“Love Confronts Us”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
March 29, 2015
When we were kids, whether we grew up in the church or not, we were given particular portraits of Jesus that shaped how we understood him:
Jesus, the infant, sleeping peacefully in the manger… Jesus, the boy, debating with the elders in the Temple… Jesus on the mountaintop with the shining face, looking up to heaven… the kindly Jesus holding a little child… Jesus the shepherd, cradling a lamb in his arms… Jesus weeping at the death of his friend, Lazarus… Jesus in the upper room, kneeling down to wash the feet of his very best friends after their last supper together… Jesus praying alone in the garden when his disciples cannot stay awake with him before his arrest…
But Jesus is also a confrontational figure, provocative and challenging. And on Palm Sunday, we celebrate this aspect of his personality.
Yes, we wave our palm branches. Yes, we imagine and remember Jesus, the Messiah, riding into the holiest of cities amongst adoring crowds, shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! But he is also a rebel, riding into the stronghold of the enemy. He comes to Jerusalem to face both the religious and secular authorities who want to silence him and take his life.
If there were such things as wanted posters in those days, his face would have been all over town.
So, why? Why does he come to the one place he should avoid? Why does he ride into the most dangerous place in the world for someone like him?
To the crowds, he is fulfilling his destiny as their savior and leader. He had been walking around the countryside for several years, healing, listening, telling stories, preaching, serving… And now it is time for him to enter Jerusalem, the city of prophets and priests and kings, and to take his rightful place.
But Jesus knows that he will not be accepted there. The leaders in the Temple will not listen to him. And ultimately, his world is controlled by the Roman army, which considers him to be a rebel and an outlaw.
So, he comes to town not only to fulfill his destiny as the people’s Messiah, but also to confront the powers that be with his unrelenting message of God’s love.
When he first arrives in town, the author of Mark says that Jesus goes to the Temple and looks around before going to a neighboring suburb for the night. I imagine that he is steeling himself, building up the courage he will need for what he knows he has to do the next day.
And when that day comes, he returns to the Temple and seals his fate. He turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out those who are selling doves for the sacrifices. He disrupts the normal operation of the Temple. He makes a huge scene. He attracts attention.
Is it not written, he says, that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” But you have made it a den of robbers.
To Jesus, the whole system was corrupt. To participate in the Temple’s rituals, one had to change Roman money into Temple money. Now that doesn’t seem so bad on the surface of things. Roman money was considered unclean, so they had to exchange it for special Temple coins and then buy the birds for the sacrifice.
But like any system of currency exchange, the money changers took a fee. And then there was the cost of the doves. All of this on top of the exorbitant taxes that the Romans were collecting from everyone. The average person, visiting Jerusalem from the countryside, might not have been able to participate. Poor folks definitely wouldn’t have been able to.
So, to Jesus, this special place, this center of religious life that was supposed to help connect people with God, was in reality a place of dishonesty and of fraud and of exploitation.
And so he trashes the place out of a sense of righteous anger, loving anger. His love for the poor and the sick and the outcast, who are not able to participate in the Temple, motivates him to confront those who are profiting from the status quo.
If Jesus were to come to Hingham, what would upset him? What would he confront us about? Each of us might have a different answer to that question, but I imagine he would be upset at anything we were doing that set up a barrier to anyone. Sometimes barriers are hard to see, especially for those of us who have been coming to church our whole lives.
On a personal level, what would Jesus want to confront you and me about? What are we doing — or not doing — in our everyday lives that excludes or exploits, that takes advantage of others, or that is fraudulent? Just as the Temple was not fulfilling its role as a house of prayer, what are we pretending to do, but are not really doing?
We may not normally think of love as a confrontational thing. We think of love as a gentle thing, a generous thing. But Jesus shows us that love also stands up to that which is wrong. Love confronts.
As parents, if we never confront our children about anything, we are not loving them fully.
I’ve been reading about the civil rights marches that took place fifty years ago. Many of the marchers were not African American and were not from the South, and yet they were there to send a message to the powers that be — out of love for their neighbors.
What powers and institutions would you like to confront, for the sake of creating a more loving world?
The problem for most of us is that we don’t know how to do it very well. We either hold back from saying anything or we are too shrill or bombastic. Or our timing is off. Or we don’t get our facts straight.
Yesterday, I read a wonderful essay online about discrimination. It was passionate and insightful, and yet, the person who wrote it didn’t bother to check his grammar, and so he came across as ignorant instead of wise.
As Bob Dylan says in, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” I’ll know my song well before I start singing. When we sing prematurely, we wind up embarrassing ourselves or failing to make our point.
Jesus was well prepared to confront those in power when he entered the Holy City all those years ago. He was spiritually ready.
And today, he confronts us as well. He enters our church, our homes, our lives, and he makes a mess of our careful plans, our routines, our profit schemes. He asks us to be the kind of people God intends us to be. Hospitable. Generous. Honest. Loving. Real.
Let’s welcome him, yes, with shouts of praise, but also with open ears and open hearts. Let’s watch and listen not only as he exposes corruption and spiritual ineffectiveness, but also as he gives final instructions to his disciples, washes their feet, and serves them the bread of life.
And let us take our place at the table to be both confronted and fed by the one who loves us best.