Vast and Deep

March 07, 2021
Psalm 19; John 2:13-22

May the words of my mouth
and the thoughts of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, YHWH,
my rock and my redeemer!

One year ago today we were celebrating the baptism of Max. It was a joyful, beautiful day with a big fellowship meal afterward; our hearts and plates were overflowing. The day before Allegheny Conference was held at HMC and we prayed over LeAnne as she became the conference moderator. Two days later we hosted Ted Swartz and Ken Medema for a show in the sanctuary; we laughed and laughed.

And then we closed the doors. We put up signs that said the “church building is closed – check back at the end of March to see when we will reopen.” Ah, how innocent it all sounds now. It is probably a good thing we didn’t know what the coming year would hold.

The wonder of it all is that

the heavens continue to herald God’s glory.
The skies display God’s handiwork.
Day after day they tell their story,
and night after night they reveal
the depth of their understanding.

The rain and ice and snow fall,
the cicadas will soon rise
from deep in the ground.

Our lives were disrupted. Our lives were put on hold. Our lives kept going. Through it all the vast skies speak, every day the story unfolds, every night the skies reveal new depths.

We have had two Sundays of Deep calls to Deep, deep in the ocean, deep in the forest – two Sundays of wonder. This story of Jesus disrupting things at the temple takes us into a whole other kind of wonder, a whole other kind of deep.

All four canonical gospels feature the story of Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story pretty much the same way, using inferences to Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7. In the synoptic gospels Jesus only goes to Jerusalem once, at the end of his life. This disruption in the temple or ‘cleansing’ as it is often called, is one more thing that “provokes opposition to Jesus ands leads to his execution.”

For the writer of John, who writes much later than the other gospel writers, this visit to the temple is the first of four visits Jesus makes to Jerusalem for religious festivals. It is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with more detail and a quote from Psalm 69 and inferences to Zechariah’s messianic kingdom. Clearly something is going on when Jesus turns the tables in the temple.

Jesus is an observant Jew so it is no surprise that he goes to Jerusalem to celebrate the ancient tradition of Passover. (Passover seders now end with – “Next year in Jerusalem.”) Passover is the festival that recounts the Exodus out of slavery; Passover celebrates freedom from oppression. What Jesus sees when he arrives at the temple courtyard does not look like freedom to him.

The courtyard is full of animals being sold for sacrifice: sheep, oxen and doves. This is customary since many people travel long distances to come to the temple. They cannot bring their sacrifice across the many miles so they buy a sacrificial animal in the temple courtyard. But as they are in the temple area, they cannot use the impure Roman currency to buy a sacrifice. They must exchange Roman currency for temple currency. It is a simple transfer but each time money changes hands a little more comes out of the pockets of the faithful and goes into the pockets of the moneychangers.

This can not be the first time that Jesus has experienced this courtyard scene. He was born into a family that, according to Luke’s gospel, took him to the temple when he was eight days old. His parents only had enough money to present two doves or pigeons as a sacrifice, instead of a lamb. His whole life Jesus has seen how the people that sell the pigeons and doves overcharge those who live in poverty. His whole life he has seen a system that exacts an unfair tax on the poorest when those with wealth make a showier sacrifice of oxen or sheep without actually having to sacrifice much at all.

So Jesus’ anger in the temple courtyard is not sudden, it has been building for years. He knows what it is to live in poverty. He knows the cruelty of the Roman occupation. Now in his own small nod to the freedom of Passover, Jesus unties the sheep and oxen from their tethers. He takes all the ropes and winds them together into a whip, a whip that becomes a prop for his performance theology.

Jesus raises the whip and chases the oxen and sheep – and some of the people -out of the courtyard. Next are the tables, pushed over in a rage that has been kept in check his whole life. Animals, people, and coins scatter everywhere, with the coins perhaps returning to the people that need them most.

There is a common detail in each of the gospel tellings of this scene: Jesus directly addresses those who are selling doves, the most inexpensive sacrificial animals sold to the most impoverished people. “Take these things away from here! Do not make God’s house a marketplace!” How can this be a place to celebrate freedom? There is no freedom here. It is not a place of preparation for prayer but a place of banter and barter and exploitation.


We’re going to take a big leap across miles and time, to Memorial Day in the United States. It is said that Memorial Day weekend in this country is a celebration of those who fought and died for freedom. People gather with family and friends, they have picnics and pool parties. It is likely that in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, Memorial Day, George Floyd was having a holiday.

George Floyd grew up in Texas, in poverty. The first in his family to go to college, he went to community college for two years on a football scholarship before dropping out. He became part of a hip-hop group, then a rap group. He was arrested and served time for small time drug possession, theft and trespassing. After 8 years in and out of jail and prison, he got a new start; he became involved with a church, volunteering and mentoring young men. When work in Texas dried up, he moved to Minneapolis to start over. George Floyd’s life of poverty, police and prison is all too common in this country.

On Memorial Day last year, Big Floyd as he was known, (he was 6’4”) went to a grocery store to buy cigarettes with a $20 bill. The clerk said it was counterfeit and called the police. George Floyd ended up dead in the street, his neck and head under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. George Floyd died on Memorial Day. What kind of sacrifice is this? Did he die for freedom?

People across the country, and around the world, saw George Floyd’s murder on social media. This was not the first experience the community in Minneapolis had with police violence. Nor was it the first time that people saw this ugly truth about the United States on social media. The rage that coalesced around the murder of George Floyd was a response to decades and centuries of police violence and state sponsored murder in this country.

Even though police violence is not uncommon, the usual response from the black community is not an eye for an eye, a body for a body. Instead, since 2014 when Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, people gather in the streets shouting “Black Lives Matter.” The truly remarkable thing is that most of those in the streets channel their rage and trauma verbally. (And, many also internalize the trauma.) A few smash windows, or start fires, attacking the economic system that disenfranchises them but it is very uncommon for lives to be lost at the hands of Black Lives Matter protesters (though right wing media and white supremacist websites tell a different story.)

Pastor Isaac Villegas understands Jesus in the temple and these protesters in the streets to be part of the same tradition. He writes this in Sojourners, “In (Jesus’) cracking of the whip, in his destruction of the commercial area, we glimpse the same holy rage that rouses protestors to turn against buildings – the people’s righteous hunger for justice consuming a city, their outrage at the abusive force of police.” We might expect Jesus and the protesters to be out for blood but they are not. Instead, Jesus and the protesters go after the systems that perpetuate oppression.

George Floyd is on my mind again because jury selection in the trial of Derek Chauvin begins tomorrow morning in Minneapolis. There are vigils and protests across Minneapolis this weekend. (Maybe Anna and Nathan can tell us more after the service.) Tomorrow a group in Minneapolis is holding the George Floyd Global Day of Prayer. They are asking people all over the world to ring bells at 8 am local time and then hold silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Deep prayer is needed.

Deep calls to deep. Deep injustice calls for deep commitment. It is not a commitment that can be made lightly, one and done. This kind of systemic injustice is so deeply woven into the fabric of this country that we will be pulling at its cords and unraveling it for many generations. We will need to pass this deep commitment on to our children and our children’s children.

Deep injustice calls for deep commitment. When we are drawn by deep injustice to deep commitment, there are many ways to live it out -and we are not alone. We find many companions in this commitment, in the church, in the streets, when the streets become church. (as Rev Traci Blackmon says.) Jesus, born into poverty, disrupting the systems that perpetuate poverty, clearing and cleansing the temple, Jesus leads the way. And we are accompanied by the witnesses that will always be present with us.

The skies display God’s handiwork.
Day after day they tell their story,
and night after night they reveal
the depth of their understanding.