Monday, March 12, 2012

Sermon: "What a Fool Believes"

Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
March 11, 2012

“What a Fool Believes”

                              1 Corinthians 1:18-25                              
  John 2:13-22

The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.
- Sir William Osler

When I was 11-years-old, I had a reputation for being a radical and a troublemaker.
In reality, I was a painfully shy Catholic school girl who wouldn't dream of wearing non-regulation knee socks, let alone call attention to myself by questioning the status quo.
But unknowingly, that’s what I did.

Our fifth grade class at St. Martin of Tours parochial school had been given an assignment to write letters of welcome to the newly elected Pope, John Paul the first.
While my classmates wrote formulaic "Good luck on the new Job" letters, I rather innocently used my letter to address a few concerns that I was stewing over at the time.
I asked the Pope why I, as a girl, could not serve at the altar during Mass like my brother, and for that matter, why couldn't women be priests?
I then took it a step further and asked the Pope why gay people weren't welcome in our church, when they were just people like everybody else?

From my 11-year-old perspective, I was just pointing out a few inequities that the new Pope might not have been aware of given his busy schedule.
But to the nuns who ran our school, I was attempting to overturn a table laden with tradition and belief that I had no business being anywhere near.
Needless to say my letter was not included in the batch that was mailed to the Vatican, and I went from being largely ignored as the quietest kid in the class to being singled out as the class troublemaker. 

(As a side note, Pope John Paul the First did die in office a month later, but I can honestly say that my letter had nothing to do with it!)

It is ironic, that as a child asking the question: “Why can’t everyone be included?” I suddenly found myself standing on the outside looking in.
I felt like I was no longer welcome in the church built in Jesus’ name.

Which is one reason why today’s gospel text resonates so strongly with me,
because this text is testament to the fact that sometimes it’s the quiet ones who end up causing the biggest disruptions, and that there are often dire consequences for tipping over tables that others feel compelled to keep in place.

We can only imagine what Jesus’ disciples must have been thinking that day...
as they stood there, slack jawed and not quite believing what was happening right in front of their eyes. 

It was as if a man possessed by demons had been set loose in the Temple.
This was not the gentle rabbi they had come to know.
The man of peace who claimed that the MEEK shall inherit the earth…
The man who urged his followers to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to beat their swords into ploughshares, in defiance of their every human inclination to raise their voices and their fists in anger.

And yet there he was, their beloved and compassionate teacher, running amok amongst the moneychangers, screaming until he was red in the face, flailing his arms and knocking over tables, and causing a near riot in the Temple Court. 

“What has gotten into him?” They must have wondered.

On this day of all days, on the eve of Passover, in Jerusalem, on the doorstep of God’s Holiest of Holy dwellings, with throngs of people milling about - a prime audience longing to hear a message about God’s unconditional love and grace -
Why did he not climb up ON a table and speak to the people instead,
Why did he choose to do something that would make him look like even more of a fool than the Roman and Jewish leaders already assumed he was?
Why did he do something so disruptive that it would likely get him arrested, 
and possibly get him killed?

And as WE know, that’s exactly what happened.
Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple ultimately set in motion a chain of events that led to him breathing his last breath upon the cross.
A cross that at the time stood as a symbol for all those who were foolish enough to question the status quo without having the power to back it up.
And the people of Jerusalem, Jew and Gentile alike, could not help but wonder,
What kind of Messiah was Jesus to meet such a foolish end?
And what kind of fools were the disciples for following him?

Despite the tragic results, the story of Jesus and the moneychangers IS one of my favorite Gospel texts, partly because it’s one of the rare occasions where we get a glimpse of Jesus’ human side –
which makes this a very fitting text for Lent.

It’s during Lent that Jesus’ humanity comes to the forefront.
During these last weeks of his life, he’s no longer standing up there on a mountaintop, with a heavenly light shining down upon him as he warns us about all the difficult things we must do to follow in his footsteps…
During Lent, Jesus is down in the trenches with us.
With his face turned towards Jerusalem and the fate that he knows he can’t escape.

This is a Jesus who shows emotion in a way that we don’t see during Ordinary Time.
Not only do we see him turning over tables in anger,
We feel his sadness as he celebrates his last Passover Supper and reveals that one among them will betray him.
We feel his disappointment as he rebukes his friends for falling asleep when he needed them most.
We hear him cry out in fear, as he begs God to take this cup of suffering from him.
We watch him staggering helplessly down the road as his mother looks on, knowing that he can do nothing to take away the tremendous grief he sees in her eyes.
And we’re hanging on that cross right along side him as he feels the pain of his physical wounds…and the pain of his emotional wounds, as he cries out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

And this whole chain of events begins with an outburst of anger in the Temple.

I love this text, because it’s through the expression of his unbridled humanity that Jesus sets an example for all of us who have ever felt powerless to enact change in our world.

But what changes was Jesus hoping to bring about by upending the tables of the moneychangers?
What exactly were the people doing in the Temple that day that made him so mad? 

As with any text, this one is open to interpretation,
but let’s consider three possible sources for Jesus’ anger. 

The most obvious is that turning God’s House into a marketplace was a form of idolatry and blaspheme.
A Temple was meant to be a place where the people worshiped and praised God, not a place to make a profit at the expense of those who came to worship.
Jesus was angry because the people had allowed greed to shift their focus away from God and onto themselves and their own material needs.

Another interpretation holds that Jesus was not angry with the people in the market, but rather his anger was directed at the people in charge – the Temple Priests and the Roman government who were working in cahoots to profit from the sale of goods and the payment of the Temple tax. 
Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous. 
Roman officials appointed the chief priests and the priests were expected to serve the interests of Rome. Jesus’ anger here could be seen as a statement against imperialism and the influences of the state on religious matters.

A third possible interpretation proposes that this text is not about the irreverence of turning the Temple into a marketplace, or the separation of church and state, rather it’s the presence of the moneychangers themselves and the system they represent, that causes Jesus to react in anger.

As I told the children earlier, the moneychangers were there to exchange the various local currencies for coins that could be used inside the Temple.
In addition to paying the Temple Tax, these coins could be used to purchase animals to be used in the Temple’s sacrificial rites.
Participation in these rites was the only way to receive absolution for one’s sins, and it had to be done by a Priest, in the Temple, in Jerusalem.
If you were poor, sick, disabled, elderly, or widowed, and couldn’t travel to Jerusalem, or couldn’t afford to purchase a sacrificial animal, your sins would go unforgiven and you would forever feel alienated from God.

Perhaps this is what made Jesus so angry.
The tables of the moneychangers were blocking the people’s access to God.
And much to his disciple’s chagrin, he risked his reputation and his life to symbolically and physically remove the barriers that stood between the people and the healing presence of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

Regardless of which of these three interpretations resonates most with us, the message is the same – If we’re going to live our lives by walking in the footsteps of Jesus it’s inevitable that we’re going to run into tables that we’re called to overturn, and we’re going to run the risk of looking like fools while doing it.

Whether we’re speaking out against the materialistic greed of our surrounding culture, pushing back against the corrupting influences of power, or working to remove the barriers that separate us as a people,
there will be those who have a vested interest in keeping those tables undisturbed, and to them we are but fools for attempting to mess with them in the first place.
On those occasions, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus our Lord and Savior, the man we revere, the God incarnate that we worship, was in his time seen by many to be a complete and udder fool, and those who followed him, well they were the biggest fools of all.

As Paul wrote in his first letter to the people of Corinth, the foolishness of the cross is our legacy. Two thousand years later Jesus is still asking us to believe, think, and do things that seem crazy to the outside world.
Turn the other cheek, forgive your transgressor, LOVE your enemy, extend hospitality to strangers, aliens, and foreigners, live in community with those who are so different from you they swear the sky is pink when you know for a fact it’s blue.

Yet all of us here signed up for this, voluntarily, having been baptized into Christ’s community, and having chosen to be a part of this church.

What a crazy and difficult path it is that we’ve chosen to walk together.

And as someone who is new to this particular congregation, I can’t wait to hear all of your stories and the tales of foolishness that led you here to this community of Christ.

When I was 11-years-old, I questioned why everyone was not free to participate fully in the church built in Jesus’ name.
At the time I had no idea that this question was considered to be volatile, or that there would be consequences for asking it.

Sometimes we knock over tables intentionally, and other times we unwittingly trip over them and push them aside.

We don’t know if it was part of Jesus’ plan to cause trouble in the Temple on that day, or if he was acting on pure impulse.
But regardless of his motive, in the midst of the chaos of the Passover crowd, he chose to do something foolish.
He approached the tables of the moneychangers, placed his fingers beneath the edge of the first table he came to….and he lifted.

For a split second the barriers that had been set up between the people and God became airborne - and when that table came crashing down, we were set free.

Jesus was aching for us to understand that God’s love is unconditional, there is no barrier between us and God….and that is true for all of us.
And if the only way that Jesus could show us that Truth was by tipping over a few tables…an act of defiance that would ultimately lead to his death…then so be it.

How many tables are we willing to tip over in the name of love and truth?
How many do we leave undisturbed because we fear the consequences of claiming that truth as our own?

The tables of the moneychangers have not gone away. Some of us continue to hold onto them as if the church, our belief system, or society itself could not exist without them.

In Jesus’ time it took the strength of the Son of God to overturn the tables outside the Temple.
Yet we may be surprised at how many of those tables we can turn over ourselves...with God’s help….if we just place our fingers beneath the edge…and lift.


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