Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Foolish Love:  Be A Nuisance Where It Counts

Rev. Kathy Donley

 3/4/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  John 2:13-22

 

The first family vacation I remember in the United States was a trip to Washington, DC.  We saw the Smithsonian museums, the Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson monuments, Arlington Cemetery, all the stuff there was to see.  It was all impressive, but what stayed with me the longest were my impressions of the National Cathedral.  Nothing had prepared me to be so awe-inspired.  It was church on a scale I had never seen.  There had been beauty and even reverence at the Lincoln memorial, but not with the same intensity that struck my 10-year-old soul.  The cathedral even had a stained-glass window with an actual piece of the moon in it.  How much closer to God could you get than that?

The National Cathedral is not actually a national cathedral, because the United States is not a theocracy and we do not have a state church.  However, the cathedral was chartered by Congress, whatever that means.  It is really one congregation, part of the Episcopal Church, but it is close to edge of political power and so has often been the site of state funerals and worship services after national tragedies.  The Temple at Jerusalem was the very center of religious life in the first century.  The National Cathedral is not that, at all.  And yet, I remember that sense of wonder that I had on my first visit there and my second and my third, and I think that an intangible, but deeply felt, sense of the sacred would have been common to both places.

The Temple was the holy place, the place where God was understood to dwell on earth.  Solomon had built the first Temple which was believed to have been destroyed at the time of the Exile.  Sometime after the return from exile, a second temple had been built.  That would have been 300 or 400 years before Jesus’ time.  It is probably impossible to overstate how important the Temple was, how sacred it was, to ordinary, faithful Jewish people, after so many centuries of existence.

Herod the Great is dead by this time, but he was known for his colossal building projects.  The expansion of the second temple was one of them.  In John’s gospel, the people say that this Temple, sometimes called Herod’s Temple, has been under construction for 46 years.  Herod was Rome’s puppet king.  Under his rule, the Temple had become the center of local collaboration with Rome.  The temple authorities came from Jerusalem’s elite wealthy families. They are the educated scribes and priests.  They are the Temple’s bankers.   They are maintaining their power and privilege by supporting the domination of Rome in the name of religion. 

Jesus was not against the Temple as such, not against the high priesthood as such.  He was protesting religion that had forgotten its purpose.  He was taking a public stand against a faith system that offered religious cover for political violence.

Verse 17 says, “his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘zeal for your house will consume me.’”  This is a partial quote from Psalm 69:9. The rest of the verse says, “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”    In other words, what is happening in the Temple is shameful.  It is insulting to God, so Jesus steps up to defend God’s honor.  Paradoxically, Jesus dishonors the Temple, the place where God dwells, as way of honoring God.

Perhaps you have heard about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the activist for whom the high school in Parkland, Florida was named. She was a journalist, feminist and environmentalist with a fascinating life story.  Many are saying that activist students from Douglas High School are living into her legacy.  She once said, “Be a nuisance where it counts.  Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.” [1]

“Be a nuisance, where it counts.”  I have to wonder if that’s what Jesus was doing and if that what people thought of him.   I mean, other than being a nuisance, what did he really accomplish? The Temple area would have filled about 25 football fields.  A conservative estimate is that there might have been 200,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem for the Passover festival.[2]    So maybe he interrupted the process for a while on one of the busiest days of the Temple year.  That’s something, but it’s not like he actually shut it down for good. 

It must have been memorable though – a story that would have been told for years by his followers, but also probably by anyone who was there that day.  It is recorded in all four gospels.  It is a story we still tell.

 I love the idea from Dorothy Sayers which is on the front of the bulletin.  She wrote, “The people who hanged Christ never accused him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left to succeeding generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. . .. a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, humble; but he insulted clergymen . . .; referred to King Herod as “that fox”; went to parties in disreputable company . . .; assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple. . .. Officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So, they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”[3]

Jesus stood in a long line of Hebrew prophets, like Amos and Isaiah and Ezekiel who had called out corrupt religious and political leaders.  Ezekiel said something like, “Your politicians are like wolves prowling and killing and rapaciously taking whatever they want. Your preachers cover up for the politicians by pretending to have received visions and special revelations. They say, ‘This is what God, the Master, says . . .’ when God hasn’t said so much as one word. Extortion is rife, robbery is epidemic, the poor and needy are abused, outsiders are kicked around at will, with no access to justice."  (Ezekiel 22:27-29, The Message Translation)

This sermon could have written itself this week, if I had gone with Ezekiel.  It would have been easy to talk about preachers covering up for politicians, by quickly reading some recent headlines.  But something else happened.  On Tuesday, along with some of you, I attended the Governor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.  If I believed that God micro-managed my calendar, I would have thought that God was having a good laugh about scheduling me for the prayer breakfast and preaching on this text in the same week. 

At the prayer breakfast, leaders of many different faiths expressed their concerns about gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline and misogyny and racism and other moral issues.  It happened that the points of view being expressed were ones I mostly agreed with, but what if I hadn’t? 

Near the beginning of this event, we were invited to recite the pledge of allegiance.  I did not, on this occasion, take a knee.  I did not make a nuisance of myself.  I simply sat there, letting a quiet, internal conversation play out in my mind.  I had been invited as a faith leader, someone whose allegiance has been given very formally to God.  In that context, why do the political powers expect that I would give my fidelity to their cause?  And how often do I just hand it over in the name of peace and quietness?

As I said, the National Cathedral is often the site of religious state occasions, including a prayer service at the time of the inauguration.  In January 2017, the president-elect assumed that it would be available for him as it had been for previous presidents.  Many within the Episcopal church protested, saying that holding that service would be seen as endorsing his presidency at a time when the Christian community should have been a center of resistance against his non-Christian vision.  Others thought that the cathedral, which takes a lot of money to maintain, was afraid of losing donors if they did not host the prayer service.  Interestingly, the president-elect was allowed to prohibit any preaching at that service, eliminating the role of the prophet speaking truth to power. [4]

This story, of Jesus as a public nuisance, is a strong reminder against collaborating with political power.  Jesus often spoke and acted politically, which leads me to believe that we should as well.  This action in the Temple is a political action.  At the same time, this is a warning against allowing our faith to be co-opted to serve another agenda.  Be wary when the king builds you a temple.  Be suspicious when Congress charters a cathedral.  Be on your guard when the governor invites you to a prayer breakfast. 

The keynote speaker at the breakfast this week was the Rev. Jim Wallis, someone who has made a vocation of speaking truth to political and religious power. A decade ago he wrote a book called God’s Politics in which he said this: “Abraham Lincoln had it right. Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices— saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, Lincoln said, we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.”

“. . . God’s politics is never partisan or ideological. But it challenges everything about our politics. God’s politics reminds us of the people our politics always neglects—the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenges narrow, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative diversity of all those made in the image of the creator.” [5]

Jesus was a nuisance where it counted.  He reminded us in unforgettable ways of God’s boundless, fierce, foolish love for all people.  May we remember his challenge. May God’s politics always be our politics.  May we follow in Jesus’ footsteps to be Holy Fools, nuisances where it counts.  Amen.   

 



[2]Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan.  The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem  (New York:  HarperCollins, 2006). p 18. 

 

[3] Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1938).

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/13/washington-national-cathedrals-decision-to-participate-in-trumps-inauguration-is-creating-tension/?utm_term=.3e8f31d1c84f

[5] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (New York:  HarperCollins, 2005), pp. xvii-xix.

 

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