Turning the Tables

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. Obviously, I’m still working on the Temple Incident recorded in John 2. Doing a first-person sermon as Nicodemus is fun and has some value. But it’s also a way to punt on the real repentance issues in this text.

The systems of White Male Supremacy that structure white Christianity are not going down without a fight. It would be easy for us white liberal Christians if the whole issue were Franklin Graham leveraging his Operation Christmas mailing lists to fear-monger his racist, xenophobic, homophobic bullshit. If only the tables to be turned belonged exclusively to those “other white folks,” this would all be so much easier.

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But it’s our tables that need turning as well. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In John 2, Jesus is clearing away the obstacles to abundant life. That climaxes in a few weeks with his welcome to outsiders in John 12. It is this boundary-busting welcome that provides the final step toward his glorification on the cross. It’s when the outsiders want in that the reign of God fully arrives in John.

Nobody really wants that kind of talk in our white, mainline churches. We don’t want to go and talk to people in our neighborhoods who don’t already belong to our churches. We don’t want to keep doing hybrid worship – both in person and online – once The Pandemic has passed. That was just an expedient to keep our insiders inside. We don’t want to take nonmembers into account when we make plans for our property that might affect them. We don’t want our tables to be turned in such a way that we are guests and Jesus is the host.

That’s all crazy talk, we think. If we go down that path, we’ll end up turning over tables just like that nut from Nazareth. If we start tossing money around like it belongs to the poor people, where will it end? After all, somebody has to pay the bills to keep the Temple in business, right?

We white folks have made God’s houses into spiritual shopping malls where we sell comfort to the comfortable, serenity to the settlers, and peace to the privileged. As long as they are paying the bills, we’ll keep selling the goods. And after a while, the last one left can turn out the lights.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. When that happens, the system responds with violence. Abundant life disrupts the power of scarcity. Bigger pies are harder to manage and manipulate for personal gain. Good news for the poor is, at least in the short term, bad news for the rich. Zeal for God’s house will consume us, we’re afraid. So we set the tables back up almost as fast as Jesus turns them over.

Jesus isn’t arrested at the moment he enacts havoc, because the crowd approves of what he does. It’s only the powerful, the privileged, and the propertied who get their underwear in a bunch about the difference between a demonstration, a protest, and a riot. Jesus enacts a symbolic prophetic sign, but he turns over real tables, scatters real money, chases real livestock. When we spiritualize this into some merely verbal protest against a religious system, we let ourselves off the hook.

But Jesus enacts the nightmare of every entrenched power structure. The crowd might see the Matrix, might wake up from the nightmare, might come to know that the system was created by and for the privileged, rigged for the rich. The goal of the system is to make sure that poor, white men continue to blame anyone but rich white men. In our system, race makes that identification easier. So that’s where we start the turning.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. What must be overturned in the Church to put things right?

Before we jump to that, let’s start with me. I need my tables turned regularly. For example, I was in a conversation not long ago where a Black pastor reminded us of the ways in which White Christians have debased and destroyed Black communities. He wasn’t particularly aggressive in his comments. He simply told the truth without padding it for us white folks. I was grateful for the candor (sort of).

I didn’t hear one thing I hadn’t heard or read before. Yet, I felt my face get hot. I felt my head begin to shake. My guts started vibrating in rhythm with my lower jaw. In response to just the slightest honest input, I was ready to tip into a full-blown shame storm. To compound my response, I was then ashamed for being ashamed.

That response won’t do. But it’s necessary. “For through the law I died to the law,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I don’t like having my ego crucified any more than anyone else does. But there’s no real life without that death.

For me, turning the tables means spending more time hearing face to face from my Black, Brown, Native, and Asian American siblings. It’s not up to them to educate and reform me. That’s my work and our white folks work together. I need to continue to render myself less dangerous and more resilient in such conversations. And I look forward to opportunities not merely to become a better person but to work as a partner with my siblings in ways to make our community better.

And then there’s the Church. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. We are called to overturn the “White Liberal Limbo” game. That is the game where we ask, “How slowwwwwww can we gooooooo?” As long as we give the most fragile folks veto power over constructive change, we will continue to maintain our systems of white male supremacy. If congregations die doing the right thing, that’s faithfulness. The alternative at this point is to be whitewashed tombs filled with the bones of people who don’t know they’re dead already.

I believe that in the coming decades we’re going to end up with a number of church buildings and other properties that will simply stand empty because all the white people have either died or left. Let’s make plans now to give those properties to cheated communities or to sell them and repay the proceeds to those communities. I know we white liberals are happy about justice until it starts to cost us money. But the tables of the moneychangers must be overturned if we White folks are to be freely and fully human.

It’s easy to write that knowing that reparations are unlikely to happen on any scale in my lifetime. Talk is cheap. So, we are establishing a Reparations Repayment Calendar at our house. We will give money to a number of organizations and causes that advance the agendas of racial justice and repair. From our perspective, these are not “donations” (although the IRS would regard them as such). These are repayments of debts owed for centuries.

For example, in honor of the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, we will give to the NAACP Legal Defense fund and to a local bail relief fund. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. He went and preached to the spirits who were in prison. The stone is rolled away, and the jail cell of the tomb is empty. We see a connection.

On Thanksgiving, we will give to the Omaha tribal organization. Our house stands on Omaha land. It is only ours because of the original theft based on the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery.” We can be grateful for how the land was loved and stewarded before we got here. And we can begin to make legitimate payments for the damage we have done to Native communities. We see a connection.

In Epiphany, we remember that the Wise Ones came “from the East.” We can give to the the ELCA’s Association of Lutherans of Arab and Middle Eastern Heritage. The strategy for that mission in our church is chronically underfunded, and we can make some small gift to address that need. During Lent we can direct our offerings to the Urban League of Omaha, since Dr. King’s birthday almost always falls during that liturgical season.

We can give a Pentecost offering to a Latinx-related cause in honor of Cinco de Mayo. In February we can support a cause focused on the concerns of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, since that’s about the time of the Chinese New Year.

You can see where we’re headed with this. It will be a work in progress. It will not be a substitute for any other efforts toward education, advocacy, support, growth, and further repentance. But it will be, we hope, a way to make “table-turning” a part of our ongoing rhythms of faith and life.

Right now, however, there’s something of particular urgency. Our racist former president has stoked the fires of hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The number of hate crimes against the AAPI communities has skyrocketed in the last year. In response, the AAPI Association in the ELCA drafted a statement that was approved within hours by the ELCA conference of bishops. You can read that statement here.

In addition, plans are being made to make March 21 a Sunday of prayer and lament in our churches around this disgusting rhetoric and related crimes. That’s not likely to be the most popular thing a pastor or other leaders have ever advocated. But it’s a way to set a few things a little closer to right.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In this Lenten season, we are called to be turned and to turn. How will we answer?

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