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Turning the Tables

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There’s nothing calm about either of these Gospel readings. They stir up the routines of ordinary life, they evoke strong emotions, they challenge us in unexpected and uncomfortable ways.

Today’s texts – Luke 19: 29-40 and Matthew 21: 12-17

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

If you have been watching any of the election news on television over the last few months, you probably have seen images of the candidate entering a rally, the crowd cheering wildly and waving signs, the candidate smiling and waving back at the crowd.

You may also have seen images of dissidents in the distance, people unhappy with this particular candidate for one reason or another.

I don’t think any of the candidates have come into the rallies riding on a donkey – who knows? It’s been an odd year – but I think you can get a sense of the emotion that can surge when a crowd gathers around a cause.

Jesus on donkeyThat’s what was happening in Jerusalem as Jesus rode the borrowed donkey from the suburban village of Bethany into the city. There was a leader – Jesus – and a plethora of causes from driving out the occupying Romans to giving hope to those living on the margins of society.

“Hosanna,” shouted the crowd.

In the account from the Gospel according to Luke that we heard today, they threw their clothes on the ground as a sign of honor. In Matthew and Mark and John, they wave or lay down palm branches. But those details matter less than the enthusiasm of the crowd.

“Hosanna,” they shouted. In Aramaic, the language of that time and that region, “hosanna” meant “rescue” or “save.”

It became an expression of joy and praise for deliverance granted or anticipated. This was more than just hailing Jesus because they thought he was a cool guy or a celebrity. They expected his presence would make a difference in their lives.

That’s the first of the two emotion-packed Gospel readings that we heard today.

Jesus_Temple_CleansingThe second comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. Like the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the story of Jesus in the Temple appears in some form in all four Gospels, although the timing of it varies. In Luke’s account, it occurs on Sunday after Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem. And it’s a pretty dramatic moment.

If you want to put it in the context of this year’s news, imagine Bernie Sanders going into Goldman Sachs in the financial district of New York City and starting to turn over the tables with the computers on them.

This would not be greeted with calm by the folks in Goldman Sachs. The police would be there and in short order, Bernie Sanders would be in jail. But you can also imagine some of his followers cheering him on.

There’s nothing calm about either of these Gospel readings. They stir up the routines of ordinary life, they evoke strong emotions, they challenge us in unexpected and uncomfortable ways.

This whole week ahead spans a range of emotions in our lives. There’s the sense of community and participation in the story of Jesus’ last supper, there’s betrayal, despair, denial in the hours afterwards. There’s injustice and horror and pain and finally death on Friday. There’s a sense of loss on Saturday. And then disbelief and wonder and joy and hope on Easter.

The events of this last week of Jesus’ life touch us on a personal level many ways. But the week starts with events that are very public and very political.

Let me tell you about Hakeem and Erica, African Americans, 21 years old, from the south side of Chicago. They celebrated the birth of their first boy last July.

In April, they were looking for a car, and a dealer at one of those national used car firms in Madison said he could assist them. The dealer sold them a 2005 Chevy Aveo – for $10,900 with an interest rate of 22 percent. The Blue Book value of the car was $3,100.

Hakeem and Erica had no experience with loans or cars, and once the $360 monthly payment started kicking in, they were constantly trying to figure out what bills they could default on – rent, utilities, the car payments.

Let me tell you about Lorraine, who lived in a trailer park in Milwaukee. Matthew Desmond, a UW-Madison sociology grad, writes about her in his powerful new book called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Here’s how Matthew Desmond describes her situation:

Trailer park“Fifty-four, with silvering brown hair, Larraine loved mystery novels, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and doting on her grandson. Even though she lived in a mobile home park with so many code violations that city inspectors called it an ‘environmental biohazard,’ she kept a tidy trailer and used a hand steamer on the curtains.

“But Larraine spent more than 70 percent of her income on housing — just as one in four of all renting families who live below the poverty line do. After paying the rent, she was left with $5 a day.

“Under conditions like these, evictions have become routine. Larraine (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) was evicted after she borrowed from her rent money to cover part of her gas bill. The eviction movers took her stuff to their storage unit; after Larraine was unable to make payments, they took it to the dump.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author who has written powerful about the working poor in this nation, did a review of Desmond’s book for the The New York Times. Focusing on another one of his subjects, Lamar, who lives in a two-bedroom maggot-infested apartment, she said this place “is indeed hell, or as close an approximation as you are likely to find in a 21st-century American city.”

The power in Matthew Desmond’s book is not the heartbreaking stories of people living in poverty 90 miles away from us. It is how he peals back the layers of a system that allows exploitation of human beings.

The landlords of the trailer parks and run-down apartments are not making money in spite of the poverty of these regions but because of that poverty – just as that used car dealer in Madison could exploit a young couple expecting a baby.

pay dayPay-day loan stores, convenience stores in a food desert, the cost of taxis when bus service is not available – these not only trap people in poverty but enrich those who exploit them.

As Ehrenrich writes: “Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results.” Or in Desmond’s own words: “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

When Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem at the beginning of his last week, he found a scene of exploitation.

His problem was not that people were buying and selling things there. His problem was how the money-changers and temple leaders were getting rich off the poverty of those who came to the Temple.

Here’s how it worked.

When people came to the Temple, they needed to buy animals for their sacrifices. They had to exchange their money for the proper coins to pay the temple tax. But beyond that, the Temple was the political and economic center of Israeli life. The temple leaders worked with the Roman occupiers, sometimes even collecting taxes on their behalf. And the Temple leaders took their own cut of all the action.

Priests received a portion of every temple sacrifice and offering, wrote Edith Rasell in a piece for the UCC this week, adding that “given the large numbers who came to worship, they enjoyed a much higher income and standard of living than most other Jews at that time.”

Just as you might imagine Bernie Sanders’ followers cheering if he turned over the tables at Goldman Sachs, you can imagine Jesus’ followers cheering him on as coins flew off the tables and doves took flight while the exploiters ran for the exits.

Just to be clear, I am not recommending that we all grab palm branches and march out of here to the nearest bank and start flipping the tables.

But we might well think about the things we can do to help turn the tables in our society when those tables keep people trapped in poverty, when they do not make room for people of color or women or immigrants or anyone who does not fit a very narrow profile of who gets to sit behind the table.

IMG_8074Let’s go back to that Palm Sunday procession.

When the religious authorities in the crowd tried to get Jesus to silence his followers on the road to Jerusalem, what did Jesus tell them?

“I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

Where is our silence letting exploitation flourish? Where should we be shouting so the stones can stay in place?

The UCC’s Edith Rasell writes that “as in Jesus’ day, oppression typically happens because that is how the ‘system’ – our rules, laws, regulations, and customs – is set up.”

Yes, there are people who act without compassion, with greed, with indifference to the impact of their actions on others. The landlord in Milwaukee who evicted Lorraine from her mobile home and Lamar from his apartment was making a profit of $440,000 a year. It was all very legal. But was it moral?

Consider this from the UCC’s list of the ways the system works:

  • The “system” sets the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13, where it has been since 1991. Anyone who earns more than $30 in tips per month can be classified, and paid, as a tipped worker. Some 4.3 million workers are categorized as tipped workers; two-thirds are women.
  • The “system” allows only about one-quarter (27%) of the unemployed to get unemployment insurance. The other three-quarters of laid-off workers get no supplemental support; they must live off their savings.
  • The “system” enables wage theft – the illegal but common workplace practice of employers not paying workers all the wages they earn – by failing to enact simple safeguards to prevent it. One of those could be simply requiring that all workers get a uniform pay stub showing hours worked and wages earned.

If you listen the rhetoric in the political campaigns this year, you will hear a lot about how the system has failed Americans, particularly for those left behind by the economic recovery of the last few years.

One of the things we can do is help out individuals caught in the system. Remember Hakeem and Erika, the young couple who bought an overpriced car at an exorbitant interest rate?

One of my colleagues in ministry, Josh from The Bridge church, advocated on their behalf. I helped connect them with a lawyer to go after the car dealer. Hakeem now has a job at the Post Office, they got a zero interest car loan from a jobs program and their baby Kaiden is now walking.

So with good will, we can help individuals. But there is still the system – those tables in our economic temple – that exploit so many people.

This is not the place to offer specific solutions to all the inequities of “the system.” People legitimately can differ on the best ways to provide paths out of poverty, to treat workers with dignity, to bring equity into our society. But at least we ought to be focused on ways to do that.

There is, however, an important factor in how we talk about that.

Last week, the leaders of the Episcopal Church addressed the toxic political rhetoric that has marked this year’s politics, joined quickly by the leaders of our own UCC.

Here is part of what they said:

“Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

“In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege.

“We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.”

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, there was much cheering, there was a boisterous crowd, they were giving voice to their hopes for a better world.

When Jesus entered the Temple and turned over the tables, he was challenging at the most elemental level a power structure, a system that exploited the people of his day.

But he did more than denounce the crooks in the Temple. He did something else there that day as well – he healed the blind and the lame who came to him. Between disrupting the economic system and taking care of the most vulnerable in their midst, Jesus made himself a marked man for the rulers of his day.

And then, the Gospel writer Luke tells us, “he left them and went out of the city of Bethany and spent the night there.” He sought a place of quiet and reflection after a day of chaos and confrontation. Prayer matters as well.

Jesus took a stand and he knew its risks. As the week goes on, we will live through those risks with him and next Sunday, we will be nourished with the hope he offers. For now, though, let’s think about the mixture of courage and compassion Jesus showed and that we need as we join together in a hymn.

It’s # 191, “Before Your Cross, O Jesus.” These are more contemporary words to a familiar tune you will find on the facing page.