Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 9, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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There is a museum at the University of Chicago called the Oriental Institute. Have any of you been there? It was founded in 1919 as a research facility for understanding the evolution of humanity and human culture from the ancient Near East. Much of the collection was “acquired” in the 1920s–1940s.
It has some pretty spectacular holdings, like multistory statues of man–beasts from Sargon II’s palace in Iraq and a King Tut from Egypt. As 21st century citizens, we are accustomed to human-made objects that scrape the sky, but in the millennia before Christ, when the average building would have been closer to human height, these artifacts of royalty and state power could only have been awe- and fear-inspiring. A throne room the size of a football field and flanked by those statues, called Lamassus, might explain why Jonah, for example, rejected the role of prophet to Ninevah.
The museum also has records from the kingdoms of Sargon and Sennacharib and the Hittites and ordinary, civilian objects: jewelry, cosmetic containers, scarabs, ivories, hair pieces, and glass all-seeing eye beads kind of like the ones I have in my own home.
Then there are religious objects: temple souvenir plaques from 2000–1600 BCE, smaller statues for home worship and piety, and “incantation bowls.” These are clay bowls, like the one Greg made for our baptismal font, with incantations or prayers written inside. They are generally about protection from evil and illness and were used by all manner of religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.
One on display at the Oriental Institute shows an evil spirit tied down at the center of the bowl. It is inscribed with Zechariah 3.2:
But [the angel of] the Lord said to the Accuser, ‘The Lord rebukes you, O Accuser; may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked from fire.’
Which gets me to today’s scripture: Jesus’ ride on a donkey with his disciples rejoicing at his side—what we call the triumphal entry—makes explicit reference to scripture: 2 Kings, the Psalms, the prophet Habbakuk, and twice to the prophet Zechariah.
In 14.4, Zechariah ties the appearance of an anointed one to the Mount of Olives and in 9.9 we hear that our king “…is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.” So when Jesus stops at the Mount of Olives and asks his disciples to get him a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, he is making a nod to Zechariah, he is claiming the role and authority of one sent from God. (Or the people who wrote stories about Jesus added these details to make the same claim.)
But that’s just the beginning of the connection between Jesus to Zechariah.
Zechariah was a prophet of the early second temple period. This means the early 500s BCE. At this time, the Persian Empire had conquered the Babylonian Empire. Babylon, you may remember, had conquered Israel and sent the wealthy Jerusalemites into exile in other Babylonian lands a few generations previously, leaving the poor behind. The Persians allow them to go back.
Those who returned, with the support of their new Persian occupiers, re-established their control over the poor, breaking up families of mixed religions and ethnicities. They also rebuilt the temple and reinstituted temple practices. Zechariah, in the wake of this return and renewal of religious hierarchy and power, has eight visions of the restoration of Israel. Those visions are critical of temple ritual. Zechariah says to his people,
…During these seventy years of exile, when you fasted and mourned…was it really for (God) that you were fasting? And even now in your holy festivals, aren’t you eating and drinking just to please yourself? (7.5–6)
Rituals are about us, Zechariah is arguing, not God. The people of God should be talking about justice, not empty practices.
Jesus, just after the portion we hear today, goes into that same temple. There he encounters people selling animals for ritual sacrifice and those buying them. He accuses the people of making God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves. And so the priests and the teachers “began planning how to kill him” (Luke 19.47).
JESUS THEN AND NOW
Jesus not only uses Zechariah to claim his authority, he continues Zechariah’s critique of selfishness cloaked as piety, transactional faith (meaning “I do for God through sacrifice/so God does for me”), and failure to enact the justice required by God’s model of covenant living as outlined in the Ten Commandments. In doing so, Jesus stands in a long tradition of righteous public action. He joins honorable women and men of faith who do not care what it cost, they will not let their own people continue to betray their inheritance, each other, and God.
So do we.
In Jesus’ time, the problems were both his own religious authorities and the foreign power under which they all lived.
In our time, we still have problems with our religious sisters and brothers, meaning those Christians who use these same stories to marginalize and abuse and neglect; Christians who bear false witness to God by saying salvation is a thing of some next world rather than the healing of this one. And we live under powers corporate, state, and foreign, some of which follow tradition by erecting big buildings, but some of which rely on secrecy and the smallest of biological poisons to intimidate and control.
BAPTISM AND BOWLS
Someone, a long, long time ago, made a bowl in which she could depict the world’s danger and then bind it with scripture, hold it in place and at bay with the words of a prophet of love. Even though that bowl is now an item of curiosity and study, as this morning attests, the faith it represents is no antiquity.
This morning we enacted a ritual of covenant with Nicole and baptism by water, covenant, and, we pray, Holy Spirit with Fionn. The baptism that began Jesus’ ministry continues to mark our own.
We did not do this with the hope of special treatment from God, a return on our ritual investments. We know that these practices are for us, that these are two of our tools for remembering God’s grace is with us, is ever-ready to be named and relied upon. Just like scripture is a tool to guide us on what to reject: Apathy, we rebuke you. Greed, we rebuke you. Hatred, we rebuke you. We rebuke you, and in the name of the Jesus of the triumphal entry, and we confront you.
Dr. King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. It bends that way because together, with God and the prophets, we make it do so.
Yes, those with something to lose may plot against us. But do not worry. Do not fear.
When the storms of war and merciless policies, when bombs in Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday or murderers at a Bible study in South Carolina try to knock us off balance, we will not even bend. Because we are held, we are rooted by Jesus, Zechariah, Torah, and the certainty that we love God best when we love our neighbors well.
We do not let the Lamassus of throne rooms intimidate. We hear rocks and robes sing God’s glory, supporting our feet and cloaking us in strength for the week and the work ahead. Evil can be reduced to the size of a bowl, but God’s justice will always overflow what tries to contain it.