Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Do Justice: Speak Up
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Prebyterian Church
May 28, 2023
Have you ever been waiting in a really long line at the grocery store and seen somebody jump in the line ahead of others without waiting their turn?
That can really make you mad. That’s now how things are supposed to be. If everyone is waiting in line, then everyone waits…right? Perhaps someone in a wheelchair or on a walker is encouraged to come to the front. Maybe some guy with two items is allowed to go in front of the one with two carts full. But otherwise, everyone waits their turn.
What if a well-to-do person with two carts of groceries steps in front of the single mother holding onto her toddler and nothing else but a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter?
What if well-dressed person with a basket of luxury wines and cheeses walks right to the front of the line and steps in front of the one in the wheelchair? Everyone in the line would quickly recognizes the injustice in that situation and many would be willing to speak up and say something about it.
The question is: where are we in line? In life, that is?
Are someone who is already checking out, who has already gotten theirs and who is not overly concerned about the people behind us? I hope you would not consider yourself one of those jumping the line. Have you ever felt like the one at the back of the line, watching others take advantage and feeling powerless to do anything about it?
When it comes to life, where are you and I in the grocery store line? Are we the ones breaking the line, the ones whose place is getting taken, or are we the ones in the front of the line, whose day is not really impacted by what is going on behind them?
We have been exploring the theme Do Justice over the last few weeks – Recognize Injustice, Check our Prejudices, today Speak Up, and next week, Do the Work.
Injustice is everywhere. Far worse than breaking in line in the grocery store. Take a look around; read the news. Human trafficking. Children and teenagers sold for sex.
Homeless women and children sleeping in cars, if they’re fortunate enough to have a car. Mentally ill people wandering the street, hungry and without their medications. Tent encampments littering the sidewalks and interstates overpasses of cities. This is not way things are supposed to be!
Have you looked in the eyes of the folks begging at the Maynard Terrace exit off of I-20? Did you see the woman this morning sleeping on the concrete in front of the church? We know this woman; we have been trying to help her. Our community can do better; our nation can do better; we must do better
You’ve heard the old saying: No one will be fully at peace until all are at peace.
In the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple, present in John and the synoptic gospels, we find a much different Jesus than the one from children’s Sunday School lessons. In this narrative, we find an angry Jesus, turning over tables, and driving animals out of the temple courtyard with a whip he fashioned from cords.
It is good to expand our view of who Jesus was and is. For a long time, I have had a picture in my study of Jesus standing on a fishing boat. An elderly woman gave this picture to me nearly 30 years ago.
In the rendering, Jesus is smiling, laughing, holding onto rough ropes. He looks like a person who works outdoors and would sometimes sleep in olive groves. He looks like someone with a quick tongue and a bright mind. He has passionate eyes, strong arms, and sun-tanned skin.
In the gospel of John, not long after Jesus chose his disciples, he and his disciples walked the sixty or so miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem, and what Jesus discovered there angered him.
Hear the Word of God from John 2:13-16
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’
Anger, righteous anger.
In the Letter of Ephesians, there lies an important verse about anger, a verse worth memorizing.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26)
In some families, anger is just another daily emotion in the ups and downs of life.
In other families, anger is frowned upon, not discussed, not allowed, or at least not shown.
Anger is often held within, pushed down.
Interestingly enough, many theories about the prevalence of male depression have to do with repressed anger.
Anger held within will eventually find its way out – often in unhelpful and hurtful ways.
Hear this: Anger is a permissible emotion; it is OK to get angry. Jesus got angry!
Why was Jesus so angry? What was happening in the Temple in the first century that represents how things are not supposed to be? First, the rich were getting richer off the backs of the poor. Second, the holy temple had been turned into a raucous bizarre. Third, the religious establishment, with its sacrificial system, had been turned into a business.
First, when Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers and drove the animals from the courtyard, he was expressing righteous anger at how temple priests were profiting off of the pilgrims.
Pilgrims were coming from all over the Mediterranean world to offer sacrifice at the Temple. Since the temple would not accept their foreign money, they had to have it exchanged, at whatever rate and at whatever tax the temple decided to charge.
To add insult to injury, most of the animals for sacrifice had to be purchased at the temple, because they had to be deemed unblemished by the priests. It could be difficult to travel long distances to Jerusalem and keep your lamb or calf from becoming blemished in some way during the journey.
And the temple could charge whatever they wanted for the cost of the animals. The pilgrims felt doubly ripped off, both by the exchange rate and by the cost of the animals. It was enough to make anyone angry, to exclaim, this is not how things are supposed to be!
By the time Jesus and his disciples entered the Gentiles courtyard in the first century, all of this had become the expected situation. This was the status quo. This is just what everybody had to deal with.
One scholar claimed that the temple made as much as $240 million per year in today’s dollars from pilgrims, and it has been estimated that as much as $3.5 billion worth of gold was being hoarded at Temple in the middle of the first century.
The temple and its priests enjoyed extreme wealth while the vast majority of the people suffered from poverty.
This could make anyone angry. This is not how things are supposed to be!
Second, when Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers and drove the animals from the courtyard, he was expressing righteous anger at how a place of prayer had been turned into a raucous bizarre.
One of the theories of what may have actually happened that day at the temple is that Jesus and his band of disciples and other followers created a takeover of the temple courtyard, sort of like a “sit in”.
The temple courtyard was huge, but there were limited entrances. The few entrances could have been blocked without too much trouble by a small group of men. Instead of “a place of prayer for all peoples”, as Isaiah envisioned the Temple, it had become a raucous bizarre of selling and exchanging. It was like a “den of robbers.”
Jeremiah had prophesied about the corrupt nature of the temple system and about the need to return to proper worship. Zechariah had prophesied about the coming day of the Lord (14:9,21):
“And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one…
And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”
The purpose of the temple was prayer and worship, to connect people to God and provide a means of reconciliation to God. But the temple had become corrupt; it been turned into a big money maker, and Jesus’ very presence would threaten its existence.
The purpose of any religious entity is not to maintain the institution for the sake of the institution. The purpose of a religious institution is to nurture the faith and well-being of the people.
Whatever money is raised for the institution is meant for the common good, not to create a wealthy priestly class separated from common folk, not to buy golden chandeliers and marble floors for extravagant church buildings, not to buy a jet for a flashy preacher, as happened right here in Atlanta.
Money raised by the institution is meant to serve the spiritual and physical and communal needs of the people.
Third, when Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals from the courtyard, he was symbolizing the coming end of the whole sacrificial system. The Temple had provided access to the holy, at least for the men of Israel. At the very center of the Temple was the sacred room called the Holy of Holies, where only the Temple priests could enter. Then there was the inner courtyard, where only Jewish men could enter. Then the outer courtyards, where women and Gentiles could worship. Do you remember that at Jesus’ death, the curtain of the Holy of Holies was torn in two?
Jesus had become the Temple in human form.
Jesus was God in the flesh, and there would no longer be the need for a physical structure to connect the people with God. There would no longer be graded access to the presence of God, depending on your gender or background.
Jesus himself would provide access to all to the divine presence and forgiveness of God.
Just a generation or so later, in 70 a.d., the whole Temple structure would be utterly destroyed, torn down stone by stone by the Romans, who were glad to get their hands on all that gold. When people in the front of the line are comfortable, they see little need for change. When the status quo benefits those who are already wealthy, then there will be significant resistance to change.
People who hold worldly power are not necessarily bad or evil; but they often have misplaced priorities. Jesus disrupts the status quo. Jesus shows up with righteous anger and turns over the tables of that which we could easily take for granted.
If you were to speak out about something that is not the way things are supposed to be, what would that be?
The growing gap between rich and poor? Gun violence? The prevalence of homelessness? Lack of mental health services? Teen suicide rates? What are some different ways that we can make our voices heard?
To whom do we speak and how? What do we do?
I have heard stories about how Davison Philips, one of my predecessors, signed the Minister’s Manifesto in 1957, a statement about how no one would be turned away when they showed up for worship. Davison has been lauded for that decision to speak up. However, from what I understand, Davison was not lauded at the next session meeting after that statement came out in the newspaper. He was “shredded” by those elders at the time. Many young southern pastors had it worse than Davison. In many towns across the south, young pastors were forced from their pulpits after they spoke up about integration.
My father joined Phil Noble and some others in a fundraising effort in the early 1960’s called The Covenant of Concern. These young pastors and their families were pushed out of the church manses where they lived and they could not readily find another church to call them.
So what should the Church be speaking up about today? Are we willing to take some risks for the sake of those in need? Are we willing to point out the unfair and corrupt practices of our day? Are we willing to admit that the status quo is helping many maintain their place, while others are being pushed further into poverty?
The Gospel of John makes it clear that if we want to find God, we look to Jesus. We look to this Table that he has spread before us. We look to his words and actions to guide us. We look to how he spoke up, and to whom he spoke, and Our closing hymn today is number 722, “Lord Speak to Me that I May Speak”
The text is written by Frances Ridley Havergel, a well-educated poet who was also the daughter of a reverend. Dozens of her poems were set to music and so inspired the Church of succeeding generations.
Lord, speak to me that I may speak In living echoes of your tone.
As you have sought, so let me seek Your erring children, lost and lone.
Oh, lead me, Lord, that I may lead The wand’ring and the wav’ring feet.
Oh, feed me, Lord, that I may feed Your hungry ones with manna sweet.
Oh, teach me, Lord, that I may teach The precious truths which you impart.
And wing my words that they may reach The hidden depths of many a heart.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church