Sunday, February 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Monday"

Mark 11:12-19

12 The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. 14 So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this. 15 They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?[b] But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”[c] 18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. 19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city. (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week One

Two hundred thousand dollars.

More than that, even.  Two hundred-ten to be precise.  At least.  All to game a book onto the New York Times bestseller list by using tricks of the trade to fool the safeties the NYT system has in place to prevent authors from simply buying their way onto bestseller lists.

And that money came from a church’s coffers, a church that, it was also found, did not distribute tithes meant for global missions to those missions, but instead kept those tithes for itself.

But no, this story is not from the 1980s and the heyday of Christian con men like Jim Bakker or Peter Popoff, this is from last year—2014—and from quite nearby, our Emerald City neighbor to the north: Seattle.

Mars Hill Church, planted in Seattle but with many satellite locations, shelled out that sum of money in order to get their pastor Mark Driscoll’s latest book onto said NYT bestseller list.  And, I know, it sounds like small church envy of a megachurch, but think about what that $210,000 could have done.  It is about 140% of our annual budget, and that kind of money really can and does change lives of people in need.

Yet we use our money for this.  And in Mars Hill’s case, it is no more; after this and a series of other scandals, Mark Driscoll resigned from the pulpit, and Mars Hill promptly announced it was shutting its doors on January 1 of this year.  To which I can only repeat what someone far wiser than me said on Twitter: if a church announces just weeks after its founding pastor resigns that it is shutting down, you can be reasonably confident that what was being worshipped there was not really Jesus.

And it is deeds like these, works like these, works that, as the letter of James says, God shall know our faith, that others outside the church associate the church with.  We have become, to them, the den of robbers that Jesus is trying to cleanse.  And they are 100% rooting for Jesus in this scenario.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has begun, so too does a new sermon series begin for us as well.  And we’ll be stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

We begin with Monday, the day after Palm Sunday, after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and here is part of what Borg and Crossan have to say about Monday’s events (of which only two Mark conveys to us, the fig tree incident and the cleansing of the temple):

What does it mean that Jesus has interrupted the temple’s perfectly legitimate sacrificial and fiscal activities?  It means that Jesus has shut down the temple.  But it is a symbolic rather than a literal “shutdown.”  It is a prophetic action that intends in macrocosm what it effects in microcosm…At this point, the Markan frames of fig tree and temple coalesce.  The tree was “shut down” for lack of the fruit Jesus demanded—and so was the temple.  In the case of the temple, it is not a cleansing, but a symbolic destruction, and the fig tree’s fate emphasizes that meaning.  But what is wrong with the temple to warrant such a symbolic destruction?  The answer must come from the word that follows the deed in this prophetic action…there is nothing wrong with prayer and sacrifice—they are commanded in the Torah.  That is not the problem.  But God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice, God rejects God’s temple—or, for us today, God’s church.

Now, I do strongly disagree with Borg and Crossan on one part of their interpretation: that any of this business in the temple was remotely legitimate.  Some of y’all may have heard this spiel from me before in Bible studies or Sunday School classes, so bear with me as I explain it for folks who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of hearing me drone on about this.

Old Testament law mandates the religious sacrifice of certain animals consecrated for that purpose; it is a practice that stretches all the way back to Cain and Abel, when Abel sacrifices to God his prized sheep.  Now, if you’re, say, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from one of the outer reaches of Israel, your animals may not make the journey as easy as you will, and in any case it makes you an attractive target for highwaymen, robbers, and thieves.  Or, like many, many common people, you may not be able to afford to raise an animal solely for the purpose of religious slaughter, even if your sacred text commands it.

So, there is a serious market for the buying of sacrificial animals right on location, at the temple.  Except there is a hitch (isn’t there always when it comes to organized religion?); the law also prohibited the use of any currency other than the Israelite shekel, meaning that the Roman denarius, which was the coin of the realm because, well, New Testament Israel was a part of Rome’s empire.

So if people are being paid in denarii and spending on necessities in denarii, what happens when suddenly they are confronted with the need to buy something with shekels?  They have to go to a money exchange service, just like we do upon entering a foreign country.  And just like money exchange services today, the moneychangers of the Jerusalem temple charged a commission for this service.  Unlike our exchange services of today, though, the rates charged by the moneychangers back then were downright criminal, because they basically had a sanctioned monopoly over a reliably sizable clientele, thanks to those very same religious laws and mandates.  Think about it—if people are mandated by their religious law to sacrifice animals and they can’t use their money to buy the animals—they can only use your money, the shekel—then you can basically charge whatever you want and make quite a living ripping off well-meaning pilgrims and devout Israelites.

THAT is why Jesus says that the temple has become a “den of robbers.”  It quite literally has, in the purest sense of the term.  And so the time-honored ritual of the frocked fleecing their flocks for their precious earnings continued earnestly in Jerusalem.

Until—and even if it was just for a moment—this day, Monday, the day that Jesus does something that absolutely gets him on the Sanhedrin’s radar.  If yesterday’s Palm Sunday processional didn’t do it, you can bet your bottom shekel this definitely did.

But what does all of this have to do with the fig tree that Jesus condemns to fruitlessness?  Well…have you known many religious organizations that take advantage of their members to produce much in the way of true fruits of the spirit?  No, me neither.  Instead, what is often produced is—and it is a sad testament upon us that this term even exists—spiritual abuse.  And a great many people suffer from it; I have even heard stories of it from some of you about your previous churches.

Instead of uplifting and empowering believers as we ought, as we are called to do, we abuse and take advantage of them.  We use them up instead of building them up, and we spit them out instead of sending them out.

And that devastates me.  So let’s work on changing that.  Instead of having a new person walk into our building for the first time and feel put upon or judged, let’s make sure they leave having been impacted by being in the presence of God.  Let’s work on correcting the injustices we see when they happen, rather than helping cause them.

It isn’t enough to simply say that this is what Jesus would have done—it is, ultimately, in the end, what He died for as well, for it is this act before the temple that causes the Pharisees, scribes, and men of power to sit up and take notice of this carpenter from Galilee with a radical message from God.  That’s why I’m so over the WWJD stuff—what would Jesus do?  WWJD is incomplete, it needs an F at the end: what would Jesus die for?

Jesus died for this.  He died to fight injustice.  May our faith be such, then, that similarly others would be shaken from their own doldrums when they hear our words and see our deeds from our own faith as well.  Let us be just a bit dangerous to them as Jesus was.  Let us, in doing so, advance the latter’s kingdom, which, as we prayer, is forever and ever.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 22, 2015

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