Check out the MAPC choir this week singing “The Lamentation of Jeremiah:”
Listen to the sermon here, or read the (approximate) manuscript below:
If you ask people who regularly attend church services why they go, in my completely unscientific and purely anecdotal experience, a lot of them will tell you that they find church comforting. The ritual, structure, and familiarity of it can provide a peaceful rhythm that helps us center and calm ourselves. Generally, you know what to expect – although, perhaps not always around here.
Often, when this story of Jesus in the temple is told, the crowds of people in the temple get a bad rap. They’re buying and selling in the temple courts, making a holy place into a Walmart. Commentaries speculate about all sorts of things that could have been problematic about this, like using Roman money in temple business, or gouging people whose resources were scarce and who had to travel a long way to fulfill their temple obligations. We tend to assume from our spectator seats 2,000 years in the future that the people involved in this scene knew they were doing something bad, and that they were intentionally defiling the temple.
But I’m not convinced that is true. Given normal human behavior, I think it’s more likely that this marketplace was set up gradually over time, and grew in a way that no one really noticed. For Jewish people of that time, and for most other religions of that time as well, sacrifices at the temple were not optional; they were just part of the fabric of religious practice. So, someone had to travel a long way, and it wasn’t practical for them to bring an animal with them to provide their sacrifice. Someone else noticed this and thought, “Hm, maybe it would be helpful for people to be able to buy animals right here.” And that guy turned out to be right, and he made a bit of a profit, so someone else started doing it. And then the priests found out about it, and maybe at first they thought it wasn’t a good idea, but over time they realized how much more convenient it was, and the sellers were giving part of their profit to the temple…I suspect that slowly, people just came to accept that this was the way it was supposed to be. I don’t think they knew they were doing something that would be offensive. Maybe they were just there doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing: participating in the rituals of their religion. Maybe they were just there for a little comfort.
But in the middle of these people who are just trying to do what they think is the right thing, Jesus causes an enormous disruption. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild that we often see in paintings around churches. This is Jesus with a whip, driving animals out into the streets, overturning tables, spilling coins across the floor. And that’s not even the most disruptive thing that he does! It seems like having a meltdown on all the merchants and causing this huge scene would be the most disruptive thing he could do. But the more disruptive thing is not what he does, it’s what he says. After all this physical disruption, Jesus then equates himself with the Temple, essentially saying that he is the place where God lives on earth. They don’t know it yet, but he hasn’t just overturned some tables. He’s overturned the whole temple ritual system.
We often tend to pursue faith for comfort, and there certainly is plenty of reason to believe that God comforts those who are afflicted. God can be a deep source of stability and peace in the midst of very tumultuous times, and I think this is often what we are looking for from our relationship with God. But that’s a different sermon.
What we don’t always talk as much about is God’s tendency to afflict the comfortable. Like the people in the temple, we can easily get accustomed to patterns that don’t honor God or encourage the flourishing of all life. We become part of systems that exploit, and we don’t even notice it. We keep coming back for our regular dose of comfort, not realizing anything has gone wrong. But Jesus has been known to charge right into the middle of our comfort zones, driving out our false hopes, spilling our faulty priorities all over the floor.
I’ve certainly experienced my share and more of comfort from God. My faith has been an anchor when life felt like a storm. But to be honest, my experience of God has more often been disruptive. Faith startled me and shook up my life from the very beginning, and I think I thought that at some point, that would stop, and I’d settle into the quiet, constant faith that I associated with maturity (you’re there! Now you just get the comfort part!) But instead, faith keeps reminding me that I’m never fully cooked. God always seems to have some new way of disrupting me, and calling me to be transformed. God is always calling me to let some closely held part of myself die, so that something better can grow in its place.
At various points in my life, Jesus has come charging in, waving that whip around, and overturning my education, my career plans, my relationships, knocking my priorities on the floor and showing me instead the realities of racial injustice, economic disparity, ecological destruction. Most disturbing of all has been when my carefully constructed religious ideas have been disrupted, when I’ve built for myself a temple of doctrine and practice, and Jesus has stepped in to say, “Well, that’s pretty, but I didn’t call you to follow a system, I called you to follow me.”
The very nature of disruption means that we’re never really ready for it, but I do think Christ invites us to a certain kind of maladjustment here – a maladjustment of living in the expectation of disruption. I call it a maladjustment because this is not generally how we are encouraged to live. We’re told to make firm plans, to set goals and persist them into being. We’re urged to find as much security and stability as possible in our finances, relationships, and habits – to cultivate patterns and sameness. And that’s not all bad, obviously, but it doesn’t leave a lot of space for the kind of unplanned correction or growth that is fairly common if you’re following in the example of Christ.
So we maladjust, still making plans and setting patterns based on what we think is best at the time, but also living with an expectation of disruption. It’s not possible to know what the disruption will be. If it was, it wouldn’t be a disruption. But it is possible to live in a ways that allows greater space for the unexpected movements of a living and sometimes disruptive God. It is possible to hold our possessions, plans, and patterns lightly. To know that at any moment, Jesus might step in and overturn them. To understand that in everything we do, we might be wrong. To see all of life as a process of being continually a little bit disrupted.
And in being disrupted, we also become a disruption. In the example of the one we follow, we drive out oppression with justice. We overturn violence with peace. We interrupt despair with hope, death with life, hatred with love. When we allow ourselves to be disrupted by God, the world can be disrupted as well, in all the ways that it most needs.