Rev. Christopher Marlin-Warfield

Bringing People Together to do Good

Sometimes, We Flip Tables

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 4, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22.

When I was in elementary school — and, probably when you were in elementary school — every classroom had rules. They were written on the chalkboard, or printed on a poster, or tacked to a bulletin board. And they were things like ‘Respect Others’ and ‘Follow Directions the First Time They’re Given’ and ‘Keep Hands, Feet, and Objects to Yourself’. And they always had capital letters. Because they were, with capital letters, The Rules.

When I was in high school and college, there were these bracelets… and bookmarks and coffee mugs and t-shirts and baseball caps and dozens or hundreds our thousands of other products with four letters and a question mark on them. WWJD? What Would Jesus Do?

And while that question might feel a little bit circa-1996, it’s part of an ancient tradition. Augustine, way back in the fifth century, wrote an essay on the Gospel of John — and our gospel reading today comes from John — where he told people that, in Christ, God had become low for them. And while we might be too proud to imitate a lowly person, we should at least try to imitate the lowly God. 1Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium, tractatus 25, 16

‘What would Jesus do?’ is an ancient question.

And something I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of people answer that question with some version of The Rules.

Sometimes, The Rules are a kind of fruit of the spirit thing. Jesus would be loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

Sometimes, The Rules are a rundown of the ten commandments we heard from the book of Exodus today. Jesus would worship God alone, keep the sabbath, and honor his mother and father. And Jesus would never worship idols, take God’s name in vain, murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet his neighbor’s stuff.

Sometimes, The Rules are a blend of Biblical commandments and cultural preferences. Jesus would preach against abortion and same-sex marriage. Jesus would support a lower corporate tax rate and be tough on crime.

And sometimes — especially in Sunday School classrooms and with small children — The Rules are the same ones that are posted in elementary school classrooms across the country. Jesus would respect others and follow directions the first time they’re given and keep his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

And I get it. Rules are useful. Rules matter. Rules are important. And we need rules in classrooms and workplaces and, yes, churches. Don’t murder is a good rule. Try to be kind is a good rule. Go 25 miles an hour near schools when children are present is a good rule.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes the rules aren’t enough.

In today’s gospel reading, it’a almost Passover. Families are coming, from near and far, to the temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice: a lamb or a goat, one year old and without blemish. And, while they’re here, they’ll pay their temple tax.

But some families are traveling a long way. And it’s hard to travel with an animal. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can sell an animal for the sacrifice. And folks have set up shop. There is always a marketplace in the outer court of the temple, and there are always people selling lambs and goats and cattle and doves. If anyone needs to make a sacrifice — and people have to make sacrifices — they can buy the appropriate animal right here at the temple.

And because some of those families are traveling a long way, they might not have the right money to pay the temple tax. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can exchange money. And folks have set up shop.

But there’s always a problem when you have some people who have to do something — like bring a sacrifice to the temple or pay a temple tax — and some other people who are ready to make money off of that. The people who are selling sacrificial offerings are charging too much. And the people who are exchanging money are using unfair exchange rates and charging unreasonable fees.

And, of course, it’s the people who are using all that they have to get to the temple and offer their sacrifice and pay their tax who are getting hurt.

And none of that is against the rules. I mean, sure, you shouldn’t exploit the poor and you should be fair in business. But, strictly speaking, there’s no rule against charging a lot for an animal. Strictly speaking, there’s no law against taking advantage of the exchange rate. It’s how the market works. Demand is high, prices are high.

We all know this story.

We all know some business that found a way to make money while following the letter of the law and skirting the spirit. We all know someone who can bend the rules to their advantage without ever quite breaking them. It’s how the world works. My clothes are affordable because someone somewhere is paid far too little. My phone is affordable — I mean, barely affordable — because a child is working in a rare earth mine somewhere in Africa. And his family lives on a dollar a day.

And it’s how the temple worked; at least a little bit. The temple needed that marketplace, and the people in that marketplace needed to make money. And that meant taking money from people who gave everything they had to get to Jerusalem at Passover.

The ancient Roman Empire was not a place of economic equality. A few people were very rich. A few more people were economically secure. And most people — the vast majority of people — barely scraped by or didn’t scrape by at all.

And, sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’

Sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’ Click To Tweet

This is not a Jesus who is loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

This is not a Jesus who respects others and follows directions the first time they’re given and keeps his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that the rules don’t always work. This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that people will find brilliant ways to follow the rules and exploit the poor.

This is a Jesus who is angry. Who is mad. Who is willing to burn the whole thing down.

And we need to take that seriously.

We’re in the midst of Lent, a time when we make a point of turning back towards God. Of praying for forgiveness for the things we have done and left undone, said and left unsaid, thought and left unthought. Of contemplating how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the lowly God.

And today is Sunday, which is always a celebration of Easter, when Christ rose. It is a day of joy and gladness. Of wondering how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the risen Son.

And today is also a communion Sunday, when we gather at Christ’s table to remember his sacrifice and take part in the bread of life and the cup of blessing. Of asking how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, who invites everyone into his kingdom.

Today is a day to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to cultivate the fruits of the spirit. Some days, we work on love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to look at the ten commandments. Some days, we work on worshipping God alone, keeping the sabbath, and honoring our mothers and fathers. Some days, we work on getting out of the systems that push us towards idol worship, taking God’s name in vain, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting our neighbor’s stuff.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to follow the rules. Some days, we work on respecting others and following directions the first time they’re given and keeping our hands, feet, and objects to ourselves.

But sometimes we ask ourselves whether we’re angry enough at the injustices of the world. Sometimes we ask ourselves if we’re mad enough that the powerful can play by the rules and still hurt the weak, and that the weak can play by the rules and still be hurt.

Sometimes, we ask ourselves whether we are foolish enough to burn the whole thing down and faithful enough to trust that God will build something better. Click To Tweet

Are we willing to disrupt business as usual? Are we ready to flip some tables? Are we filled with zeal not only for God’s house, but for God’s kingdom?

Because when we are, we move that much closer to not just asking what Jesus would do, but to doing what Jesus would do. To imitating the God who became low for us, and to creating a world of greater justice and mercy for all. Amen.

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