A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Dr. Suess and Flipping Tables March 5, 2021

This sermon was offered for the community at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay UT, on March 7, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:
Exodus 20: 1-17
1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
John 2: 13-22

Children’s message: I have this word here-what does it say? WOW! Yep-what a great word, it can mean wonder, fear, joy, all kinds of things. BUT what happens when I flip this upside down…it says MOM! It means something completely different! Sometimes our lives are like that-we might see something differently when we turn it around. And sometimes we NEED to do that! God sent Jesus to turn us around, to help us to flip over what we see around us. God wants us to see that we don’t have to act a certain way or look a certain way for God to love us. BUT God does want us to love as God loves everyone around us, and that might mean flipping over  what we think about other people and acting differently. In our bible story today, Jesus was indeed angry, anger isn’t bad. Anger when people are being lied to, hurt or stolen from is normal. Jesus was angry and flipped over tables to make the people see differently because he loved them and knew that they could do better. Like when adults in your life are upset with you when you don’t do your best. Jesus wanted people to see that money didn’t get you closer to God. That you didn’t need to do anything to be close to God because the promise is that God comes to us. And Jesus wanted the people to flip how they saw each other, not as people competing for God’s love and grace but working together to BE God’s love and grace in the world.

So when you think that there is someone you don’t like or think is too different from you, see if you can flip how you see them-see them as Jesus does!

This week I was invited to read to the Mrs. Walkers kindergarten class at Mill Creek Elementary for Read Across America Day on March 2, Dr. Suess’s birthday. Now, as an educator I have long celebrated Dr. Suess’s birthday and read many of his books to students. And I thought I would read one this year to the kindergarteners. And then, some information surfaced about two weeks ago that made me rethink. It had come to light that Theodore Giesel, AKA Dr. Suess, had a history of racist behavior and some of his book characters were based off his stereotypes of Black people. My first reaction was a deep sigh, now no Dr. Suess? IS this now cancel culture run amok? But I set aside my feelings, listened to my Black siblings who told me that this is indeed offensive, racist and I believed them. I did not read a Dr. Suess book but instead read a book by Ezra Jack Keats instead. I listened, learned and made a different choice even though I wasn’t immediately comfortable with it. But I realized it’s not about my comfort. It’s about my black siblings and their lives, their experiences and their justice in a nation that often negates or tries to cancel them as a human. For years, I had jsut accepted Dr. Suess, a white author, as the norm and didn’t question it. But when that was flipped over, turned upside down, I knew that it was true and not perpetuating the racism was the action that would bring human flourishing to all.
And if I’m honest, there are many areas of my life where I don’t question and just accept. And when my perspective is flipped over, it makes me uncomfortable and defensive. I don’t like to think I could be wrong. Right now, we are in a societal debate about many long-held ideas and concepts that need to be flipped, as it turns out they are harmful or derogatory, they always have been, but now we see it differently. Such as learning that Dr. Suess books have inherent racism in them, or a pancake syrup company changing their logo and name, or companies no longer using women as objects to sell products. Or, as I learned some years ago, that only referring to God as male perpetuates sexism and homophobia in our theological thinking and that leads women/femmes and young girls (including myself) to assume that they are NOT created in God’s image, if we always refer to God as male. Some people are calling this cancel culture. Cancel culture isn’t new, and no it’s not actually canceling anything. It’s reflecting on new information, like Dr. Suess and making better decisions. Maya Angelou famously once said, “when you know better, you do better.” It’s ok to say, oh I didn’t know that but now that I do, I’ll change my language, behavior, thoughts, etc. so that I don’t cause harm to anyone.
This is hard, and often we don’t change, do better, even when we know better, until it’s our only option. It’s easier to just ignore what needs to change, particularly if it doesn’t directly affect us, and just go along to get along. We forget that we’re interconnected and what harms one will eventually harm us all. We forget that it matters that we make better decisions with the information we learn for our neighbor to be secure, safe and loved.

The Israelite people had a rough history of knowing better and then doing better, like every other human group in history. God had freed them from slavery, gave them food and water in the desert, protected them, and still they squabbled amongst themselves and tried taking more than they needed. So, God offered them some boundaries, commandments, guidelines of how to live with God and each other. God wanted to instruct them on how to live in such a way that offered safety, dignity, honor and flourishing. God wanted them to know better so that they would do better. Well, even while Moses was being given the 10 commandments, the people had decided to build a golden calf to worship…seriously. It took about 2.2 seconds for the people to grow restless and decide that they could figure out life together without God.
Fast forward about 800 years and the same was still true. They had rebuilt the Temple after exile and decided on a Temple festival, ritual, purification system that they thought was wise and beneficial. Well, beneficial if you were the Temple authorities, or the money changers, or the sacrificial animal vendor…but if you were poor, from outside Jerusalem and simply trying to be an observant Jew? Not so much. This system was not set up to benefit you. It was set up to take advantage of your love of God, of your desire to do the right thing. It was set up to put a barrier between you and God and to remind you that you have to be in the right place at the right time to experience God’s presence.
They should have known better, but they didn’t. They had bought (literally) into their own ideas about how God and religion worked. They needed to be shaken up, to see the system for what it really was so that they could see who God really is. Jesus sees what is happening and how it’s cancelling what God truly wants, and yes, it made Jesus angry. Jesus’ anger is not out of hate or exclusion but exasperation and love that they should know better. It must have been frightening for some to see Jesus enter with a whip (to be clear for the animals not for the people), to see his anger, kick over tables, pour the money out all over the floor, release the animals for sacrifice and declare that this is not how you build a relationship to God. God isn’t in the Temple; God is with them wherever they are. The money changing is canceled, buying animals for sacrifice is canceled, worrying if you’re pure enough for the Temple is canceled, the idea of God only in the Temple is canceled. What isn’t canceled is God’s promise of renewing the people’s hearts, minds and souls so that as God’s beloved community the world will also know better than to harm, oppress or marginalize other people. What isn’t canceled is God’s desire to be with God’s people wherever they are without barriers. What wasn’t canceled was God’s inclusion of all people into God’s grace.

This challenge to the Temple system, the religious system the way it had been, the way it had been set up by the people, would mean many changes for those in power and privilege. They wouldn’t have liked it and pushed back complaining that their livelihood, their beliefs, were being negated, oppressed or canceled. But Jesus wouldn’t have any of that. No, your oppression and power over other people isn’t your right, or your entitlement. God is creating something new, a new way to be in the world and it might mean that what we have created as humans will need to be turned over.

There are so many tables in our world that do need turned over. We need to turn over the tables of our capitalistic culture that lie to us that more stuff is security and money is power. We need to turn over the tables of homophobia and transphobia that keep our siblings from human and civil rights, we need to turn over the tables of sexism and misogyny that  objectifies women and disallows women agency and autonomy over their own bodies. We need to turn over the tables of using religion and the bible as a weapon to keep certain populations in a marginalized place or to perpetuate hierarchy and hegemony. Jesus didn’t come to keep us comfortable, but to reveal that when God is with us, our tables are turned over so that we can see underneath the surface. And once we see it, once we know it, we will do better.

Our baptismal journey is to keep turning over the tables of status quo, comfort and security in our lives to see differently from God’s perspective, to see the new thing that God is creating. We are called to keep learning, to keep digging deeper, to keep questioning, to keep doing better. We will be different from other in the world who will call us foolish or weak. But we trust in the wisdom and strength of God flipping over what doesn’t bring flourishing and life to all people and all creation. We cling to the promise that God’s love, grace, mercy and hope are never canceled and our lives are turned over to see the world differently. Amen.