Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Denial of the Forces of Nature has Consequences: A Christian Pastor's Experience of Hearing Neil DeGrasse Tyson Speak Live

Last night, the missus and I (or, as I have taken to referring to us, Dr. and Not Dr. Atcheson...hint: I'm the "Not Dr.") had tickets to go hear Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the host of Cosmos and all-around spokesperson for the importance of the STEM quartet (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), speak at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall in downtown Portland.

And I have to tell you, I laughed my ass off.  The guy is just too funny: he clearly enjoyed being up there so much that by the end of the Q&A session, he was showing off Youtube videos that made fun of him on the overhead projector.

(Also, another difference between a doctor and a pastor: C asked me what my favorite part of his lecture was, and I said it was when NDT explained that Pluto was also once upon a time the name of a laxative water marketed in the early 20th century.  What can I say, I may not understand science one lick, but I can appreciate a good poop joke anytime.)

Anyways, it was a very informative, entertaining, and engaging presentation, which is precisely what you would expect from someone who has been in the public arena as long as NDT has been and who has had years to hone and perfect his craft of educating the unwashed masses (aka me).

But it was also very revealing for me, because it was the first time in a little while that I had *really* stepped outside the circle of my usual agnostic-to-atheist friends and saw, on full display, the disdain with which we Christians are held by many in the scientific community.  The VERY first (and I do mean very first) question in the Q&A session came from a high school science teacher who asked NDT, in essence, "I teach a lot of kids from uber-conservative families, how do I get it through their heads and their parents' heads that science is real and that it matters?"

Just a heads-up, fellow Christians: this is what the rest of the world thinks of us and sees us as.

And that's not an isolated example from last night, either.  I lost track of the number of times NDT said something to the effect of, "You can believe whatever you want, it's a free country, but when you bring those beliefs into a science classroom, we have a problem."

That hits home for me: my home state of Kansas has been a state that has vacillated back and forth between teaching evolution and not teaching evolution in high school biology.  To my knowledge, though, teaching the Bible as literature in English classes (which I also 100% agree with doing: so much of our culture is influenced by the Bible that at least a passing familiarity with its contents would benefit just about anyone's education) has never been an issue.

And frankly, that is where, in our current educational model, the Bible's wheelhouse is: in English classrooms, in social studies classrooms for courses on world history, and the philosophy/theology/classics trio for obvious reasons.  That's where the Good Book is at its most effective.

But as a scientific treatise?  That's a hard sell, because modern science as we know it today--the use of the scientific method, the use of laboratory controls in experiments--wasn't so much a thing in the hundreds of years BCE that, say, the Old Testament was written.  Genesis 1 and 2 is not a lab report, it is an accounting of God's actions in bringing about the order of the universe.

But even if you hold Genesis to be a science textbook, the creation story still doesn't actually contradict science.  If you read Genesis 1-2 carefully, you'd see that the seventh day, the day God rested, never actually ends.  The previous six days all end with the words (which may vary slightly depending on your translation, "And there was morning and there was evening, the (x)th day."

If the seventh day, the day God rested, never actually ends, then that alone would disprove our theory (yes, theory) that Genesis 1 is depicting literal 24-hour days.  If a day is instead an epoch of time, then there's nothing that necessitates us saying that the earth is only six thousand years old, or that the dinosaur fossils are somehow fakes.

Nor does believing in Genesis and believing in evolution preclude the other.  They are not mutually exclusive beliefs.  Again, a close reading of Scripture enables this.  In Genesis 2, both Adam and the animals are made from the exact same substance: dirt and dust (in fact, the name "Adam" literally comes from the term "dirt" or "earth").  We may be more the dust and sand, but the Biblical truth remains: we share the same substance as other living things.  We can share genes with, say, a chimp or an orangutan, and not have it be contrary to Scripture because Scripture itself says that we were created by God from the exact same stuff.

 If anything, this was probably the biggest criticism I had coming away from NDT's presentation: it isn't an either-or proposition, believing in science and believing in the God of the Bible.  It really is a both-and, but never was that even remotely presented as a viable framework.

But I can attest from my own personal faith and life experience that it absolutely is.

And, with the least possible amount of hubris, I would humbly offer that it needs to be, because so much of NDT's argument revolved around the thesis that a lack of science literacy directly leads to economic regression.  It means your country is no longer on the cutting edge of discovery and advancement, so when another country pulls ahead of you, you have to pay them to obtain and use the advances they discover rather than the other way around.

Our Christian faith--my Christian faith--need not, should not, must not be in the business of turning the world backward.  NDT told the story of pastors whose rival churches would get struck by lightning say that it was evidence of God's wrath that those churches were smote by lightning.  But then ol' Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, churches began to use it, and those same pastors began denouncing Franklin as a heretic for thwarting the wrath of God.

You read that right.  A beer-swilling, womanizing crank of a diplomat and scientist was strong enough to thwart the will of the maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen.

That's the kind of derpiness (to anachronistcally, but accurately, label the stupidity of that argument) we run the risk of clinging to if we shut our eyes and close our ears to what the world has to say.

And yet, Jesus Christ Himself says in the Gospels, "let him who has ears, hear."

We can hear God speaking not just through His ministers and pastors like me.  It is likewise entirely permissible for God to speak through scientists and doctors, engineers and mathematicians.  And we need to be ready to acknowledge that singular fact.

The one NDT quote that struck me hardest, though, was again in reference to us Christians: denial of the forces of nature has consequences.  He said this as he was going through the circumstances that led to disasters like the flooding from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the images of those consequences were emblazoned above him on the overhead projector that showed his PowerPoint slides.

There are consequences to denying the reality of the nature God created.  And God gave us the ability to mitigate, if not protect, ourselves, from many destructive elements of nature.

It's really that simple.  We need to be ready to really, truly pay heed to the nature of the creation that surrounds us, the creation in which we live.

And if we don't, we cannot simply chalk whatever happens next up to the wrath of God.  We saw that show already plenty of times, not just with the lightning rods and Ben Franklin, but as recently as the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Pat Robertson claiming it was because of the country's history with voodoo.  And that show sucks.

I'll leave y'all with this: I have found that far too often and far too easily, we wrap ourselves in cocoons when it comes to our faith (or absence of faith, or view on faith) so as to avoid being challenged by those who disagree with us, lest they be seen as leading us down the wrong path or whatnot.  Personally, I have found that the Biblical proverb is true: iron sharpens iron.  My agnostic and atheist friends have forced me to wrestle with what I believe and to make those beliefs my own.  In that way, I have actually become a more devout Christian because of them (I don't know if that is what they intended to have happen!).

May your wrestling with science and religion end up strengthening your own faith as well: faith in God, and faith in fact alike.

And may your newly strengthened faith be a benefit for you and for all God's children moving forward.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Being Plentiful"

John 6:1-15

After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted.

12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain. (Common English Bible)



“Three Years in Three Weeks: Christ’s Ministry, Our Calling,” Week Two



The ritual for me was always the same: flag down a cab in an interminable amount of time, climb awkwardly into the backseat of a Crown Victoria or Ford Escape that has clearly seen better days, tell the driver where I want to go, and then hang on for dear life as my life flashed before my eyes as the driver began that awful, awful experience that is riding in a car in Manhattan.



It was rarely a pleasant experience.  Oh, occasionally, it was.  There was an Ecuadorian driver who was wearing the jersey of Ecuador’s national soccer team after they had qualified to the World Cup, who lit up simply because I recognized the jersey and asked him about it.  And there was another driver who actually, you know, obeyed things like speed limits and stop signs.



But most of the time, it was a necessary evil, only better than taking a subway because of the absence of crowds and a quicker travel time.  But there was one driver’s cab I never had the joy of being able to travel in, and I use the word “joy” very much on purpose.



Here, I’ll let the folks at Today tell the story about this driver and his cab:



Mansoor Khalid made headlines two years ago when he stocked his taxi cab with a sweet surprise: handfuls of free candy to brighten the days of unsuspecting New Yorkers.



Bringing joy to others was a way for Khalid to heal following the death of his two year old son, who passed away in April of 2012 after a battle with heart disease…In addition to pleasing riders with a sweet tooth, the Candy Cab has been a source of joy and catharsis for the 38 year old Pakistani immigrant, who started driving a New York City taxi in 199.  After the death of his son Saad, Khalid searched for ways to bring happiness to other people’s lives as well as his own.  That’s when he remembered how the doctors and nurses at the hospital had responded to his gifts of coffee and snacks.



“I got so used to buying things for people, because when I would do something, they’d smile,” he said,  “I feel great when someone smiles.  You feel amazing.” (He) said his goal was to give stressed New Yorkers something to smile about, even after they’d reached their destination.  “You don’t have to choose one (candy),” he said.  “You can grab many.  My style is, when you get out, nobody goes home empty handed.  Fill up your pockets!  Take what you want.  Enjoy your life!”



But sweets aren’t the only reason his rides have been so special.  Last year, he decorated the cab with smiley faces and installed a karaoke sound system, enabling passengers to plug in their phones, grab a mic and sing along to their favorite songs while colorful lights flashed around them…



Since launching his Candy Cab, Khalid says he’s spent between $400 and $00 per month on candy, and pumped an additional $4,000 into the karaoke and lightning upgrades.



Can you imagine that?  Spending the equivalent of at least $4,800 per year just on candy, none of it for yourself?  And that amount for karaoke system?  All to bring some joy to peoples’ rushed and harried lives?  I highly doubt any of us would do something like that, but I also highly doubt that any of us would turn down benefitting from it.  I, and probably all of us, would be more than happy to take a ride in Khalid’s Candy Cab.



But that chance might otherwise be gone.  The reason Khalid’s name is in the news is because the Candy Cab is currently defunct: the cab itself has puttered out after over 210,000 miles, and now Khalid is trying to raise the funds to obtain a new cab.  Which, like everything else except oxygen, does not come cheap in New York City.



But this is still someone who has been as plentiful as possible with what joy in life can be had after the loss of an infant child, to the point that he would spend this money on other people rather than a new cab for himself until he absolutely had to.  He gave out of his abundance until he couldn’t give anymore.  And that is, in a sentence, what Jesus does with the five loaves and two fish in the feeding of the five thousand.  The candy might have tasted better, but in this story, Jesus still gives, and gives, and gives, simply because He can.  And so should we.



This is a new sermon series for the kickoff of a new “church year,” which conveniently runs identically with the school year (we’ll forget for a moment that traditionally, the new church year began with the Christmas season, aka Advent, but that’s another kettle of fish).  It also coincides with the start of year four of all y’all putting up with me, and I have to say, looking back on our first three years together, there is a lot for us to be proud of and to hang our proverbial hats on: we’ve seen the marriages of half a dozen couples involved in the church, we’ve had 9 (soon 10!) baptisms, and the amount of mission work that we’ve done in the community, measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars in value, which, when you consider our still small size, speaks volumes to this congregation’s commitment to fulfilling Christ’s fundamental command to care for the marginalized among us.



But there is still so much for us to do, and I haven’t done an explicitly vision casting sermon series for our community since the “Time to be Church” series way, way back in the beginning of 2013, and a lot has changed for us since then.  So, this series is meant to represent, in three installments, what I am envisioning for our next three years together, and the series’ structure comes from how John’s Gospel describes the beginning of each of the three years of Jesus’ own ministry, and we began last week in Year One with a famous story that the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but one that John curiously puts at the very beginning: the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.  This week, we get to Year Two, which is marked by another well known story that is in all four Gospels: the feeding of the five thousand.



And as with the cleansing of the temple, John takes the story of the feeding of the five thousand and places it in a very different context than Matthew, Mark or Luke.  The latter three place the temple cleansing at the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, whereas John places it at the very beginning, and similarly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the feeding of the five thousand either immediately after or very soon after the beheading of John the Baptist. 



John (to avoid confusion, we’re talking about the evangelist John who wrote the Gospel, who is not the same John as John the Baptist…John being a common name even back then, who knew?) doesn’t even include the beheading of the Baptist in his Gospel, and as such, has to have a different frame of reference for the timing of this unanimously testified-to miracle by default.  And that context is: nearly at the start of the next Passover, marking Year Two of Jesus’ three-year ministry.



John does, however, share a different characteristic with one of the Gospels, it is in fact extremely relevant to the fact that it is almost the Passover: Jesus is situated on a mountain, just as He is for Matthew’s accounting of the Sermon on the Mount (guess where that took place?).  And most commentators believe that Matthew’s detail of Jesus being on a mountain while interpreting the law was no coincidence, as it was meant to mirror Moses at Mount Sinai receiving the law for the very first time.



Moses, of course, is the key figure in the story of the Passover: he is the one who has led the Israelites to this point where the Tenth Plague is about to happen which will at long last liberate the Israelites from enslavement under the Egyptians.  And then the Passover happens.



Jesus, by once again being on a mountain, invokes the memory of Moses, and by breaking bread and sharing it with everyone there with Him, He invokes the Passover meal of unleavened bread that all of the Israelites shared with their families as their last meal together in Egypt before the exodus out.



And just as following Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery, so too does following Jesus liberate us from evil.



John doubles down on this interpretation of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand by being the only one of the four gospel writers to use the Greek term “eucharisteo,” from which we get the English term “Eucharist,” and which literally means, “to give thanks.”  Jesus gives thanks for not only what meager little we have brought to His feed, but He also gives thanks for what is about to happen as well: what He knows is about to happen, the miracle of the hunger of five thousand souls being sated.  He gives thanks for the liberation from hunger as well as the liberation from evil.



And that is all part of a mentality of being plentiful as a church: we are called to give thanks not only for what has been done for us, donated to us, given to us in the past, we are to also give thanks for what we are to receive in the future as well.  It is a rule of thumb that serves us well as individuals too, and as families, but as a church that focus on gratitude for the future is absolutely paramount, because without it, what we often substitute in its place is…well, fear.



Think about it.  How many times have you heard someone say about the (universal, big C) Church, “Well, I don’t know about the future of the church, everyone in this new generation seems to have given up on the church,” or, “We really aren’t interested in trying anything new to bring new disciples in or to engage the Gospel in new ways?”  How much of that sentiment do you think is about giving thanks for the future?  How much of that sentiment do you think needs to be replaced by giving thanks for what the future might hold for the body of Christ?



Think again about Khalid, the Candy Cab driver.  I cannot begin to imagine wanting to be thankful for anything in the future if the present has just taken away my child.  I cannot even begin to think about what I might still have left to give away to the world when this world has already taken so much from me.  But you know what?  That isn’t how Jesus went about His own ministry, even though He knew darn well that it would, in the end, demand the ultimate sacrifice from Him as well in the form of His own earthly life.



But Jesus sought to be plentiful regardless.  So too, then, should we.  May it be so.  Amen.



Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
September 14, 2014

(original photo credit: liognier.org.  If you feel so moved to aid Mansoor Khalid's quest to resurrect the Candy Cab, the Today link contains a link to his Gofundme campaign.)


Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 In Memoriam: Sky of Blackness and Sorrow, Sky of Fullness and Blessed Life

Can't see nothin' in front of me 
Can't see nothin' coming up behind 
I make my way through this darkness 
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me 

Lost track of how far I've gone 
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed 
On my back's a sixty pound stone 
On my shoulder a half mile line 

Come on up for the rising 
Come on up, lay your hands in mine 
Come on up for the rising 
Come on up for the rising tonight 

Left the house this morning 
Bells ringing filled the air 
I was wearin' the cross of my calling 
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here 

Come on up for the rising 
Come on up, lay your hands in mine 
Come on up for the rising 
Come on up for the rising tonight

Spirits above and behind me 
Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright 
May their precious blood forever bind me 
Lord as I stand before your fiery light

I see you Mary in the garden 
In the garden of a thousand sighs 
There's holy pictures of our children 
Dancin' in a sky filled with light 

May I feel your arms around me 
May I feel your blood mix with mine 
A dream of life comes to me 
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line 

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life) 
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life) 
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life) 
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life) 
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life) 
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight 
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life) 
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) 

Come on up for the rising 
Come on up, lay your hands in mine 
Come on up for the rising 
Come on up for the rising tonight

-Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising," July 16, 2002


In memory of the 2,977 souls whose lives were taken by terrorism on September 11, 2001, and in profound gratitude to the first responders, medical personnel, and Good Samaritans who saved the lives of many more that day.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

(photo credit: greatbuildings.com)

The Grammy Awards performance of The Rising, introduced by the late, missed Robin Williams:


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Being Prophetic"

John 2:13-22

13  It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me. 

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?” 19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” 20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (Common English Bible)



“Three Years in Three Weeks: Christ’s Ministry, Our Calling,” Week One



The number of different fees, when listed off one right after the other, would make just about anyone’s (who wasn’t, say, an accountant) mind spin:



$10 per month.



99 cents per transaction.



$5 per deposit of funds.



$3 to create a money order, and $5 from the utilities company to accept a money order as payment (which is pretty funny—in the bad way—when you consider that money orders are prepaid by definition, and as such are basically negotiable as cash).



And all of this was due to the fact that because Jennifer’s bank had closed her checking account, so he had to rely a prepaid debit card for making all of her financial transactions.  If you have ever bought a prepaid gift debit card at the supermarket or at Target or wherever, you probably noticed the fine print on the front of the package that says, “+ $4.95 activation fee” or somesuch, well, for Jennifer, it was like having to pay that activation fee every day: she estimates that having nothing but a debit card cost her ~$250 per month before she was able to get a new account with a new bank.



The irony—the terrible, incredible, destructive irony—of all of this is that of course this woman could not afford that $250 per month, but she had to because she was so poor she could no longer function within our modern economy.  It kept her poor.  And that is the way we have intended it: one nonprofit CEO estimates that up to 10 percent of an impoverished person’s income goes to “financial services” if they do not have a bank account.



10 percent of their income.  That’s a tithe.  Only, instead of being able to tithe to God with dignity, our working poor today are forced to tithe to the predators who prey on their financial vulnerability: the peddlers and pushers of those heavily marked up debit cards, plus the check cashers and the I’m-amazed-its-not-butter (if by ‘not butter’ you meant, ‘still legal’) payday loan industry.



And we could lump all of those financial predators up into one gigantic group of awfulness, label them the moneychangers and the moneylenders of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus cleanses here in John 2, and we would not be too far off from the truth one bit.



This is a new sermon series for the kickoff of a new “church year,” which conveniently runs identically with the school year (we’ll forget for a moment that traditionally, the new church year began with the Christmas season, aka Advent, but that’s another kettle of fish).  It also coincides with the start of year four of all y’all putting up with me, and I have to say, looking back on our first three years together, there is a lot for us to be proud of and to hang our proverbial hats on: we’ve seen the marriages of half a dozen couples involved in the church, we’ve had 9 baptisms, and the amount of mission work that we’ve done in the community, measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars in value, which, when you consider our still small size, speaks volumes to this congregation’s commitment to fulfilling Christ’s fundamental command to care for the marginalized among us.



But there is still so much for us to do, and I haven’t done an explicitly vision casting sermon series for our community since the “Time to be Church” series way, way back in the beginning of 2013, and a lot has changed for us since then.  So, this series is meant to represent, in three installments, what I am envisioning for our next three years together, and the series’ structure comes from how John’s Gospel describes the beginning of each of the three years of Jesus’ own ministry, and we begin in Year One with a famous story that the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but one that John curiously puts at the very beginning: the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.



And it is curious for several reasons, not the least of which is because the other three stooges all place this event more towards the end rather than the beginning, but also because John himself says that the disciples who witnessed this epic buttkicking did not grasp the full meaning of what had happened here until after Jesus had died and risen again: that was, after all, what He meant when He had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”



Now, as is so very often the case in John’s Gospel, the hearers of Jesus’ words take said words far too literally (which should actually stand as a Biblical warning to us to not take Scripture exclusively literally either, but that is, yet again, another can of tuna), and they explode with righteous indignation.  “Well, it took 46 years for this temple to be constructed!”  (Seriously, who the heck was their general contractor, and why wasn’t he sacked after, like, year thirty-seven?)



But what is truly ironic about what Jesus’ respondents are saying is that they are, in fact, betraying a dimension of the true depth and severity of their crime: they are taking something that took literally generations to build, that their ancestors slaved decades over, and turning it into their own personal get-rich-quick scheme.  It isn’t like they are working from home, or renting space in some generic strip mall on the exurbs, no, they are setting up shop right where ancient Jewish theology says God Himself lived, basically right on God’s front porch.



And what they are doing on God’s front porch is nothing short of abominable.  Now, this part takes a bit more explanation to unpack, so bear with me.  At this point in time, temple Judaism still demanded animal sacrifices from its constituents as a matter of religious worship, even though Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Micah had railed vehemently against the practice.  So, upon every Passover, families would come in to Jerusalem to sacrifice an animal just like the Israelites under Moses sacrificed their lambs and used the lambs’ blood to mark the lintel and posts of their doorways, thus allowing the Angel of Death to “pass over” their houses and slay only the Egyptian firstborns instead (why the Angel of Death couldn’t have just checked IDs at the door is beyond me, it’s God’s agent after all and thus presumably smarter than, say, your average Doberman who is in fact very good at differentiating between “bloody and “not bloody”).



But what if a family didn’t have an animal to sacrifice, you might ask.  Therein lies the rub.  Just like any good economy, when a demand is noticed, supply springs to meet it.  So peddlers of animals—cattle, sheep, doves, even pigeons for the truly destitute families who couldn’t afford anything nicer—set up shop in the temple courtyards.  And because temple security could control who could operate there and who could not, they were able to essentially create a monopoly for themselves and gouge their customers in the name of religious piety.  But that’s only the first part of the scam.



See, Israelite law banned the use of the Roman currency, the denarius, in the temple, in part because it bore the image of Caesar who was treated posthumously as a god, and thus was a graven image to a pagan deity that violated the first and second of the Ten Commandments.  So, there was an artificial demand for moneychangers.  And, like the animal merchants, the moneychangers were able to set up monopolies for themselves and charge whatever commission they could get away with.



And keep in mind, both of these practices most affected those who could not afford to either raise a sacrificial animal themselves, or bring it with them to Jerusalem, or both.  It hurt the poorest of the pilgrims, whose religious devotion to God was exploited by the merchants and the moneychangers. 



This is what Jesus was violently condemning when He bounced them out of the Temple, and it is sinfulness like this that we too are called to condemn when we see it happening in our world: exploitation of the least powerful, oppression of the most marginalized, persecution of the most vulnerable.  It is called being prophetic, because that is what so many of the Old Testament prophets preached about themselves.  Jesus carried on that tradition, and we are called to carry it on as well in His stead until His return.



Believe me, it exists in all sorts of forms against people who are impoverished today, and we would otherwise never know.  You do not have to dress in rags or look like Oliver Twist to be the person whom others are making a killing off of simply because you are too poor for a bank account, but we act like you have to in order to be fully deserving of our prayers, our sympathy, and our aid.



And that sort of mentality ultimately runs counter to the entire mission of being a Christian.  Christ did not hand out litmus tests to the poor and the lepers, to the prostitutes and the tax collectors, no, He welcomed them regardless, told them that their faith had saved them, and charged them to back out into the world and live for Him.  He reserved His moral outrage for those whom deserved it.



But we don’t do that.  Instead of protesting the treatment of the poor by today’s financial institutions and payday lenders, we protest the existence of contraception.  Instead of vigorously protesting the treatment of the persecuted Christians in Iraq under ISIS, or in North Korea under Kim Jong Un, we more vigorously protest that we ourselves are persecuted because we aren’t allowed by law to tell you who to vote for in church.  We have lost sight of what Christ fought for.



It isn’t just that we have, in Paul’s words, all fallen short of the glory of God, it is that we have fallen short of the mission of Christ itself.  And so the first prong of our path going forward as a church is for us to continue working on being prophetic: on being able to speak out with a moral voice for the people of our time and against the evils of our time.  Because there are so many such evils right here at home that we are working against and continue to be prophetic towards, including the prepaid card and payday loan evils I have been talking about, and whose ills I know have affected a number of you directly, but that many of us are also completely unaware of.  As my own mom said when I posted an excerpt from this very sermon to Facebook, “there’s a parallel universe out there most middle class Americans never see, even though it’s just down the street and around the corner.”



Let us go forth, then, and like Jesus, be a prophetic church against that parallel universe of sin, and seek to replace it with another universe of unending divine love.

May it be so.  Amen.


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
September 7, 2014

(original photo credit: liognier.org)