(Luke 2: 13-22)
Friends, it is coming. We get a taste in a couple of days with the ACC tournament – or as we Wake Forest fans prefer to call it, one last game of the season. The real fun happens the following week. The NCAA Tournament; 68 teams from all over the country, every conference, all vying for the same prize. Powerhouses like Virginia and Michigan State and Villanova and Xavier. Duke and Carolina. Mixed in with the likes of St. Bonaventure, Nevada, Rhode Island.
Like many of you, I love this time of the sports year – especially the tournament’s first two days, when CBS darts back and forth from court to court, games beginning at noon and running well past midnight. Matchups that wouldn’t occur in any other instance and results that are just as unlikely. Remember George Mason topping mighty Connecticut in 2006 to advance to the Final Four? Syracuse losing to #15 back in 1991? Lehigh taking down Duke in 2012? Georgetown succumbing to Florida Gulf Coast? It is no wonder they call it “March Madness.”
Although, truth be told, the NCAA tournament wasn’t the real first March Madness. The one I’m talking about doesn’t involve an orange leather ball or take place on a basketball court. Even though there was plenty of commotion and chaos, lots of noise and big crowds, even a little money exchanged on the side. And there was one big upset that shocked everyone who saw and heard about it.
The place was Jerusalem, and the scene was the festival of Passover. Every year, Jewish people would embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the temple. It was quite the event – not just because all kinds of people converged on the city for that week, but all kinds of powers as well. The Roman Empire, after all, lorded over the Jews at that time. They called it Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace” – but really, the only thing peaceful about it was how everyone fell in line out of fear. The Jewish authorities – the temple leaders – were part of Roman domination system, commissioned with making sure no one rocked the boat. This was the kind of world Jesus grew up in and lived in.
But back to the scene – if you and I had been at the temple that day, we would’ve witnessed the steps of the temple bustling with all kinds of activity. We would’ve watched people come and go all day long. And in the midst of that, we would’ve watched as traders and salespeople peddled livestock and goods, right there at the temple. Things that might be needed for the Passover celebration, but undoubtedly at a marked-up price, taking advantage of the fact that most of these folks couldn’t afford to bring their own with them.
That wasn’t all. Most of these out-of-towners carried Greek and Roman coins in their pockets, the currency they used in everyday life. But these coins weren’t appropriate for the Jewish temple. Enter the moneychangers. These moneychangers exchanged the Greek and Roman coins for currency folks could use, no doubt charging a hefty transaction fee along with it.
So the scene we would’ve witnessed that day, with all these people and all these powers, was its own “March Madness” – not just because it was hectic and crazy, but because the system in place worked against the good of the common people. But it had always been that way; they didn’t know anything different. So everyone kind of went along with it, everyone pretty much accepted things.
Except for one thirty-something Jewish man, a young carpenter home for the holidays, who found this March Madness a bit too much. All Jesus saw were people being cheated out of their money, taken advantage of. All at the house of God, nonetheless.
We know what happens next, of course. Not because I just read it, but because it is the stuff of Jesus lore. We know this story precisely because it doesn’t fit our typical view of him. Which is kind of the point. It’s shocking. No one could’ve anticipated what Jesus did. Probably not even Jesus himself.
This past summer at one of the Montreat Youth Conferences, members of the Jeremiah Project – high school conferees serving in leadership roles – acted out this passage in worship one night. Jesus was played by this meek young woman, a rising 9th grader not even five feet tall. In rehearsals her greatest struggle was flipping the table, kind of an important part in the passage. She more or less rolled it on its side, like she was afraid to mess it up or something. Her fellow students egged her to get more into it, but she just smiled meekly.
So when worship came around that night and the scripture was read, there she was, this tiny Jesus, standing before a table that probably weighed more than she did. And none of us had any idea what possessed her in that moment, any idea at all; but when the time came she grabbed a hold of that table with both hands, and with lightning quick motion that suggested anything but timidity, jerked her arms upward and sent that table airborne, flying up and flipping over and landing with a loud SMACK on its top. The sound reverberated throughout Anderson Auditorium; there was an audible gasp from the 1200 youth there, followed by raucous applause.
This, despite the fact that every person there knew how this story went – they knew Jesus flipped tables. But to see it – and see it from the kind of person you’d least expect – it was shocking and powerful.
Don’t you figure people back in Jesus’ day were shocked as well? Scripture doesn’t tell us one way or the other, but this is not the kind of thing that happened in the temple. And for those who knew Jesus, this was not the Jesus they’d grown accustomed to. That Jesus was a Jesus who preached on the mountain, who healed people; a Jesus who welcomed children and dined with sinners. A loving Jesus, a docile Jesus. A Jesus who didn’t fight back when he was arrested and accused.
That is not Jesus here. This Jesus is angry. This Jesus is ticked off. This Jesus is fed up with the way things are.
But I wonder if we misplace Jesus’ anger if we simply say it was all about the traders and the salespeople and the moneychangers. I think Jesus was none too pleased with those folks, but I don’t know if that’s what he was most upset about.
I wonder if what really led him to flip tables was the resignation of everyone else to just let it happen. I wonder if what elicited Jesus’ anger was the apathy.
Look up the meaning of the word apathy in the dictionary and you may find yourself wanting more – one definition reads a lack of interest or concern; another says the attitude of not caring. Neither are all that helpful. But the word itself, which comes from Greek, is a compound of the prefix “a,” which means “without” and “pathos,” which is “emotion.” So the word apathy at its heart means “without feeling.” Which means apathy is more than simply not caring. It’s losing the ability to.
Dave Meslin is a community coordinator in Toronto; and back in 2011 he did a great TED Talk on apathy. In it he says most people assume apathy occurs when people are selfish, lazy or just don’t care. Meslin, though, hypothesizes that people by and large do care but live in a world that actively discourages them from caring by placing barriers in the way, barriers that eventually wear people down and make engagement difficult or impossible.
Meslin mentions the typical public notice for a zoning change in the newspaper. The print is ridiculously small, barely legible. That, and you have to read all the way down to find the address and when and where the public hearing will take place. The ad is intended, by design, to discourage, not encourage, people from getting involved. And he’s right.
We may not know how people in Jesus’ day felt about the selling and moneychanging in the temple, but they certainly had come to expect it, year after year. And even if they didn’t like it, even if they wanted a change, who would hear their complaints? Who would care? No one. So they were apathetic.
Except Jesus. And that’s what so shocking. Part of me wonders if they spontaneously applauded too. Applauded for this man who didn’t let barriers stand in his way; this man who chose to stand up to the powers of the world, powers which oppress and thrive on injustice; and call them out for who and what they are. This man who died to apathy.
Nothing feeds apathy more than feeling we’re unable to change things around us for the better. That’s why we live in such apathetic times. Things are not right, things are out of whack, people just don’t seem to care. But I think Dave Meslin is on to something. I think people do care, very much care; but we live in a world that erects barriers that make it hard, so hard for people to care, to act, to bring about change.
So the question is: are we prepared to do what Jesus did? Not flip tables – literally, at least. Are we, too, prepared to die to apathy?
There was a time not all that long ago where I honestly wasn’t sure. The barriers seem too insurmountable; the capacity to care too thin. But I’m beginning to think differently; I’m beginning to feel hope. And what’s even more hopeful is where I’m feeling it from. We all witnessed it, just a few weeks ago. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover, Cameron Kasky, among others. All 17 and 18 years old, all high school students. Now you may agree or disagree with the stances they’ve taken and how they’ve done what they’ve done, but there’s no denying that these young people are flipping some proverbial tables these days.
This, despite the many barriers in their way. Those who discount them as just high school students. Those who say they should “get over it” and get back to school. Even those who think they’re getting paid to do it. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Cameron Kasky about those who think he’s a paid “crisis actor,” Kasky, still mourning the death of classmates, cooly replied: “Well, if you’d seen me in our school’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ last year, you’d know nobody would pay me to act.” Self-deferential, a little humor, and a stubborn refusal to let a barrier feed apathy.
And friends, we don’t need to limit our vision to residents of a small town in Florida recovering from yet another school shooting to see how young people are leading the charge to die to apathy. It’s happening all around.
Like 13-year old Blare. Two days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Blare was watching the news and saw a little boy crying in a pile of rubble. Blare remembered that, when he was that boy’s age, he had a teddy bear that always comforted him. So the next day Blare asked his teachers at school if he could make an announcement asking other kids to join him in donating their teddy bears to the kids in Haiti. Local TV and radio got a hold of the story and shared it, as countless others did on social media. When all was said and done, Blare’s Bears for Haiti donated 25,000 teddy bears to the island nation and about 22,000 more to nonprofits; and since then they’ve expanded to include other toys and school supplies.
Or how about Kayleigh. As the daughter of a policeman, Kayleigh always loved watching the police dogs train when she visited her dad at work; but she did not like the fact that, while all the officers got bullet-proof vests, only a few of the dogs did. So she came up with a plan to raise money to buy one dog vest – priced at $700 – by selling her toys. A local businessman heard what she was doing and donated enough money to cover the difference. That was back in 2009. Today, Kayleigh’s organization, Kids for K9s, has raised money to cover the cost of five dog bullet-proof vests. At the ripe old age of 8, Kayleigh shows no signs of slowing down, saying she plans to stick with her project “until I’m forty, probably.”
And then there’s 12-year old Koa. Koa, a vegetarian, began learning about the ill effects of fast food – not just for people but the environment as well. In 2008 he founded Fast Food Free, whose mission is to reduce its consumption. He makes regular presentations at local schools, community groups, and churches; and so far thousands of people have signed his online pledge to skip fast food for two weeks. Even some school districts are starting to come on board.
I hear stories like these and the Parkland students, and I find myself wondering if we are witnessing a seismic shift in our culture – with all its challenges, in all its brokenness, whether we’re talking #NeverAgain or #MeToo or whatever issue we’re dealing with. A shift in our culture away from walking past the salespeople and moneychangers in the temple and assuming that’s the way things have to be; a shift away from apathy. And the fact – and this is significant – that it’s our young people leading the way.
I love that that’s happening. And I want the church to be right in the mix of that, because the church is living the legacy of a man who set the standard when it came to flipping tables. Maybe, dear friends, maybe what the world needs most from the faith community right now is a different kind of March Madness.
Together, we die to apathy through Jesus Christ. Together, we embrace a new life of caring and compassion and action.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://www.npr.org/2015/02/06/379184277/what-s-the-antidote-to-political-apathy, visited on 2.21.2018
 http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-parkland-student-activists-20180223-htmlstory.html, visited on 2.24.2018.
 http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-conspiracy-theories-20180221-story.html visited on 2.22.2018.
 https://www.parenting.com/gallery/kids-who-make-difference, visited on 2.22.2018.