Sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week, March 22, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Isaiah 49:1-61 Corinthians 1:18-31
Psalm 71:1-12Mark 11:15-19

Altar of resistance

The showdown has begun. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem.  The next day, as we heard in tonight’s reading, he entered its holy place – and caused a commotion.  He walks into the temple and drives out those who are buying and selling.  He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those selling doves.  Quoting Scripture, he cries, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.  But you have made it a den of robbers” [bbllink]Mark 11:17[/bbllink].

The temple is sacred space.  It is made for prayer.  It is no place for dishonesty, no place for greed, no place for the profit of a few.  Some scholars emphasize that the cleansing of the temple takes place in the Court of the Gentiles, the only area where non-Jewish people are admitted for worship.  If buying and selling is permitted in the Court of the Gentiles, then the Gentiles will have no place to join in worshipping with the people of God.  When Jesus cleanses the temple – when he drives out all commercial transactions, expels buyers and sellers, and declares the space so holy that no one can even carry a vessel through it – he is carrying out the first act of a Messianic king.  He is clearing out and protecting the sacred space so that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, may worship together.  He is proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Tonight we contemplate Jesus protecting sacred space that has been invaded by commercial interests.  I hold that scene side by side with another invasion by commercial interests of another sacred space.  Last week’s vote by the U.S. Senate to open the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil and gas drilling was not unexpected, but still it came to many of us as a shock.  It’s not just that so little oil is expected to flow from those pipelines, nor that the same amount of fossil fuel that is expected to come from the refuge could be saved by investing in clean, renewable energy and by improving the average fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks.  It’s not just that drilling for more oil in Alaska seems a particularly tragic and ironic project, given the fact that Alaska and the whole region of the Arctic is already bearing vivid witness to the perils of global warming, from thawing tundra to melting ice and changing patterns of migration.  Maybe you read in last week’s newspapers that it’s become so warm up there, Grizzly bears were spotted 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

But what especially appalls so many of us is that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred space.  It is the last great, untouched, wilderness area in this country.  As Jimmy Carter writes, “There are few places on earth as wild and free as the Arctic Refuge.  It is a symbol of our natural heritage, a remnant of frontier America that our first settlers once called wilderness” [quoted from his foreword to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land]. Do we really want to hand it over to multinational corporations and to the politicians who champion their cause?  Are there no limits that we are willing to set on our greed?  Do we bear no responsibility to other forms of life on this planet and no responsibility for the quality of life that our children and grandchildren will inherit after we are gone?

Some of you may know that four years ago I went to Washington, D.C. with an activist, interfaith group called Religious Witness for the Earth.  We marched to the Department of Energy and held a worship service to protest the Administration’s energy plan and its intention to drill for oil in the Arctic refuge.  We didn’t turn over any tables, but we did kneel in front of the doors to the building and pray that the sanctity of the Arctic refuge be protected.  I was among the 22 of us who were arrested.

You may know that the indigenous peoples who live in the refuge, the Gwich’in people, are sustained by herds of caribou.  They are called the Caribou people, and 90% of them are Episcopalian.  In Washington D.C., we met a Gwich’in elder who told us that the land is so sacred to his people, there are areas that they do not even enter. 

This is not just a Republican issue.  It’s not just a Democrat issue.  It’s not just a political and economic issue.  It’s a human issue, a moral and spiritual issue. 

Tonight, as at every Eucharist, we come to a table like this one.  Tonight Jesus reminds us that this table is not only the altar of repentance, the place where our sins are met by the forgiveness and mercy of God.  Nor it is only the Altar of Repose, where the Blessed Sacrament is taken after the service on Maundy Thursday, the place where Jesus rests and where we receive his peace.  It is also the altar of resistance, the place where we receive strength to stand up to the powers and principalities of this world.  It is the table that gives us power to turn the tables on the forces of greed, oppression, and injustice.  It is the table that gives us strength to resist the forces of death and to proclaim the power of life. 

In the silence that follows I invite you to let Jesus draw close.  Are there tables inside you that he wants to overturn, places where you are stuck or colluding with the powers that be?  Is he perhaps inviting you to join with other people and to play a part in turning over the tables of injustice so that together we can proclaim the kingdom of God?