Sunday 14 • 9 Jul 2017

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Romans 7:14-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Rev. Chris Udy

It’s been a week
of protests and demonstrations
all around the world.
In Turkey thousands of people joined
a 425 kilometre march that will end today,
protesting the jailing of 50,000 people,
and the sacking of 150,000 public servants
as part of a purge by President Erdogan.
Turkish authorities responded
by arresting Amnesty International workers
as a warning to those who might want
to criticise their control.
In Poland, apparently,
the government bussed in thousands of people
so President Trump would have a sympathetic audience
for a speech he wanted to give –
mostly about things happening in America -
but the world’s attention focussed on
what looked like a snub
from the Polish President’s wife.
And in Germany, at the G20 summit
no-one seems to be interested
in what the world leaders are saying –
but everyone’s trying to analyse
the politics of the handshake
and the significance of Angela Merkel’s eye-roll.

Protests and demonstrations capture attention.
Those who control the world’s money and power
may also want to control
what people think and say –
but even when it’s dangerous,
and even when those in power respond
with fearful and brutal repression,
demonstrations and protests still go on.
Our gospel reading for today
is part of Matthew’s account
of the protest and demonstration Jesus led
when he rode his donkey into Jerusalem.
Jesus might not have worn a costume
or carried a banner –
although some think palm branches
are as close to a banner as 1st century Palestine had,
but there’s no doubt
that Jesus was intending to be disruptive
to those who wanted to keep things
under their control
during their international gathering
which was the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem.

Matthew tells us
that when Jesus came to Jerusalem
he went straight to the Temple
where everything was gearing up
for Passover a week later.
The Temple forecourt was full of stalls -
no doubt selling all kinds of souvenirs
and special mementos -
but especially stalls selling sacrificial animals
and stalls for changing money.
People came to the Temple wanting to buy
a lamb for their Passover meal -
a lamb that had been checked by the priests
and was suitably pure and blessed and holy -
but they couldn’t buy a Passover lamb
using ordinary money -
that would pollute the sacrifice
and make the animal impure.
Roman money – the currency of imperial control -
the money everyone used in the market
had the emperor’s head on one side;
it was therefore considered idolatrous and unclean -
but Roman coins could be exchanged
for currency made by the Temple,
for which, of course, the Temple levied a charge -
and as long as no-one made a fuss
or created a nuisance,
everything worked just fine.

Until Jesus arrived.
John says Jesus made a whip of cords
and drove the animals out of the temple.
He poured out the coins
from the money-changers’ bags
and overturned their tables.
He accused the Temple administration of corruption –
turning God’s house of prayer
into a den of thieves,
and from that time on, the gospel writers say,
the religious and political leaders
looked for ways to get him out of the way.
Finally, as we know,
Jesus was arrested
and the religious leaders colluded
with the political authorities -
who wanted to keep things calm in the city
during their special event -
to have this annoying
and inconvenient trouble-maker Jesus
dealt with and silenced for good.

Except that he wasn’t.

There’s always been an uneasy relationship
between church and state.
In the year 312 AD the Emperor Constantine
tried to domesticate the Christian movement
and turn it into an instrument of the Roman Empire.
Just 10 years before that - in 303AD -
Emperor Diocletian had been convinced
that Christians were undermining
the fundamental values of Rome
because they wouldn’t sacrifice to the Roman Gods -
including the God-Emperor - Diocletian.
Diocletian ordered all Christian churches destroyed,
all sacred texts and liturgical vessels confiscated,
and all Christian leaders and priests arrested.
So many were rounded up
that the prisons couldn’t accommodate them,
so most of them were quickly released -
but a year later - in 304AD -
all the citizens of the Roman Empire were ordered,
on pain of death -
to sacrifice to the Roman gods -
and that’s when Christians - who refused to obey -
were sent to the lions.

Those in power will always want stability and calm.
Those who are in control and doing well
will pretty much want things
to stay the way they are
because they benefit most from law and order.
They’re happy to host summits and celebrations
as long as they’re good for business;
delegates and pilgrims and tourists and visitors
spend money on food, and accommodation,
and entertainment, and souvenirs -
and although they clog up public transport
and upset some of the locals,
if the rulers can get a few photo opportunities
of themselves with other powerful people
doing the things that powerful people do,
for them it’s probably worth the aggravation.

Religious leaders like celebrations also –
like this week’s Hillsong conference.
It makes us feel a little less alone
in a world where faith communities are shrinking
and what we believe and think and do
seems alien and strange.
Religious leaders are especially encouraged
to find there’s a group of people
where what they have to say
is seen as relevant, and received with respect.
This week’s conference
may not have made many headlines
or been reported on TV,
but religious leaders are often attracted
to gatherings of the faithful
in large congregations;
we like to think that numbers
are an indication of significance and success -
especially if the numbers
seem to be on our side.

The problem is that Jesus never had numbers.
Even at the height of his popularity,
when the disciples returned from their mission
and a crowd followed them back
to be fed beside the sea with bread and fish -
Jesus’ biggest crowd was 5000 people -
and by the time Jesus had travelled to Jerusalem,
stirred up the Temple,
annoyed the religious leaders
and inconvenienced the political rulers,
even that crowd of 5000 people had disappeared.
Just a few days later,
when Jesus was arrested,
tried on a political charge and sentenced,
he was on his own.

Crowds are fickle.
They can be on your side one moment
and on your back the next,
and Jesus certainly had no illusions
about where he stood with the general population.

In this morning’s gospel reading
Jesus had been talking to the crowd
about John the Baptist -
who was, like Jesus, an outsider,
an awkward and uncomfortable man
who found himself at odds with almost everyone
and finally lost his head for criticising King Herod.
“What did you expect
when you went out to see John?” Jesus asked;
“A reed in the wind?
A man in a royal robe? - No!
You went to see a prophet,
and even more than a prophet -
this is the one who was sent by God
to prepare the way for me.”
Then Jesus went on, and we read today
“But to what will I compare this generation?
It is like children
sitting in the marketplaces
and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
For John came neither eating nor drinking,
and they say, ‘He has a demon';
the Son of Man came eating and drinking,
and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

John was harsh and critical;
his lifestyle was too hard
and his morals were much too high,
and the crowds didn’t like him
because he wouldn’t compromise
and he made a lot of people feel uncomfortable.
Jesus was welcoming and accepting;
he ate meals with outcasts
and declared God’s forgiveness
and the crowds didn’t like him
because he befriended people
everyone else had rejected -
he also made many people feel uncomfortable.
Neither John nor Jesus could hold the crowd -
they never kept the numbers -
but God was present and active in them
even - maybe especially -
when they were utterly on their own.

For most of us,
that sense of being isolated and exposed
is frightening and painful.
We’re social animals,
we desperately want and need to belong,
so it’s enormously daunting
to know that we don’t fit in,
or to have a sense that we need to speak up
about something we know
will not win us approval.
It’s much easier to stay silent
and let the loud and lazy voices
of prejudice and habit win.

But if we are disciples of Jesus -
if his life is to be the template and model for ours,
days will come when we can no longer keep quiet.
Sometimes we will need to say
that we don’t see the world as others see it.
Sometimes we will need to defend
people we respect and care about.
Sometimes we will need to say
that a comment is cruel,
or a joke’s not funny;
or that a statement is untrue,
or that someone’s attitude isn’t helpful.
We’ll always need to speak with humility
and with compassion for those we challenge
as much as those we defend -
but sometimes days will come
when we have to take a stand.

Whatever the issue may be,
whether it’s about accepting the costs
of environmental damage and climate change,
or affirming everyone’s right
to question and to challenge,
or encouraging women to leadership in the Church,
or defending gay and lesbian people
from violence and abuse
in our communities and congregations -
whatever the issue may be,
we need to be informed and prepared,
not only by the media
and by our own experience -
but also by the resources of faith -
the support of a worshipping community,
the insights of Christian reflection and prayer,
and the moral strength of an examined conscience.

Biblical scholars have robust discussions
about many of the things we read in the Bible -
but on one thing they’re entirely united.
When Jesus walked into the temple forecourt
to challenge the religious
and political authorities of his day
he wasn’t being naive
or expecting that God would somehow rescue him
from the uproar that would follow.
He knew that confronting the powers
would be difficult and fearful and dangerous.
He took his stand,
not because he wanted to make mischief,
but because he’d already spent three years
with people who’d been crushed and damaged
between political corruption and religious bigotry.
He was only one person, speaking and acting alone,
but when he went to the temple in Jerusalem
he carried the hopes and concerns
of all those people with him,
and he became their presence and voice
in the courts of power.

We may sometimes feel isolated and alone,
but when we’re moved by compassion,
when we speak in conscience,
and when we act for justice,
we continue the work that Jesus began,
and in the passage that closed
the gospel reading for today
Jesus also promised us
his company and his peace
for the work we take up in his name.
The image is of horses in a team,
where the yoke they use
spreads the weight of the work they do
and makes it possible to move much more together
than they could do alone.
So, when the day comes,
and we need to take action;
when we’re daunted by the world’s distress
and wondering what difference
we could possibly make on our own,
Jesus says:
"Come to me,
all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."