A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
Texts: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
I called my mom last night. I had been checking out some of the coverage from the Selma 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. of that day when civil rights protesters and police in Alabama met on a bridge, and violence was the victor. She wasn’t there. At the time, she was at home, six or seven states away. She was at church that day. And although my parents have always shared with me stories of their experiences during this tense time in our nation’s history, I couldn’t remember my mother ever specifically speaking of this day, I couldn’t remember her telling me how she saw Selma. So I called and asked her about what she remembered from that time.
Now, if you promise not to do the math to figure out her current age, I will tell you that at the time my mom was 26 and living in Bethesda, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. She told me how watching the images of that day on tv, brought the reality of what was happening into her living room. How she could see that violence, right there, in her living room and how it was so completely unavoidable.
She remembered the call going out to “outsiders” the next day, and especially to white clergy, to join in the protest. She told me about going to church, the church she grew up in, Bethesda Presbyterian Church, an all white church just outside of Washington DC, and hearing her minister, Rev. Dr. Carl Pritchett, tell the congregation that he was going to Selma. She remembered the controversy. She remembered that some in the church supported him and that others felt he was out of his mind. Who felt betrayed. He was a southerner, born in North Carolina, how could he be doing this? How could he be speaking out in this way? He caused division, my mother remembered. But she remembered how he told them that he felt called by his conscience and by his God to go and stand for justice. So he went. Dr. Pritchett marched in Selma. He went on, and he organized boycotts and he called the faithful at Bethesda Pres. to participate actively in the Civil Rights movement.
Now, after talking to my mom, I did a little research. Dr. Pritchett was pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian for 19 years, beginning in 1956. But he didn’t start out as an activist. He started out as a southerner, who by the account I read, was a bit of a racist, as he had been raised to be. And when Washington was consumed by the civil rights movement, when the march on washington was called for just two years earlier, Dr. Pritchett was against getting involved. He was clear that marching in the streets was not for him.
That August in 1963, DC area pastors had been asked to house participants gathering for Dr. King’s March on Washington and to feed them. Many had said no. At the time the Presbyterian Church was split in two, the northern PCUSA and the southern PCUS. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, a PCUS pastor at Washington DC’s Church of the Pilgrims, called his colleagues out. He went to the Presbyterian Outlook magazine and wrote an open letter to his beloved church brothers and sisters saying, “Brethren, all of us must be open to the fresh demands which the eternal Word of God places upon us to be relevant in our ministry to the age in which we live…. One of the crucial problems of our times is racial equality. The church is directly involved in its solution because of the imperatives of the gospel.” This letter from Dr. Taylor was read to the general assembly of the PCUS two days before the March. A prayer service was called for the morning of the march at Dr. Taylor’s church, the Church of the Pilgrims in NW DC. 200 southern Presbyterians, including several ministers, came to that prayer service, including my mother’s pastor, Dr. Pritchett.
Dr. Pritchett hadn’t planned on doing anything more than attending the prayer service. He wasn’t one for violence or marching. He wasn’t one for the streets. But he was moved in that prayer service, he was moved to action. He marched on Washington that day, and it fundamentally changed how he saw the movement, and the church’s role in the movement. He became an activist. He preached the message of justice and equality he found in the gospel. And he called on the Church to see its role in how things were playing out in the streets, he called her out saying, “The Church forced it out in the streets…. if I should ever feel that my place is physically out in the street, it will be because my church has forced me out of the sanctuary…and into the street.”
Being called out by his colleague forced Dr. Pritchett to look at himself and how he was doing church. Forced him to consider which rules he was following and why. And once he had been called out, once he had been transformed by that, he found it is duty to return the favor. To challenge good, faithful, law-abiding church folks to consider how they were being the church.
The good, faithful, law-abiding people of faith at the temple that day in Jerusalem were also trying to follow all the rules. Cesar’s money wasn’t allowed in the temple, with his face on those coins, it wasn’t allowed. So the money changers were there to fix the situation, to turn the money into face-less money that could be properly offered in the temple. For God. They were following the rules.
The animals. The animals were there to be offered as sacrifices. There needed to be a space to clean them off after a long, dusty walk to the temple. They needed to be spotless and clean in order to be sacrificed.The doves were being sold to people who were too poor to have animals to offer. But all this was in accordance with the tradition and expectation and the way that you knew to be a good and faithful person of God. That’s why they were there.
The people were following the rules.
The temple, it was being improved, enlarged. Made to accommodate more. So that more could come and honor God. So that more could do the right thing. So the space would be more beautiful. To honor God. All to do the right thing, the faithful thing, to honor God.
These good people of faith were all following God’s rules.
But they were missing the point.
And Jesus was there to tell them just that.
Jesus was there to call them out. Because they were missing the point.
We all need to be called out every now and again. We need that accountability. That parent’s eyebrow raised as if to say, “are you sure you wanna do that?” That teacher saying, “you can do better.” That teenager asking, “well, what did you do when you were my age?” That toddler questioning, “what does that word mean, daddy?” That federal government report stating in black and white, “this city has a race problem, this police department has a race problem.” Our president saying, “What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” And our God, who came to us in the flesh, flat out saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Our God who came to us to say, this is not the temple. This building and it’s walls. This set of rules and rituals. They may be tools and building blocks to your faith but I am the way and the truth and the light. I am the temple. I am the active presence of God that you seek. I am the relationship you are looking for. I am the way. And I will be destroyed but in three days I will raise it up. For you.
Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez tells us that “The active presence of God in the midst of the people is a part of the oldest and most enduring biblical promises.” He traces this pattern through the covenants that we’ve been reading these past few weeks. The active presence of God as witnessed in rainbows and generations, in commandments and mountaintops, in burning bushes and prophet voices. But everything changed when the active presence of God became human flesh and walked among us, taught us, healed us, and called us out.
So today I ask all of us, where is the active presence of God calling to us? And what is Jesus calling us out on?
Update: Not sure why I can’t seem to figure out how to get my citations to paste over into the wordpress format, but here they are, in order, but not attached. Sorry!
1. “A Brief Spiritual Biography of Bethesda Presbyterian Church” as posted on http://bethesdapresbyterian.org/about/#ChurchHistory_anchor (accessed 3/7/2015)
2. Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement by Elaine Allen Lechtreck p.101-110. 2008.
3. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, 15th Anniversary Ed. p. 106. 1988.