Rev. Sarah Buteux
Lent 3, Year B
“Father forgive me for the times I desired a seat at a table you would’ve flipped.”
– Juliany Gonzalez Nieves
Friends, this is the point in our service where I ask you to pray with me before I begin to preach. And more often then not, I pray the words of the Psalmist: “O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer” (19:14). I cling to those words most Sundays, because the last thing I want to do is get this wrong. But I don’t feel like I can pray those words today because I already know I’m going to get this wrong.
I don’t trust that the words of my mouth or the mediations of my heart are going to be acceptable to God, because one of the things I’m going to talk about is white supremacy. You see, I can’t read about Jesus getting this angry 2000 years ago and not think about what would make him this angry today.
And white supremacy – or at least the way well-intentioned white Christians like me talk about it, deny it, perpetuate, profit, benefit, and hide behind it – is the first thing that comes to mind.
So although I feel called to speak about it today, God knows I have so much work to do in here – my heart – and in here – my head, that there’s no way I’m going to get it right. There is nothing acceptable to God about white supremacy and there is a lot of it in me.
So my prayer today is that by the grace of God I might at least do more good then harm as I try to unpack the scripture before us and connect it to our on-going work of dismantling racism and the hold that white privilege has on our hearts, our minds, our church, and our world. And if you’re willing to stay with me and pray for me as I try to do this, I’d appreciate it very much.
Actually, I’m going to need those prayers even more than you know, because although this story of Jesus cleansing the temple appears in all four gospels, todays’ reading comes from the gospel of John; the gospel that lends itself most easily to anti-semitic interpretations of Jesus’ actions if we’re not conscious and careful.
For this reason, I turned straight to Amy Jill-Levine – a Jewish scholar of the New Testament – when it came time to parse out what precisely was making Jesus so angry in this passage.
And let’s be clear: Jesus is angry. Like, really angry. This is no peaceful protest. The cleansing of the temple was not an act of civil disobedience. Had Fox News existed back in the day, they would have played this clip on infinite loop.
Because, you see, contrary to 99% of the art you’ve seen, Jesus wasn’t a white man straight out of central casting, whipping a whole host of darker, more semitic looking profiteers for profaning the practice of religion by making money off of it.
The people selling animals for sacrifice and the money changers were there for good reasons, minding their own business and just trying to make a living like everyone else, thank you very much.
There is no evidence that they were exploiting the poor by overcharging for doves or currency the way airports overcharge you for water, though I have heard and preached that sermon more than once, happily blaming them for Jesus’ outrage.
Nor, given his race and social location, was Jesus “a man of privilege” swooping in to save the day or even an ally. Corey Farr reminds us that Jesus, himself, was “… one of the poor and oppressed …” He was a rabble rouser.
“He came from a backwater town in Galilee …He was a victim of discrimination. One of his own disciples scoffed at him at first, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) … (And) this (act of) protest (in the temple – at least in the other three gospels – was so abhorrent to those who valued law and order, that it ultimately) got Jesus (arrested, summarily judged), and executed by the authorities (Mark 11:18, Luke 19:47 https://www.redletterchristians.org/clearing-the-temple-courts-what-jesus-did-about-systemic-injustice/ ).”
And yet, in spite of the risk, Jesus let his anger show. He was angry. Really and rightfully outraged. And he acted on it: turning over tables, tossing out coins, and driving the money changers and the animals out of the temple with a whip made from cords.
To answer that, Amy-Jill Levine calls us all back from 2000 years of well intentioned but often misguided conjecture, and tells us to look at the scriptures the gospel writers themselves used to understand and interpret Jesus’ actions. So let’s take a look.
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus says:
Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And here in John he yells:
“Take these things out of here!
Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
The first verse was a reference to the prophet Jeremiah (7:11) and the second to Zechariah (14:21).
At first it may sound like Jesus is simply preoccupied with the dangers of mixing money and religion – hence our propensity to blame the money changers – but that’s not actually what’s going on here.
As Levine rightly points out, the den of robbers is not where crooks go to do their thieving, but the place they retreat to when the thieving is done (“Entering the Passion of Jesus,” p. 57.)
The robber’s den is their hide out, their base of operations, the place where they can hide both themselves and their ill gotten gains. So Jesus isn’t focused on the business of temple commerce here so much as the way the temple itself is being used.
Furthermore, if you go back to Jeremiah and read this verse in context, the prophet is not just calling out thieves in particular, but all those who sin. He’s calling out people who lie, cheat, steal, and chase after idols during the week and then come to the temple on their best behavior and ask for forgiveness only to go out and sin in all the same ways all over again.
If the rituals of confession are used simply to save you from the same old sin over and over rather than call you to true repentance and change, then the temple becomes a safe place to remain sinful; a den of crooks, if you will…the place you go for cover rather then the place where you can come clean.
“The present day comparison to what Jeremiah, and Jesus, condemned is easy to make,” says Levine. I realize it’s all but impossible (wink) but imagine, if you will, a “church member (who) sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning…heartily sings the hymns, (humbly recites the confession,) happily shakes the hands of others (as we pass the peace), and generously puts a fifty dollar bill in the collection plate (and then leaves thinking it’s all good).
That makes the church a den of robbers,” says Levine; “a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow Jesus.” Or, as the kids might say these days, the church becomes a place to signal your virtue rather than really grow in it.
When you couple Jeremiah with the words from Zechariah in John, the warning against hypocrisy is only strengthened.
Zechariah speaks of a time when there will no longer be a need for traders in the house of God, because “every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord…so that all who sacrifice may come and use them….”
Clear as mud, right? Look, I realize how archaic and unclear those words might sound to modern ears, but all it means is that the prophet longs for a time when our homes will be as sacred as our houses of worship because we are as kind and good to one another here in our homes as we are to one another in our churches.
What Jesus and the prophets always seem to be driving at is the idea that religious observance is not an end in and of itself. The whole point of the temple and, by extension, our churches, is not to create good religious people who go through the motions on the sabbath to get right with God but then go back to “normal.”
The point is to cultivate goodness in people such that we live in synch with God all week long so much so that eventually we won’t need religion or temples or churches anymore at all, because just being good for the sake of being good will be the new normal.
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” God says to Jeremiah, “…No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me…” (31:34).
That’s God’s dream for us. That’s Jesus’ hope for us. That we will live in a world where everyone gets it. A world where all of God’s children can thrive because we love our neighbors as ourselves… not just on Sunday, but everyday.
A world where we don’t just sing or preach about justice, kindness, and humility some of the time, but a world where we do justice, we love kindness and we walk humbly with one another and with God all of the time.
Which is why it is so infuriating for Jesus when the practice of religion that is supposed to help us become better more loving people actually gives us a way out of that.
I think it makes Jesus angry when we make religion about our own personal salvation rather than the transformation of our lives and our world.
I think it makes Jesus angry when we use religion as a way to cover our guilt rather than deal with our sin. When we are more invested in keeping the peace rather than doing the hard work of making peace through confession, repentance, reparation, and restoration. Because when we do that, we take God’s grace for granted, falling back into the same old sinful patterns, rather then interrupting the evil at the heart of those patterns.
Which brings me to the work of confronting white supremacy in this very highly charged moment in our country.
If you’ve been following the stories at Smith or JFK middle school in Northampton, the release of Robin DiAngelo’s newest book or the discontinuation of 6 books by Dr. Seuss, the shape of the stage at CPAC or the newest efforts by Republicans to suppress the black vote in Georgia, or I don’t know, maybe just breathing, you may have noticed that Jesus isn’t the only one who is angry.
But given the fact that I’ve been following all of these stories, I’d be willing to bet he’s as angry and frustrated and ready to turn the tables right now as he was back then. And pardon me for centering myself here, but I have no doubt a good portion of that anger is reserved for nice, well intentioned white people like me.
Because here’s the thing. We are deep into a year of reckoning. A year when white people have finally woken up to the systemic nature of racism in record numbers.
In response we have marched and we’ve rallied, we’ve posted on instagram and helped post bail, we have bought books and attended webinars… and we’ve all felt really, really bad about racism and the privilege we enjoy as white people in society. Basically we’ve confessed that there is a problem, a systemic sin that implicates us, and we would all like to be forgiven.
But here’s the rub: if we think simply confronting and confessing our white privilege is the end of the story, we’re not only in trouble, we’re still part of the problem. As Rachel Ricketts points out in her new book, “Do Better,” “Naming the oppression you cause is critical, but it does not actually eliminate that oppression. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end….”
Even worse, is our tendency to think that because we’ve named it that we’re in the clear when the truth is that “Our naming it does not make us better or wiser or less harmful, and ironically, believing it does, consciously or not, causes more harm” because we think we’re all good, but nothing has actually changed ( “Do Better” p 28-29).
Friends, you and I wake up everyday in a world founded on and designed to maintain white supremacy, and those of us with white skin automatically benefit from that reality whether we like it or not. We wake up in a den of thieves, where we sit comfortably on and continue to profit from the ill-gotten wealth of stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives.
If I confess this, and ask God to forgive me for all the racist things I’ve done and benefitted from, but fail to do anything that would interrupt, alter, or dismantle the system, all I’m really doing is using my religion as a cover, as a safe place to hide out and avoid the real work of transformation, not just of me but of the world I live in.
So, what to do?
Ricketts goes on to quote comedian and activist Amanda Seales who says:
“‘There are ‘white people’ and then there are ‘people who happen to be white.’ … People who happen to be white understand they benefit from and perpetuate white supremacy simply by virtue of being white. They appreciate the power and privilege that white supremacy has granted them, and they not only acknowledge that privilege but actively work to shift the power imbalance and create opportunities for oppressed folx every damn day. They are aware of their whiteness but actively negate it and the construct that belies it” (p 70).
And they learn how best to do that by placing themselves at the feet of the Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color who are experienced in this work and willing to teach us. Our job right now is to keep listening with humility and following their lead.
If that sounds risky, hard, and painful, that’s because it is. If that sounds fraught – like a minefield you could never possibly traverse without screwing up – that’s because it will be. But I felt like I needed to talk about this today because I am seeing examples right and left of white people pulling back, getting defensive, crying about cancel culture, and feeling like they are being unfairly shamed and attacked. I’ve had some of those feelings myself.
But as Glennon Doyle points out in her book “Untamed,” that’s not really what’s going on here. We’re simply waking up to the truth for the first time, “and it feels like an attack because we’ve been protected by comfortable lies for so long” (p 211).
As Glennon found out the hard way: “Every white person who shows up (to the work)…is going to have (their) racism called out. (They) will have to accept that others will disagree with how (they’re) showing up and that they will have every right to disagree. (They) will need to learn to withstand other people’s anger, knowing that much of it is real and true and necessary. (They) will need to learn that one of the privileges they are letting burn is their emotional comfort. They will need to remind themselves that being called a racist is actually not the worst thing. The worst thing is privately hiding your racism to stay safe, liked, and comfortable while others suffer and die” (“Untamed” p 219).
Because that is ultimately what is at stake. We’re talking about peoples’ lives, here. Black lives. Brown lives. Indigenous lives. Lives that matter to God. Lives that should matter to us all. That’s what we’re working and fighting for. It’s the kind of work Jesus would over turn tables for.
May our church be a place where we keep trying to do better. Not the place we retreat to in order to feel better about ourselves, but the place where we keep calling one another into the hard work of transformation for the sake of all God’s beloved. Thanks for listening. Amen.