Justice: It’s the Small Things

by Pastor Leah Rosso

John 2:13-22; Micah 6:6-8 March 8, 2015

This Scripture about Jesus in the temple is always a bit disturbing. It's disturbing because we don’t usually think of Jesus as angry. It's disturbing because there is a fine line between righteous anger and glorified violence. And it's disturbing because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with what's happening in the temple.

Go back several thousand years, and you find the newly formed Israelites who have just come out Egypt listening to what God wants, and one of the things that is expected is sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, there are really two kinds of sacrifice— large animal sacrifice like cows and sheep if you have money, and the sacrifice of birds— usually pigeons— if you were poor. It was also the case that you had to give your money not in Roman coin, but in the Temple coin— thus the practice of the money changers. And Jesus is not the kind of guy who separates religion and money. Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus has a lot to say about money and its use in faithfulness. So it seems that none of these things by themselves should make Jesus angry.

What is happening in the temple is perfectly “legal” by the standards of the religious law; it is right in the eyes of the religious leaders; and it is considered Biblically faithful. So what is happening in the temple that is so awful?

I wonder if it doesn't have to do with that funny little quote, "Perfection is the enemy of good."

It's the host and hostess who have a great party but are so busy worrying about whether everything is just right, that no one really feels at home.

It's the parent who is always trying to stage a perfect memory and catch it on camera and so misses spending time on what's most important.

It's the hospital that is so focused on fixing everyone's health issues, that they forget they are working with people who need more than what can be fixed by medical science.

Jesus walks into the temple that day to celebrate Passover and sees that everyone has focused perfectly on how to follow the law and they have missed out entirely on what is at the heart of the law. Jesus sees a system that is set up for people to go in and go out, paying for their service to God. He sees how it has been made into an industry-- the sellers who have justified the fact that they are making money off of travelers by selling sacrifices right there in room outside the Sanctuary; the people who are coming not out of love but out of guilt and fear; the priests who are strict about the details of sacrifice rather than about sharing the grace of God. Jesus gets angry at the whole system because it is perfectly set up to follow the details of the law rather than to offer God's grace to people. It is a system that offers little to people who long to connect with God; a system that upholds useless hierarchy; a system that makes it easy to take advantage of the poor and praise the rich; a system that has traded deep trust in God for a detailed checklist of how to keep God happy.

In short, while the priests and the parishioners go on and on about how wonderful their beloved temple is, the people Jesus is hanging out with-- the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the fisherman, the unclean-- are being kept away from God's love instead of being welcomed into it.

And it's not the first time. The people in Micah's day were disobeying God all over the place. So Micah imagines what it would look like to be in a courtroom where the people are lined up and God is the judge and the people look at the ways they are sinning and say like a large corporation that knows it's been polluting and would rather pay the fine rather than clean up what they are doing, the people ask, " Okay, how much is this going to cost us in sacrifices?" And the answer comes back-- "What does the Lord require of you? But to seek justice; love mercy; and walk humbly with God."

Oh how frequently we try to boil down our faithfulness to God into the smallest denomination instead of giving our whole lives to God's love and grace! How often we find ourselves putting all of our time and energy into the things in life that we think will make us feel better or get healthy quickly or stop the pain rather than looking at the way our systems are keeping us all from experiencing an amazing life in Christ. How often we forget that our comfort and safety is not enough. God calls us to be Christ for one another, to break through the same barriers that Jesus was so faithful to break through in his day and age-- the same barriers that still exist for us today.

It is a common experience for those in Micah's age in the 8th Century BC as well as in Jesus' day 8 thousand years later and in our day today. And yet God calls us to something so much deeper than just keeping the 10 commandments; so much more life-giving than all 600 laws in Leviticus; Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself. Nothing more, and nothing less. It is a call to seek justice; to love mercy; to walk humbly with God.

And it starts with the small things. It starts with us being who we are so that the people around us can be who they are. It starts with not pretending when we get together; or being so polite that we miss out on getting to know one another. It starts with being able to truly see one another-- to see our struggles and our cares; to see our neighbor's hurts and despair; and to realize that we are all part of this world together.

Surprisingly enough, while we often see justice issues as huge systematic problems that are difficult to fix, the movement towards a solution and healing always starts with the small things-- recognizing that we are all dependent on one another; having compassion to care that our brother or sister is struggling to make it each month; being aware of the fact that with enough medical bills or difficult mental health issues, any one of us could be on the street or facing difficult decisions.

Jesus saw beyond status; he saw beyond wealth; he saw beyond religious affiliation; he saw beyond cultural roles; Jesus lived out God's justice by treating people with integrity and dignity; by questioning the systems that were hurting them. Put quite simply, Jesus reminds us that our actions do matter. That God wants us to follow not just with our head, but with our heart. Not just to check off a list of things that faithful people do, but to examine the systems around us and to question how we are being faithful to God in every aspect of our lives.

When we practice imperfection we are able to be vulnerable with one another and to carefully hold each others’ vulnerabilities. We are able to listen to our neighbor and see where injustice is being done. When I am willing to admit that I am broken and imperfect, than I am willing to use my power to help others and be with them in their brokenness rather than using the power I have to claw my way to the top and stay there out of fear that someone will find out about my brokenness. It is part of practicing imperfection. If I pretend that I have it altogether, than it’s easy to shame others for not having it altogether; if I pretend that I know what this religious stuff is all about, than it is easy to fall into saying nice things and fitting God into a nice neat little box; if I convince myself that I'm not really broken, than I can also convince myself that I don't really need God's grace and it's only one more step to not offering grace to my neighbor. It is only by practicing imperfection that we can begin making small choices of justice which will lead to large systems being challenged.

Justice is in the small things— who we acknowledge as our neighbor; how we choose to use our power; who we choose to listen to. Jesus lived out justice by challenging those in power; questioning the complacency of the religious leaders; inviting people into relationship with God who were on the outside; and, in the end, being unwilling to renounce who he was in order to save his own life. He brought new dimensions to justice by bringing dignity to those he talked to and living out a love so radical, it could not die.

So let's pay attention to Jesus' righteous anger this morning, and take a moment to examine our own lives. Where are we taking advantage of the poor like the sellers of sacrificial animals in the temple? Where are we hiding behind religious laws instead of offering God's love to the world? Where are we substituting politeness for real conversation and religious language for things that matter? Let's take the time during these weeks of Lent to really open our eyes to how we need to practice imperfection and be real to one another so that we can seek justice in our everyday lives.