Sunday, October 1, 2017 – Creation IV
Genesis 29:15-28 Psalm 25:1-8 Genesis 32:22-31 Matthew 21:23-32
Occupy the Temple and Climate Change
(A chair is overturned at the front of the sanctuary, a stool as well, with two small tables and a basket scattered onto the floor. Around the moveable pulpit hangs a sign that reads: “Occupy the Temple.”)
“Welcome to the movement. Wait, you seem surprised, you didn’t come to be part of the Occupy the Temple movement? You didn’t even know about it? How is that possible – where have you been? Well, here’s what you’ve missed: Yesterday, just after riding into the city on a wave of supporters, Jesus came straight here to the Temple with purpose. You should have been here. He drove out the money changers, over turning their tables, and throwing over the seats of the dove sellers, Saying, “You call this a ‘house of prayer’? “More like a den of robbers!” And he cured everyone who came to him, you can imagine how nervous he made the chief priests and scribes! Then Jesus left for the night, cursed a fig tree on his way back into town, and now he’s back; Jesus, all his disciples. Welcome to day two of Jesus’ Occupy the Temple movement.”
“You can still see the wreckage of the cleansing of the Temple from yesterday, and here are the chief priests and elders again, to confront Jesus. They say they are “of the people,” but only the Romans believe that, we know better. They’re just puppets of the Roman Empire; Seems to me, if masses aren’t convinced of their authority, then they are in serious trouble, don’t you think? Now that Jesus is occupying the Temple, the chief priests and elders have to deal with him.”
“Did you hear them questioning his authority? “By what authority does he do all of this?” And he outwits them by answering with a question. Asking them about their understanding of John the Baptist, (after all, it’s all about integrity) whether they believe in John’s Baptism or not. And then he told this parable about two sons. And the moral of the parable is pretty clear – words don’t matter as much as actions. Actions matter to the Father. What we DO ultimately matters more than what we say. So I’m glad you joined us to occupy the Temple.”
Friends, like all radical movements and challenges to authority, how we feel about this “occupation” depends upon whose side you’re on. A challenge to a current authority necessarily calls them to account, and claims a higher authority; whether that’s fundamental human rights, or in this case, proof that God’s power is working in and through you.
Jesus knows this and so do the chief priests and elders. They question Jesus about the nature and the source of his authority. And Jesus, in his dramatic cleansing of the temple, and his occupation of it, directly challenges their authority, and claims the right to do so. With the
parable he also challenges their integrity, their worthiness to hold authority in the first place. And here’s the core of the issue – he knows that earthly authority is granted not assumed. Which is why his question about John’s Baptism puts the chief priests and elders in such a bind. They have to appease the masses to maintain control over them, because ultimately authority is granted by the many, not bestowed by rulers. They know that a denial of the legitimacy of John’s baptism won’t play well with the crowds, whose support they need. On the other hand, if they affirm that John’s baptism came from heaven, Jesus will ask them why they didn’t jump right in themselves. They answer — “we don’t know.” They have lost.
The parable of the two sons adds to their PR difficulties. Having established how these chief priests and elders heard but didn’t respond to John the Baptist, it’s quite clear which brother in the parable they represent. They talk about being of the people, but ultimately their actions don’t benefit the people.
Does any of this sound familiar? The denial of the legitimacy of a claim even though it’s true, because to admit to it would be to lose face, lose power and position, so precariously balanced on public opinion. While the ruling forces behind it all control the information and benefit from the denial. In Jesus’ time, it was the Roman Empire, with the chief priests and elders acting for them. Whose authority was only effective if people were willing to buy into it; versus Jesus whose authority stood on integrity, on actions that yielded the fruits of the kingdom: taking care of those in need, the least of us.
In our own day, we have the fossil fuel industry giants, with so much of our financial markets and national identity balanced precariously upon them. Still buying off “chief priests and elders” who are denying the legitimacy of countless scientists: ecologists and meteorologists, oceanographers and environmentalists… among others, whose concern for our collective survival has them staking their authority and earned degrees against the powers that be protesting loudly that, climate change is real, and we must act. Consider the cost if we don’t. Because whether or not you believe we CAUSED this, we are certainly making it worse through our lifestyle, and we know that not changing will ultimately cost us all. The problem is, we don’t really want to change, because, face it, we’re comfortable. So we try to convince ourselves that it won’t matter, or that it’s too late… or worse, that it’s not happening at all. Even though we know better.
But I’m not a scientist, or a politician, I’m a preacher. And this is an occupation of the Temple, a place where heaven and earth meet. This is about you and me and the well-being of our souls – and when it comes to the state of our souls, there is still time. It is better to be the son who said he wouldn’t go, and then went out and worked. It’s okay to be sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors, (or 21st Century consumers) those who see and believe in what John the Baptist is doing, and who are changed by it. We can still respond to the signs and the suffering, and show forth our own integrity… climate change affects us all, but the least of us first and foremost, those who are least resilient. We have to be willing to change; we have to for everyone’s sake, for the least of us, and for our own souls.
This past week, at the House of Bishop’s gathering our bishops unanimously approved a resolution offering support for the dioceses on the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean islands that were hit hard by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as those affected by wildfires in the West. That resolution cited the environmental factors behind such devastation and “the relationship between human consumption patterns and global climate change.” It continued: “We acknowledge that we all have a role to play in reducing the impact of our actions that result in the destruction of islands and coastal areas due to more frequent and severe storms.” “We pledge to take such appropriate actions in our dioceses to educate ourselves and our people about climate change, and to advocate policies and actions to reduce the harmful environmental impacts that have been a factor in the recent storms.”1
So, where do we start? When Jesus occupies the Temple, he brings truth, authority and integrity to back it up. Tending to the sick, the poor, the least of us… right there in the Temple. So I suppose we could start by occupying the Temple, overthrowing the money changers, and kicking out those who aren’t there to heal and take care of the least of us – just a thought. We could refuse to give authority to those who continue to deny the legitimacy of climate change.
Because the truth is, that true authority always demands a tangible connection between who you are and what you do. That’s part of what Jesus is saying in his occupation of the Temple. As Karoline Lewis puts it:
There is a correlation between word and deed, between ideas and implementation, between vision and action. Authority should only be granted when there is integrity. If persons enter into positions of authority with nary a nod to how their words are lived out, their authority should, at the very least, be questioned and ultimately, be stripped of its power.2
So, I don’t know about you, but personally, I question the legitimacy of those who deny climate change. As I see it, they’re claiming authority without the integrity to back it up. Where’s the fruit of their labor? Show me how the least of us is better off for their authority being lived out, then I will consider granting them authority.
Otherwise, I’m occupying the Temple. I’m overthrowing the money changers. I’m holding the resource extraction companies to account; and standing with the Environmental Protection Agency; and raising the bar on protections and standards, not lowering them, because I don’t trust those currently claiming authority. They haven’t earned it; I won’t grant it to them. The authority I acknowledge is that of Christ’s and the fruit of that labor is that of the kingdom. I will stand with those who protect God’s own Creation and the least of us.
Why don’t you join me? We can Occupy the Temple, and God’s Creation, together.
1 Paulsen, David: “Bishops close meeting in Alaska with letter urging ‘prayerful listening’ on race, environment, poverty,” Episcopal News Service, September 26, 2017.
2 Lewis, Karoline: “True Authority,” Dear Working Preacher, Sunday, September 24, 2017.