While this is a sermon I preached two years ago to fellow seminarians and pastors at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, it is the lectionary text for this Sunday, Nov. 17 and touches on issues that we still are dealing with today.
Luke 21:5-19: “Time To Protestify” – 26th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 28C
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
If you talk to me pretty often or you are a friend of mine on facebook, you have probably heard from one of my rants or seen on at least one of my posts that I keep up with the Occupy Movement in the news and have been participating in several marches with numerous advocacy groups around Chicago. Now the question I often get from people who hear that I participate in these protests – particularly from church clergy – is: what are these folks protesting?
Let’s just start by giving a short answer to this very large and complex question. According to an article in Business Insider by Henry Blodget: CHARTS: Here’s What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About, three years after the financial crisis, unemployment rates in the U.S. are still at the highest level since the Great Depression; jobs are scarce and at least about 14 million Americans who want to work cannot find jobs; and the number of Americans with jobs right now is the lowest its been since the 1980s. At the same time, corporate profits just hit another all-time high; CEO pay is now 350 times the average worker’s pay; and according to a recent study: in the last 30 years, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans increased 275% and the income for the next richest Americans increased 65% – while the income of middle class households increased only 40% and the lowest incomes increased only 18%.
Additionally, in terms of net worth, the top 1% of Americans own 42% of the financial wealth in the country and the top 5% own 70% of this country’s wealth. The crisis doesn’t end here. The richest 1% of Americans have a lower aggregate tax rate than the next 9% of Americans, and this tax rate is not much higher than it is for everyone else in the country. On top of all this, a few years ago we may recall that the banks were bailed out in order to help put money back into the economy, but instead of lending to American businesses, they have been buying risk-free treasury bonds and collecting interest for their own profit. At the same time, while banks are not paying their fair share in taxes and while there are currently more proposals to make tax breaks on large profit corporations, major budget cuts are being proposed on programs for the people who need programs the most: such as social security, HUD programs, Medicaid/Medicare, after-school programs and food pantries. And numerous jobs are being cut: such as librarians, CTA workers, construction workers, and school teachers – to name just a few.
The list of issues about this large inequality gap between the rich and the poor and the economic crisis could go on and on and we haven’t even started on the housing crisis yet. So this may give us a bit of an understanding of why Occupyers are camping out in the streets for months at a time in order to make their voices heard. People are suffering, and the number of people who are suffering is growing fast.
There are several similarities between the economic situation in the U.S. today and the economic situation of First Century Palestine, which was an important issue for the writer of Luke. Just like in the U.S. today, the economic gap between the rich and the poor at the time the Gospel was written, was extremely large. While the lower and middle classes made up the majority of the population – at least 90%, the small group of elites, owned most of the wealth, received special treatment, often did not work for their wealth, and increased their wealth at the expense of the poor. Additionally, there were great numbers of people who were labeled by society as unemployable – including the lame and the lepers – and there were no governmental programs that enabled these people to have something to fall back on so that they could take care of themselves.
Not only this, but the religious leaders – the Sadducees and the scribes in Jerusalem – were part of this elitist class and used the temple as a place where they could gain financial profit at the expense of the poor and marginalized. We see examples of this throughout Luke and particularly in chapters 19 through the beginning of 21, which immediately precede our passage for today. In these chapters, Jesus enters the Temple, drives out all who were selling in it and declares that they turned what should be a house of prayer into a den of robbers: where the money changers – who would often inflate the currency rates – and the merchants – who had control over the prices of livestock they sold to the people for Temple sacrifices – would often take advantage of the poor. Soon thereafter, Jesus continues to teach in the Temple and warns his disciples about the scribes – who walk around in long robes, like to receive special attention and high honors in public places, and who devour widows’ houses. And in the first four verses of chapter 21 – which are the verses that immediately precede our passage for today – Jesus points out an example of how the elite devoured these widow’s houses: by allowing a poor widow to place two coins (all that she had to live on) into the treasury, and thus leaving her to fend for herself in such a brutal society with no money.
And this is where we come to our passage for today. At this point, some of the people in the Temple begin talking about the Temple structure. What is interesting about this is that they do not seem to process what Jesus has been teaching about since he entered and cleansed the Temple. It all seems to just go in one ear and out the other. Because instead of responding to Jesus’ rebuking of and warnings about the elite and the leaders in the Temple who were taking advantage of the poor and the widows, they focus on the Temple building, which was made with expensive and beautiful elements, stones, and gifts that were given to the Temple. Nevertheless, Jesus gets the people back on track and points out that there will be one day when these elements, gifts, and stones will all be thrown down.
Now, while the readers of Luke would have known Jesus was speaking about the destruction of the Temple – as they would have already lived through it, Jesus’ words had two additional possible meanings here. First, this actual “throwing down” of the expensive gifts and stones symbolizes what those material items represented in the Temple. You see, these gifts would have been given to the Temple either by:
A. the elite in order to gain respect and status OR
B. the poor, who would have spent much of their finances in order to purchase these gifts, and consequently, would have been left with very little to live on (like the widow immediately before our passage).
Thus, the “throwing down” of the stones also represented the “throwing down” of what the Temple had become: a den of robbers and a place where the elite gained additional wealth at the expense of the poor.
Secondly, the audience of Luke – who lived in the oppressive Roman Empire after the Temple had been destroyed – was expecting Jesus’ second coming to occur soon. So, to them, the foretelling of the Temple destruction also represented the coming judgement.
Back to our passage: the people in the Temple then ask Jesus when this will occur and what sign there be that will inform them of what is to come. However, Jesus does not give an answer as to when. Rather, Jesus warns the people not to be led astray by false prophets who claim that the time is near. He says to them: “there will be wars and insurrections, but the end will not come immediately – so do not focus on when… Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and plaques. But before ANY of this occurs, you will be greatly persecuted because of my name. You will be arrested and brought before kings and governors and hated because of my name. Even those closest to you – your parents, brothers, family and friends – will persecute you and even put some of you to death – all because of my name.”
As I think about the persecution of these early Christ-followers, I can’t help but think of the many Occupyers and protesters around the country who have faced hatred and persecution in the past few months. Peaceful protesters have been described by Ann Coulter as “demonic,” “brainless,” and “brainwashed,” thousands of peaceful protesters have been arrested, and many have been sprayed with pepper spray, hit with batons or taser guns, and some have even been kneed in their stomaches by police officers. One of the most haunting pictures I have seen is an image of an 84 year old woman who was doused in the face with pepper spray.
While protesters and Occupyers come from all different religious traditions and often no religious tradition at all, I believe that they are still in some capacity – whether they know it or not – being persecuted because of Jesus’ name. As evangelical activist and CEO of Sojourners Magazine Jim Wallis puts it in his post Praying for Peace and Looking for Jesus at #OccupyWallStreet: “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus…When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.”
And as our passage in Luke claims, when people stand with Jesus and speak as he did, there will be great persecution because – we all probably know from experience – the good news is not always easy news. However, according to Luke, while this persecution will be great, there is still hope. For Jesus says, “this persecution will give you an opportunity to testify.”
To testify is to proclaim the message Jesus proclaimed, to speak as Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace – spoke, and to make peace in this world like Jesus Christ made: peace in the midst of a society where inequality prevails and where the poor are being taken advantage of.
And so this message is particularly important for us as current and/or future pastors. Like the early Christians in Palestine, most of our parishioners, neighbors, and even family members are suffering in some capacity from the economic crisis due to the greed and special treatment of the elite at the expense of the poor and middle class. There are so many people today who are hurting – which explains why thousands and thousands of people have and continue to join the Occupy movement. And so, in a society like ours and at a time like this, we must as Christian leaders become engaged with these people in our communities, our churches, and in the Occupy camps in our cities – Whether this means we protest and march, act as an Occupy chaplain and provide pastoral care, preside over the Eucharist at the campsite, or bring food and sleeping materials to the Occupiers, this is our opportunity to testify.
But we know that with this kind of testifying and peace making, there will come persecution.
Blogger Todd Weir explains this well in his post “Luke 12:49-56 ‘Not Peace but a Sword.'” He writes: “true peace seldom comes without a painful process of being honest about the real issues. Peace can only be built if there is truth, justice, equality and respect.”
Similarly, Tom Mullen writes in his book: Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences, “I learned upon joining Quakers that they attack large social and moral problems with conscientious determination. They work for peace – and if you really want to cause conflict, work for peace.” (pg. 59)
And Christian author and activist for nonviolence and service to the homeless, Shane Claiborne explains in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical: “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into.” (pg. 226)
When I attended the SCUPE conference: Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence – last spring, The Rev. Dr. James Forbes explained that there is a difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. He claimed that while peacekeeping is just being concerned with keeping peace between different parties in order to avoid conflict, peacemaking is actually creating peace that enables all of God’s children to live holistically.
However, too often, we as Christian leaders and clergy are so focused on keeping the peace, that we avoid standing for what is just and avoid being peacemakers. Too often, we get so worried about keeping politics out of the pulpit, not being considered “too radical” by our parishioners, and therefore we decide to sit around and wait for the right time to act. However, when we do this, we often fail to testify and proclaim the good of Jesus Christ.
During this Occupy movement, we must remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. which he wrote his letter from Burmingham Jail in response to four clergy who claimed he was too radical: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (Ed. Washington, James M., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings And Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1986, 292.)
We cannot fail to testify the good news of Jesus Christ.
You see, to Luke, the good news of Jesus Christ can be summed up in chapter 4 where he begins his ministry by proclaiming: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (And this year of the Lord’s favor in which he was to proclaim was the year of Jubilee – the year that the Jews had been waiting for – which was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free, and all debts would be remitted. It was the ordered way of breaking down inequalities and injustice and making peace).
And as Shane Claiborne states in an article Moving Money: Investing in a New World on sojo.net: “No doubt Wall Street has some things to learn about Jubilee. Jubilee was God’s alternative to the patterns of Wall Street. As the Occupy Wall Street movement catches the world’s attention, those of us who are critical of Wall Street have a responsibility. We can’t just be defined by what we are against, but should be known by what we are for. After all, the word “protest” originally meant “public declaration”. It wasn’t just about being against something, but it was about declaring something new and better. “Protest” shares the same root as “testify”. So It’s time to protest-ify.”
As we begin this season of advent, and we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, may we find hope knowing that in the midst of these trying economic times, where so many of our parishioners, neighbors, and even family members are struggling to get by, that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to stand for and with them. And as the weather gets colder and it becomes more difficult for the Occupyers to be out in this weather during the holidays, as our legislatures are getting ready to make budget cuts, as we get closer to the G8 – which will take place in Chicago, and we get closer to the upcoming elections next fall, let us jump at the chance to take this opportunity.
For now is our opportunity to protestify!