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Last year the Episcopal Church released a book called “Realizing Beloved Community,” a publication of the House of Bishops’ theology committee. It examines one of the greatest threats to Christianity today, and indeed to our democracy as well: white Christian nationalism. This is not only an ideology but a heresy that seeks out the power of the nation to exert what some believe is the power of God. It subjects God’s power to the nation’s power, making redemption and life in God only possible if God can rule through earthly powers and principalities. It is the highest and most egregious form of idolatry. We have seen this heresy at work as recently as this past week, in the ruling in the state of Alabama. Christian religious language is woven throughout the ruling. We see this heresy at work whenever people claim to believe in Jesus but the power they trust is in fact a political party, or a former president, and the laws they seek to fulfill ensure the oppression or even destruction of people of color, queer people, women, and immigrants. And we know this is heresy because it seeks to destroy the very people Jesus spent his earthly ministry reminding of their inherent worthiness and belovedness.

In the words of the pastor Benjamin Cremer, “It tragically reveals how little we Christians truly believe in the power of Christ when we act as though his kingdom is dependent upon a political party, supreme court, president, and a nation maintaining, advancing, and enforcing his will.”

It’s enough to make true Christians wish they could do what Jesus did, to use the whip of justice to clean out the corruption in our own temples of power. Yet, we know that only Jesus has the courage and the authority to do so. All we are able to do is wait and repeat the words of the Psalmist, “How long oh Lord, how long?”

The story of Jesus and the money changers in the temple takes place in the first Passover of his public ministry and his first known visit to Jerusalem as a grown man according to John’s gospel. The other gospels put this visit just before his arrest and crucifixion. As one scholar notes, early in his ministry, Jesus still considers the Herodian Temple his “Father’s House.” But by the end of his ministry, when he weeps over Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” he declares it to be the people’s temple. “See, your house is left to you,” he cries, and the implication of desolation is in his words.

And this episode is rather uncharacteristic of Jesus. For the entirety of his public ministry, Jesus is calm, self-differentiated, non-anxious, clear on his mission. Think of how he was in front of Pilate, or with the woman caught in adultery, or in the boat with his disciples while a storm was raging. The epitome of calm. So why did Jesus become so angry when he saw his father’s house being made into a marketplace?

Well, as our lesson from Exodus tells us, in the Ten Commandments, idolatry of any kind was forbidden by God. You shall have no other gods before me. The money changers had a purpose: taxes had to be paid to the Roman overlords, but the Roman money carried the image of Caesar on it. The High Priests, considering this image idolatry, had ordered that the money paid in taxes should be converted to the shekel in order to be acceptable for Temple business. In that exchange, a great profit went into the coffers of these same priests. Anyone of us who has had to exchange our dollars for foreign currency knows how crippling that can be. Jesus knew that this was both profanity of the Temple and exploitation of the poor citizens. It was another form of idolatry—here the idol was earthly gain, a god ever present both then and now—a god not named by his followers but worshipped nonetheless.

Jesus also knew that his acts in the courtyard of the Temple would bring him in direct conflict with these same high priests, but this did not cause him fear. At this point in his earthly ministry he is very popular with the people, so the priests don’t dare touch him. As his interpretation of who God is and what God demands of us continues throughout the land, he becomes a stumbling block to the high priests, and the people, not getting the signs that they demand, agree to his death. But on this first Passover in Jerusalem, filled with the Holy Spirit, he burns with the fire and power of Truth. Afraid of that fire, they don’t dare touch him, but their desire to see him dead begins on that day.

A few decades after Jesus’ death, Paul will articulate this all very clearly to the Corinthians. The Jews, Jesus’ and Paul’s own people, were scandalized by Jesus’ courage, by his claim to know the mind of his father, by his willingness to meet his death without any retaliation or violence. To the Gentiles, with whom Paul is sharing what he learned from Christ, all this is foolishness. It goes against their own admiration for wisdom and philosophy, even for courage in battle. Paul summarizes the reaction to the acts of Jesus in brilliant brevity: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In today’s gospel story, John shows the scandalous activity of Jesus in all its glory. The leaders of the Jews had fooled the people with a piety that had become idolatry and had allowed physical structures to take the place of a God who demanded, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Our culture has forgotten this command also, and so many signs or symbols today have been turned into idols: the Ten Commandments are not obeyed, but their depiction on stone is approved; the flag that is supposed to remind us of the human longing for freedom becomes an idol to be worshipped; money that should be used to educate and feed children becomes an idolatrous acquisition for those who already have too much of it, while our streets fill with unhoused people; schools and libraries, once safe havens where information was made publicly available, have become battlegrounds to slaughter truths about racism, homophobia, and bigotry. Guns, instruments of death only to be used in the extremity of war or self- protection, are worshipped as symbols of freedom as they have become the leading cause of death of children in this country; medicine, health care, means of healing, the very thing Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry dedicated to, is cast not as a right for all people but a privilege for the few.

We need Jesus’ courage to cleanse the temples of idolatry. We long for his kind of integrity that dares to call out the oppressors, no matter who they are. We pray for the power to overthrow the tables of the moneychangers who cheat the poor and the voiceless. In Paul’s words, we too must “proclaim Christ crucified.” Nowhere does Paul ever speak of a prosperity gospel.

As we approach Holy Week, we need the love and the passion that can sustain us even unto death. We will be laughed at when we resist the culture of our day, but we will remember with Paul that, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Let us be aware, more than ever during this season of Lent, that the power of God goes with us. Amen. the-idolatry-of-the-age-lent-3-b-2018/

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