Pathway of Righteousness

Date: March 11, 2012
Title: Pathway of Righteousness
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

A friend of mine tells this story of his first Sunday in a new church. He was newly ordained, fresh out of seminary, and nervous, as he prepared to meet his congregation in worship for the very first time. He had checked and double-checked everything and believed that every detail was in place.

As the service began, he went to the pulpit to lead the call to worship. And wouldn’t you know it – the microphone would not work. He tried everything, but nothing would turn the microphone on. My friend began to panic and then said rather loudly, “Something is wrong with this microphone”. Whereupon the people responded, “And also with you!”

Something is wrong this morning. Something is wrong with Jesus in the Temple, clearing out the merchants and the money changers. Driving out those who were selling the cattle, the sheep, the doves – even the ones who were changing people’s money from Roman coins into Temple coins.

These folks were providing a service for people who had traveled a long way to comet to the temple. After all, travelers could hardly have packed the appropriate sacrificial animals in their luggage! And there was no such thing as a debit card for the temple tax. So they were providing a legitimate service there inside the Temple.

And obviously, something was wrong with Jesus that day. And just as obviously, something might be wrong with us today. Indeed, every time we let the worries of the world rob us of the peace of Christ, something is wrong with us. Every time we hang on for dear life to the very things we are called to give away, something is wrong with us. Every time we think of Jesus bold and angry in Jerusalem’s temple, and then imagine Jesus meek and mild in our own … something is wrong with us.

Jesus has been pushed far enough and he is asking us to join him this morning on the Pathway of Righteousness. It is a pathway which is full of disconcerting twists and turns. It is a pathway which requires careful attention and wary negotiation. It is a pathway which involves both of what St. Augustine called “hope’s two beautiful daughters … Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain that way.”

Anger at the way things are. Jesus cleansing the Temple is a stark warning against any and every false sense of security we may have when we consider the way things are – our self-satisfaction, or spiritual complacency in the face of ongoing political and economic injustice. Or our misplaced allegiances, or our religious presumption which fools us into thinking we do not need to travel the pathway of righteousness because we have already arrived at God’s destination.

There are plenty of reasons for us to be angry at the way things are, and I think it is time for us to make friends with that anger. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan reminds us that:

“Jesus was not against the Temple as such, and he was not against the high priesthood as such. His anger was a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism, against the religious leaders’ cooperation with Roman imperial control. Jesus’ way is against any capital city’s collusion between religion and imperial violence at any time and in any place.”

700 years before Jesus, the prophet Amos taught that if God has to choose between worship and justice, God will clearly choose justice every time. As if to suggest that God’s hope – and our pathway to righteousness – will always involve both anger and courage.

While it may not take very much for us to get angry at the way things are, it will surely take a fair amount of courage for us to change the status quo! It will take the kind of courage which allows us to enter – and to stay – on the pathway of righteousness with one another. To stay on that pathway where we not only acknowledge what is right. We also recognize what is wrong in the world, and even in ourselves.

We come to worship this morning distracted by many things. Some here are in real physical pain, suffering from illness. Others are consumed by grief, or confused by loneliness. Some of us are here, worried about our children, while others may fear their financial security might be slipping away. And some of us are just chomping at the bit to “get back out there” into lives so full of joy that we can hardly stand still for a few moments of reflection.

You may have heard it said that we here in the Pacific Northwest – especially in Oregon – are living in what researchers have dubbed the “None Zone.” Meaning that, when Oregonians are asked to name a religious affiliation, 63% say they are not affiliated with any church or religious institution. When asked if we are Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, Buddhist, or something else … 63% of us choose “none of the above,” compared to 41% for Americans as a whole.

Here in the “None Zone,” our neighbors and friends, our co-workers and compatriots are likely to tell us that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple – what we might call “occupying the Temple” – is spiritual theater of the highest order. And as Jesus turns over tables, he calls us to become both religious and spiritual. Jesus calls us to risk identifying with a religious group where our anger at the way things are can be yoked together with courage to change them to the way things could be in God’s realm. He calls us to be religious in our affiliation in order to be spiritual in our empowerment to see God’s presence not only here, but beyond these walls.

California’s Inyo County is home to the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney. This Sierra Nevada peak is just five feet short of measuring 14,500 feet above sea level. Less than 100 miles to the southeast, and still in Inyo County, is Death Valley. This depression’s deepest point- near Badwater, California – lies some 282 feet below sea level, and it is the lowest point not just in the 48 contiguous states, but in the whole North American continent.

There are a few neighboring mountains from which, on a clear day, you can see both of these locations. Standing on one of those peaks, it is possible to see both the lowest and the highest points.

Kind of like when we are standing in the midst of Christian community, or standing in the presence of Christ. It is possible there, with that vantage point, to see both the highest and most hopeful possibilities of life – to see things the way they could be, in God’s realm. While at the same time, to glimpse the lowest and most heart-breaking realities of the way things currently are. No wonder we need both anger and courage. No wonder we need each other on the pathway of righteousness.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr lived through two World Wars, the Depression, the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the landing on the moon, the Cold War…and everything else that came between 1892 and 1971. Niebuhr was insistent that humanity’s problems do not stem from ignorance, or a lack of intelligence, but with something far more elemental than that. Niebuhr questioned political, moral, and intellectual idealism by pointing out what he called “the limits of knowledge and the necessity of faith.”

St. Paul seems to be suggesting the same thing when he writes:

“When it’s all said and done, the sum total of the human race’s intellectual achievements don’t even begin to stack up against the foolishness of God; and the combined force of all the world’s powers is puny in comparison to the weakness of God. Sisters and brothers, you don’t have to look any further than your own experience of God’s call to see the truth of this.”

God placed a call in your life – and in mine – regardless of our place in the power structure of this world … regardless of our educational levels, or our socio-economic status. Regardless of where we have been or who we claim to know. And who are we to say that our foolishness is not in some way a part of God’s own wisdom?

When we step onto the pathway of righteousness, where anger and courage live side by side and where hope becomes a reality, because Jesus is still turning over any table that gets in the way. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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