Monday, March 9, 2015

The Chair in the Doorway

Sermon for Year B Lent 3
March 8, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, VT
The Rev. Jeanne Finan

The Chair in the Doorway

...sixteen tons and what do you get
another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the Company Store....

This is an old Johnny Cash song,

A song about the life of coal miners who can’t make ends meet
no matter how hard they work.
By the end of the month the only option to feed their families
is to shop at the Company Store
where everything costs triple--or more---
and where they just keep going deeper and deeper and deeper
into debt.

Today we call it predatory lending.
It still happens.
People who can’t make it to payday get a loan.
The typical two-week payday loan
usually has an annual interest rate of around 400 %.
Yes, you heard me correctly.

These loans are not rare.
The estimate is that 12 million Americans
are trapped every year in this cycle of payday loans.
And we wonder why the poor stay poor?
Why those on the margins can’t ever get ahead?

Now the good news is that in Vermont
payday loans for exorbitant interest rates are illegal.
But yes, there are loopholes
(it seems there are always loopholes)--
but we are fortunate to live in a state
that realizes that the Company Store mentality
is not a good thing
not good for our communities
and certainly not good for individuals.

We hear in today’s gospel
that Jesus doesn’t care much
for the Company Store way of business either.

People are coming
from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem.
It’s probably around the year 32
and it is the season of Passover.
A very holy season.

According to their traditions,
each family is expected to make an offering to God in the temple.
This offering is usually a lamb, perhaps a calf,
or if you are of limited means, a dove.

But if you own no livestock,
if you’re poor,
or if you have had to travel a long distance
which means you could not bring an animal with you,
you have to purchase the animal
once you arrive at the Temple.

The temple merchants are greedy.
Their livestock offerings are priced off the charts.

In addition you also must pay a temple tax.

Here’s where the money changers come in.

You cannot use your regular money,
you cannot pay in the currency from your own region.
These coins are not allowed in the Temple,
because Caesar’s money--
or any coin with the image of a secular ruler-- was “unholy”.

You have to change your everyday coins into temple money,
into shekels, the local Jerusalem currency.
The money changers made quite a hefty profit
on each exchange.

It would be a very shallow interpretation of this scripture
to think that Jesus is upset
about items being sold in the temple.

Jesus is upset--very upset--
because people are cheating other human beings,
people are very purposefully taking advantage of others,
especially the poor.

Jesus is not turning over the money changers tables
because he thinks money is bad.
He is not chasing the merchants out of the temple
because he doesn’t want anything sold there.

We must not forget that there are very good merchants,
generous corporations,
who care about individuals and about communities.

Even in today’s market-driven world
so many of you
work incredibly hard on the various events and fund raisers
here at St. Paul’s.
So you can give money to others.

You don’t get richer.
The Cathedral doesn’t get richer.
We raise money
to give it away.

But in so many ways that DOES make us richer.

Christmas wreaths.
Tree saplings.
Silent auctions.

Spaghetti dinners.

There are many ways to work for justice.
Yes, our labor is important.
Our voices are essential.
But we must not scoff at raising money
or writing a check or giving away money.
Because this is another way
to make a dent in an unjust system.

We must not forget prayer and worship
for these, too, weaken the ropes that bind
the oppressed.

To give for the common good--
whether with our bodies, our creativity, our worship
or our wallets--or all of the above--
this is the good news made real and alive.
This is all justice work.

Jesus is standing in the Temple,
whip in hand,
looking a bit like Indiana Jones.

Jesus is calling for a boycott of the Company Store mentality.
Jesus is angry about injustice
and those who perpetuate it.

Jesus calls us to be angry too--
not a senseless violent rage
but an anger that is born of love and compassion
for our fellow human beings and this world we inhabit.

An anger that will strengthen us
to believe that we can make a difference.

One of my many favorite poems is one by Libby Lindsay.
Here it is:

My father left when I was eight years old.
Mom had six kids to raise.
She was educated but never worked outside the home.
Father didn’t allow that.
She had never written a check.
The money was his domain.
She didn’t know about debts he had made--
debts she became responsible for.

She went on welfare.
In 1965 the maximum benefit was $ 165 a month.
We were strangers in Boone County--no family,
no one to turn to for help but the
church we attended.
Men came to repossess our furniture.

Mom called the pastor.
He came to our house and sat in a chair
in the doorway
and wouldn’t let them take the furniture.

I’m forty now but I’ve never forgotten that.

I’ve never forgotten that.

We are constantly called
to be the people that will come and sit in a chair in the doorway
for someone else,
for someone who has been pushed to the margins,
for someone who is being beat up by bullies
over and over and over.

You do not need to be a pastor or priest or ordained in any way
to block the doorway against injustice.

We promise in our baptismal covenant
to strive for justice and peace
among all people
and respect the dignity of every human being.

We need to show up to sit in those chairs.
We need to care more about others than ourselves.

We all need to do a little spring cleaning of our own lives,
It is so easy to judge and criticize others,
especially the poor, the excluded, those who are different--
when really,
we ought to be turning over some of the sharp-edged tables
in our own lives,
and looking deeply into our own souls.

And yes, I feel certain that the merchants and the money changers
have their own story to tell as well.

But the gospel story today is clear.

Injustice is not alright.
Keeping silent is not acceptable.
Being too busy is not an excuse.
We are called to work together to protect the vulnerable
from having their souls
owed to the company store.

This fight against injustice
is the journey
to save our own souls as well.