While the Crowd Rejoiced
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
March 28, 2021
Psalm 19; Matthew 21:12-17
Palm Sunday often gets put into the joyful celebration category and I totally understand why. We are heading into a week where everything Jesus does is shadowed by what will happen on Good Friday. This feels like our last chance to celebrate with Jesus. While Palm sunday is a triumphant celebration, that focus can blind us to the full magnitude of this day. While the crowd was celebrating, anger, distrust, and unease began to arise within Jesus’ closest circle. While the crowd was celebrating, fear, anger, and self-doubt plagued the religious and government authorities. Palm Sunday is a day where celebration was the overwhelming mood but if we zoom in a little closer we find remarkable clarity to Jesus’ mindset in these final days before the cross.
The crowd’s joy was bubbling just under the surface. It was Passover which meant celebration was in the air. The city was packed with people who had traveled from their homes to be in Jerusalem. Part of the Passover tradition is to make the pilgrimage to the Temple. These people have made it! Their journey is over and the festival is about to begin. And to top it all off a Rabbi who has been getting lots of buzz is arriving. It does not take much more to convince the crowd to give Jesus a grand welcome. Palm branches come down, coats come off and a spontaneous “red” carpet is laid out for Jesus.
While the crowd celebrated the emotional spectrum inside Jesus’ circle was diverse. Some were probably bursting with pride and joy to be seen with Jesus in this moment. Peter probably smiled and nodded to the crowd. There were probably some introverted disciples that were petrified that the spotlight had been turned on them. And we can be pretty sure Judas at least had an inkling what this kind of attention meant. He probably saw through the happy smiles in the crowd and picked out the angry faces of the priests and soldiers. A riled up Passover crowd was not good news to local authorities. Judas may have even tried to convince Jesus to take a side alley to avoid instigating anything riotous.
Jesus knew though there was nothing that could be done to stop the events that were about to unfold. It was time to put all the cards on the table and let the game play out. There was one thing he needed to address in the Temple so he headed there first.
Now let’s back up to Moses for a second and look at some realities about the temple. In Moses’ time the “temple” was a tent of worship. Sacrifices are common practice because for a people who tend herds of livestock and have many animals, sacrificial animals make sense as a religious practice. They gave from the resources they had.
As Israel gets established as a nation the tent of worship becomes a more permanent structure aka a Temple. The jobs also diversify, a nation that lives in a more developed city needs some people who have other trades than just tending livestock. To provide sacrificial animals to people who do not tend animals for a living a practice began where animals could be bought in the market and taken to the Temple for religious sacrifices.
As time goes on the sacrificial animal sellers get closer and closer to the temple. Anyone who has worked in retail knows the power of cross selling. Ever wonder why those cute sandwich containers are hanging in the bread aisle? Its because sales people have realized when you need bread you may be making sandwiches and you may also need a cute container for your sandwich. They put the bread and containers close together hoping you will buy both. Same thing happened in Ancient Jerusalem, the animal sacrifice sales people figured out the closer to the temple the more sales you get. And they eventually push into the courtyards of the temple itself..
The sellers who have the best relationship with the religious leaders even get permanent store fronts. They get this special treatment because they give a portion of their sales to the religious leader of course. If you are giving a cut to someone else you raise your prices a little. The prices climb and climb and climb.
This is the system Jesus walks into. A warped unjust system more convenient to those making a profit than to those trying to connect with God and practice their faith. A system where the poor can not afford to maintain their relationship with God. This makes Jesus Angry.
Jesus destroys the stores set up in the temple and shouts at the sellers as they leave the courtyard. Most Biblical scholars pinpoint this action as the spark that angers the powerful leaders to turn against Jesus. Before this Jesus was just an annoyance but of no threat. The moment Jesus attacks their income though, they plot to get rid of him for good.
As important as it is it is hard to not be shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Our calm collected Jesus turned rioter!? and store smasher!? Our discomfort with this scene is possibly another reason why we like to focus on the celebration in the streets, rather than what is happening in the temple. We gladly join Jesus in celebration, happy to be at the table for maundy Thursday,, we don't even mind being at the foot of the cross, but an angry shop smashing Jesus is often left out of our holy week stories. And yet it is the moment that sets the whole week on its path. Jesus gets angry, acts on that anger, and those in power plot to end Jesus’ influence forever.
Anger is a complicated emotion. Many of us have been hurt by another persons anger or even found ourselves in regrettable situations because of our own anger. It is natural for us to want to turn away from anything motivated by anger. Anger can easily get out of hand and fog our judgment. Yet here is Jesus angry and acting on that anger. Somewhere there is a line between holy anger and dangerous anger.
We actually see both kinds of anger develop in the story of Holy Week. We have Jesus’ anger in the temple and we have the anger of the local authorities against Jesus. Jesus represents holy anger, and the authorities represent dangerous anger. The difference between the two are in patterns of behavior and who the anger serves.
The first difference is a difference in behavioral patterns. The behavior of the local religious and government leaders is following a predictable pattern. They get angry, they lash out. They get angry, they use their power to smash the offender. We can see this play out over and over again.
When someone's anger causes them to have repeated or predictable outbursts this is damaging anger. It exists for the purpose of keeping control and exerting dominance. When someone develops a pattern of angry behavior even when they allow time for repentance and forgiveness it is a sign they have lost their ability to express themselves in other healthier ways. They never try to ask questions to get to the bottom of the offense. They don’t allow time to calm down and talk a compromise through. Their anger always leads to a swift outburst and dangerous behavior.
When we see someone developing this pattern we can help them see their need for other coping mechanisms and we may need to set up boundaries to keep ourselves safe. Someone who has a pattern of angry behavior is dangerous no matter how long it has been since their last outburst. The pattern will return.
This is not the pattern we find in Jesus. The reason every gospel tells this story is because it was out of character for Jesus to act this way. The people around him suddenly sat up and paid attention because this was not his normal response.
We can see that Jesus tried to express his anger in lots of different ways first. The issues Jesus sees in the Temple are the issues he has been talking about for years. It’s the same issue of people using religion to exclude people from God’s love. Jesus tried calming expressing his anger in sermons and discourse with those who disagreed with him. Jesus tried painting images of the problem in carefully crafted parables. Jesus even showed solutions to the problem through his miracles and healings. He used every other way he could to communicate and create space to discuss before he came to this moment in the Temple. His message had not changed; with every ignored urging he doubled down on the message hoping someone would finally listen.
When we see the connection between Jesus’ outburst and the message he was trying to teach it should be no surprise that he got to this point. There was a pattern, it wasn't a pattern of angry behavior but a pattern in the message. His message was the predictable pattern that grew into flipping tables and property damage. If they wouldn’t listen to his calm words and public demonstrations maybe they would listen when he threatened their economic holdings.
Another difference between the anger of the authorities and the anger of Jesus is who the anger serves. Who the anger puts on the pedestal and gives power to.
The religious leaders are angry because they think they will lose their position. They convince the government authorities to be angry because they too could lose power if Jesus kept teaching. Their anger served themselves. It was there to maintain their position and power over the community. Self serving anger is dangerous anger.
Jesus’ anger serves those most in need. In fact this outburst turns into a literal representation of how Jesus wants the system to work. It literally flips the Temple courtyard. I’m not talking about the tables this time I’m talking about where people were. When Jesus walks in the sellers and the rich are at the center of the activity with the poor and needy sneaking around them on the edges in the shadows to try and get a moment with God.
Jesus chases those in the center out of the courtyard and in Matthews' telling of this moment those in need rush in. Jesus’ anger serves others by making a space for them to be heard and get their needs met. The people who were cast into the shadows and prevented from full participation in the Temple rush to Jesus finally having a place to be heard. Even little children recognize that Jesus’ anger is something to be praised. This act of anger reset the courtyard in the way God intended the community to behave. The young and weak at the center getting cared for while the stronger more powerful move to the outside to protect them and support them. Jesus’ anger serves and lifts up those most in need.
Holy anger is anger that is out of character when expressed but can be traced back to messaging and communication that has been ignored in the past. Holy anger serves those least served and puts those in need at the center to be heard while the powerful listen into the center.
Anger does not have to be an emotion we reject as wrong. Anger can be the fuel that realigns our world with the Kin-dom of God. When we get angry or encounter anger in our world we can assess whose anger it is more like. Is if like the authorities who had a pattern of angry reactions and outbursts. Anger that served to maintain their power and keep the microphone for themselves. Or is it anger like Jesus. Out of character but rooted in a message long ignored. An anger that serves those most pushed to the edges of our community and lifts them up to be better heard.
Let us take a moment to assess the anger we have encountered recently and ask God for ways to support the Holy Anger in our world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 21, 2021
Jeremiah 31:1-9; Luke 15:1-10
I want to begin this morning with Presbyterian Final Jeopardy. There is a single question for which I am looking for the correct question. Unfortunately, you are not playing for any prize money or the opportunity to return and play again tomorrow. And since we have no buzzers and are not supposed to speak loudly, if you know the answer, simply raise your hand. So here is the answer. “This two-word phrase describes the phenomenon or practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting, or ending support for particular people or groups because their views or actions are considered to be socially or morally unacceptable and are thus disapproved of by a particular segment of society or a particular culture in its entirety.” Ok, so the few of you who know the question have been reading and watching the news. The correct response is, “What is cancel culture.” The phrase has been used to refer to everything from Dr. Seuss to Colin Kaepernick. It has been bandied about by folks on the right and on the left. Though I had never heard this phrase until recent times, according to one source it was coined in the 1970s. But, it has been around a lot longer than that. It is in fact what the Pharisees and the scribes were trying to do to Jesus.
Before we move deeper into the stories for this morning, I want to say something about the Pharisees and the scribes. Though these two groups of people have often been described as if they are villains like Darth Vader or Voldemort, they are not. The Pharisees and scribes are persons who take their obedience to God’s law with utmost seriousness. Their one desire is to be completely faithful to God and to God’s Law. The way in which they strived to be faithful was by building what commentators have called fences around the Law. In other words, if one was not supposed to work on the Sabbath, then they had to create a wall of rules and regulations that insured that one did not even come close to working on the Sabbath. The problem with Jesus, from the point of view of the Pharisees and scribes, was that he was constantly breaking down those walls. He was breaking down the walls by eating and drinking with and healing and inviting into God’s presence people whose lives were not lived inside the walls built around God’s Torah. These were the “sinners and tax collectors” mentioned in the story. These actions by Jesus were the reason that the Pharisees and scribes wanted people to publicly reject, boycott and end public support for Jesus. This is why they wanted to cancel him.
That being the case, we might think that if there was one community that would refuse to be involved in cancel culture, it would be the church. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, the church has been one of the great instigators of cancel culture. In the church’s earliest years, it wanted to cancel Roman religions. Then the church at Rome wanted to cancel the church at Constantinople and vice versa. Then the Roman church wanted to cancel the Protestant churches, who wanted to cancel the Roman church, and everyone wanted to cancel the Anabaptists and the Jews. Two more recent examples: When I lived in Pampa, Texas there was a couple who joined our church and afterward the leaders of their former church made it clear that no one in their church should ever speak with them again. Our new members had been canceled. And recently a church that was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention welcomed some LGBTQ members and the church was immediately disfellowshipped or canceled by that denomination. In other words, cancel culture is alive and well in the church.
What fascinates me about all of this cancel culture within the church is that Jesus never created a cancel culture within his sphere of influence. Instead, he created a compassion culture. Before we move forward, I want to say a word about compassion and how I am using the term. Often in our society we use the word compassion in the same way we would use the word pity, meaning to feel sorry for someone. This way of understanding compassion is hierarchical, meaning someone “up here” has pity on someone “down there.” It makes the one showing compassion greater than the one receiving compassion. This is not how the word was originally used and not how I am using it. Compassion is the act of loving deeply with another. “Com” refers to the act of being with another. “Passion” refers to the act of loving deeply. There is no hierarchy in compassion. There is only a communion of love and connection. With that definition in mind, let’s see how God and Jesus create cultures of compassion instead of cancellation.
We begin with the passage from Jeremiah. For those of you who were with us for last week’s episode of Parables to the Cross, hopefully you remember that Jeremiah, on behalf of God, was warning the people of Judah that they were headed toward the iceberg of the Babylonian Empire. And if the people did not return to being a people who bore the fruits of peace rather than the ways of violence, Judah would be sunk. Well, the people did not listen, and their ship of state and religion crashed and sunk, with a disturbing loss of life. At that point we might have expected God to have canceled Judah and its people; to have found another people who might listen. Such is not God’s way. God had infinite compassion which we can hear in these words. “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. The Lord appeared to them from far away and said, I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you…again you will take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers…again you shall plant vineyards…” God does not cancel but comes alongside those whose lives seem at an end and restores them to fullness and joy. This is compassion culture.
We hear echoes of this same story in Jesus’ parable. Jesus speaks of a sheep and a coin that were lost. The shepherd and the woman could have written off the sheep and coin. The shepherd and the woman could have canceled the sheep and coin, but the shepherd and the woman would not do so because the sheep and coin were loved; they were valuable. The sheep and coin were valuable enough, loved enough, that the shepherd and the woman insisted on taking any risk, meaning leaving the other sheep in the wilderness, or expending any amount of energy, meaning sweeping and sweeping, until these beloveds were found and made whole again. Then, just as Jeremiah described, there was to be a party for the sheep and coin who had been found and welcomed home. This is compassion culture. This is the culture Jesus created when he became one of us, when he came alongside us. This is the culture he created when he broke down the walls others had put up around God’s love. This is the culture he created when he reached out to those society had canceled, had labeled as sinners, had pushed to the margins. This is the culture he learned from the one who sent him; the one who loves with an everlasting love. This is the culture we are to create.
We live in a world in which the church has canceled people because of the color of their skin, because of their national origin, because of their gender, because of their sexual orientation or perhaps even because of their political affiliations. This is not the world Jesus came to create. Jesus came to fulfill God’s desire for a world in which compassion culture is at the heart of all that the people of God believe and live. The challenge I want to offer you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I creating a compassion culture, that welcomes all in the name of the compassionate Christ?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 14, 2021
Jeremiah 8:8-13; Luke 13:1-9
The date was April 10, 1912 and the world was excited. They were excited because the largest and fastest ocean liner ever conceived and built was pulling out of port. The papers were abuzz about the wealthy socialites among the 2,224 passengers and crew. The ship was the crown of the White Star Line and was thought to be unsinkable. It was unsinkable because of its construction that would prevent more than a single watertight compartment from flooding in case of an accident. The confidence, or should I say, overconfidence of the owners and operators of the HMS Titanic led to removing half of the lifeboats and the captain to move at top speed through the north Atlantic, even on moonless nights when the lookouts in the crow’s nest would not be able to see any icebergs ahead. We all know the rest of the story. On the 15th of April the Titanic struck an iceberg; its compartments flooded; the few lifeboats on the ship were launched half-full; and more than 1,500 people went down with the ship. Why is this story germane to us this morning? It is because both of our stories concern moments in Israel’s history when the nation was moving full speed toward an “iceberg” that would doom thousands. Let me explain.
Jeremiah’s words are directed to the nation of Judah. The “iceberg” that Judah was quickly approaching was the Babylonian Empire. Judah had narrowly escaped another iceberg about 200 years before when the Assyrian Empire allowed Judah to pay tribute rather than be destroyed. On this occasion, about 600 years before the birth of Christ, the nation was once again facing a large and powerful foe. At first, Judah agreed to pay tribute to Babylon and escape their sinking in the same way they had before. But for reasons we will discuss in a few minutes, the leadership of Judah decided that they no longer needed to pay tribute. And so, they declared their independence. Jeremiah the prophet was appalled. God had made it clear to him that if the people waited, God would eventually save them. He accused the Temple scribes, prophets, and priests of lying about what was ahead. He made it clear that people were saying “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. His declaration was, “Therefore I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors.” Jeremiah saw the danger ahead, but no one listened.
Jesus’ words were directed to his audience in Galilee. The “iceberg” that his audience and the rest of the Jews in Judea were facing was the Roman Empire. In the past six-hundred years the Jews living in Judea had only been independent for perhaps a hundred of them. In the time of Jesus, the nation was ruled by the Romans through people like Pilate and a few pseudo-Jewish princes. The people had freedom of movement and their religious shrine, the Temple, stood proudly in the middle of Jerusalem. Though there were occasional Roman atrocities, such as the one mentioned in our story, an ordinary Jew barely felt the presence of the Romans. Yet, there was a restlessness for freedom. There was a restlessness in Galilee to throw off their overlords. Jesus could see this coming and he warned the people of the consequences. He warned that if they continued on the course of rebellion, they would suffer the same fate as their ancestors had under the Babylonians…destruction and exile. So why wouldn’t the people listen?
If we are to believe Jeremiah and Jesus, the people of Judah and Galilee refused to listen because they forgot who they were. They forgot that they were supposed to be those who produced the fruits of peace and not the desolations of war. We can see this call to be people producing the fruits of peace, in the use of the fig tree, by both Jesus and Jeremiah. The fig tree was emblematic of peace. It represented times when people could sit in peace and partake of the sweet goodness of the land. And as a reminder, peace in Hebrew is shalom, meaning not merely the absence of war, but the fullness of life. The people of God then were intended to be those who brought the fullness of peace, of life, not only to themselves but to those around them. Unfortunately, the people forgot that peacemaking was their charge. Jeremiah chastised the people for rejecting the word of the Lord, dealing falsely with one another, and even doing things for which they should be ashamed. They had come to believe that because they were the chosen people, God would protect them regardless of their behavior and the choices they made. These same two concerns were regularly expressed by Jesus to the point where he agreed with Jeremiah, that the people of God were like trees that merely took up space and produced no fruit. The people were not being the peace-bearing people of God and the icebergs were right in front of them. Disaster awaited.
The question before us this morning then is what kind of tree are we? I ask this question for two reasons. First, I ask because our tendency as human beings is to assume that we are ok but others…well we’re just not sure. We look around us, point fingers and say things like, “Look, those people over there are not producing any fruit.” We do this because it is easier to point fingers “out there” than to take a look “in here.” This was what the people around Jesus were doing. They were pointing their fingers at those who had been massacred by Pilate and those on whom a tower had fallen and essentially saying to Jesus, “Boy those folks must have been some bad sinners to have had those things happen to them.” Jesus refuses to be taken in by that kind of speculation. Instead, he refocuses their attention back on themselves. He tells them that unless they turn around and move away from their relentless push toward violence and not peace, that they will suffer the same fate. In the parable he reminds them that they are empty trees because they have forgotten who they are supposed to be, people who bear the fruits of peace, of shalom.
The second reason I ask us to look out ourselves is that it was a year ago today that the pandemic was declared and that we closed the church to in-person worship. And it has been quite a year; isolation, lost jobs, half a million people dead…and we have been separated. Perhaps then it is time to take stock of what kind of a tree we have become during this pandemic season. So again, what kind of tree have we become? The answer this morning is one bearing good fruit. We are a tree that continues to bear the fruits of peace, of shalom. We bear these fruits in our work at Alcott Elementary school, with our AAIM program, with our Rejoicing Spirit’s community, with our food distribution to families in Pontiac, through those of you who are packing food in Pontiac. We bear fruit through our support of Reverend Kate and the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care. We bear fruit through our continuing work at being a fully inclusive congregation, through casserole club, through our support for Faith Kasoni in Kenya, where she works to prevent child marriage and Female Gentile Mutilation. We bear fruit through the work of one of our families, who in conjunction with the Bloomfield Township Police Department, organized a Black Lives Matter walk to protest racial injustice and finally through our Matthew 25 Workgroup and all of our other committees that are prayerfully seeking God’s leading in making our tree even more fruitful.
I believe that we have been able to do these things because Jesus has been and continues to be fertilizing us with his Spirit. I believe this is what Jesus desires for us…to be those who produce the fruits of peace …which is what is exciting about being part of our community, that Jesus always has more fruit bearing plans for us; more ways for us to bring peace; more opportunities to not simply to avoid the icebergs, but to sail full speed ahead into God’s amazing future.
The challenge I offer you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I bearing the fruit of peace not simply through this church, but in my sphere of influence so that God’s shalom shines on the world in which we live?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 7, 2021
Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; Luke 12:13-21
I want to begin this morning with a confession. That confession is that I have never particularly liked this parable. I haven’t liked it for two reasons. First, I haven’t liked it because even though I know better, what I have always perceived in it is a bias against those things I was taught by my parents; hard work, frugality and saving. Which is what it seems that this farmer is doing. The farmer is trying to make a go of it. He has several good harvests, stores his excess, and celebrates. Rather than celebrating his success the story seems to justify punishment for a person who has done well. The second reason that I haven’t like this story comes in verse 20, when the man appears to be punished for saying, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” After a lifetime of work, he was contented. He had found that elusive gift of contentment and then it is taken from him. No offense to Jesus and Luke, but my goal is to one day retire and find some contentment; to be able to relax, eat, drink and be merry. Any of you want that as well? So, the question becomes then, where can we find contentment?
Before we delve more deeply into the passage, I would like us to consider this idea of contentment. As far as I can discern there are two basic theories for finding contentment. They are accumulation and renunciation. First accumulation. The accumulation theory is that human beings find contentment in the accumulation of things. These things can be money, power, tech-goodies, friends or around here, classic cars. In fact, we have so much stuff that we need to rent storage places to put all the things we have no room for in our homes. The theory is that when we accumulate enough of the right thing then we can finally be content. The second theory of contentment is in renunciation. Simply put, renunciation is the practice of giving up the things of this world. The belief is that by people attaching themselves to the things of this world (accumulation), it only creates more desire, more greed and more unhappiness. To find contentment we must renounce the things of this world…we must detach ourselves from the desires that make us restless and discontented.
Returning to the story it would appear, at least on the surface, that Jesus is asking people to choose renunciation as the method for finding contentment. Afterall, the man in the parable has accumulated enough to retire and then God takes it all away from him through death. But I don’t think that is what is really going on here; meaning I don’t think Jesus is preferring renunciation over accumulation. I say that for two reasons. First, because Jesus, as a good Jew; he would know that the blessing that was given by God to God’s people included not only spiritual blessings but material blessings. As the prophets declare, every person should be able to sit under their own vine and fig tree. It is this sense of accumulation that allows the writer of Ecclesiastes to say, there is nothing better for human beings to eat, drink, and take pleasure in all their toil; and if anyone enjoyed life it was Jesus. Second, I don’t believe Jesus has chosen renunciation, because Jesus makes this cryptic closing remark, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” What does this mean? In order to understand it, we need to translate it as, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in God.” I do so because what I believe Jesus is saying is that we find contentment when we are “in” God; meaning when God fills us, when we allow God to fill us with what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. The man in the story was filled only with himself and his stuff, not God. If he had instead been filled with God, he would have been content long before he accumulated enough to fill bigger barns. He would have found contentment in the planting, harvesting, and sharing of what he had. He would have found it in the presence of God throughout his life, regardless of his successes or failures. Contentment in God would have been his constant companion and allowed him to eat, drink and be merry for a lifetime.
This morning we are offered an opportunity at this table to be filled with God. I don’t mean that the elements of bread and wine are God, but that they are symbolic of the love of God poured out for us. And that when we partake of the elements we are partaking of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and faithfulness of God. We are holding them in our hands. We are seeing them with our eyes. We are allowing them to remind us that regardless of how big or small are our barns, how successful or unsuccessful we have been in the eyes of the world, how old or young we are, or where we are in life, we are valuable to God our creator, to the Son who gave his life for us, and to the Spirit who fills us now and always. This, my friends, is contentment. This, my friends, is contentment that we can have now and always. My challenge to you for this week then is to ask yourselves, how am I being in God and finding contentment.