Mar 07 | “What’s a king to a god?” (Sermon, March 7th 2021)

In March of 2016, when I was still a curate, I was invited to the Inspire Conference, a gathering of children, youth, and family ministry leaders and children and youth themselves to learn, network, and talk about justice. That year had a star lineup of speakers including cultural literacy communications scholar Dr. Daniel White Hodge.

I was immediately engaged with Dr. Dan, who ran a series of workshops on faith through the lens of film. His particular specialization, though, was Hip Hop, and he was just beginning his PhD, which explored Hip Hop as missiology, or the study of missions. He has since written multiple books on the subject, including The Soul of Hip Hop, Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel, and Homeland Insecurity.

Dr. Dan was interested in this subject not only as a Hip Hop fan, but as a Black and Latino American originally from a Seventh Day Adventist background. He became a nondenominational evangelical and worked extensively with youth before becoming disillusioned about the way his church interacted with non-white culture. He constantly saw Black and Latino kids within evangelical church communities encouraged to abandon their dialects, natural hairstyles, music – basically everything that could give them a source of ethnic pride. These things were all coded as “worldly,” unlike, one assumes, the “pure” (read: white) culture of the church itself. Black and Latino kids outside of these church communities, particularly those living in poor urban environments, became fodder for missions trips by white affluent evangelical kids, who would be bussed in to gawk at them before attempting to save their souls.

Dr. Dan began to feel that the churches he worked for did not see Black culture as compatible with American Christianity, and this feeling only deepened after the 2016 election. He openly wondered on his podcast Profane Faith if there were anything in evangelicalism worth saving. His books offer passionate pleas for a new theology of mission that meets kids of colour where they are by integrating Hip Hop, a deeply spiritual movement which blends sacred, profane, and secular into a tapestry of raw theological reflection.

Reading his book Homeland Insecurity, I was struck by how the brutal honesty of the lyrics he included mirrored the spirit of Jesus’s temple tirade. From the song “No Church in the Wild” by Jay-Z and Kanye West:

“Human beings in a mob

What’s a mob to a king?

What’s a king to a god?

What’s a god to a nonbeliever

Who don’t believe in anything?”

Dr. Dan reflects, “What does [the post civil rights Church] matter to someone who (1) has lost faith in God altogether, (2) has been oppressed and disenfranchised by Christians, (3) has read, and possibly lived, the destructive history of Christian faith being weaponized for violence and death, (4) has been psychologically affected by fundamentalism, and (5) simply does not believe there is a god?” He concludes that in the face of nonbelief, everything we believers fight about amongst ourselves just looks like semantics, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Dr. Dan goes on to say that a “church in the wild,” if it existed, would be “a church that can sit with questions and doubt rather than answers and solutions. A church that disrupts its own thinking on race, gender, and class. A church that is able to transcend tradition, dogma, and rigid theological stances and push for relationships, community, and the mysterious enlightenment of who God is in the present age.”

The story of Jesus’s act in the temple is present in all four Gospels, but it’s situated in different places, and the Synoptic writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke understand its meaning differently from John. While the Synoptics place the act toward the end of Jesus’s ministry, the inciting incident for his arrest, John places it toward the beginning, right after the wedding at Cana – and the inciting incident is the raising of Lazarus.

Looking up toward the site of Al-Aqsa mosque, the former site of the temple, behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City

There are other differences. In the Synoptics, Jesus’s anger is directed toward those who have made the temple “a den of robbers,” and specifically mention him driving out those who sell doves, the cheap alternative to a sacrificial cow. His anger seems directed toward those who would profit off of the poor. In John, he shouts at the dove-sellers but also drives all of the animals and moneychangers out, commanding, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The Synoptics show Jesus taking issue with how business is being done. John has Jesus challenge the whole system.

Now we have to tread carefully here. John can be a dangerous text because of how it has been – and often continues to be – used. This passage and others like it are sometimes read as Jesus setting himself against the Jewish faith itself. So let’s be careful to remember that Jesus was working as an oppressed person firmly within his ancestral faith. Judea and its people had been through siege after siege, trying to hold onto a liberating faith. The religious authorities were trying to keep the nation safe from Rome, which had punished thousands of Jews for rebelling against Caesar with mass crucifixion. The elite secured safety for themselves and their people by mollifying the empire. They couldn’t afford to have someone calling for an end to the marketplace which had functioned in the temple for generations and which they believed was also helping to keep the God of Israel appeased.

But Jesus knew that no matter how hard the elite tried to keep the people contained, it would never be enough to satisfy the dominant culture. Whether oppressed people use the tools and speech of empire or whether they riot and rebel, the only response the empire tolerates is silence and obedience. Martin Luther King Jr. made powerful calls for peaceful resistance and was still murdered, and he was widely despised by the majority of white America in his own lifetime. Malcolm X, often pitted against Dr. King as “the wrong way to do civil rights,” whose Black Panther party fed schoolchildren so successfully that the US government was embarrassed into drastic policy change, had the same fate. No matter how you do it, if you challenge empire, you get the boot – to your backside or to your face.

Some oppressed people stay silent their whole lives. Others decide, “If we’re going to be tone-policed no matter what, why bother being polite? And why bother making reasonable demands? Why not shoot for the moon?”

So let’s imagine that Jesus, knowing his people needed change, figured he’d challenge the whole system. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. The temple would, after all, be destroyed only forty years later. As a rabbi, he and the Pharisees had already begun the work of teaching the people how to enact their faith in their own homes and lives. Maybe, like the prophet Ezekiel acting out the siege of Jerusalem with bricks and toys, or like a rapper who challenges the empire’s canonization of its police with a raging anthem, Jesus wanted to explode expectations, to sit with the question of a tent in the wilderness rather than provide the answer of a temple in the golden city, to disrupt the boundaries between those who could buy bulls and those who had to settle for doves, to push for a new community that found the mystery of God even within a world hostile and full of pain.

It makes sense having seen this first overturning that Jesus’s penultimate overturning, raising Lazarus from the dead, would be so threatening. Jesus wasn’t just saying a new world was possible. He was making it. If the threat of death no longer mattered, what could stop his people from toppling the whole empire?

And perhaps, in today’s pandemic world of necropolitics, bigotry, state sponsored murder, mass incarceration, crushing poverty, and environmental devastation, this is a sign for us. We need to be willing to topple idols, to ask tough questions, to ask, “Does it have to be this way?”, and to see the face of the Beloved everywhere, even in places where things are uncivil and rough and wild.

Tupac Shakur in his 1996 song “Black Jesus” asks, “Who’s got the heart to stand beside me?” The Jesus in the temple and the Jesus that meets us today here in this place asks us the same question.

leave a reply