THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
March 04 2018 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Exodus 20:2-3;7-8;12-17 Psalm 19:8-11
I Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Imagine a major “boiler room” operation in Palm Springs, where telephone solicitors are sitting in cubicles dialing for dollars, victimizing people out of their life savings selling vacant land. Imagine further that our police received enough complaints, went to Superior Court in Indio, and obtained arrest warrants for the people running it, and search warrants to gather evidence. But imagine also that this company was a major employer, generating taxes and revenue for both the City and local merchants. At 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning, about thirty of Palm Springs finest women and men in blue show up, guns drawn, raid the place, arrest the culprits, gather evidence, and shut it down.
Such a scenario could well be controversial. Some would say that even if the solicitors weren’t angels, their activity did benefit the local economy. And for people like the followers of Ayn Rand, a business office is sacred space because it is where people are making money. After all, America’s secular religion worships money, not God.
Now imagine a slightly different scenario. Let’s say instead of the police, a community activist, acting on moral convictions of conscience, entered the boiler room and started to destroy it, pulling out the phones, overturning the desks and axing the cubicles. The community activist would likely be prosecuted.
As between the police and the community activist, most folks would praise the police and condemn the community activist. While both stopped undesirable activity, the police are the established to enforce the law, the community activist would be prosecuted as a self-help vigilante. Our system of justice does not tolerate self-help vigilantes. Americans generally favor law enforcement by governmental authority and due process. In the ideal world of many people, we should live our lives by obeying the Ten Commandments and the millions of words contained in federal, state and local law. Do that, and everything will be alright for you. However, God sent Jesus to disrupt this slave-like obedience to laws written on stone tablets. God sent Jesus to establish a New Covenant, where laws are written in our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us. Today’s Gospel introduces us to who Jesus was and what his mission would entail.
Jesus said that He did not come to change God’s law. True. What Jesus came to tell us is that laws must be administered with compassion, and include things like forgiveness and integrity. Nowhere is this more true as when Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery, where he implored the crowd not to stone her, and more importantly, said that the person without sin should cast the first stone.
While many people of our reigning political establishment expropriate Jesus to maintain the social order, the fact is, Jesus was not part of the “establishment” of his day. While Jesus acknowledged the existence of the Roman Empire and the Herodian Jewish kings from Idumea that the Empire co-opted to keep the Jews in line, Jesus did not accepttheir legitimacy. Instead, as demonstrated in today’s Gospel, Jesus was the quintessential disrupter, the Steve Jobs of the First Century. Almost always when Jesus appears, he disrupts what’s happening. Jesus intended his followers to be disruptive as well, and many of them were—just read the Acts of the Apostle to see what I mean. Today’s gospel confirmed the expertise of Jesus in creating chaos. Jesus was not afraid to author messy situations. Why? Jesus lived without fear. Even though Jesus had no weapons available to him, Jesus did not fear anything, not even death. Jesus saw through death, straight to resurrection. Today’s gospel demonstrates that Jesus acted fearlessly.
Today’s gospel clearly indicates that Jesus knew that the cross was in his future. Knowing he would go to the cross, Jesus marched to the beat of a different drummer. He had nothing to lose. His drummer was God, not human authority. The Jesus we see in today’s Gospel was a vigilante who resorted to self-help to stop what he believed was deplorable behavior, namely, the desecration of sacred space. For Jesus, the Temple was for God, not commerce.
What Jesus did today in throwing the money changers out of the temple reminds me of the massive demonstrations that ransacked selective service offices and burned their records. We’re talking about the draft boards who decided which young men would be conscripted against their will into the army and placed in harm’s way, and perhaps even killed, making them cannon fodder for the continuance of that stupid, stupid foreign policy of containing communism with an ill-advised, and ultimately unsuccessful, war in Vietnam.
The people who protested the Vietnam war and destroyed draft board offices acted in the best tradition of Jesus, and we should honor them as heroes. Ultimately, they were proved right, when the defeat of the United States in Vietnam proved how stupid that war was and the communism implosion from within. We honor them for the very same reasons we cheer Jesus for disrupting the Temple businesses. Those of us who disrupted conscription did that, because human life, both American and foreign, is far more sacred than obedience to laws, whose purpose was the furtherance of political careers and the continued existence of a country, an existence which never really was actually at risk.
The war protestors and draft board destroyers were criticized as “unpatriotic.” It is undisputed that they were exactly that, at least by conservative standards. But Christian moral responsibility goes way beyond laws on stone tablets or statutes in law books, and is plainly contrary to blind patriotism. Those who proclaim, “I’m loyal to my country, right or wrong” totally abdicate any notion of personal moral responsibility. The principle for which Jesus stood throughout his ministry was not obeying commandments to the letter, but the moral law requiring respect for the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life. Loyalty to a country pales in comparison to that!
Blind obedience to one’s country, its laws, and its government is what produced the Holocaust of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany. The excuse heard at the Nuremberg trials was “I was just following orders” or “I was obeying the law.” I am very concerned that the “America First” philosophy of today’s White House is leading us down the same path by using the immigration statutes to round up and deport undocumented immigrants and to reduce documented immigration. What’s behind it is the notion that people of European ancestry are somehow superior to people from other places. That thinking strikes at the very heart of catholic social teaching to respect the dignity of every person, as everyone baptized or confirmed here at Saint Cecilia’s promises to do.
Contemporary Presidential rhetoric has despicably sanctified violent acts against immigrants and people of color. In South Boston, two Caucasian individuals urinated on a sleeping homeless Hispanic man in August. They punched him repeatedly, and beat him with a metal pole. They called him a “wetback.” Then they high-fived each other and walked away. One of them actually said he was inspired in part by Donald Trump. When this guy was arrested, he told the police officers “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Of course, the attackers went to state prison, but unfortunately they are not the only ones engaging in this kind of behavior. Instead of following the laws written on their hearts to respect human dignity, they rely on the nativist policies behind written immigration laws to justify their hatred. This is not good.
The people who sent Jesus to the cross were the right wing protestors of the first century, the ones who supposedly lived by all six-hundred plus commandments of the Jewish law, but whom Jesus often proved to be hypocrites. Jesus was condemned and executed by mob action despite the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, finding him innocent of any crime against the Roman empire. He went to the cross because weak-kneed Pilate placed a higher priority on quelling tumults than on protecting the rights of innocent people. In short, politics circumvented and triumphed over the rule of law.
Supposedly, the rule of law protects individual rights, but as someone who worked in one capacity or another in the legal system for forty-one years, including twenty as an attorney, I can tell you from experience that’s not always true. I experienced Judges who don’t always make decisions based on facts and law, and sometimes factor in their personal philosophy and/or their political survival in deciding cases. The notion that a society can successfully govern itself by laws alone is nonsense, because at the end of the day, the administration of justice involves the imperfect human persons we all are. At a certain point, compassion and common sense must triumph over juridical authority.
Jesus knew all along the cross was coming as shown by the passion predictions throughout the synoptic gospels. He knew he would never get a fair trial before the Sanhedrin, that is, the Temple establishment, nor before the Roman governor. Jesus had very good reasons not to trust the legal system of his day to protect his life. Hence, Jesus had nothing to lose by disrupting the merchants desecrating the Temple by making it a marketplace.
Simply put, not everything about what is right or wrong is contained either in law books or in the Bible. Why? Because we underestimate God’s greatness. Today’s Epistle states the everlasting superiority of what God is. God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom, and God’s weakness is greater than our strength. In short, do not underestimate God. Revelation from God is an ever-ongoing experience. We discover more and more about God’s creation every day. And the variations in human persons and human experience are ongoing and infinite, just like God, because God, who always was and ever will be, is both ongoing and infinite. That is why sometime people have to take matters into their own hands and act, just like Jesus did in today’s Gospel, and the people who destroyed the draft board offices. The Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel is not the meek-and-mild gentle person we often imagine Jesus to be. Today, we see an angry Jesus as he recognizes the existence of a higher principle that contravened the rules of the Temple that sanctioned the buying and selling of sacrificial animals. That higher principle was love of sacred space.
The whole purpose of Jesus was to lead humankind beyond the written law. Saint Paul recognized this idea in his epistles decades before the Gospels were composed, when he asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” For Paul, “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” What Paul meant was the obedience to the law does not fill us with the Holy Spirit, which we call the giver of life in the Nicene Creed. Instead, we receive the Holy Spirit by faith, that is, by the hope of things for which we wish, but do not see, by trusting in God’s goodness and love, which are infinite. As the author of Hebrews tells us, without faith, it is impossible to please God.
Yes, Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” The commandment he meant was, “love one another as I have loved you.” That is something Jesus said to us, not something he read out of a book. You don’t earn salvation by following the Ten Commandments, or all six-hundred-thirteen laws of the Jewish tradition, or all the statutes on the books of the Federal, State and Local governments.
Laws do not lead you to God and bring salvation. Allowing Jesus to disrupt your life is more likely to do that, because it leads us to new life, and by that I mean, a life with God. To get there, you must be prepared to accept disorderly disruption in your life and allow Jesus to change you from within. It will no doubt be as messy and uncomfortable as it was for the Temple businesses that Jesus disrupted in today’s Gospel, but just as Jesus focused on the triumph of resurrection rather than the agony of crucifixion, we must keep our eyes focused on the big picture of our ultimate salvation, instead of the day-to-day minutiae of rule-following.
Life with God is what salvation is. What actually brings that salvation, is our love for God, and God’s love for us. Salvation means to be united to God. The means by which that occurs is by our trust in God, our loyalty to God, arising out of our love for God, responding to God’s love for us. None of that has to do with any laws. It has onlyto do with love. When you leave here today, don’t be afraid to be disruptive. As the sign in the train stations says, “if you see something, say something.” Take personal responsibility to fix the problems you see. Write letters. Protest. Put stuff online. Don’t take the lazy way out by accepting what is wrong and going along with the program. When you see injustice, show your love for Jesus by disruptively calling it out, just like Jesus did. AMEN.