Temple sermons | 9 October 2016

Jeremiah 7, 26

Temple sermon #1

It was the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, a little before 600 BCE.  Jeremiah, the priest and prophet, went and stood in the gate of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  He proceeded to deliver a sermon that did not bring the house down.  It didn’t physically bring the house down.  The invading Babylonians would do that 20 years later.  It didn’t inspirationally bring the house down.  As far as we can tell, nobody was laughing, clapping, or shouting ‘Amen’ at Jeremiah’s words.  On the contrary, the text says when he was finished: “then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!’”  Wow – not a sermon response most seminaries prepare you for.  I much prefer silence followed by a hymn.

In the sermon, Jeremiah had challenged the mentality that the temple was the ultimate source of security for the people.  He says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.’”  The way Jeremiah talks about it, this must have been a popular sentiment, and even a popular phrase of the time.  One neighbor says to another: ‘Hey, have you heard about those nasty Babylonians trying to take over the world?’  The neighbor replies: ‘Yeah, but we’re all good.  You know, we’ve got the temple of Yahweh.’  ‘Totally, the temple of Yahweh.’  The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.

Jeremiah has a different suggestion.  “If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to you own hurt, then Yahweh will dwell with you in this place.”  In other words, if you want security, work for justice.  Stability proceeds from protecting the economically vulnerable.  If you want things to be all good, make sure all are getting access to the goods.

It’s an important enough sermon that we get two different accounts of it.  Jeremiah 7 focuses on the sermon itself, and chapter 26 does a quick summary of the sermon and focuses on the reaction to it.  It’s called, simply enough, “The temple sermon.”

Temple Sermon #2

About 600 years after Jeremiah, Jesus entered the Jerusalem of his day on the back of a donkey and headed into the rebuilt temple.  The beloved, sacred institution of his people was failing those who most needed it to be a place of safety and security.  It had become an instrument of wealth redistribution from the bottom to the top.  In the mind of Jesus, this was defiling its sacred mission to honor YHWH, the god who delivered the Hebrews from slavery.  In his sermon Jeremiah had referred to the temple as a den of robbers, and Jesus samples those prophetic words in his own temple sermon.  This, we may remember, also did not go over so well.

Temple sermon #3          

May 4, 1969.  On that Sunday, James Forman interrupted a worship service at the influential, predominantly white, Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  Forman stood in the pulpit and proceeded to read from a newly written document called The Black Manifesto.

If you’re like me, you never heard about this.

I first learned about it reading Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians.  She highlights this as a pivotal event in the relationship between white Christians and African Americans.  The first thing I noticed with this date, May 4, 1969, is that it’s a year and a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968.  It made me realize that I have a big gaping hole in my understanding of the black struggle post King and that I’ve mis-learned the outcomes of the Civil Rights struggle.  Harvey writes:

“The way we remember the civil rights movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate.  By the end of the 1960’s many Black Americans – including Black Christians – were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today.  In contrast, the end of the 1960’s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage” (p. 103).

Harvey tells the story of The Black Manifesto to illustrate the point.

It came out of the National Black Economic Development Conference.  A group of black leaders had been meeting for years with white religious leaders and were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the white leaders’ refusal to deal with the underlying material issues of jobs, housing, and financial resources for black folks – the deficits all a result of past and present injustices and outright theft of black resources.  The National Black Economic Development Conference was a black-only gathering in Detroit looking at what might be next for economic and community development strategies.  On the final night of the conference, James Forman introduced the Black Manifesto, which was endorsed by about a 3 to 1 vote.

On May 4, 1969, and in following weeks and months, Forman interrupted worship services in predominantly white congregations to read the Manifesto.  It’s about four pages.  Now easily accessed online.

The overarching theme of the Manifesto was a call for reparations.  $500 million paid from white churches across America to the Black Economic Development Conference.  It included specific ways the money would be used with assigned amounts, including a Black university in the South, a research skills center, a southern land bank, publishing and printing industries, a training center, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund.  Throughout the Manifesto it periodically notes that the amount of $500,000,000 is a modest amount, equal to only $15 per black American at that time.    One of the critiques of the document was that the amount demanded was far too low.  One white theologian, writing favorably about the Manifesto in the Christian Century in June of ’69, noted that churches could collectively raise the amount in a month of Sunday offerings.  That article was called: Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope.  (Ronald Goetz, “Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope,” The Christian Century 86 (June 18, 1969).

Harvey cites two scholars of the period who claimed: “Manifesto-related events caused greater vibrations in the US religious world than any other single human rights development in a decade of monumental happenings” (p. 108).  I had no idea.

Forman’s listeners didn’t instantly call for his death like those of Jeremiah’s temple sermon, but 2/3rds of the congregation, including the minister and choir, did walk out in protest.  To his credit, the Riverside minister, Ernest T. Campbell, did soon state that the Manifesto had “sound theological pinnings.”  In less than a week Campbell became the first white clergy leader to endorse the concept of reparations, although he didn’t mention following the demands of the Manifesto.

Jennifer Harvey names a number of the responses to the Manifesto, positive and negative.  But needless to say, the reason hardly any of us have heard this story before is that the white church came nowhere near responding in a constructive way.  It’s a legacy we’re still living with.  Imagine where we might be today if the church had accepted the challenge and fulfilled that specific call for reparations.  Or exceeded the amount.  Maybe it’s not too late to creatively respond.

Temple sermon #4

Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher born in Mississippi.  He was the only white person in the room at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was one of the few people escorting black students through the hostile environment in the newly integrated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.  He died in 2013 at age 88.  If you like Wendell Berry, you’d like Will Campbell.  They’re cut from the same cloth of truth-telling contrariness and curmudgeonhood.

Will Campbell was once asked to preach at the Riverside Church, in Manhattan, New York.  I don’t know what year it was, but it was a number of years after Forman had interrupted a service to read the Black Manifesto.  There’s an hour long documentary of Campbell’s life that contains a clip from the sermon.  Here’s what he said in that rather immaculate space:

“So the question we are really asking is: What can we do about race and racism in American culture, and keep all this?  The answer, my brothers and sisters, is NOTHIN’.”  (https://vimeo.com/55126898  9:00 mark and following)

See, it’s a lot easier to quote other people for these things and then if you want to get angry at someone you can just get angry at them.

Jeremiah and Jesus and James Forman and Will Campbell gave their temple sermons in sacred spaces.  Not the town square, not a government building, but a temple, a church building.  Part of the reason has to be that this is where the people were, where key leaders were gathered.

We might also consider how having these appeals made in sacred space relates with our very sense of the sacred, and what offends us as a violation of the sacred.

What we hold as sacred is what holds our world together.  Everything else orbits around that gravitational center.  It’s not that Jeremiah was asking the people to give up the sacred.  He’s not mocking or belittling sacredness.  But he did suggest that folks had been duped.  What they held as utterly sacred, the temple in their case, or, was a lousy substitute for what YHWH held as sacred – the lives of the poor, widow, aliens, and orphan.  When their lives were violated, that’s what made Jeremiah offended.  That what energized him to stand up and speak.  But in doing so he challenged what other people held as sacred.

One of the dynamics we seem to be living through in our nation now is the challenge of another thing held sacred: The long, slow, painful death of white supremacy.

So what do we hold as sacred, or what can we aspire to hold as sacred, and how does that energize us?  We have a diversity of beliefs here, but one thing that holds us together is that we gather around the sacred.  There are realities, aspects of life, our morality and our mortality, that hold a sense of the sacred.  Transcendence.  Realities we honor, in whose presence we bow, which inspire awe, which we approach with thanksgiving. Spirit, Grace, Love, Justice, Christ.  The sacred asks, even demands, we value it to the point of submitting our lives to its power.  To soften our hearts, be filled with these sacred gifts, and give them back to the world, to God, in gratitude.

Even if we’re not always conscious of it, the sacred holds us in its embrace.

What these temple sermons challenge us to consider, is that the sacred also has very material manifestations.  Living within the holy has relational implications.  Economic implications.  Implications on how we use and share and give away power.  And, if we’re no longer trying to ‘keep all this,’ this is where it starts getting really real.