June 8, 2012
Wilbur C. Ziegler Award for Excellence in Preaching
I. Introduction: Words of Thanks and Appreciation
I first want to thank God for the opportunities I have had and continue to have to practice the art of preaching. I thank God all the thoughtful and patient listeners that have accompanied me along the way. I particularly wish to thank the members, friends and leadership at New Covenant United Methodist Church who have seen a way clear to nominate me for this honor and especially Phoebe Richards, Dominic Andoh and William Boafo who did all the nomination work for the award review committee. I am blessed this morning to have a group of New Covenant members who graciously left East Hartford, CT at five this morning to share this honor. New Covenant folks please stand so the annual conference can welcome you.
It is truly an honor to be standing here this morning when I know there are many here today who are equally or even more qualified for this award and opportunity. It is humbling to be included among the list of Ziegler award winners and it is fitting to say a word of appreciation for all their past sermons and years ministry behind those words. I am especially grateful to one Zeigler preacher who was my pastor back in the early 1980’s at the East Longmeadow United Methodist Church. After spending over three years with the poor in Paraguay, South America it was the preaching of Scott Campbell that convinced me that liberation theology could be found outside of Latin America. Lastly, I must express my gratitude to Florence and Herb Pomeroy who also from the East Longmeadow United Methodist church were for years were my Sunday School teachers and then with the best of life examples taught me what it meant to be a Christian worker for justice and peace.
II. Text: Mark 11:15-19
Jesus entered into the city of Jerusalem and is met by a crowd of filled with excitement and messianic hope. Leaving the crowd Jesus enters the temple area and “looks around at everything” and because of the late hour he and this disciples return to Bethany. When Jesus was looking around would have observed the massive temple renovation project that was just about half way completed. At completion of the temple renovations bible historians tell us that over 18,000 workers lost their jobs. This was the mother of all stimulus projects lasting well over 80 years.
Now while all this renovation work was going on the temple worship life continued without interruption. The temple worship enterprise was in itself an incredible job producer from the baking of bread to the production of incense and sewing of curtains. The commercial and agricultural activity fueled by the temple renovations and pilgrim worship was familiar to Jesus and his disciples.
The temple area included shops and businesses that catered to the every need of the pilgrim community. Reading about the temple complex left gives you the impression that it was something like the Mall of America and the Crystal Cathedral combined. A massive marketplace and worship complex rolled into one. Joachim Jeremias writes in his book titled Jeruslem in the Time of Jesus how Rabbi ben Buta, a contemporary of Herod the Great, once delivered a herd of “three thousand cattle into the temple area to be sold for whole burnt offerings and peace offerings.”
Well, you get the picture. The temple was the center of commerce in Jerusalem. This is the context of what we have come to know as Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. So we can imagine that Jesus did not empty the whole temple market place when he “turned the tables” but surely disrupted the business environment enough to get the angry attention of the religious elite.
I agree with Ched Myers’ political reading of this passage that what was behind Jesus’ action was the way the temple market institutions exploited the poor. And for that matter Jesus was not alone in his anger over how vendors fix prices and take advantage of the limited income of the poor. There were rabbis who had for a while been working together to keep the temple marketplace fair.
So if Jesus was familiar with the temple economy and the ongoing struggle for fairness in the marketplace, what set him off on that particular day? Again, turning to Ched Myers conclusion, Jesus’ anger and action was focused on the concentration of wealth held by the ruling class. And the representatives of this class in this story are the money changers who were the street level “stand ins” for the banking industry. Also, Jesus levels his anger not only on the banking institution but also on the vendors of doves or pigeons. These were the vendors who most exploited the poor, the pilgrims with very limited income.
Jesus’ actions were clearly not aimed at shutting down the entire temple marketplace system by turning the tables, freeing the animals and restricting the coming and going of doing business. Jesus turns to the words of the prophets and convicts the religious leadership of economic crimes against poor and calls for reform of the temple life, a turning back to being a holy place where particularly the marginalized are welcomed and treated with fairness and justice not robbed of their limited resources.
III. Body: Sound Familiar?
Bill Mefford, Director of Human and Civil Rights at the General Board of Church and Society wondered out loud in a April 30th blog entry why leading up to the General Conference “many progressives have become less and less comfortable with talking about economic justice” and therefore giving up more and more ground to those who want to preserve power for the affluent and powerful.” I too am wonder about this question but not just as a matter for the progressive folks but all Christians concerned about the plight and struggles of the poor. Why we (United Methodists) are not more involved in the justice work of insuring a fair distribution of resources. Why are we not doing the organizing and advocating that is so sorely needed and particular given the circumstances and situations we are living in today. Occupy Wall Street gave us the wake up call to action, but where are we following up today? Where is the anger of Jesus over the economic injustice being carried out against the working class and the poor?
Charles Ferguson in this new book titled Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America writes, “the real challenge is figuring out how the United States can regain control of its future from its new oligarchy and re-store its position as a prosperous, fair, well-educated nation. For if we don’t, the current pattern of great concentration of wealth and power will worsen, and we may face the steady immiseration of most of the American population.”
Ferguson lists five areas of reform for “regaining control of our future.” I am not going to list all five now; you will have to read the book. But one that most of us can name right away is tax reform. I invite you to take a look at one approach from Inequality. Org. [video]
IV. Conclusion: Baptismal Identity in Action
Putting together our list of reforms for economic justice is easy but making them a reality is very difficult and particular in our current political and economic climate. And maybe this is in part why many (including United Methodists) have shied away from the task.
But friends, the struggle for economic justice is a Gospel mandate not an option. The only Gospel option is for the poor. We are called to join in on God’s mission of recreating this world-the work of reconciliation and restoration so that all of God’s people regardless of who they are, who they love and where they live enjoy the fullness of life as intended by God.
Frankly, this is what I believed that really angered Jesus, that the poor -the marginalized were being denied the resources and the rights to live a full life-a full life that is inclusive of all the economic, social and spiritual benefits of being a person of God.
While organizing for tax reform is a daunting task I believe it is possible. And to make it possible the Church of Jesus Christ must be on the front line. And as Methodists this does not come as anything we have not done before. Look at our Social Principles they are the fruit of a struggle for economic justice. Our Social Creed came out of the struggle for workers’ rights and from the Creed has come the workings of social justice (and some injustice.) Here we have it the struggle for economic justice in scripture and tradition and surely out of the depths of our reason and experience.
But there is one last element and it strikes at the very heart of who we are as a people. The struggle for justice, equality, fairness and liberation is at the core of our baptismal identity. Walter Brueggemann wrote that it is our “baptismal identity that makes us odd and free and able” to promote, advance and live an alternative way of life. It is all in our baptismal vows, you know them, “the four Rs” “renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, repenting of our sin. It means accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Friends, by the gift of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we have been initiated into resistance movement of Jesus Christ. We the baptized individuals and communities, “odd, free and able” who have been called and commissioned to resist and create a new world where all enjoy the active will of God’s love, justice and peace.
And yes from time to time it will require the upsetting of the structures and systems. Yes, some tables will be turned and those who exploit the marginalized will be chased out. But all in all it surely won’t be the first and surely won’t be the last.
I thank God and you for this opportunity to honor the life and ministry of Rev. Wilbur (Bill) Zeigler. May the peace of God be with you and Jesus’ passion for justice of Jesus fill your hearts and move your feet. Amen.
Jesus cleansing the Temple