Sermon preached at St. Stephen’s Orinda on March 7th, 2021 by our Associate Minister for Formation, Ethan.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
This is one of those readings that you just love to get: the angry whip-wielding savior chasing marketeers out of the temple like he’s starring in Jesus H Christ and the Temple of Doom. You absolutely love to see it–drop-kicking piggy banks and launching tables. You can imagine his turning and walking slowly away from the temple as it explodes in flames as he smirks “thats what you get for making my Father’s house a marketplace~”
I jest, of course. This passage makes a lot of sense as a summer blockbuster, but it may garner worse reviews as a passage of scripture. We scarcely know what to do with a story like this. It doesn’t suit our preconceived ideas about Jesus the tender and mild, Jesus the Mr. Roger’s figure, Jesus the poster child for the Golden Rule. I imagine we’re tempted to read this passage metaphorically and say that Jesus didn’t actually use a whip but he was really angry and gently asked those money-changers to get their act together. Or maybe we think it was his once in a blue moon outburst, the way your youth group will only ever see you yell One Time so they know you really mean it. What if this passage was to be taken literally and understood not as some sort of exceptional behavior but rather entirely consistent with who he was, how he acted, and the Gospel he is calling us to follow too?
I have two things I might like to say about this. The first is something we talk about a lot in my subfield of academic research. it’s an area of thinking called secularization S-E-C-U-L-A-R-I-Z-A-T-I-O-N. We talk about how a modern society is a differentiated society; how our society is a differentiated society. A differentiated society is one in which the major spheres of life are seen as distinct and autonomous–the Family, the Economy, Politics, Education, Religion, The Public and the Private. A differentiated society is a dinner plate where the peas and the carrots and the potatoes are not touching and you all know what this feels like already, maybe. We ask for there not to be politics in the pulpit or say that teachers had better not share their political or their religious leanings with our kids. You might not talk about religion at work, or your family life beyond some kind details, and there’s pretty much nowhere where it’s appropriate to as how much money somebody makes.
But it’s even more than that. Historian and philosopher Charles Taylor in his magnum opus book A Secular Age, writes about this differentiated society.
As we function within various spheres of activity—economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational—the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the rationality of each sphere…
This differentiated society is not so simply about keeping business separate from pleasure, or not having money trade hands in the temple. It’s about the juggling of multiple different ethics as we move through the different spheres of our life–navigating the competing decision-making frameworks within the realms of the economic and the political and the familial. Does it feel true to you? It’s okay if it doesn’t. Charles Taylor writes about how pre-modern society was, more or less one coherent ethic, one sphere of rationality that covered the economic and the political and the cultural, educational, religious. The thing is that it’s much harder to be a religious person now because religion is just one institution among many, and almost not of them rhyme with Christianity. And it’s work to do that commute.
This is a really, really big idea I’m trying to communicate here, and I share it because I wonder if perhaps part of what angered Jesus so greatly was that people had brought the logick–the ethic–of the economy into the temple. Think about it, this Jesus is the one who tells us that the widow’s offering of two nearly worthless coins is worth more than the great sums of money given to the temple by the wealthy, this Jesus who tells the rich young ruler to sell all of his belongings and give the money to the poor, the Jesus who says to leave behind the other 99 sheep and go after the lost one because one lost is worth as much as 99 found. The rationality of the Gospel is upside down from what we recognize today as sound business.
What Jesus is saying here, maybe, is that an economy operated out of the ethic of the Gospel looks nothing like the marketplace.
We are very, very, very well-trained not to take economic advice from preachers. Well,,, Episcopalians are. Other denominations love to receive money advice from their pastors, but I dare think that it is not a Gospel logick with which they preach but a co-optation of Gospel language for the logick of profit, as if pastors of any sort should be able to afford private jets on their congregation’s dollar. But the tension that we feel here is not that economics and religion have nothing to say to one another; they have a lot to say to one another and sometimes they are at odds with one another. How are we to reconcile a faith with parables about how the workers who showed up at the end of the day still deserve a full days wages with the rampant inequality in income we see all around us? How are we to reconcile a savior who travels from town to town to town healing people of their ailments with a country perfectly content to bankrupt people for healthcare. In reconciling these competing spheres of logick, it is perhaps the simpler answer just to say Keep them separated. The tougher work, and maybe the more faithful work, is to really grapple with what one has to say to the other and to risk an unsettling answer.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians writes: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” In Jesus’ time, and in Paul’s time, the tension was between the ways of the world and the ways of God; today it’s between all of these various spheres we move through in our day to day lives. Both then and now, the ethic that Jesus proclaimed seemed like foolishness to some and like salvation to others.
At the end of the day, what the Church believes is that the logick of the Gospel applied liberally and broadly has the capacity to heal this broken and hurting world, and I suppose this sermon is the invitation to pay attention to when and how and where it seems like foolishness to suggest so. When the wisdom of the wise or the discernment of the discerning says calls the Gospel foolishness, or demands that we retreat back to our separate sphere of rationality, cloistered away from the business of the world, to the land of metaphor or allusion, Christians ought to wonder– whose wisdom? whose discernment? We know that the Gospel logick of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word has always seemed foolish but only when the logick of the world is taken for granted as something truer and deeper than it has legs to stand on. Look around. The ways of the world are not serving us too well these days. Does the -love unconditionally- -everyone is deserving- -no one should live in poverty- – no really, not even if they don’t seem like they are working hard enough to you- way of thinking really seem like foolishness in the midst of all of this??
I said I had two things to say about this reading, and here is the second one. On Wednesday last week, Steve and I met with his former seminary professor Rebecca Lyman to discuss a chapter of the book On Tyranny for our Lenten web series — you can watch episodes one and two on our YouTube channel or find them in the weekly email. The chapter we read was called Defend Institutions and we talked about how, among other things, we tend to think that the institutions that we hold dear– our public schools, newspaper and local journalism, our political parties, and even The Church will always be there for us in the exact form we’ve always enjoyed them. We know from history that this is simply not the case–institutions are subject to decline, to value drift, to attack and to overthrow and co-optation. Institutions are subject to shrink and to fit themselves within the container that the outside world has deemed appropriate for them. The chapter encouraged us to pick institutions that we care about and to stand up for them, that the work of maintaining and defending institutions in active rather than passive work.
I had this Gospel passage in my head at the time of that discussion and I wonder if we are liable to misread Jesus’ whip-wielding Zorro-type behaviors as impropriety–as disruption–rather than as the impassioned and rightful defense of the Temple. At the same time as this sermon is asking you to be clear about what your values are, what your Gospel values are, and when and where and how to enact them and defend them and to use them to challenge the ways of the world, it is also encouraging you to sometimes cause a bit of a ruckus in the defense of those values, even where it might not be well-received.
Yes, St. Stephen’s I am telling you to cause a little bit of a ruckus. And if it ruffles some feathers, tell them your pastor sent you, and Jesus did it first.