Monday, March 2, 2015

Religious Nut or Radical Prophet?


Ten years ago, some vandals came into the Roman Catholic church here in Decatur, AL, and turned over the altar right as mass was ending, yelling something about idolatry and false worship. They were self-proclaimed prophets whose actions defiled a sacred space, scared the faithful men, women, and children in the church, and underscored the lingering prejudice against Catholics in our community. In an interview from jail, the leader of the group said that he was “acting on a vision from God.”
 
I didn’t live in this community back then, but I remember well the first time I heard this story. As the details came together in its telling, I felt within me an indignant rage rising up at the thought of some religious nut acting with such disregard for the faith of others. When I heard that there were people in the church—that this vandalism didn’t occur in the middle of the night but right as a service was ending—I was aghast. I could not understand how this could happen—how someone in the name of God could do such an evil thing. I wonder how I would have felt when Jesus stormed into the temple and overturned the tables and chased on the moneychangers, which is the focus of this Sunday’s gospel reading—John 2:13-22.
 
Actually, I know exactly how I would have felt. The same righteous anger would have flooded my mind. I would have been the loudest voice calling for a brutal punishment. I would have denounced Jesus as the same sort of religious nut who did that evil thing here in Decatur a decade ago.
 
I don’t like that about myself, but I need to face it. I’m the kind of person who is hardwired to like rules and regulations. On the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, I am a strong ESTJ. I don’t like people who break the rules. I don’t like individuals who threaten longstanding institutions. When confronted by radical change, I respond with radical intransigence. It’s who I am. It makes it hard for me to recognize when God might be trying to change things.
 
I am in no way equating the justification of the actions of the religious nuts who defiled our local church with the justification of Jesus’ radical temple disruption. Although the two acts are similar in form—no doubt the 21st-century version was an imitation of the 1st-century act—the comparison stops there. But I do find myself drawn to the question that was posed to Jesus in response to this behavior: “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
 
I presume the felons who turned over the altar in our local church wouldn’t have an answer for that—at least not one that we would find in the least way convincing. Jesus, of course, said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of his message and his actions. The empty tomb says to hard-hearted individuals like me, “Jesus was right; it’s time to listen to him.” I need the resurrection to break through my reluctance. During his lifetime, I know where I would have stood—firmly on the side against this radical prophet. My deepest prayer, therefore, is that the resurrection would be so firmly fixed in my mind that I might learn to follow the one who challenges everything I hold dear.

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