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Change has to start somewhere. Be the positive tipping point for the world

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Third Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2024

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Mother Nature has certainly been having her say this week. A thunderstorm in Ottawa in February, followed by a flash freeze. A raging, dangerous fire in Texas, that sent smoke all the way up to us.

Scientists give us the news so often these days that all those studies blur together: the ice is melting, the ocean is rising, the world is burning. We can brace ourselves for another hot summer, with all the risks that brings to a human world. We may give thanks, jokingly, for a mild winter – even as skating rinks close early. We may, come August, soak in a warmer ocean. But these are all harbingers of an environment reaching its tipping point, our point of no return. If that hasn’t happened already.

Can we blame young people for being angry? I don’t think so. They are looking at a much different timeline than their parents. That will affect their choices, their futures, their families. Their anger is justified.

This problem, like so many of our issues, is something that just seemed to creep up on us; like the privatization of water, and our toxic air – we never meant for those to happen. It is the consequence of many small and large decisions, and one disconnected, self-serving behaviour piled on top of the other. Until those actions result in one big push, and we fall off the cliff.

I suspect that this is what happened to our merchants in the temple in Jerusalem. They hadn’t meant for things to get so out of hand. They hadn’t planned to stink up the temple with flocks of animals, to shatter the peace with their shouts of haggling, or at least that was just an unfortunate side- effect of their original goal – to make some cash. After all, they were providing a needed service. During Passover, the population of the city more than tripled. People came from Persia to Rome and all points in between. They needed animals to sacrifice – and, even the poor, who could only afford doves – couldn’t carry their animals all that way from home. They had to pay their temple tax – and they needed to exchange their currency to do it. You can just see it starting, with one enterprising farmer setting up a stall near the temple doors, with a few animals for sale. He mentions it to his banker cousin at a family dinner, and the next thing you know, the first money-mart opens for business. Another farmer. Another banker. And so on, until you need food vendors to feed the shoppers and clothing stores to dress them, and suddenly the tipping point: the temple—a place meant for worship—has been turned into a mall.

In our lives, isn’t this how it works most of the time? We don’t plan out our sins; they just happen. In our first lesson, we hear the Ten Commandments spelled out for us, as they were declared to the Jewish people by Moses when he came down from the mount. Most of us would never intentionally break any of them. When it happens, we are often surprised to look back and consider the small, harmless-seeming decisions or patterns that led to it. We don’t see it coming, however, because we choose what we want to see. We fall into ruts; or we convince ourselves that we aren’t doing anything wrong – that we are just “borrowing” the money, that we are just “protecting” someone with a lie, that we are just “comforting” a flirty coworker. But those actions, if we don’t catch them, can reach a tipping point - a lie becomes a betrayal, an intimate lunch becomes an affair, a borrowing becomes a theft. And suddenly, we are like the merchants stinking up the temple, and we cannot clean up the mess because we wouldn’t know where to start.

Jesus, as we know from the Gospel, reaches his own kind of tipping-point where this temple business is concerned. He flies into a rage. He whips the animals out of the temple. He dumps out money and flips over tables and yells at the top of his voice. This is the human side of Jesus – the Jesus who is so angry he doesn’t waste time with conciliation or prayerful reflection. He wants to make sure everyone is paying attention.

Now, there is some debate among New Testament scholars about the reason why Jesus was so ticked off. Was it because the shopkeepers were cheating people, turning the temple into “a den of thieves” as he is quoted saying in the other gospels? Or was it simply because the temple had been turned into “a marketplace” as this morning’s gospel tells it? I personally side with the first interpretation: what else besides corruption could get Jesus so angry? But either way, many religious scholars believe the storming of the temple was that tipping-point moment in Jesus’s ministry – when he could no longer turn back from his fate on the cross, when he committed to the path that God had set for him. After all, his behaviour was a direct attack on the powers that be, and it hit them in their pocketbooks, where people are most likely to feel the pinch. According to three of the four gospels, the purging of the temple was one of the last acts of Jesus’s ministry, before his arrest. He had become too much of a threat to ignore.

But for us, Jesus tips things in the other direction – away from sin and toward salvation. And Jesus sets an example for us; Jesus reminds us of the good that can come from living with intention and conviction -- that acts of kindness and courage, piled one of top of the other – can actually change the world for the better. We often forget this. Recently, my social media feed presented the story of a note a hairdresser received. An elderly lady had come into the salon, suffering from dementia. She was confused, asking the same questions again and again. But the hairdresser, the note said, had treated her like anyone else, with the care of any other client, and given her a lovely haircut. She died not long afterwards. But her husband, who penned the note, described how she had admired herself in the mirror for days. It was the happiest he had seen her in a long while. A small act of kindness that had a big impact. Just like our environmental decisions which collectively become so much larger. Our small negative actions have consequences, too. They gather power without our even knowing it - the driver we yell at for cutting us off, losing patience with a colleague, that colleague’s going home grumpy to his family, and so on. But this is also how our collective social behaviour works: it begins with one person, spreads to two, and so on, until it is felt by people we never know about.

This proves how powerful we can be in small groups. Like the examples we have right here in our communities of faith throughout this season of Lent -- with carbon fasts, food bank support, education, and activism around God’s good creation. Change has to start somewhere. Certainly it is our mission as a church community to start the chain of kindness and social responsibility.

But this is the question: Do we, through our welcoming and openness and interest in others, spread the message we want? Jesus’s anger in the temple was outlier behaviour. His ministry was built by going from town to town, speaking to fishermen by the lake and women by the wells – taking care not just to meet them, but to be someone who could inspire them to change.

For Jesus to be that tipping point in our lives and in the world depends on two things: first we must be deliberate about the kind of change we want to bring about, finding the personal integrity in ourselves by virtue of our faith to make the change. And second, we need to be the kind of people whose examples will catch on with others.

There may indeed be space for anger in the temple. Righteous anger burns like fire in the belly. But the example that Jesus sets is in the power of individual actions and choice. In the end, it was not the overturned table that defined the ministry of Jesus. It was the table he deliberately set and shared, around which everyone was welcome.


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