Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning in rest we shall be saved. In quietness and in confidence shall be our strength. Lift us up by the might of your Holy Spirit into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God and that your son, Jesus Christ, is the bringer of justice and peace and love. In his most blessed name we pray. Amen.
Please be seated.
Good morning. It is indeed a pleasure to be here at the Cathedral this morning as we celebrate District of Columbia Day, and I am grateful to Dean Lloyd for the invitation to be in this pulpit and to celebrate this day with you. The District of Columbia is a wonderful place. It has its issues, but it is a wonderful place and it consists of much more than Capitol Hill and Mt. St. Alban. I bring you greetings from St. George’s Church, which is located in Northwest. To be exact, it is in Ward 5, and to be more exact, it is in the Le Droit Park/Bloomingdale area of the city, and so I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ there. And may I add that we are also grateful, Dean Lloyd, that we are receiving a grant for a program of ours. Thank you so much for your generosity.
I want to begin by reading a text from Luke 19:45–48: “Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there and he said, ‘It is written, my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.’” My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers. Now generally in the Episcopal Church we don’t title our sermons, but if I were to title this one—give it a title—my title would be this: Jesus is Coming to Jerusalem and He Isn’t Happy.
It reminds me of the story of a church secretary at a parish—we’ll call it parish St. Somewhere—the church secretary’s office was at the front of the church, so she had an opportunity to see who was coming and going. So one day she’s looking out the window, a Volkswagen Beetle pulls up: not one of the modern ones, but a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle with plastic flowers all over it. As she’s watching this Volkswagen Beetle park, she notices that a gentleman is getting out of the car. He has a beard, he looks like a hippie.
All of a sudden she thinks to herself, this must be Jesus, and so as ‘Jesus’ is walking toward the church door, the rector is not there, it is his day off, she calls the sexton and says to the sexton, “It looks like Jesus is coming. What should we do?” The sexton says, “Call the senior warden.” So the sexton calls the senior warden and the senior warden says in response to Jesus’ coming, “Call the rector.” So the senior warden calls the rector and tells the rector that “We think Jesus is coming to St. Somewhere’s. What should we do?” and the rector’s response is, “Look busy!”
Well, the people in Jerusalem, particularly in the Temple, were indeed busy, but it was not the kind of busyness that Jesus appreciated.
You know, we have a tendency to water down Jesus’ message and focus only on the gentle and lowly and inoffensive Jesus. The Jesus who just makes us feel all cuddly and warm. But what we sometimes forget is the revolutionary Jesus who came into Jerusalem, who spoke truth to power and upset the whole institutional and religious and political system of his day. Yet we are still sometimes looking for that politically correct Jesus, and so we create at modern Jesus who fits that image.
As one commentator has put it, we are looking for the Jesus on Prozac. The Jesus who challenges nothing, who upsets no one, and is not a danger to the status quo. But our scripture this morning shows us a different side of Jesus, doesn’t it? Now you know, by today’s standards, Jesus would not be a good politician, would he? He would not be a good politician, and he wasn’t a good politician in the first century either. Generally, if you want to get your message across, you do not anger those in power. You do not upset their apple carts.
A politician—not all politicians, but some politicians—I want to be clear, I see Councilwoman Alexander out here—has to say things that people want to hear in order to survive in the political arena. Jesus had the habit of saying things that upset people. He was not trying to be politically correct. Many politicians, not all, try to win votes by making promises that often twist the truth, give it a little spin, a little nuance, and bring together people around not the interest of the people, but their own self-interests. You see, Jesus tried to win people by telling and doing the truth. By telling and doing the truth. And in his cleansing of the temple, Jesus is giving in illustration of what it means to tell and do the truth.
Why did Jesus react so violently against the moneychangers and the animal sellers in the temple? First we must understand what was going on at the time. At the time it was required for every male Jew to pay the temple tax of one-half shekel every year, which amounted to nearly two days’ pay for a working man. Now, while you can pay the tax in your village, most people elected to pay the tax during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There were many currencies in circulation at the time. There were Greek currencies, Roman currencies, Tyrian currencies, Syrian, Egyptian, and all were equally valid. But the tax had to be paid in half shekels. Half shekels of the sanctuary are in Galilean shekels.
Now, the moneychangers were charging enormous fees to change this money over. Even if it was a coin of equal value. If a larger coin was offered, then a commission was charged for the required half shekel, and again for the giving of change, so they were making enormous amounts of money and making huge profits, and it was a deliberate swindle to separate poor people who were coming to Jerusalem to do their religious obligation because this was required of them. The moneychangers were separating poor people who could least afford it from their money.
It’s almost like the sub-prime loan debacle or maybe… No, I’m not going to say that. I was going to say nickle-and-diming those of us who fly on the airlines because of the enormous expense of gas. Why not just put us in the cargo hold and get it done with? As far as those who were selling animals for the ritual sacrifices in the temple, they were selling their animals for as much as ten or fifteen times more than the vendors on the outside of the temple. You had outside vendors, and you had inside vendors.
It’s like at the airport. It’s better to buy things before you get into the airport, because if you go into the airport to buy things, you’re going to pay ten to fifteen percent more. You ever notice that? That’s what was happening to the pilgrims on the way to the temple to offer sacrifice. There were animals outside that they could buy, but when they bought those animals, the temple animal inspectors, who were working in collusion with the temple animal sellers, were deciding what animals were worthy of sacrifice. So you had a collusion, and so, even if the animal was perfect that you bought on the outside, if the temple inspector asked the question, “Where did you buy this animal?” If they said on the outside, this is not a good animal, go see the temple animal inspector.
So it was a collusion—legalized. Legalized, institutionalized victimization of poor people, again, trying to fulfill their religious obligation. The temple animal vendors in cooperation with the temple inspectors were legally robbing poor religious pilgrims, and it should be noted that these booths where these animals were being sold were the property of the high priest of the temple. We see from this that Jesus cleansed the temple because helpless men and women were being exploited, were being abused. Jesus was outraged that the shepherds were not leading the flock, but fleecing them and taking advantage of them.
You know, while it is true that the meek might inherit the earth, it is also true that only the fearless—and Jesus was fearless—can carry out the work of the church in the world. You see only the courageous can put an end to exploitation and bitterness and fear and greed and hatred and prejudice and violence that seem to dominate the world. Only those who are not afraid, just as Jesus was not afraid to challenge the temple authorities, can make a difference in a change in this world. You see, followers of Jesus are not called to retreat into the status quo of the society in which they live, but to confront that society head on with what is often an unpopular message.
It is not easy to stand up against popular opinion, especially when that popular opinion is comprised of arrogance and ignorance and power. A dangerous and lethal combination. Arrogance plus ignorance plus power is dangerous. In the year A.D. 400—let me tell you a story going back to 400 A. D., when Honorius was the emperor of Rome. The great coliseum of Rome was often filled to overflowing with spectators. People from far and near had come to view the games in the coliseum, and part of the sport consisted in watching as human beings battled with wild beasts or against one another until one or the other was killed. Those assembled took great delight in the sport, took delight especially in the death of a human being.
I don’t want to step on any toes, but do you know that, in addition to watching cars go around the track at NASCAR races and the speed, do you know that some people sit in the stands waiting for an accident to happen? It’s a curious thing about us as human beings, don’t you think? Well, people were taking great delight in seeing other human beings being killed. But a Syrian monk named Telemachus, influenced by Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, was appalled by the utter disregard for human life, and at one such event, Telemachus leaped into the arena in the midst of the gladiator’s combat and cried out, “This is thing is not right! This thing must stop! You must stop killing people for sport!”
You know what happened? Because he was interfering with their pleasure, the authorities gave the command for Telemachus to be run through with a sword, which was done. Telemachus died. But in dying he kindled a flame in the hearts and consciousness of thinking persons. History records that because of his heroic action, within a few months the gladiatorial combats began to decline and very shortly thereafter they passed from history.
Why? Because one man put it all on the line and dared to speak for what he felt was right. One man put it on the line. Now if Telemachus where alive today, he might just jump into our arena and say “This thing must stop. You must stop pouring billions of dollars into weapons of destruction while innocent people continue to die from hunger and disease. You must stop this. You must stop striving to maintain a standard of living when others simply strive to stay alive. This must stop. You must stop blaming the victims of prejudice and racism and sexism and economic dislocation. You must stop blaming the victims and address the causes. You must do this.” You know, we seem at times to be more concerned about property and profits than people, which is not a healthy sign.
We have an association of churches in the community that I minister in, called the North Capitol Street-Rhode Island Avenue Ecumenical Council, and we came together some twelve years ago to support each other in collective and individual efforts to enhance the quality of life in the Le Droit Park/Bloomingdale community. We are made up of Baptists, Episcopal, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches, and we love each other. We don’t always agree. One time we wanted to have street festival. The Baptists said, well we don’t dance in the street, so the Episcopalians and the Roman Catholics said, in order to keep our association together, we won’t dance either. We’ll wait until later on, when we go into our own churches, and then we will dance.
Our sister church in the association, St. Martin’s Roman Catholic Church, they are currently in the process of trying to build affordable housing units on property that they own. A property that currently contains a convent where a program is being run for homeless men. That is to get them back on their feet and to enable them to become productive citizens. It has been a long and arduous process. Those of you who live and work in the District know that everything in the District is long and arduous. Many meetings, there were many meetings with members of a community that is rapidly gentrifying. That is communities that were once all black or predominately black are now becoming more diverse. But I want to add this—diversity does not make community. Only engagement, the engagement of diverse peoples who respect one another, makes community.
So we were going to these meetings. Now some people were concerned that the affordable housing that St. Martin’s wants to build would bring in a whole lot of undesirable people. Now, affordable housing is a need in this city. Now, some people thought that people such as drunks, drug dealers, prostitutes, predators, all sorts and sundry criminals, would be using the affordable housing. Somehow being a low-income individual has become a pejorative word. To be classified as low-income has somehow become pejorative. Simply because you don’t make a whole lot of money does not mean that you are not a productive citizen.
Now in the case of this homeless person—and the people also concerned that it would lower their property values—there were some men in the homeless program who were in this meeting while all of this is being discussed, and they heard all of the things that were being said. When given an opportunity to speak, one man had this to say about having the opportunity to live in a place of his own and he said this:
“There was a time when I stood on the corner as a homeless person and watched people getting on the bus to go to work. Now, as a result of the homeless program, I get on the bus and I go to work. We’ve all done things that we are ashamed of and regret. All I want, all I want is to have a decent place of my own that I can afford, and this project will provide me that opportunity.”
A very poignant statement. When he had finished speaking, the conversation continued as if he had not been present or had anything to say, and I thought to myself, how sad that this man’s poignant story was ignored and forgotten amid concern only, only about property values.
The good news is that the project got zoning board approval and ground-breaking should take place before the end of the year, and this man and others like him will have a decent place to come home to after they’re finished their hard working day.
You see, brothers and sisters, the Gospel is good news, but it also radically calls into question a world built without the recognition of God, and upon values foreign and now even contrary to his will as revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, who said that the love of God and love of neighbor were the two commandments which hung all the law and the prophets.
Two: love of God and love of neighbor. When one proclaims this message, confrontation is unavoidable. A Gospel that bothers no one and questions nothing is no longer the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that we’re fighting a losing battle in a world that seems to ignore or dismiss as irrelevant the good news of the Kingdom. Even though we may be disparaged as dreamers, marginalized, or suppressed, we must not yield to fear, and we must remember that Jesus cleansed the temple, and that took him to the cross. But three days later he rose from the dead victor