search and rescue station.
But soon enough, this station endured the same fate as its predecessor: its good reputation spread quickly,
and new sponsors showed up and a new club house was built.
And thus soon after, a third rescue station was built,
but even here,
the same story repeated itself.
Whoever now visits this coastline, and drives along the coastal highway, will notice an impressive row of exclusive clubhouses.
The coastline is still as dangerous as ever,
but most of the shipwrecked people drown.—
In our Gospel text for today, the so-called “cleansing of the temple”,
Jesus performs a prophetic action which symbolizes his profound displeasure with the way that organized religion had turned out.
Religion had started out to save people, like that first rescue station,
Religion began as a place for people to come to God,
to re-orient their lives and help the needy.
But it had devolved into a clubhouse, more content with self-preservation, maintaining its own interest, its own creature comforts, than doing what it really was supposed to do.
Our story really presents quite a scene as described in the Gospel of John.
Jesus storms around, braids a whip made of cords,
and lashes about with it.
Get out of here, Jesus yells!
And there’s cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, doves fluttering,
the clinking of coins being thrown this way and that,
with the overturned tables, and people in an uproar, shouting in confusion.
What sign can you show? By whose authority did you do this?
Are you sent by God? Or are you insane?
The bystanders want to know.
But Jesus only offers a cryptic response, referring to his own body: “destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.”
Now a few details are important to remember in this story.
For one, this incident happens in the courtyard of the Gentiles,
a large area the size of two football fields open to anybody,
Jews and non-Jews alike.
In this huge courtyard, it was perfectly legitimate for money changers and animal sellers to be there,
as they were needed for the normal functioning of the Jerusalem temple.
Money changers converted foreign currency into coins allowed at the temple, and the animal sellers were there to provide appropriate, clean animals for the ritual sacrifices that would happen.
Now in John’s Gospel,
Jesus yells out: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”,
but in the other Gospels, he is quoted as saying,
“you have made it a den, a hideaway for robbers”.
So to be clear, the courtyard is not where the robbery happens,
according to Jesus, but it is the refuge,
the place that these robbers, or bandits, or rebels flee for safety.
Jesus is criticizing the hypocrisy of the religious establishment
(both then and now): that they are more concerned about their well-being, their prestige, their clubhouses and ornate architecture and stained-glass windows,
then taking care of the shipwrecked, the orphans and widows and prostitutes, those who most need saving.
Jesus quotes the prophet Jeremiah, who had God saying:
9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, …and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!" — only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? .… (Jeremiah 7:5-11)
Now what Jesus is doing is a symbolic action.
He is not really cleansing or cleaning the temple,
or shutting down the temple sacrifice system,
but he is making a very public visual statement at the busiest time of the year, in Jerusalem: the preparation for the Passover feast.
You might compare it with media-savvy demonstrations by Greenpeace, who do a sit-in and chain themselves to the desk of the CEO of a company that they are targeting as an environmental offender.
That doesn’t directly stop the company from polluting,
but it raises awareness, causes a media stir, and of course gets the leadership in a tizzy over the disruption this causes in the day-to-day operations.
These symbolic, prophetic actions have a long history with the Israelite prophets, who did these public demonstrations because they knew that doing something speaks a lot louder than just words.
The prophet Hosea married a prostitute, to make a point about Israel defiling itself with other gods.
The prophet Ajihah tore his cloak in 12 pieces, to signify that the Kingdom of Israel would be torn into twelve separate countries.
And Jeremiah buried his dirty underwear near the river to signal that the pride of Jerusalem would be destroyed.
In Jesus’s prophetic action in the temple courtyard,
we are reminded that:
“God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice, God rejects … God’s church” (Borg and Crossan)
This is a theme that cris-crosses the prophetic texts of the Older Testament, like the passage from Amos Chapter 5,
where the word of God is revealed:
21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your … offerings,
I will not accept them;
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
The church must be a place where justice is a first priority,
where the people in need, and not the institution are the reason for existing.
Organized religion is criticized as only being self-interested, and only concerned with keeping its status quo and power,
and keeping the lights on and the doors open.
Jesus might as well be whipping us these days.
We need more of an organizing religion,
where we are bound together for the common good,
for the good of society, and our neighbouring community.
Our churches need to be centres of worship and justice.
Otherwise our worship is empty and useless.
Jesus’ prophetic actions in the temple courtyard remind us that our Christian faith must combine worship with social justice.
What would Jesus tear down today?
What would Jesus chase out of our church buildings?
What would Jesus whip out of our hearts,
and what tables in our lives would he overturn,
So that we might become rescue stations for the shipwrecked,
rather than clubhouses for the comfortable?
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