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: ligonier.org) 

1 comment:

  1. Really excellent sermon Eric. To all who criticize and condemn the poor and vulnerable, I say walk a few miles in their shoes. Walk past the plasma centers, the food pantries, the pawn shops and the street corners where they wait for the bus. Be there where they struggle to cope with skyrocketing utility bills, usurious late fees, and food stamps that are impossible to stretch far enough to feed a family. The countless obstacles and frustrations make life impossibly difficult