Silence is not an Option

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | January 19, 2020

Matthew 21:12-13

Why is Jesus so angry?

Three things. First of all, the animals were there because Jewish law required pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover to offer an animal for sacrifice, a couple of pigeons if you are poor, or a lamb or a kid (that is, a baby goat, not a child) or a calf if you have more money. Now, where was this marketplace set up? In the Temple itself? No. The “Temple” generally refers not just to the actual building, but also the courtyards which surround it. This was arranged in sort of concentric rectangles around the Temple itself. The closest area was for Jewish men. The next was for Jewish women. And then the far area (the cheap seats) was for Gentile converts.

Where do you suppose the market was set up? In the Courtyard of the Gentiles. How were the Gentiles (those not born into the Jewish faith) supposed to worship with this cacophony of animals bleating and cooing and mooing and pooping? Quoting the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus cried, “My house is to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a robbers’ den” (Matthew 21:13).

Second problem. Jewish law required that the animals to be sacrificed had to be perfect, “without blemish.” You could bring your own animal from home or buy one at the Temple. The Jewish priestly establishment set up inspectors to make sure your animal qualified, blemish-free. Say that you were a shepherd and you decided to bring your own lamb from home for the sacrifice, you might have to drive it perhaps ten miles or thirty miles or fifty miles to Jerusalem without it getting even a little nick. Not easy to do. And even if you do manage to get it there unharmed, the inspectors are likely to find something you didn’t see, or perhaps even surreptitiously make a little nick in the animal’s leg, so they can sell you one of their animals, at a highly inflated price. It was a monopoly under the control of the High Priest. Cheating the common person.

Third, what’s the deal with the moneychangers? Well, the Temple tax of a half-shekel (about two days’ wages) had to be offered in a certain currency, so most people had to exchange their money for that currency. As any of us who have traveled internationally knows, different places offer different exchange rates. We know not to exchange at our hotel. We go to the exchange office down the street for a better rate. But the only place for the pilgrims to exchange is at the Temple. This again is a monopoly; the moneychangers are making an exorbitant profit and the poor people are getting ripped off.

So, Jesus saw that the Gentiles had no good place to worship, the poor people were getting cheated by both the animal sellers and the moneychangers and it just fried his potatoes. So, he took action, overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and driving out the animals.

Jesus saw injustice and he took action.

Are we, as followers of Jesus, supposed to do that? Stand up for justice for the poor and powerless? If so, should your preacher encourage you to do that? Stand up for justice for the poor and oppressed? If so, then sometimes you will hear a “political” sermon. In fact, you just did.

I’ve heard third-hand from people in both congregations, Calvary and Wahkon Presbyterian, concern about my return as pastor: “We like Bill as a person, but he is a ‘liberal.’” Did anybody hear that concern?

Well, let me address the elephant in the room directly.

I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am a member only of the Jesus Party. The whole point of everything I try to do as pastor is to be faithful to Jesus. This means praying with and for you. It means listening to your concerns. It means offering encouragement when you are dejected. It means teaching you the Bible. And sometimes it means talking about politics. Like Jesus did. Not in a partisan way.

I am an equal opportunity critic of the US government when I see it acting in ways antithetical to the values of Jesus. I was a regular critic of President Obama (from the pulpit), over his immigration policies and over his use of drones in the Middle East. As a pastor for the last 42 years I have from time to time from the pulpit criticized every single President. Not often, but on occasion, I have called out from the pulpit when I have found government policies not aligning with the gospel of Jesus. Those Jesus values include caring for the poor, renouncing violence, caring for Creation, spending money on the good of the people instead of on weapons of mass destruction, and so forth.

I haven’t counted them for myself, but I am told that in the Bible there are 2000 verses about how we are to treat the poor.

Look at the Biblical prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and so on. In our modern parlance we think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future. That is NOT the primary role of a biblical prophet. As our seminary professors liked to say, “The prophets were not so much foretellers as they were forthtellers.” The prophets were not generally predicting the future; they were condemning the present, the political situation going on right then. Remember that most famous passage from Micah, chapter 6, verse 8, in which the prophet is telling people that God really doesn’t care that much about their worship, how many bulls they sacrifice on the altar, or what hymns of praise they sing. Instead, Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you, O mortal, but to do justice, act mercifully, and walk humbly with your God?”

I don’t like controversy. At all! But occasionally I will tackle from the pulpit some tough issues. I do so out of fear. I dislike upsetting my parishioners, but I have two greater fears than that. The first is the fear of my grandchildren someday asking me, “Grandpa, what did you do in the face of the earth burning up?” “Grandpa, what did you do when people of color were being mistreated?” Or gay people, refugees, or other situations of injustice? I fear having no answer, having to stammer that I didn’t really do much because I didn’t want to have people get mad at me.

The largest fear, more than upsetting parishioners, or facing my grandchildren,… the largest fear is to someday stand before the throne of God and have Almighty God ask me those questions. “In the face of injustice, what did you do?” I want to be able to say that I did my best. And that I encouraged the parishioners entrusted to me, to do their best.

But wait, Bill. What about “the separation of church and state”?

Some people think that the idea of the separation of church and state means that a preacher can never preach “politics.” Well, the history of that word “politics” is that it referred to the “affairs of the cities,” i.e. “the life of the people.” Isn’t that what Jesus was concerned with, the life of the people? Jesus really didn’t talk much about heaven. His parables were about how people spent their money, how they treated their neighbors and their enemies, who was included in God’s love; in short, the affairs of the people, politics. And eventually Jesus died on a Roman cross as a political criminal.

The separation of church and state. Let’s clarify what that means. It means that the state cannot set up an official religion, such as had been the experience in Europe. Separation of church and state is to protect religion from the state. It means the state has to stay out of the church’s business. Not the other way around. Separation of church and state does NOT mean that the church is forbidden from criticizing the state. Indeed, I submit that the Church is called to be the conscience of the state. (The one thing forbidden the church is this: clergy and congregations and denominations cannot endorse a particular candidate.). But other than that, the Church and religious leaders are free to make political pronouncements.

How many people signed the Declaration of Independence? 56. How many of them were Presbyterians? Twelve! Including the only clergyperson, John Witherspoon.

As you know, Christians led the movement to end slavery in this country, including the first martyr of the abolitionist movement, Presbyterian pastor Elijah P. Lovejoy. Followers of Jesus led the movement for civil rights for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr., was first and foremost a preacher. One of the other civil rights martyrs was Pastor James Reeb, a white man, and graduate of St. Olaf College.

If we are to follow Jesus, then we are to be about justice, creating a society where everyone is treated fairly, African Americans, native Americans, immigrants, women, gay and transgendered people. Also, if we are to follow Jesus, we need to be protectors of this beautiful blue-green globe and all its creatures, which have been entrusted to us, Genesis chapter 1, verse 28.

Our first two hymns today have explicit political connotations. Fairest Lord Jesus in the last verse calls Jesus the “Lord of the nations.” America the Beautiful asks God to “mend thine every flaw.”

Two more key things to note. First is that as Presbyterians we have a book of rules called the Book of Order. Right at the beginning, I think it’s page two, we read in the Book of Order a key tenet of Presbyterianism, that “God alone is lord of the conscience.” What I think that means is that just because the preacher says it, you don’t have to buy it. You are free to disagree.

The second is a reminder that we are members of the Church of Jesus Christ. And that Jesus is to be our ultimate authority. Jesus before any party, any human institution, including any country. Jesus and his Church are world-wide, transcending all national borders. Nations come and go. Jesus does not.

Finally, I’m going to ask you to do a few things.

One: Have more than one source of news. If you rely only on MSNBC or Fox News you are not getting the whole story, by a long shot.

Two: Let’s treat one another, including our political opponents with kindness and understanding. It’s what Jesus commanded: Love your enemies. Let’s listen to one another.

Three: Here’s some specific action. A few years back on the leadup to Earth Day I saw this statement: The best thing an individual can do to protect the earth is to plant a tree. What?! That is ridiculous! Planting trees is great. But if we want to protect the planet, the number one thing we can do is to work for campaign finance reform! Want to reverse climate change? Get money out of politics.

Want to save endangered species? Get money out of politics. Want to make sure the poor in our country are treated humanely? Get money out of politics. Want to spend less on nuclear weapons and more on caring for people. Get money out of politics.

Want to make safer neighborhoods and better schools? Get money out of politics.

We no longer have a democracy in this country. The system today is such that the rich run this country because they can and do buy every election, both parties.

There are a number of organizations working to change that, to overturn Citizens United (the Supreme Court ruling of a few years ago that says “corporations are people” and therefore are protected by free speech laws and can legally give millions and millions in campaign contributions) and other laws that give corporations and rich people all the power. The best of these organizations, I believe, is a group named Move to Amend. Not the catchiest title. You will receive a handout on the way out of church today with more information. Essentially, they/we are seeking to add an amendment to the US Constitution. It reads:

We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S.
Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other related cases,
and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that
money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations,
are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

So I encourage you to get involved with Move to Amend. Give money. Support candidates who pledge to support campaign finance reform. Best thing you can do to preserve the creation, to stand up for the poor and oppressed, is to work to get money out of politics. It’s a Jesus thing.

Which leads into my final call to action: Follow Jesus. Read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, so you know what that means, to follow Jesus. Then read them again. Start with the gospel of Luke and you will fall in love with Jesus.


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