Disruption

Sermon on John 2:13-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The incident we heard about in this morning’s gospel is one of the rare events attested by every gospel writer. All four evangelists make at least some reference to Jesus’ temple tantrum. While the incident is clearly important for all four evangelists; for John, it sets the tone for Jesus’ mission. This is at least partially illustrated by the differences in the way the event is recorded. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are brief and straightforward: each dispassionately describes the event and then offers a brief Scriptural warrant for Jesus’ actions. John, on the other hand, goes into painstaking detail, telling us that Jesus made a whip of cords, drove the sheep and cattle from the temple, poured out the coins and overturned the tables of the money changers, and told those selling livestock, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The effect of this lengthy description is to invite us to imagine the reactions of those witnessing Jesus’ actions. John doesn’t tell us that anyone attempted to prevent Jesus from making a mess of the Temple grounds, even though he apparently went on for a while. It’s worth exploring the reason nobody tried to stop him.

smirnov-alexander_cleansing-of-the-temple-001We often mischaracterize this event in the life of Jesus. In the first place, we often erroneously call it “the cleansing of the Temple.” The implication of this description is that Jesus is bringing a reforming impulse to the very heart of the Temple system. We assume that Jesus is violating something sacred and causing deep offense to the religious authorities and all who were attached to the Jewish tradition. Years ago, one clergyperson told me that this event was the equivalent of someone marching into a church and turning over the Communion table. This, however, doesn’t make any logical sense. The work of the animal vendors and the money changers wasn’t considered sacred; it was simply a necessary component of the Temple system. Instead of dragging a lamb across the wilderness or trying to keep two turtle doves alive on an extended road trip, pilgrims to Jerusalem would simply buy an animal to sacrifice when they arrived at the Temple. Since most money featured graven images of the emperor and thus violated the Second Commandment, pilgrims had to purchase coins that could be used in the Temple before they made their purchases. In other words, the money changers and animal vendors were there to make the worship of God convenient and practical; they were part of the routine. Jesus’ demonstration was a little like someone walking into the grocery store and knocking over the displays of oranges: surprising, but not particularly offensive. The fact that John doesn’t comment on anyone’s reaction to the Temple incident reveals that no one really understood what Jesus was doing. Why would he expend so much energy to disrupt such an innocuous routine?

The reason is that the routine in itself was corrupt. The fact that everyone had become accustomed to the way that the Temple system functioned reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God. Jesus’ demonstration was intended to expose the hypocrisy at the very heart of the religious establishment. The religious establishment assumed that the power of God could be circumscribed by human authority and that our relationship with God was somehow transactional. To be clear, Jesus is not just challenging the Jewish tradition; he is calling members of every religious tradition to account for the ways that we allow preserving the status quo to get in the way of true transformation.

This demonstration in the Temple prefigured a much more dramatic and unsettling demonstration three years later, when the Romans crucified Jesus at the urging of the religious authorities. I think we forget how routine crucifixion was in the Roman Empire. In the wake of insurrections or civil unrest, contemporary historians tell us that the imperial authorities would line the roadways with crucified criminals as a vivid warning to any would be rabble rousers. The anguished cries of the condemned could be heard for miles. At the same time, Rome’s chattering classes understood that this was a convenient and practical way to maintain control in a vast and often unruly empire. It might be unfortunate, but keeping that Pax Romana going required a little unspeakable violence from time to time. In other words, crucifixion was the cost of doing business. Even the Jewish religious authorities understood this. John tells us that Caiaphas the high priest once remarked that it was better for one man to die for the people. Better to weed out the troublemakers in order to maintain the status quo.download Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the deep hypocrisy of this perspective. Indeed, Jesus’ Passion exposes the violence at the very heart of human society. The events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reveal that the entire status quo was built on the perverse assumption that some lives, some human beings created in the image and likeness of God, are expendable.

There is only one appropriate response to this revelation, and that is repentance. Now, you’ve heard me say before that repentance is not simply about being sorry for our sins. It’s not about cataloguing all our misdeeds and doing our best to avoid them in the future. Repentance is much broader and more demanding. Literally, the Greek word means “to change one’s mind,” to change the way one thinks about the world. More specifically, repentance is about acknowledging that our way of looking at the world is flawed and needs to be transformed. It is about refusing to accept status quo that fails to honor the image of God in those around us. It is about allowing our routine to be disrupted.

A week or so ago, I heard a high school student remark that she is part of the “mass shooting generation.” There is something profoundly sad and distressingly apt about this designation. No one currently in high school was born when two students massacred their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999. The students currently in school know nothing of a world without active shooter drills and lockdown procedures. It’s not just kids who are old enough to understand who are affected. I remember how painful it was when I realized why my three-year-old’s preschool requested that, in addition to a change of clothes to keep in her cubby, we also send something that would keep her quiet. As we’ve all noticed, mass shooting in general and school shootings in particular have become painfully routine. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.

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photo by Joel Auerbach

This is a routine that must be disrupted. The only way to disrupt it, the only appropriate response to this feeling of despair is the same repentance that Jesus invites from the cross. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, we are called to transform our flawed perspective on the world. We are called to reexamine the assumptions and principles we hold most dear, whether about guns or personal freedom, and ask ourselves if it is truly worth holding onto them. As important as changes to our gun laws or mental health policies may be, however, they will not address the deep spiritual crisis that lurks behind every one of these mass shootings. Repentance also requires us to acknowledge the violence that seems to exist at the very heart of our society, to ask ourselves what it is that leads someone to assume that the people around him are expendable.

I wish I had more practical good news in this sermon. I wish that I could say with supreme confidence, “If we pull together and collaborate, drawing on the best suggestions from across the ideological spectrum, we will be able to make meaningful headway in addressing the scourge of gun violence.” That may be true, and I am hopeful that we can sustain a conversation and find common ground in our approach to this issue. At the same time, no amount of well-meaning and collaborative policy making will be able to address the fact that violence lurks behind so much of our common life. In fact, once we have acknowledged the problem, the only hope of addressing it is also our ultimate hope: that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that the God who made foolish the wisdom of the world, can and will redeem even us.

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Hypocrisy

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.

In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.

Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.

Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.