Out With Corruption

I grew up in Vandalia, Ohio. It’s a small town that extends east of the Dayton Airport and about 10 miles north of downtown Dayton. It’s about the size and distance as Goodlettsville is from Nashville. Vandalia is often known as being at the Crossroads of America, the major intersection of Interstates 70 and 75 where over 200,000 vehicles pass through on a daily basis. This intersection has been in the news a lot this past year, as the convergence of these two major highways is a big factor in the availability of heroin and fentanyl in Montgomery County, Ohio. Heroin and fentanyl reach the Dayton area easily through this pipeline, and it’s simple for users to reach the drug market. It’s a dark reality for Dayton inhabitants, as this influx of opioids has caused over 800 deaths in 2017. I officiated the funeral of a 19 year old young man who died from a heroin overdose a few years ago. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my ordained vocation.

But my hometown has not always had such a dark reality. Vandalia was built at the height of the suburban craze in the 1950s and 1960s. Every house looked the same—a three bedroom, concrete slab, aluminum sided, one story ranch with an attached one car garage and a ¼ of an acre back yard. Every house in my block and in every other block for that matter looked almost exactly the same. It was like a scene from Edward Scissorhands, each home a duplicate of the next, with the exception of the color of aluminum siding that hung on its exterior.

But down the street towards town and just off the Interstate 75 exit was an unusual looking building. I remember it being a bit out of place for it looked like a castle next to the cracker box houses in my neighborhood. It was St. Christopher’s Catholic Church. St. Christopher’s hosted a summer parish festival every July with kiddy rides, fried foods, arcade games and of course…Bingo. Growing up we were taught that the Catholic Church was unholy, anti-Christian, and full of sin and iniquity. The xenophobic and prejudiced theologies that formed me as a child couldn’t fathom a church that allowed you to drink and gamble. In fact, when it came down to it—it was all about Bingo.

I remembering listening to our pastor preach on this morning’s gospel story growing up and thinking that it was also about bingo. Oh, it wasn't the game itself—it was the notion of playing bingo to raise money for the church. Looking back, I think it was more about Catholics than about bingo. Somehow along the way Protestants have picked up an anti-Catholic bias in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Parents worried that their sons or daughters might marry Roman Catholics. And when John Kennedy ran for president, some worried that the pope would soon be running America. We were suspicious of Roman Catholics and Bingo was further proof that Catholics were up to no good because they played bingo in church and we didn't. We were always waiting for Jesus to come and overturn the bingo tables, sending the cards flying all over the church basement and spilling the little numbers out of the cage that spun them around. "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Jesus would shout as he tipped over the cash boxes and Bingo balls. We were quite sure that Jesus would not have been upset, however, with our bake sales, chili cook offs or yard sales to raise money for missions.

But our text today is not about bingo, or bake sales, or chili cook offs, or yard sales. Jesus' actions that day in the temple were a powerful sign of Jesus' anger and frustration with the way things were in his society. And a closer look at this chapter brings us deep into the heart of who exactly Jesus was. Just prior to this event in the temple we read the story of Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. Do you remember? They ran out of wine at the wedding and Jesus told the steward to fill six stone jars with water. Then he told the steward to taste the water, and--ahhhhh--the water had been turned into such excellent wine that the steward wondered why the host had saved the best for last.

Now that wedding story is much deeper than just wishing Jesus would come to our parties and give us the best he has to offer—although we certainly would like him to eat pancakes or a bowl of chili when we were raising money for our ministry programming! What’s really interesting about the wedding at Cana is not necessarily that Jesus turns water into wine, but that the water Jesus turns into wine was intended to be used for a specific purpose. The stone jars Jesus had filled with water were used for the rites of purification. By the time of Jesus, an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure and others impure. Women were impure seven days after the birth of a son, and 14 days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes such as leprosy were impure. Certain foods were impure and almost anything sexual was impure. The list had gotten very, very long.

In his book "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus Borg sees the ministry of Jesus as challenging this extensive purity system. The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries; between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Changing water into wine was not so much about getting people drunk so they could have a great time, but it was a way that Jesus could break down the barriers imposed by these purity laws. Jesus used water reserved to purify women and children and outcasts and diseased people, for the purpose of making the best available for everyone. It was a different way of seeing the world and God's care and compassion for it.

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Following that story we have this event that takes place in the temple. The temple represented the very core of this purity system. The animals being sold there were for sacrificial purposes. These animals were required for sacrifice, and there were economic implications because poor people couldn't afford to buy the best animals. Moneychangers were an essential part of the system. It was idolatrous to use Roman coins stamped with the emperor's image to buy your sacrifice; so the moneychangers weren't simply making change for a twenty; they were giving pure tokens in exchange for impure money, often at a profit.

By attacking these money changers and overturning their profit making businesses at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised, Jesus challenged the purity system that these temple practices represented. Jesus anger was out of disgust and frustration for the way the rich and elite exhibited their power over the vulnerable and those lacking influence and social status. Jesus' life and ministry challenged the rules that named things and people pure or impure. Jesus saw an alternative society that was shaped not by the politics of purity, but by the politics of compassion.

Jesus was a political activist. He understood God’s realm being grounded in compassion and love. And all of his teachings and relationships sought to establish that. He had compassion for the Samaritan woman at the well. She was considered impure by her bloodline and behavior. He had compassion for the woman accused of adultery threatened with stoning. He had compassion for the sheep who were not yet part of God's fold. So we must ask ourselves, if we want to be like Jesus then who are those people in our communities who have been shut out of the church because of some archaic purity code? Who are the folks who don’t feel welcomed into our church because they don’t have the same moral code that you have? Can’t afford to give much or anything at all in the offering plate? Don’t believe the way you do? Don’t respect this building the way you do? Or quite honestly, just don’t like Christians very much?

Many have said that you can’t build a church on charity. We can’t grow unless we attract people of means. We shouldn’t spend so much time, energy and resources on children and families that can’t give back. That unless we have economically stable and wealthy people in our congregation we won’t be able to sustain our ministries. But I have to ask myself when I hear these accusations, what is more corrupt? Packaging the gospel so that people feel good about themselves—or telling people the good news that God loves them regardless of who they are, or how much they make, or what their relationship status is. Do we truly welcome everyone into the family of God?

Out & about nashville - march 2018 issue

In February 2017, U.S. News & World Report released its annual “Best Places to Live” list, which ranks the United States’ 100 most populous cities based on metrics like “affordability, job prospects and quality of life.” Nashville scored the number 13 spot, a meteoric rise over its 22nd place in 2016 that confirmed the city’s star is still on the rise. But even Out & About Nashville magazine said in an article last year, “For those of us who find Nashville, and its LGBT community, unconditionally welcoming, the challenge is in recognizing when, where and how it isn’t welcoming to others, and to open our arms, doors, and communities to those who don’t feel like they have a place here. Otherwise we’re just a Bible-belt town, draped for show with a rainbow flag, holding out a promise we can’t deliver.” In know that HTCC takes seriously our call to the LGBTQ community. We just took out a full page ad in March’s issue celebrating our Family Foster Care Placement ministry with Therapeutic Interventions.

But Holy Trinity is more than just a LGBTQ affirming church. We also desire to be a multi-cultural, multi-racial and “all kinds of families affirming church.” Nashville has become a very popular destination for immigrants due to a healthy job market and fairly low cost of living. This foreign-born population has nearly doubled over the last decade and makes up about 12% of the population. But more striking is that, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, 24% of Davidson County residents are unaffiliated with a religious tradition. Now that might be a bit lower than the rest of the US, but that statistic is a bit shocking to me for a city that has over 2300 congregations. And based on that statistic, 432,000 people in the greater Nashville area don’t profess a religious identity. The reality is; Nashville has changed and continues to change. We have changed. And we have to take seriously the changes we will continue to face as a church. Does our vision offer something unique to these communities? Are we truly inviting all people to faith, relationships, and service through Jesus Christ? If so, then how are we doing it?

Last November we rolled out our 2018 Ministry Action Plan. Through our outreach, mission and service to this community, I believe that, if we stay true to the gospel, we must reach out to all of our neighbors and networks. And if we can keep ourselves from judging our success based on numbers, or the size of our choir or the amount of offering we take in weekly— but focus on reaching out to whomever God calls us, then corruption will never manipulate our ministry. Our journey to meet our neighbors and networks right where they are will keep our hearts pure and our focus clear.

For no matter if our neighbors are rich or poor, young or old, woman or man, gay or straight, majority or minority, immigrant or citizen; God’s grace and love is available to each and every one of those 432,000 people who haven’t found it yet. For no matter who they are or where they are on their journey—God welcomes them. And their journey to wholeness begins with us. And that is something they shouldn’t have to pay one cent for.

(Statistics from www.city-data.com. Sermon excerpts from Barbara K. Lundblad’s sermon, "Far More Than Bingo" from March 23, 2003 http://www.day1.net/index.php5?view=transcripts&tid=78)

Let’s support all the efforts that good people are doing to bring about social justice in our city, state and nation. In your bulletin is a place to reflect and consider; how can you get involved? How will you confront corruption in our world?