Matthew 21.1-11

Hebrews 10.19-25

Agents Provocateurs

Palm Sunday

These are the subject lines of some of the emails I’ve received and deleted this week:

“Attorney General Barr Destroys Race Baiting Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence”

“Rep Matt Gaetz Introduces Pencil Act to Oust Pencil Neck Rep Adam Schiff”

“Witness Makes Disturbing Claim about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Father”

And then, as I was polishing today’s sermon this morning, I received,

“Lock Her Up!  You Won’t Believe What Pelosi Was Trying to Hide!”

My initial question of course, is, How in the world did I land on any of these mailing lists?  One list that repeatedly sends me junk is directed at “Conservative Moms.”  Do I look like a Conservative Mom?  There are more where these came from, and in my more rational moments, I understand that getting junk mail is an unavoidable consequence of using email.  But what concerns me more is the insidious tone of the messages.  “Attorney General Barr Destroys…”  “Pencil Neck Rep Adam Schiff…”  “Disturbing Claim about Senator’s father…”  “Race baiting Congresswoman” who, by the way, just happens to be black.  To be fair, this kind of thing happens across the ideological spectrum, though I wonder why I only get the right-wing junk.  But whatever the source, I am most disturbed by the tone:  incivility, innuendo, slander, defamation, and above all a deep and pernicious divisiveness.  It’s like a contest to see who can be most offensive and mendacious at the same time.  And I understand they are meant to be provocative, to make me angry enough to want to do something, namely, to send money, but frankly I can’t take any of them seriously; the only thing they bring me is the delectable satisfaction I receive every time I press the “delete” button.

I had a delightful morning on Friday when Rabbi Marci Bellows and I shared Coffice Hours at Simon’s.  The small group who gathered with us were primarily members of Congregation Beth Shalom, so I got to meet a number of folks I hadn’t met before.  The conversation was wide-ranging and there was a lot of laughter, but at one point we wound up talking about the fear and division that seems to grip our society these days.  Specifically we wondered:  does fear breed division, or does division breed fear?  Given my junk email, it’s probably a little of both; and we didn’t come to a definitive conclusion, but the fact we could have these conversations in support of and solidarity with each other, Christians and Jews in the coziness of a local coffee shop, brought a sense of comfort and comity to the morning.

In this week’s Lent Devotionals, I was drawn to Marilyn Pagán-Banks’s essay titled Provoking Love.  She based her reflection on the passage from Hebrews we read this morning, and one of the reasons it spoke to me is that I haven’t yet preached from the letter to the Hebrews, which is unusual because Hebrews is one of my favorite New Testament books.  I like Hebrews for a lot of reasons, so I’ll just give you the Reader’s Digest version this morning.  First, the letter is a pretty sophisticated theological conversation about the intersection of Hebrew and Christian faith, history and belief.  Second, it does this so much better than the apostle Paul does in any of his thirteen New Testament letters, in spite of the fact that he was a former rabbi.  And third, and I’ll go into more detail another time, the anonymous letter to the Hebrews is the book of the Bible most likely to have a female author.  For these reasons and more, the letter to the Hebrews has a lot of appeal for me.

So I love the verse that Marilyn lifted out of the tenth chapter, because it carries such a clear and powerful sense of what we want to be about as people of faith, regardless of what that faith might be:  “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.  When so much of the world wants to provoke us to anger and division and animus, this is the kind of provocation we want to wear boldly, the provocation to love and good deeds.

Today of course is Palm Sunday, and Diane read the familiar story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first day of the last week of his life.  For the people who lined the streets craning their necks for a glimpse of the messiah, it was a moment that provoked praise:  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Or at least on Palm Sunday, we hear this as a hymn of praise; but in another sense it is also a plea, perhaps one of desperation:  Hosanna literally means, “Save us,” or “Deliver us,” so that the cry we heard might also have meant, “Save us, Son of David, blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord, in the name of highest heaven, Deliver us!”  A slightly different take on the mood of the crowd, isn’t it?  In one breath they call on Jesus for deliverance even as they laud him with glory and honor.

And I love what Jesus does next.  He does not hang around to bask in the glow of the moment, nor does he stir them up to rise against the oppressor.  Instead, he does what nobody expected him to do:  basically, he trashes the temple.  Diane stopped reading at verse eleven because I asked her to; here is verse twelve:  “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”   What a change in mood!  From a festive parade through palm-strewn streets to a strangely surprising sacrilege in the house of holy worship - in the span of one Bible verse.  What in the world provoked Jesus to stick his nose into temple business and quite literally upset the apple cart, or at least upset the tables in the temple?  Well, we know the answer.  The money changers and the dove sellers had set up a lucrative business in the temple courts, and inflated both the exchange rate and the cost of the required offering so as to take advantage of the people who could least afford it.  They rigged the system so that only the affluent could afford to make the Passover offering.  “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”  No wonder the mood went from Hosanna to Crucify him in the span of a few short days.  Jesus was stepping on some important and influential toes.

As I sat with this story during the week, Kent Siladi, the Minister and President of the UCC’s Connecticut Conference, shared something that I borrowed to use as the quotation on the back of our bulletin this week, which Kent himself borrowed from The Center for Prophetic Imagination.  The Center is an institution based in Minneapolis that employs the example and teachings of Jesus to bring down the walls of alienation that divide people, and build a world of justice that lives within the Spirit of God.  The Institute’s vision is found in the words of martyred Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero, who wrote, “The church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed - what gospel is that?”  Romero asks the question in the negative, but I would rather turn it around to say, “The gospel of Jesus Christ provokes to crisis, it will be unsettling, it gets under your skin, and it confronts the real sin in whatever society it is proclaimed.”  And in light of this, we can understand how the Jesus of the gospel strode up those temple steps and turned the tables on the merchandisers – and whatever else they were doing, this is what they really were – who prevented the poorest of the poor from bringing their truest and best worship to God at Passover.  And so Kent shared these words at the start of Holy Week: 

“When someone challenges dominating myths, the powerful strike back.  This happened to the prophets.  It happened to Jesus.  It will happen to you, should you start poking at the myths that hold our society together.  Poke anyways; God loves us too much for us to be enslaved by false myths.”

Earlier this week, after nearly seven years of asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange was expelled and arrested.  So far he has only been charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” or, in the vernacular, hacking.  But at the heart of things is the 2010 publication of stolen US intelligence documents on his WikiLeaks web site.  In some ways it is a dense and complicated case, but I was struck by the clarity of this single sentence in Thursday’s New York Times:  “In 2010 WikiLeaks released American files that documented the killing of civilians and journalists and the abuse of detainees by forces of the United States and other countries…”  Perhaps this is why Kent’s note stuck a chord for me this Holy Week:  When someone challenges the dominating myths, the powerful strike back.  Whatever Assange’s crimes, he surely challenged the dominating myths of the powerful.   And Kent’s message was, “Poke anyways.”  Poke back.  Provoke.  Ask questions.  Seek answers.  Turn the tables.  Challenge those things that divide us and conspire to pry us apart.   Tear down walls.  Speak truth to power.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly.  Delete those nasty emails.  Have coffee with your friends at CBSRZ.  Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.  And this is the sense in which Jesus invites us to become co-agents of provocation, or in the patois of this morning’s sermon title, Agents Provocateurs, not through enmity and division and rancor and hate, but rather through love and good deeds.  I think the writer to the Hebrews nails it, doesn’t she?  As Marilyn Pagán-Banks wrote, “I commit to inserting joy and laughter into my daily fight for justice and peace…  I commit to expressing tenderness and kindness with my siblings.  Perhaps this practice will provoke another to the same.  And another.  And another.  Who knows...?”  And she concludes with a prayer that is mine this morning as well:  “Source of love and every good thing, help me to… source my rage against the –isms of the world with a deep and abiding love for You, [for] my neighbor, and [for] myself.” 





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