Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sometimes You Need to Flip Over A Table: John 2:13-25
Close your eyes for a minute. Now, think of Jesus. What kind of image do you see? Now, most of the images of Jesus that I see look something like this. White skin. Long, hair, often brown... sometimes though, he's blonde. He's often glowing a bit, and the picture may seem a little soft around the edges. He usually has very sad or very kind eyes. He may be hugging a lamb or a child. Sometimes he's even playing soccer. I've seen him teaching crowds, too. He usually look pretty serious when he's doing that. He's not usually smiling in those pictures. But, he may be smiling in others. He nearly always looks kinda sweet... some might even say meek or mild. Well, put those images out of your mind. Those aren't the images of Jesus we have in today's scripture. Nobody is soft-focused. Nobody is smiling. And, for sure, no one is playing soccer. Jesus is not meek and mild here. Jesus is mad and motivated. And, carrying a whip.
One of the first things we should probably note is that this story is found in all four Gospels, but the version we're reading today is from the Gospel of John. And, John's author put this story in a completely different place in this Gospel than the other three writers put it in theirs. The other three all put it towards the end of Jesus' ministry, after he has returned to Jerusalem during Passover. They show it as his last public act, the act that probably got him arrested. This author places it right at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Flipping over tables and whipping people is Jesus' second public act. That is a big change in the narrative. That means this story is important for a different reason in John.
Let's return to the version in John. It was Passover, a major Jewish festival during which people traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to give thanks and offer sacrifices to God. It is not surprising that Jesus, as a Jew, would have been present. But, what he did in the temple was very surprising. Now, remember, at this time, Jesus was a nobody. To most people he saw, he was simply one more peasant making pilgrimage to the temple. He was not important yet, or at least not important to anybody but his family and the few disciples who followed him. He would have been expected to be at the temple to worship and maybe, if his wisdom was recognized, to preach. He would not have had the communal authority to make any changes to who was present in the temple or what kind of business they were running. And, yet, here he is, messing up everybody's day, and chasing away all the customers.
Scripture tells us that he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and changing money for people. Now, this would not have been strange to see during such a festival. People were required to make sacrifices and needed to have access to animals and to the proper kinds of coins in order to make these sacrifices. If you traveled from far away, it was much easier to buy your animals once you arrived in Jerusalem. And, you could not use Roman money in the temple. You had to change your coins over to Jewish money. These animal salespeople and moneychangers were absolutely necessary to worship at the temple. In order to fulfill the requirement of the law, you would have to work with these people. They were not, generally, thought of as people who had no right to be doing what they were doing. They were in fact a necessary part of worshiping at the temple.
During Jesus' time, there is a good chance that people would have been shocked mostly by the fact that he was so mad about what was going on. It would be like somebody running into our church and chasing after the Deacon who hands out the programs or running up and knocking the offering plates out of my hands during worship. It was that common. Now, in the first the Gospels, it seems clear that the reason Jesus is mad at the salespeople and moneychangers is that they are cheating people. As he runs them off, he says that he will not allow the temple to become a den of thieves.
But, in this Gospel, Jesus doesn't call them a den of thieves. No, in John, Jesus, lays a different accusation at their feet. He says, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Now, remember, the temple had to function as a marketplace in order to actually allow people to fulfill their religious duties. To remove the marketplace would be to remove one of the most basic systems that allowed the temple to function. To remove them would be to dismantle the whole system. One scholar argues that this whole dismantling is why this story is important. Jesus was not talking about simple little changes. He was challenging people to a complete reorientation of the way they worshiped and how they would have understood God to be present with them in the world. Such a reorientation can only come through the radical change that he brings.This change can only come through flipping over tables and hearing the thunder of cattle hooves across the temple floor.
How, you may ask, is this such a radical reorientation of their understanding of God? This has to do with how the people understood God to be present in the temple. The temple was not simply the place where people went to worship, like we come to church. According to one scholar, the temple was thought to be the very resting place of God. People came to the temple not out of simple obligation, but because they had been taught that this was the primary place where they could actually encounter God. But, in the Gospel of John, the author would assure people that they could meet God somewhere else. At the beginning of John, the author tells us that the World of God became flesh and lived among us. When he says "lived among us," he meant out among the people, not only in the temple as had been their tradition. John also tells us that Jesus spoke of his body as a temple. That's in today's reading. And, remember what the people thought they would find in the temple? The presence of God. In later chapters of the book, after Jesus tells a woman that she wouldn't be able to find God to worship in the mountains, where their people once worshiped or at the temple where they now worshiped, a man sees Jesus and worships him. John wants us to understand that the very presence of God is in Jesus and that completely changes how we worship.
In John, we learn new things about God. This is not the God who can only be encountered in that place. This is a God who lives and walks in the flesh that She once knit together at creation. This is God who is Incarnate... who lives and breathes with the same bones, and joints, muscles, and blood that we share. This is no longer a God who is separate, but a God who is radically present in creation, seen most fully in the life of Jesus Christ. This God walks, and preaches, and occasionally flips over tables to teach people a new way to encounter him. It is only by being willing to overturn the tables of our comfortable religiosity that we can learn about this God. And, overturning tables is always hard and rarely comfortable. Ask the moneychangers.
I spent a portion of my day yesterday watching the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the first march from Selma, Alabama. Six hundred people marched in that first attempt. They were brutally attacked. The police and citizen posses shot tear gas and beat them with billy-clubs, washing the streets with their blood. Children as young as 9 years old were on the march. Some protesters were beaten so badly that they were left for dead on the road. Sixteen people went to the hospital that day. Some who participated in the march would later be murdered for having the gall to believe that all people were created equal and should be recognized as children of God.
After that level of brutality, I am amazed that these people were willing to march again. Perhaps it is because I have the privilege of never having lived through Jim Crow. Maybe it's because I've always had the right to vote. Maybe it's because I've never been threatened by a police officer or worried that a bomb will destroy my house of worship. And, yet, rather than be destroyed by state-sponsored brutality and legalized hatred, they did not stop. I can only imagine that, once again, as scripture tells us, the Word became Flesh. And this time the word was Freedom. This time the word was Equality. I learned yesterday that the last song they sang before they marched was, "No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you; Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.” They believed that God would take care of them on that day because they knew that God knew what it was like to walk around in these bones, with these muscles, with this flesh. They believed that even though they could be beaten, God cared because God, too, was once beaten, that God was once battered bloody by state-sponsored violence. They knew that they might die. But, God, too, once hung on a cross and was carried into a grave. But, the grave would not stop God, and it would not stop them, either. They would overturn the tables, regardless of the cost. God, through Jesus, had once risked the same thing in order to bring about a reign of love and justice. How could they not do their part?
I think we're called to do our part just as clearly as the marchers were called to do theirs. God's reign of love and justice is still making it's way into the world. We are not yet finished. This week, we have been presented with some very clear information that affirms the stories that countless black and brown citizens of our country have shared. It is increasingly clear that our justice system does not live up to the standards of our greatest values. Too many people who are poor cannot get a fair shake. Too many people who are black live in a state of constant police monitoring that I could never imagine. Too many people have learned that without the privilege of being white and being wealthy, they will never be able to live lives of freedom and equality. It sounds to me like there are still some tables that need to be overturned. Are we willing to take the steps to overturn them?
Here's one issue to examine here in Maine: Right now, there are pre-set bail limits. What that means is that bail amounts for people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial are often set without any attention to someone's ability to pay. These decisions also do not take into account whether or not someone is actually a flight risk or would be a danger to the public if they were to be able to be out of jail while they await trial. Right now, every day, hundreds of Mainers who have never been convicted of a crime sit in jail, not because they have been deemed an immediate danger to the public, but because they are unable to afford their pre-set bail. They risk losing their jobs and it puts great strain on their families, poor families that are already stressed by living in poverty. Now, does this system sound like it affords equal justice to all Maine citizens? If it doesn't, this might be one place to start.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy consuted when writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis' Commentary on John 2:13-22: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377
Ann M. Simmons, "Memories of Selma and 'Bloody Sunday': 'They Came With Nightsticks':
"Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches": https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches
Grainne Dunne, "Justice for Sale: Too Poor, Too Bad": http://www.aclumaine.org/justice-sale-too-poor-too-bad
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.