Turning Tables – March 4, 2018
Some weeks it feels like the world is going mad. Or maybe it’s not some weeks but every week. Or maybe the mad world is finally starting to right itself. Whatever the case, it’s like our metaphorical coins are being poured out and our cultural tables are being turned over. And amidst the anger, the protest, the chaos… perhaps I’m not alone in hoping that, in the end, it will indeed be about good news and not just… chaos.
In the past couple of weeks, in the wake of yet another school shooting, we’re witnessing an unprecedented uprising, lead by high school students, about American gun culture. The critique of offering only “thoughts and prayers” began a while back but amidst the grief, the anger, and the indignation this time, it has taken a surprising turn. The dominating table, the commerce, of the NRA and gun manufacturers is being shaken in ways we’ve never seen before. It remains to be seen if it is a table that will be overturned. The gun culture is primarily American… it is an American issue and not really our business. And yet this week, at least 2 Canadian retailers: Mountain Equipment Coop and The Running Room, have announced that they are cancelling their relationship with some brand-name sporting goods whose parent company also manufactures high-powered rifles. We too see the news… the horror of kids dying, and so Canadian cries are adding to others in an effort to overturn that which destroys; to make a change; to stop schools, movie theatres, concerts… the public square… from becoming killing grounds.
Of course, we here in Canada are not immune to the turning over of our own cultural tables with the cries of “enough!” This week an article was released online by our National Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald titled “Spiritual Struggle, Systemic Evil.” It will be published in the April Anglican Journal. It’s his reflection about the recent acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan. Bp MacDonald addresses [quote]: “… some of the deep truths this matter reveals. The deep and wide presence of systemic evil in Canadian society and culture has become clear to a larger group of Canadians. Recognizing this, may we perceive that there is no healthy way forward for Canada without an effective dismantling of the systemic evil we call racism.” He goes on to reflect not on the conscious attitudes of individuals… we all know about the expectations of political correctness… but rather he focuses on “the systemic nature of racism… [and the] bias and fear of ‘the other’ [that] are still embedded in all the various structures and institutions of our society…” Along with many others, Bp MacDonald calls for tables to turn… for the persistent peddling of racism, a trade upon which too much of our society has been built, to be driven out.
Finally, in the past several months we have been bearing witness to what could be a sea-change, an over-turning of the table of gender, particularly as it relates to sexual harassment and sexual assault. It ostensibly began in Hollywood with a tsunami of accusations against Harvey Weinstein in the late fall but we witnessed its precursor here in Canada with the Jian Ghomeshi case. This time, with Hollywood whipped up, the social media campaigns #MeToo and #TimesUp have quickly turned the tables. The chaos of changing times is clearly not over with new accusations, and consequences to go with them, coming weekly. Nobody can know where it’s all going or where it will end up. But tables are shaking, maybe turning, and while harassment and abuse in Hollywood might seem a far away problem, it is also impacting many right here in Calgary. There was a news report this week about the Calgary Police needing more detectives and sexual assault centres in crisis due to the sharp increase in reporting recently. Some might wonder if the discomfort, the confusion, the chaos, of it all is worth it. We wonder when might we know; how we might know… if we will receive a sign that any or all of this is actually good news? Or is it just disruption and chaos?
Today we hear a Gospel story, a good news story, about Jesus causing chaos in the Jerusalem Temple. It comes to us from the Fourth Evangelist, John, who tells it at the beginning of his account of Jesus. Unlike the other gospel writers who put this story near the end of Jesus’ ministry, as a precursor to his crucifixion, John includes it at the beginning. One commentator describes how this placement “serves a symbolic function,” writing: “The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1-11 revealed the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13-22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order.” (NIB, 543) There is something potent about the observation that the new life for which Jesus comes poses a threat to the existing order. In other words, the 2 stories that begin the action in the Gospel according to John: the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and Jesus’ disruption at the Jerusalem temple, highlight the old adage that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t have Jesus’ miraculous and abundant new life while holding on to the way things are.
Common interpretations of this story often focus on the “extortionist practices of the Jewish temple authorities.” (NIB, 543) In other words, they focus on the dishonest and unjust ways that those in charge abused the religious system for their own gain. It is an interpretation supported by Jesus’ quote of Isaiah in the synoptic gospel that refers to making the temple a “den of robbers.” But here in John’s telling there is a different focus. Jesus cries: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” The problem is that in the culture of the day, the Jerusalem temple was the centre of public life in every way: politically, economically, socially and religiously. The economic trade in sacrificial animals and in money changing was a necessary part of the system as people travelled from great distances to fulfill their religious and civic obligations. It was simply “the way it is.” Probably even “the way it’s always been.” That it could be abused, and that it likely was abused, isn’t really the issue. It’s just the way it is.
And so, as a commentator explains, Jesus “confronts the system itself, not simply its abuses… Jesus’ charge is a much more radical accusation in John than in the Synoptics. Jesus issues a powerful challenge to the very authority of the Temple and its worship.” (NIB, 543) I can’t help but think of the high school students who challenge the authority of politicians supported by the NRA; of indigenous people who challenge imbedded, systemic racism; of harassed and violated women who challenge the unchecked power of men in positions of authority. Challenging authority is risky and dangerous business. And it is rarely welcomed… particularly by those who stand to lose power, but even those who stand to gain… respect, equality, life. Everyone can feel threatened and scared by the prospect of changing systems.
For the average people of his time, Jesus’ words and actions at the temple were likely experienced as scary, as much as they were hopeful. As uncomfortable, as much as they were exciting. Jesus challenged the rules of his day even though it’s the rules that keep us safe. More, in challenging the system, Jesus would have seemed to be working against what is right, what is godly. The problem was, however, that the system had become “so embedded in its own rules and practices that it [was] no longer open to a fresh revelation from God…” Like people in many different times and places, the people of Jesus’ world, the rulers and ruled alike, had forgotten that the active and alive presence of God in the world can be unpredictable… and that God’s revelation of God’s will, God’s way, indeed God’s very self, is present and moving in every generation.
Whatever you may think of the movements challenging authority in our time and place, it is worth pondering where or how the Spirit of God is present, involved and moving. In our personal and corporate lives, it’s worth wondering if we want to hold on to what we know just because it’s the system we know, or if we are open to a fresh revelation from God. The good news today is that a main purpose of our Lenten journey is to help us let go of whatever we need to let go, to make us ready to receive the new life God brings us at Easter.
Today our good news story is about the challenge and threat that the new life offered by Christ poses to the existing order. Whether the tables that may be turned are in our personal lives… familiar patterns and ways of being… or in our communal life as St. Andrew’s… or in the broad movements of social change that inevitably impact us all… we can take heart in knowing that sometimes, it’s Jesus who causes chaos and disruption, for the purpose of making way for new and transformed life, at all levels. We can take heart that this same Jesus will remain with us through it all. And we can take heart that the abundant life – the kingdom of God – that waits for us on the other side is full of peace of joy. It is good news.