Jesus Rejects Religion that Doesn't Lead to Justice, Old First Sermon 02.24.13

Jesus Rejects Religion that Doesn't Lead to Justice, Old First Sermon 02.24.13

Haggai 2:1-3 and Mark 11.12-29

I have this theory: the level of a congregation’s commitment to “the tyranny of kindness” is inversely related to its difficulty with and the unfruitfulness of its conflict.

The level of our commitment to the ‘tyranny of kindness’ relates inversely to the difficulty and unfruitfulness we experience in conflict.

Let’s break that down:

By “tyranny of kindness,” I’m really talking about the belief that church is mostly all about and defined by “being nice,” avoiding making anyone uncomfortable even for good reason. We’re talking about “polite on the most superficial level” — even if that requires us all to go around faking, pretending that we’re of “one mind,” or never daring to delve very deep and honest, often kowtowing to the weakest, most immature or unsettled among us.

Too often organizations, particularly church organizations, make “accommodation” — keeping everyone comfortable — their modus operandi and ultimate goal. …Rather than claiming the courage to aim for “evolution,” that is, staking out well-defined positions that can serve as necessary stepping stone for maturing, growth, progress.

So, my challenge is: the more we are committed to avoiding our minor differences and disagreements, ironically, rather than leaving us easy-going, we end up missing the material we need and in the end, our aversion ends up bringing us greater difficulty and nothing positive.

Here’s how that works: we pretend to overlook the littler order incarnations of our individuality, in order, we hope, to skim over barely troubled waters of a peaceful congregational life.

But in so doing, the unspoken festers and the anxiety and fears grow, until we’ve got some “win-or-lose- everything catastrophe” brewing right below our individual or collective surfaces.

And when the conflict breaks the surface, it’s a roiling, overwhelming, impossible mess — ready to sink, drown and burn everyone — truly something that’s too big to handle and too destructive to win any benefit from.

So, I always try to coax church folk: It’s better to be honest, even celebrate (if you can imagine that!) all our little differences. They too are some reflection of the image of God in which we have been created. So, let’s put them on the table. Acknowledge them. Ask how, rather than any sign that something’s wrong, they are actually what’s helpful for being who we are to be and becoming who we are to become.

Huh? How?

Let me explain. There’s a corollary to my first theory:

None of us has a tight enough claim, much less grasp on the truth to discount the truth anyone else has to offer. I mean, none of us is Jesus, right?

I often imagine human communities as a circle of people, all shouting as loud as we can, and gesticulating wildly, frantically …hoping to convince everyone else that I or you are the one who got it — whatever “it” might be. Each of us wants to be seen as the person who’s got it right.

The pathos comes in, I think, because we want others to believe we’re on target, in order to convince or reassure ourselves of the same.

But the truth, such as it can be located at all, is somewhere in the middle of the circle. Not finally, really with any of us. Certainly, none of us can claim it’s possession. Because the truth is somewhere in the space created between us.

Because truth isn’t something that really comes from any of us. And only as we draw nearer and near to one another by listening carefully and caringly to what others have to say… well, that’s how that wider circles shrinks, and we calm down and stop shouting and waving our hands, and come nearer to one another and begin to listen.
And somehow in that process, we come to identify the truth somewhere in the space in between… Sort of like after intimate communion, after the main service on the 3rd Sunday of the month, when we take each others hands for the pray, but crossing our arms before us showing that the meal has blessed us… we find the circle shrinks and we’re closer.

Why do I start my sermon this way today?
Someone’s undoubtedly thinking to him or herself, “Oh no, what’s going on now! Whose all embroiled in it now, who’s all up in arms and about what? Where or about what is there a fight now?”

Beloved, we make me laugh sometimes. It’s a sign that we’re a fairly healthy community that we worry about the conflict that’s part of the fabric of our life together. I mean, the frequency or the tenor of the struggles around Old First are nothing in comparison with other churches I know.

I’m not really talking directly about our various arguments, though there’s always some “to-do” somewhere at church. Center stage or around the edges. And it usually happens because people haven’t really heard what the other said, sometimes weren’t listening. And it’s always made worse if one or more is claiming too much omniscience, that he or she is sitting on the truth.

Julie and I were sharing this week — that there can often be so much that’s “fraught” — it can be a lot to deal with, a burden in itself. I promise, as your pastor, it all goes better, for us individually and together as a community when we let go the stranglehold claims on the truth. When we relax, and lean into the disagreement non-anxiously. The sky isn’t falling. And we can hear better if we’re really listening!

But I’m not talking about when one or some of us are being difficult or obstreperous, when we’re failing to get along or to deal effectively with our differences.

Instead, today, it’s Jesus turn to be the troublemaker. The one who’s stirring things up.

Remember, for Lent, we’re looking closely at the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. Today, it’s Monday of Holy Week, when he curses a Fig Tree and overturns the Tables and chases people — turtle doves sellers and money changers and pilgrims around the Temple courtyard.

If any of you really treasure an image of Jesus as some docile pacifist who’s got the patience to put up with almost everything… well, today’s reading has got to be a challenge for you.

From the get, he’s on edge. Even irritable. Fed up.

What with most of the authorities in Jerusalem out to get him, it’s understandable — he’s feeling the pressure. We see the reactive edginess.

Maybe he’s just hungry and testy. The Fig Tree got cursed because he expected it might yield a snack, but, out of season, it had no fruit to share. (This episode always makes me feel sorry for the ornamental figs in my living room that never bear fruit…)

What’s Jesus’ problem? Or his gripe? That’s what I want us to think about today….

By the time Jesus enters the outer courts of the Temple complex, he’s in a rage. There he meets moneychangers — set up so pilgrims can pay their temple tax in a coin without the graven image of Ceasar. And vendors so pilgrims can buy the turtledoves and other animals for sacrifice that meet all the purity laws…

We might think it’s wrong to have all this business going on on the Temple grounds, but it’s all necessary for the pilgrims to fulfill their religious duties and accomplish their need for forgiveness through the ritual sacrifices that have brought them to Jerusalem and the Temple in the first place. We hear it on the other side of Jesus’ protest, but in fact, buying an animal for sacrifice or getting the right change is no more worldly than our ushers taking up the offering each Sunday or Gerry buying the pita for communion.

But Jesus, coming into the outer courts of the Temple mount, our gentle Savior goes on a rampage. This isn’t some meek and mild shepherd returning with the one lost sheep lovingly cradled around his neck.

Right now, he’s more like a rabid sheep dog, wild and snapping at the sheep’s heels in the chaos of bleating and running this way and that, of dust and muck, of noise and fear, a palable sense of panic everywhere.

He’s unseating the workers needed for the mechanics of the sacrifice as well as chasing away the pilgrims who have come seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness.

What’s Jesus’ problem?
Why’s he so angry?

Our tradition bequeathes us various understandings of this moment in Jesus’ ministry.

We imagine Jesus is seeing red over the blood sacrifices that were at the heart of the ritual at the Temple.

Or that Jesus was rejecting the power and authority and leadership of the priests at the Temple.

Or that the Jesus was critiquing the Temple itself as a some special sacred place of God’s presence.

Or that this is his rejection of Judaism, the religion of his birth; that here he’s announcing that it’s being supplanted by a religion that will bear his name and is to be where people should expect to meet God.

But I want to suggest that many, if not most of those interpretations are misunderstandings of Jesus’ anger. And his actions. And of his relationship with Judaism. And with the Temple and religious authorities. And with the practices of blood sacrifice.

Jesus came not to abolish the Law and its contemporary practice through the institutions of the Judaism of his day. Rather he came, he tells us, as its fulfillment.

So I want to offer you this morning another lens through which to understand Jesus’ angry critique, the riot he causes in the Temple.

He wasn’t denying that the religion of his day could be God’s means for the people to get to a holy end.

Rather, but he was saying that rather than effectively conveying the people toward that holy end, the institutions of the religion of his day were being misused, directed to a very different and lesser end.

Remember how I said last week that Jerusalem had been a sacred site for Jews for a millenium by the time of Jesus’ ministry? But how also the reality of Jerusalem was a yardstick– not only for how much God loved Israel. But also a measure of how often and far Israel falls short of living up to the vision God means Jerusalem to represent.

It’s a subtle difference, but crucial for our understanding of Jesus, our own faith and its relationship to Judaism. Jesus isn’t rejecting the religion of his birth. Instead he’s rejecting the ways its contemporary incarnation was falling short of what God meant to accomplish through religion. If the society wasn’t just, then the religion wasn’t right, you might say.

It’s an old critique too. In the 7th chapter of Jeremiah, God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the Temple and confront those who entered to worship. Suzanne and other greeters often stand right in the door to welcome the worshipers to Old First. But Jeremiah is to stand outside, and warn people about going in! About the false security they were letting their practice of religion give them. About their belief that the Temple itself was enough to promise God’s reward.

God’s clear– it’s not the Temple itself that is any assurance, but the difference the Temple managed to effect in the world. The measure of our faith isn’t how fervent we are or how by the book our church is. Instead, it’s how our worship translates to worshipers and communities and nations establishing justice in their lives.

Do you hear the difference? Don’t count on church saving you. Instead, the difference that the church can make in the world, that’s where salvation lies.

Jeremiah name’s the people’s false faith. That God’s presence in the Temple is enough, or even promised… that the signs and symbols of the sacred can be Jerusalem’s protection, while the people are mistreated and God’s expectations are trampled.

God is asking for a much deeper, more searching, self-critical and transformative faith:

Do we believe divine worship excuses us from divine justice?

Do we believe that for God it’s enough that people to come to church and to worship?

Or do we believe worship is in fact only worship when it is a means for ushering in a life-altering change of heart and world-altering social relations that are just. You see, Jeremiah, and Jesus, I believe, are demanding that God expects an equitable distribution of the fruits of this earth,
so the hungry are fed,
and the naked clothed and
the homeless housed,
the sick healed,
the lonely visited,
the imprisoned freed,
the aliens welcomed,
the violence stopped,
and the widow and the orphan cared for.

Listen to this passage from the 7th chapter of Jeremiah:

“If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors forever and ever…

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

Jesus echoing Jeremiah. Or better, Jeremiah foreshadowing of Jesus’ anger and accusation. There common source, of course, was God.

It’s an interesting “if, then” conditional clause that God sets up.

If the people or the nation’s everyday injustice undercuts the fine words and beautiful actions of our worship, then we reduce church to a “den of robbers.”

The church, it may not be where the robbery actually occurs, but if the religious systems of a nation countenance or excuse or justify injustice, then the holiness of the most sacred place is undercut.

The temple and the church are denigrated, deconsecrated because they become a place for people reduced robbers by the injustice we countenance, promulgate and benefit… when we use the church to hide out in its holy ordinances, seeking refuge in its mysteries, its sanctuary and religious trappings are not of God as long as injustice rules the land.

Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah are inventing anything new in their indictment, their lining out the misuse of religion. It’s an ancient prophetic tradition in which God does never insists on both worship and justice. In fact, if we read the sacred text carefully, God prefers justice to religion. The former is the end; the latter is worthy and precious, only when it is a means in the service of that greater end.

God has repeatedly said through the prophets, “I reject your solemn assemblies and all your religious festivals because of your lack of justice.”

But can you think of anywhere where God says, “I reject your justice because of your not a church-goer?”

Think about that, church: God preferring the agnostic or atheist whose effecting justice over the pious believer whose service does not include justice-making.

Going further, God says further in Jeremiah 7:

If your holy places are a cover for injustice, if your worship does not lead to justice, then where you look for me in a sacred space, you will only find desolation, as your forebearers experienced at their earlier holy site at Shiloh.

Remember how I said last week, Jerusalem signified the promise of God’s reign, but by Jesus’ time, it was also a symbol for corruption and oppression, how far short of God’s vision of shalom God’s holy city often turned out to be under the unjust stewardship of its human administrators.

Church, Jesus is telling us religious folk: “Sunday observance is not enough.”

“Asking God’s mercy for your sins without likewise showing mercy,
begging God forgiveness of your debts without also offering forgiveness of those whose debts you are holding, without relief for others who are being crushed by their debts is no religion,” Jesus says.

Neither in Jesus’ day nor in ours will religious practice count for anything if the powerful amass riches at the expense of the poor and deprived.

Just as the Fig tree is shut down for failing to bear fruit, the Temple and the church will be shut down if, when they fail to lead people through worship to doing justice.

Cleansing is the right term for what Jesus did in the Temple — if we understand him to be saying that worship leading — and it could — for justice in the land, is God’s means to a most holy end.

But the frame of the Fig tree suggests, that Jesus’ actions are angrier, more threatening. His cleansing is almost a symbolic destruction of the Temple, with Jesus judging it no longer God’s means in the world.“ (Remember: Mark wrote his Gospel just about the time that the Roman’s destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem after the revolt of the zealots.

When worship doesn’t lead to justice, then no doubt, God will find another means, another way, a diversion by which to be about justice.

Let us remember that prophetic challenge and judgement, as we journey through Lent and Holy Week with Jesus. Amen.