For this week’s “A Week in the Word”, I share a sermon I recently preached at Mt. Zion United Church of Christ, 986 Ledbetter Road, Rockingham, NC 28379. The service itself can be viewed below in a video, with notes to follow:
Mt Zion is a beautiful little church full of loving people, with a rich history dating back to the Southern Reconstruction following the Civil War. Their beauty in faith and hospitality continues. If you ever want an open-minded group of Christ-followers to worship with in the greater Rockingham area, I’d encourage you check them out on Sunday morning.
I hope these words bless and encourage you!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
John 2:13-22 2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 2:15 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. 2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
I would like to begin by sermon by talking about a young preacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer . He was a man who knew sometimes you simply have to make a stand. This young German minister chose to publicly speak out against Hitler’s persecution and mass murder of people who were Jewish, people who were gay, and people with disabilities at a time he could have hid for safety and at a time very few German churches and preachers were willing to make a stand against Hitler.
Bonhoeffer had been given an opportunity to study and minister in the US. While there, Hitler began to heat things up for those in Germany. Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, many of his American friends rallied around him, begging him “Don’t return to Germany. We’ll find you a church to preach at or a seminary to teach in here, far from Hitler’s clutches”. Yet Bonhoeffer knew – someone must stand as a watcher on the walls, speak out against the evil being done. He chose to make a stand.
So Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. He spoke out. He trained young people who joined him in raising their voices. Ultimately what everyone feared came. There was a knock on the door, and Bonhoeffer was thrown into prison and ultimately killed for his stand. Yet even to the end, Bonhoeffer said it was worth it to make his stand, a stand for justice, a stand for the hurting, a stand for God.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus also makes a stand. Coming into Jerusalem, it would have been easy for Jesus to do as people encouraged Bonhoeffer to do – to play it safe and look away. To look away when he saw people coming into the house of God in order to experience the Spirit who sets us free, only to be crushed by a legalism that left them to feel an even bigger gulf from God. To look away when the temple priests allowed the people exchanging coins and selling offerings to short-change and cheat the poorest of the poor. To look away when he saw all this happening in the “Court of the Nations” where the lost and hurting of the world who do not yet know the living God were meant to taste and see that the Lord is good. To look away as Rome used, abused, and killed many innocent people in Israel all while the temple elite said not a word. But no, like Bonhoeffer, Jesus made a stand.
And so Jesus raises his voice. He raises his arms. Coins clatter on the ground. A whip cracks. Birds’ wings flutter in agitation, their calls echo as they soar to the horizon. The fall of hooves and bleat of beasts echoes through the temple, and all could hear Christ’s cries — “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Jesus could have looked away. It is likely if he had, Good Friday would not have come for him and he would have lived to a ripe old age. But he didn’t. Jesus knew he had to risk the pain that came with making a stand. Most Bible scholars will tell us that it is this choice, to make a stand against injustice when other preachers in Israel looked the other way, that sealed Jesus’ fate. This choice to stand is the one that led the temple elite and the Roman rulers to decide that this man of Nazareth must go. Jesus knew this would happen. Yet, like Bonhoeffer, Jesus didn’t look away. He chose to make his stand. This choice speaks volumes to us.
First it speaks to us about God – about where we can find God, and whose side God is on.
Also it calls us to open our eyes like Jesus did to truly see the world around us, truly hear the cries of the hurting. And like Jesus, to stand.
By choosing to stand up for those who are forgotten, who are oppressed, who are ignored, is a reminder Jesus is reminding us of an eye-opening truth: our God is not unmoved by our suffering. God is not one to sit idly by in the face of oppression or mistreatment. Our God takes sides.
What side does God take? In case we cannot tell by Jesus’ example, Psalm 140, verse 12 tells us clearly – “the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Our God is the One who takes up the case of the poor when others refuse. Our God is the One who sides with the discriminated against, rising up against their oppression. Our God is the One who brings freedom to the cast down, to the trampled on. Should this come as any surprise? After all, is not this the God we worship the same God who called a people sold into slavery “my people” when God told the powerful of the land “let my people go?”
Jesus shows us this when He says that if we tear down this sanctuary, He will raise it up again. The Gospel writer tells us the sanctuary he speaks of is Jesus’ own body. We usually read this as if it means Jesus’ earthly body, which will be killed on Good Friday, lay in the tomb on Holy Saturday and rise again with power and glory on Easter morning. That is truth in this. Because of it we know – no matter how long and dark the Friday you face is, it shall not last; Sunday is coming for you! But there is more than this to Jesus’ words about his body being the true sanctuary. After all, does not our Lord tell us in Matthew 25, that when we stand in judgment he will not ask us how many Bible verses we memorized, how many hours we prayed, whether we said the sinner’s prayer — however important each of those are — but instead will ask us “When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? When I was naked did you clothe me? When I was sick or in prison, did you visit me?” telling us that the reason why he will ask this one question is that whatever we do to the least of such hurting ones among us, we do to him. They – the hurting, the forgotten, the outcast, and the lost — are his body too.
You see Jesus is showing us it is not in temples built with stone, or sanctuaries of brick and mortar our Lord dwells but in each other. Turn to somebody and say “If you and I cannot see God’s presence in each other here in this sanctuary, we might as well close up shop.” But this is especially true about those who are the least, the lost, and the last in the world’s eyes in our communities. If we cannot see God in them, our songs and prayers and offerings are but empty exercises. For our God is the one who sides with the forgotten and struggling. The temple that Christ gives us to meet our God is in their tear-filled eyes and trembling cries.
On the one hand, this is great good news for some of us. Do you feel forgotten? Are you struggling to get by? Are you unable to find work, with hope fading more every day? Do you work night and day, only to barely eke by or, worse yet, to be drowning in debt? Are your rights or those of ones close to you trampled under feet? Do you face bullying, name-calling, harassment? Turn to someone and say “If so, know God sees your suffering. God stands with you in your pain”.
Hear the word of promise – God is with you. God is crying out your name, crying out in the busy noisy marketplace of our world, proclaiming freedom. God is the one at work deep within your life and heart, singing over you a song of liberty. God is speaking over you – you, you, you dear one, are my child. You are the one that I love. And though it may be hard to see it in your darkness and your pain, it is in you that I am well pleased.
In your life, the living God who parted the Red Sea and led slaves to freedom is already working to set you free; in your life the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is already blowing forth a gale-force wind of the Spirit to bring forth new life for you in the face of loss and death. Believe the good news!
Yet there is also a challenge for all of us. Turn to someone and say, “Christ is asking, Will you stand with me?”
In our day and age, as in Bonhoeffer’s and in Jesus’, injustices abound.
In our neighborhoods, there are people hurting not knowing where the next meal will come from, or how to keep their lights on though winter’s chill. In our towns there are people struggling to find health care, or friendship, or to have the same basic rights everyone else takes for granted.
And the voice of Jesus echoes “Who will stand with me? Who will stand for what is right?”
Often times we are guilty of looking the other way.
We hear of children shot in the streets, and was say “they aren’t my kin folk, they aren’t my skin color, they aren’t my religion…” and we look the other way.
We see people in our schools bully and put down, maybe even beat up, fellow students and we do nothing. They aren’t in our crowd, they don’t share our interests, why would we speak up for them? Why would we be a friend to them? We look the other way.
We see women being treated as second-class at our work place, or being beaten by their boyfriends or husbands and we say “I’m not a women. I don’t want to meddle”. So we look away.
We see people labor long and hard at multiple jobs without the cash to pay their bills because their job does not pay a living wage, and we say “but I’m comfortable and fine” so we look away.
We hear on the news how in Raleigh and in Washington politicians are cutting programs for the poor, health care to those with disabilities, trying to take back equal rights to those who are gay or transgender, trying to block certain classes of people from voting, and we say “I am not poor, I don’t have any disabilities, I sure ain’t gay or transgender, and those voting laws don’t affect me anyway”, so we look away.
Yet across the miles and through the ages, if we will but listen we can hear the voice of Jesus cry outing – “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be His helpers, other lives to bring? Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go?”
Friends, I know some of you are already regularly saying, “By Thy call of mercy, by Thy grace divine, we are on the Lord’s side—Savior, we are Thine!” I’ve heard of some of the work y’all are doing from your pastor. And I’ve seen her, along with some of you, marching and speaking out for justice in Raleigh and elsewhere. And I know some of you are busy speaking up for what is right, knocking down walls of prejudice and exclusion in ways no one else might see in your neighborhood, your family, your workplace, or your school. I want to thank you. I want to encourage you to not give up the fight. Though it might get exhausting – though the night might be long, and the Friday you face dark and painful, know that if you will not give up working together with God, you will see Sunday coming.
But I know always some of us here have lost sight of this high call. And even among those of us who haven’t, all of us have ways we fail to recognize the hurting around us. God wants us to hear that when we choose to look away in the face of the hurting, the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten, we are not being impartial. We are not simply doing nothing. We are choosing sides. . As Martin Luther King once said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” for as another great thinker once said, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”. Our silence is a stand. Our inaction a choice.
Where will you stand.? Join me, Jesus is saying. Stand. Stand up for the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten. Be the body of Christ, the temple of the living God. Like Jesus, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like Martin Luther King, speak up for the forgotten, the hurting, and the cast aside in our communities. Join them in saying to to Christ – “We are on the Lord’s Side – Savior, We are Thine!”
Let us pray.
Loving God who comes to us in Christ, who cast aside the riches of heaven
Coming among the least, the last, and the lost as servant of all
Help us to hear your promise
That you stand with us wherever we face oppression, discrimination, and rejection
You stand as our Shelter and our Defense
Let us also hear your call
To see you in the eyes of the hurting around us
To see in them your dwelling and not in temples of brick and stone
Help us to join you in standing for them
In the name of Christ who became poor for our sake, Amen.