There are few people who want to leave this life having made no impact at all. You rarely meet someone who says, “When I die, I want it to be as if I had never existed. Yes, let me pass through life leaving no fingerprints, no traces, no meaningful impact on the world I lived in. Let me fade into the background and leave nothing even remotely affected.” On the contrary, most people want to make a difference, to contribute meaningfully to the world we live in.
|About this Sermon
Part 3 of the series “Our Mission”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
July 26, 2020
Amos 3:13–15; Mark 11:15–19
I suspect that church folks are even more so. We long to put some good out into the world. We want to leave the world better than we found it.
Part of that might be that Christians are, when you come down to it, just like ordinary people and most people would like to make some impact on the world, some difference, if only to let people know that they had existed. Indeed, there are some who argue that the only reason we do anything is that we’re terrified of death and seek to build edifices to our existence as a way of cheating death.
But Christians have more than just these all-too-human drives to explain it: we have a role model when it comes to making a difference.
It is not hyperbole to argue that Jesus of Nazareth is the most influential human being of all time. At present, there are some 2.5 billion adherents of the religion he left behind, who live in countries that span the globe and whose social structures, cultures, and values have been shaped to some degree by his teachings.
Even the critics of religion would be hard-pressed to find someone who was more consequential, even if they were limiting their assessment to all the wars, persecutions, and repressions that the church has been responsible over the years in his name.
But our sense of Jesus as someone consequential, as someone who makes a difference, is only borne out by the image we get of Jesus from the gospels.
II. THE TEXT
In today’s gospel lesson, for example, is a classic story of Jesus making a difference: the cleansing of the Temple.
In Mark’s telling, Jesus has been in Jerusalem just for a day, having arrived the day before on Palm Sunday. That Monday he goes to the temple:
and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.Mark 11:15–16
He goes right after the economic interests, knocking over their tables and chairs, not even allowing anyone to carry anything through the temple. Then he teaches in the temple:
“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.”Mark 11:17
Then we are told that this action and his subsequent commentary motivates the chief priests and scribes to begin to plot his death, because they could see that his teaching had spellbound the whole crowd.
It’s an iconic story and one often quoted when it comes to criticizing the church for allowing too much commerce in its everyday affairs.
III. OVERTURNING THE TABLES
But there is where we do Jesus a real disservice: we imagine him as a reformer rather than as a revolutionary. We water Jesus down to make him more palatable—and to make us more respectable for belonging to a religion of good morals and decent civil order, not some revolutionary movement that opposed the Empire with the radical proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
See, the prevailing interpretation of what Jesus does in the Temple—and by far the one we are most familiar with—is that he’s restoring it to some kind of purity by chasing out those engaged in changing money (from Roman sestertii and denarii to temple shekels) and the buying and selling of animals. But as New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders notes:
Those who write about Jesus’ desire to return the temple to its ‘original’, ‘true’ purpose, the ‘pure’ worship of God, seem to forget that the principal function of any temple is to serve as a place for sacrifice, and that sacrifices require the supply of suitable animals. This had always been true of the temple in Jerusalem.E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism
Further, he writes, the business arrangements around the temple were necessary if the commandments of the law were to be obeyed. Was Jesus then taking a stand against the sacrificial system itself? Such a position is hard to take given the statements Jesus himself makes about the law. And as Sanders notes: “If he actually explicitly opposed one of the main institutions of Judaism, he kept it secret from his disciples.” No, it appears that our interpretation that he was simply trying to purify Jewish practice reflects a very Protestant bias that true worship consists in the Word and everything else is extraneous rite.
So, what was he doing then?
Sanders argues that Jesus’ actions in the temple, coupled with his statement, “You see these great buildings. Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” and with the charge that is made at his trial and his crucifixion that he claimed to be able to “destroy this temple of God and to build it in three days” suggests that what Jesus was actually doing by overturning the tables is a symbolic destruction of the Temple itself. Prophetic street theater designed to make a provocative statement. As Sanders writes:
On the hypothesis presented here the action [i.e. the cleansing] and the saying form a unity. Jesus predicted (or threatened) the destruction of the temple and carried out an action symbolic of its destruction by demonstrating against the performance of the sacrifices. He did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure worship’. Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God had commanded to Israel. He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and that the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise.
This action is in line with other prophetic actions and statements, like those of Amos that speak about tearing down altars and houses of worship. That makes Jesus’ actions not reformist, but revolutionary, willing to literally upend the established order.
Folks, Jesus didn’t get crucified because he was telling people to be nice to one another. He got crucified because he was trying to make a difference.
IV. MAKING A DIFFERENCE
And this is important to note, because so much of our own ability to make a difference is thwarted by two real problems that we have that Jesus did not.
A. Christianity and the Local Sheriff
The first problem is exemplified by a statement that New Testament Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson once made. He said, “There are an awful lot of Christians for whom the central message of Christianity is: ‘Support Your Local Sheriff.’” What he is referring to is an old habit we’ve gotten into of imagining that Christianity is ultimately a good behavior and morality club. That its purpose is to make fine upstanding citizens who are kind to their neighbors and who support their local civic institutions and are otherwise model citizens. Pillars of their community.
It’s a tendency to make Christianity safe and non-threatening.
This is an old impulse and can even be found reflected in some of the letters of the New Testament, what are called the “Pastoral Epistles” of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—letters purportedly written by Paul but likely written a generation later. These Pastoral epistles encourage good conduct, acceptance of basic Roman morality and social hierarchy—children obey your parents, wives obey your husbands, slaves obey your masters. All in an effort to demonstrate that Christians are good Roman citizens, about whom no one need worry. Just ignore that whole part where the founder of our religion was crucified by the state as an insurrectionist—we’re not like that. We’re nice. We’re safe. We won’t upset anything.
This impulse has always been with us and the lure of stability, safety, security, and being well thought of and respectable is a strong one. But it is awfully hard to make a difference when you become invested in the status quo.
The second problem is that perhaps the biggest challenge is that often when we try to make a difference, we find that we’re part of the problem more than we realize.
Now, I realize I’m still kind of new here so there are a lot of things about me that I realize you may not know. For example, I am a supporter of sweatshop child labor. I am also a supporter of child soldiers in developing countries and a big supporter of the increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Oh, if you ask me I’ll tell you that I don’t support any of those things. But I buy clothing and don’t always check to see who made it and how much they got paid to do so. I buy technology and don’t give a thought to where the tungsten, tantalum, and other rare earth metals came from and what conflicts those metals have funded so that I can play Words With Friends while waiting for my phone-ordered Amazon purchase to arrive. I eat meat, not caring about the amount of grain that has to be produced to feed the animals and the associated environmental costs that are incurred.
Oh, sure, we can get together for a coffee at and I can tell you all about the dangerous power of corporations and their economic stranglehold on our society as we sit there together at Starbucks.
As it is with us as individuals, so it is as a church. So many of the things we oppose, we are actually complicit in. With our words we declare our opposition to all manner of worldly evil, and yet, with our embedded actions, we affirm the very things we claim to be against.
This concept is illustrated wonderfully in a joke told by author and theologian Peter Rollins, who tells the story of a man who comes to see a pastor about a family in need.
“Pastor,” he says. “There’s a family who lives just down the road and they’re in real dire straits. The husband is out of work, the wife tries to take in some cleaning, they’re taking care of her elderly mother, they’ve got five children, but their landlord is going to throw them out of the street if they don’t pay their rent. Even if they’re only a day late. We’ve got to do something to help!”
“Alright, alright,” she says. “We’ll go and get some money.” Then, as an afterthought, the pastor asks, “How do you know this family?”
“Oh, I’m the landlord,” he answers.
How often are we dearly concerned about the very things we’re contributing to?
It’s hard to make a difference when you’re complicit in the very thing you’re trying to change.
1. Site of Resistance
This problem is compounded by our inability to always tell where the most effective site of resistance is. Rollins addresses this phenomenon, too, with an illustration from popular culture: Batman.
Rollins argues that Batman is the perfect illustration of this dilemma. Who is Batman? He asks. He’s a man who puts on a rubber suit and goes out on the weekend and beats up criminals. All a part of his effort to keep Gotham City safe and free of crime.
But who is he really? He’s Bruce Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises, a company that makes so much money that he can fund a high-tech, paramilitary campaign with Batmobiles, batjets, batcopters, you-name-it, and no one even notices that the money is missing. How much money is Wayne Enterprises making? Wayne Enterprises must be making phenomenal amounts of money. Rollins asks: has it not occurred to him, that it is corporations just like Wayne Enterprises that make astounding amounts of money without any social regard that are the reason there are criminals in the first place? Has he not made the connection that the thing he’s resisting on the weekends is the very thing he’s helping to sustain Monday through Friday?
The same could be said of us: what are the things that the church is claiming to resist on the weekends but is perpetuating in our daily life the rest of the week?
What if that’s the whole point? What if Sunday is when the system wants us to resist, because we’ll feel—like Batman surely does—that we’re fighting back, but in reality we’re enabling the machine to run smoothly.
It wouldn’t be the first time. If any of you has ever gotten a speeding ticket, unless it was in one of those little towns on the Eastern Shore or in Delaware that relies on moving violations to balance its budget, you probably didn’t get a ticket for driving 1 mile per hour over the limit. Ever wonder why they let you drive 5–10 mph over the limit?
Or ever wonder why your boss doesn’t care if you talk ill about them behind their back in the breakroom?
See, sometimes the system has little pressure valves built in—places where we think we’re getting away with something but in reality the system has provided those spaces. They ensure the smooth running of the system. As long as we’re not driving 90 mph in a 55, as long as we’re still showing up and punching that clock at 9 and leaving at 5, a little rebellion is permitted. Pressure valves to make sure things don’t get too out of hand.
God forbid that Sunday morning isn’t the actual site of resistance but is just another pressure valve. God forbid that the things we profess together—to oppose evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves—are just words that help us to feel better about ourselves so that we can go back to enabling the very system we claim to oppose.
In the TV show The Good Place, the story of a woman who winds up in the good version of the afterlife as a result of a clerical error, the angels and demons who run the afterlife discover at one point that it’s almost impossible to get into the good place anymore. Because life has become so complex that one cannot help but be complicit in all manner of evils.
I remember talking to a friend of mine about not eating a particular brand of hummus because of their ties to the ongoing military occupation in the West Bank. The friends said, “You realize that if you follow that through, you won’t be able to eat anything. Or buy anything.” That, sadly, is true. For every pair of non-sweatshop sneakers I buy, I’m buying so many other things that contribute to the world’s ills. It may be inescapable.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be aware of it.
If being complicit is an obstacle to making a real difference in the world, then being aware of the complicity is the first step in removing that obstacle.
See, it is not enough for us to opt out of actively supporting evil things and unjust systems, if we are passively supporting them in other ways. It’s not enough to decry racism if we don’t examine how we might be unwittingly perpetuating racial injustice. It’s not enough to decry the plight of the poor if we don’t examine how we might be unwittingly perpetuating economic inequality. It’s not enough for us to decry the harm being done to God’s Creation if we don’t examine our own unwitting complicity in the environmental crisis. If we would truly live out our mission to make a difference then we have to be willing to examine that complicity.
It’s hard. No doubt. Because we’ll have to be willing to overturn a few tables and earn the ire of some chief priests and scribes. And no one wants that.
But the one who overturned those tables, the one who spoke of the weightier matters of “justice and mercy and faith,” the one who stood up to an evil and unjust system, goes beside us even still.
Christ walks beside us and goes before us, bidding us to follow the one who showed us what making a difference looked like, and to go where he leads us.
Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob, says the Lord God, the God of hosts:
On the day I punish Israel for its transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground.
I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.
He was teaching and saying, “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 when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 63
 Ibid, 65.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 75.