“Shut it down!” is a frequent protest chant. Often “it” is a street or highway. Turns out that on the day of the Super Bowl “it” was a light rail train. In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, “it” was the temple. People traveled to Jerusalem from far and wide at Passover time. Their way of worship was through animal sacrifice. And yet, traveling on foot, they could not bring the needed animals with them. They had to buy them when they arrived in Jerusalem, thus the vendors in the temple. Jesus shut all this down. “Stop making God’s house a marketplace!” he yelled, turning over the tables of the money changers and driving them out with a whip.
Biblical scholar Marilyn Salmon offers some important context. She explains that Jesus’ anger was likely directed at the Roman authorities who controlled the temple. She writes:
Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous in their authority even over religious matters. Roman officials appointed the chief priest and he served their interests. Roman coffers benefited from the marketplace that supported sacrificial rites. A disruption at the marketplace at one of the temple courts during a festival season like Passover affected Rome’s revenues. . . . We cannot know what Jesus had in mind by his angry demonstration, but he could not have been unaware that it would get the attention of Roman authorities.
Jesus shut the temple down.
Over the centuries, this interruption of business as usual, like much in the Gospel of John, has been read in an anti-Jewish way. So let me say clearly: Jesus wasn’t against Judaism. He was a Jew. What so disturbed him in this moment was the way empire co-opted the temple, the priests, the liturgy, and ultimately the very lives of the people. A faith that had liberation at its heart was being used to control and oppress, to sustain an economy rooted in fear, greed, and violence.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I participated in a protest that was an elaborately planned and incredibly well executed act of political theater. The “red team” was a group of white folks; they were, very intentionally, the ones seeking arrest. They chained themselves together and then to the tracks. There were liaisons to the police and the light rail conductor; there was a medic team, a legal team and a security team. Our role as clergy was to serve as moral witnesses and to deescalate and distract angry people. Meanwhile, the black folks, called the “onyx optics” team, provided the message. They performed on the platform, chanting, singing and dancing, calling on the strength of their ancestors. They wore shirts proclaiming, “You can’t play with black lives.”
“It’s not about being anti-football,” Veronica Mendez Moore from the Twin Cities [labor organization] CTUL told the Nation. “It’s about being against a corporate party that’s extracting from our communities and creating an environment of militarization, while increasing wealth at the top at the expense of those at the bottom.” The protests on that weekend were about how we, as a society, allocate our resources, about our priorities, about what we value. They intended to point out that the sacrifice of many people’s wellbeing is required so that our society can appear to hum along smoothly. In order to preserve the status quo, the voices of some must be silenced, their bodies kept under constant threat.
It’s true that this way of being is choking the life out of all of us. And yet, it’s important to recognize that protests that shut it down are not primarily about convincing people, about winning friends and allies, about influencing public opinion. They are an expression of power. They are a demand. They are saying, “Factor us in as a force to be reckoned with as you make your plans.”
It seems to me that Jesus’ shutting down of the temple was also an act of political theater designed to express power. Jesus pulled the plug on temple’s operations in order to demonstrate that the temple was not serving the heart of God, but the heartless ways of empire. “Destroy this temple,” he declared, “and in three days I will raise it up.” Those present thought he was boasting about his ability to renovate a building in ruins. But instead he was talking about how he would restore the heart of humanity and creation. How, with his own body, he would shut down the ways of death and unleash the power of life. The machinery of empire is so loud and so pervasive it seems to be all-powerful. But this is in fact an illusion. The body, the body of humanity and creation in right relationship with God—that is in fact the only real thing, the only true authority in the universe. Our lives are the temple, the sacred space God inhabits. We are God’s dwelling place and that is our power.
Protest, Jesus-style, is about claiming the power of life in a world that is captive to the ways of death. On March 24, teens across this nation will be leading us in such a protest. The March for Our Lives aims to shut down the dominant conversation around gun violence, to insist that another voice, a new story be heard. A group of teens from the Minnesota Conference of the UCC will be traveling to Washington, D.C. for the March. Zach Dyar will be with this group. Maren Stone is also going, with a group from her school. And many of our teens are marching here in the twin cities that day. Can you show up on March 24 at the State Capitol, to follow the lead of our youth, to amplify their voices at this critical moment? I can’t be present at the March for our Lives, since I’ve made a commitment to attend my senate district convention as a faith delegate. So I will be supporting this effort with my checkbook. Our family will be paying the way for one youth or adult leader to travel to DC with the Conference group. (It costs $750.) Will you join us in offering what you can? Make checks out to First Church with March four our Lives in the memo. Are you interested or available to accompany the group as an adult leader? Please let me know.
In one of our Lenten groups, we’re learning about centering prayer. Centering prayer is the simple act of letting go, shutting down our smaller selves for a time so that we can participate in the greater Self. The greater Self is our own deeper self and the greater Self is God and the greater Self is the interconnection, the unity, of all that is. In her book on Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault writes this:
[Jesus’] idea of “dying to self” was not through inner renunciation and guarding the purity of his being, but through radically squandering everything he had and was. In life he horrified the prim and proper by dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, by telling parables about extravagant generosity. . . . It is not asceticism, but tantra—love utterly poured out . . . that opens the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what Jesus taught and what he walked.
And he left us a method for practicing this path ourselves, the method he himself modeled to perfection in the Garden of Gethsemane. When surrounded by fear, contradiction, betrayal; when the “fight or flight” alarm bells are going off in your head and everything inside you wants to brace and defend itself, the infallible way to extricate yourself and reclaim your home in that sheltering kingdom is simply to freely release whatever you are holding onto—including, if it comes to this, life itself. The method of full, voluntary self-donation reconnects you instantly to the well-spring; in fact, it is the wellspring. (p. 86-7)
Friends, when I am involved in protests that involve shutting things down, I don’t feel comfortable. I question the methods and disagree with the chants being shouted. I get confused, afraid and self-conscious. And I am pretty sure that these feelings are symptoms of the socialization I have unconsciously received into a position of privilege and power. This discomfort is an indication that the system of oppression is working, that empire’s deathly ways are humming along and doing their job. But the distress I feel is also evidence that something else is happening. God is at work in discord and conflict just as much as God is at work in peace and harmony. God is at work in the fear of letting go and the pain of shutting it down. God is the power of a new voice, a new story, that feels death but is in what raises us to life. Amen.