Jacking Up Tables
Note: The following is the transcript from my sermon this past Sunday at Emmanuel United Church of Christ. The text of the passage was John 2:13-22. It's not exactly what I said because I definitely went off book a good bit. In fact, the ending was dramatically different and included a story from my trip to Cuba, but here's the gist.
My middle school cafeteria was a multi-purpose room containing a stage at one end for concerts and other events. Since they reasonably wanted to make the transition from cafeteria to auditorium seating as simple as possible, the round tables throughout the auditorium were the kind that could be folded up and rolled into storage.
Convenience sometimes has some unintended side effects. Somewhere along the way, a student figured out how to fold the table up. And thus began one of the most brazen, disruptive things a student could do at R. P. Dawkins Middle School. We called it jacking up the table. The typical move was to do it right before lunch dismissed. The table would fold up, the middle schoolers would gasp and laugh, and the perpetrators would scurry in all directions from the scene of the crime. One time, I saw a guy jack up the table while all the people sitting at his table still had trays full of food. He obviously was a sociopath.
Whenever this happened, a teacher or principal would scream at the perpetrators with bulging eyes. It seems quaint now, but it was one of the biggest ways you could make trouble. If there was a bad table jacking spree, teachers would threaten the entire grade with assigned seating or silent lunch.
This punishment probably only caused the act’s legend to grow in our adolescent minds. I was a play-by-the-rules kind of kid. The idea of getting in trouble terrified me. So I never was party to this brand of middle school crime. And if you asked me, especially when the specter of silent lunch hovered over our heads, I probably would have expressed my strong disapproval of those table jackers. But if I were to be completely honest there was a small part of me deep down that admired their rebellion. I never wanted to take part of it myself, but there was a side of me that wished that I had the courage to do so.
Today’s text in which Jesus turns overs the tables in the Temple is his rebellious, punk rock moment. It certainly is not as juvenile and pointless as middle schoolers jacking up a table. Jesus did not drive the moneychangers out just for kicks. But his behavior is a bit troubling to us. It’s not what a nice Christian or—in Jesus’ case—a nice Jewish boy is supposed to do. I can imagine onlookers shaking their heads in disappointment saying, “He should’ve have written a strongly worded letter to the authorities rather than do something like this.” This Jesus was rebellious. He was entering the fray. He made people angry. There is something quite dangerous about Jesus in the Temple and that unsettles a safety-loving individual like me.
There are a few questions that linger around the corner of this story and, if you’re like me, those questions can distract. So I want to tackle two of those possible queries before we move on. For starters, why does the Gospel of John have the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry? All the other gospels place this story at the end during Holy Week.
Many try to harmonize these two accounts and suggest that Jesus actually cleared the Temple twice. I have trouble with that idea. If Jesus did something like this to the Temple—the spiritual, political, and economic heart of Israel—do you think they would let him near that place again? Imagine what people would have thought if Jesus came strolling back into the Temple.
1: Hey Mike, isn’t that the guy who came in here a few years back and whipped all of us and let our livestock go free?
2: Yeah, but it’s been awhile, maybe he’s calmed dow—he’s at it again!
Given that you regularly hear sermons from a religion professor, you have probably been told that the writers of the gospels did not perceive history the way that we do. They were writing about the life of Jesus but did not necessarily seek out to place events in chronological order. The gospels are theological documents and the authors had their purposes for placing events in the order in which they did. That’s the beauty of the four gospels, they highlight different perspectives and aspects of Jesus’ story. Forcing them together in one, flat story takes away the beauty of that mosaic.
The other question that I found myself wondering about was what was so bad about what Jesus saw in the Temple that day? The individuals selling animals for sacrifice and the money changers were providing services. People making pilgrimages to the Temple probably didn’t want to bring an animal on their journey and so they needed to get animals in Jerusalem. Since they were under Roman rule, the drachmas and denarii contained images of the Emperor or pagan gods. Those were unacceptable to pay the temple tax and thus the money changers exchanged the Roman currency for acceptable money, while making a small profit.
The idea of turning a sacred space into a market place and people making a buck off the sincere religious needs of individuals is likely what set off such prophetic protest. But at the end of the day, that's just a guess. All we know is that in this scene, Jesus saw something that disturbed him greatly and he could not sit idly by and let it happen.
This rebellious behavior is actually a common pattern in the life of Jesus. True, this scene is the only time that he literally flips over tables. Yet he spends his entire ministry flipping over tables in the way that he interacts with the world around him. He flips over tables of established mores when he welcomes children and dines with sinners. He flips over tables when he helps out Gentiles, defends a helpless woman about to be executed, and makes a Samaritan the hero of a story of what it means to love one’s neighbor. He flips over tables when he takes on a brutal empire not through violence or power but love and sacrifice. Again, he was not an immature middle schooler, but Jesus jacked up the table at nearly every opportunity that he got.
All of which raises an interesting question for those of us who follow Jesus and thus are called to follow his example. I mentioned early that I enjoy safety. I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to get into trouble. Yet here I am saying that I follow this rebellious Jesus. And it begs the question: where are the tables in this world that I need to flip over? I am not asking how we can metaphorically jack up these tables just for the sake of doing so. I think that we can all agree that rebellion for the sake of rebellion is fairly hollow.
There is a big movement in certain circles of the church where it is popular to be radical or countercultural. The church should be those things, but sometimes I think Christians seek to do those things indiscriminately. There are times that Christians kick against the culture when perhaps the culture has a decent point. It is important to stop, look, listen, and be aware of what’s going on before we just start flipping over tables in a blind rage. We have to ask some questions. Where are the places where people are hurting? Where are the places where people are vulnerable? Where are the places where people are in need? Where are the places where people need God?
One major example that occurred earlier this week was the way in which people rallied around Kelly Gissendaner, a woman who was scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia earlier this week. Her story is a heartbreaking story of terrible choices that has turned into a beautiful story of redemption. Convicted for planning her husband’s murder, she was sentenced to the death penalty while the actual murderer got life because of a plea deal.
In prison, Kelly came to faith in Jesus, repented, earned a theology certificate in her prison program, and has been ministering to her fellow inmates. It can be easy in our world to be cynical about such a story, but person after person has attested that she is the real deal. Yet despite her testimony and despite numerous clergy pleading on her behalf, the State of Georgia was intent on carrying out the execution.
Then a bunch of people started to turn over tables. Through the weekend, I witnessed people from different religious and political backgrounds rally on the behalf of this woman. Tens of thousands signed and shared a petition urging the State of Georgia to reconsider. People held vigils and prayed. A conversation was started in earnest over whether it is right for us the state to execute people and, though I believe the death penalty is wrong, I don’t want to ignore that this is a nuanced conversation. I'm not going to stand here and tell you what to believe. But I do think it is something we should be discussing as a society.
Kelly was not executed this past week. She is still alive. The official reason given is that the drugs for her execution was cloudy, which I find hugely problematic for a variety of reasons. There is an appeal on her behalf going to the Supreme Court. I am not saying that all of those that flipped tables over on her behalf deserve credit, but I feel like it has made a difference. It has let those in power know that people are paying attention. It has caused people in our country to think about an issue that they otherwise would not have necessarily considered.
That is a big example and that is a big issue, which is normally what we think about when we think about the ways in which Christians are called to countercultural. But the reality is some of the most rebellious ways we can live are small. When we love others selflessly it is one of the most rebellious and subversive things that we can do. That can completely upend the world in small, but significant ways that I truly believe make a difference.
Yet none of this works if we do not flip the tables in our own lives. It all rings hollow. After all Jesus told us to remove the log from our own eye before we start going after the specks in the eyes of others.
The early Christian thinker Origen once said: “Now Christ is especially jealous for the house of God in each of us, not wishing it to be a house of merchandise or that the house of prayer become a done of thieves, since he is the son of a jealous God.…[These words] forth the fact that God wishes nothing alien to [God’s] will to be mingled with the soul of anyone, but especially of those who wish to receive myst divine faith.”
If we do not ask God to drive out the sin that being peddled within ourselves, then all our table-turning is the work of self-righteous and hypocritical do-gooders. It is appropriate that our other passage this morning contains the Ten Commandments. Those commands can serve as a measuring stick for what tables might need to be jacked up in our own lives. Are there things in our life that are coming before God? Are we misusing God's name not just as a profanity, but in how we carry the name of Christ as we live? Are we killing others with hatred or anger? Are we becoming preoccupied with material things?
Of course, Jesus boiled this down even more simply. He told us that all of the Law and the Prophets could be boiled down to two things: Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself.
In light of these commandments, I encourage all of us to think of what tables we need jacked up in our own lives. It should be a question that we ask each and every day and not just during Lent. What sin in our lives do we need to ask God to drive out? What aspects of our lives are shortchanging or stealing from ourselves and others?
And then let us turn our attention outward. What tables do you need to flip over in this world? What big and small things can you disturb if you introduce the rebellious love of Christ to the situations around you? Doing this is difficult. It is scary. But may we, as followers of Jesus, have the courage to boldly flip over tables just as our Savior did.