Rev. Ben Campbell | Sermon 3.28.21

Slamming into the Temple of Indifference

On a Spring day as beautiful as yesterday morning was, it’s hard not to love that Galilean religion of Jesus.

A year and a half ago, before COVID, Annie and I were able to go to Palestine, Israel, and Jerusalem. Annie had lived there as a girl. After more than years of Bible study and various imaginings about what the Holy Land might look like, I finally got there. I know many of you have been there – even some of you together – but I had never been. It was powerful for me, as I’m sure it was for you. We went to Galilee – grassy hillsides and mountains and villages, still today. Capernaum. The Sea of Galilee. I could see Jesus and his disciples walking, healing, fishing, talking with people, teaching and learning.

According to the Biblical accounts, Jesus’ time in Galilee was a pretty idyllic period lasting several years. Toward the end of that time, Jesus and his disciples were walking beside the foot of Mount Hermon, near the source of the Jordan River, and Jesus said something that stunned them. As he understood his own future, he said, he would have to “undergo great suffering, …be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, — and after three days rise again.”

They disagreed with him when he said this. He and Peter got into a severe argument. But soon, as we know, Jesus and the disciples went South into the Jordan Valley. Some weeks later found them coming up the long wilderness road from Jericho, by the village of Bethany, to the city of Jerusalem. By the time they got to Bethany, some vegetation had reappeared, and soon there was the Mount of Olives. Several disciples went off to a nearby Arab village to borrow a colt for Jesus to ride. Along the way the Galileans were joined by others, bringing springtime branches with them – good spirit, cheer, happy songs. Hosanna!

Jesus came through Jerusalem’s city wall from the East, at the Golden Gate. There, He Slammed into the Temple of Indifference. The Galileans scattered, the good spirit evaporated, the palm branches disappeared, the songs drifted away. Jesus slammed into the Temple of Indifference.

In less than a week, Jesus was dead.

So here’s what I’d like to talk with you about for a few more minutes this morning:

First, What’s the Temple of Indifference?
Second, What did Jesus do about it?
Third, what does that mean for us?

1. What’s the Temple of Indifference?
Indifference is easy enough to spot in the story of Jesus. The Pharisees and priests were indifferent to the real lives of people. They sold sacrifices. They preached that God was satisfied when people obeyed various religious rituals and carried out specific deeds at specific times, unrelated to the actual situations they faced. No healing on the Sabbath, even if that is the day someone is sick; no congregating with non-Jews or the poor. Indifference.

To maintain that kind of religion, you have to justify indifference. Bad religion always helps you do it. Whoever got the idea that to be Christian meant to be indifferent to Muslims and Jews? Who said it was Christian to tolerate race-based poverty and overweening greed? You’ve got to have your eyes closed to do that. You’ve got to fail to see. Indifference demands that you be unaware.

The Temple of Indifference is a powerful Temple, but it is always ultimately backed up by force. The Pharisees and priests of the Jerusalem Temple had a deal with the Roman authorities. Wealth and control went to the religious authorities, so long as they kept the people in line. A threat to the religious authorities was therefore a threat to the state. Hence trial, torture, crucifixion. Wherever it exists, indifference is maintained by erasing whatever upsets it.

You can identify the great systems of our time that have been erected and maintained by our indifference — Economic, racial, religious, political, social systems – the individual and collective desensitization we seem to need to go through to survive.

Personally, I continue to be haunted by the great indifference that characterized this particular church in its first 20 years. It was consecrated in 1845. Just over the hill beyond the Capitol, hundreds of human beings were being imprisoned daily, displayed naked, whipped, kept like cattle in the jails and pens of the Shockoe slave market. Apparently, no one ever mentioned it in this church. Our congregation was the wealthiest one in the city. Our leaders provided the city’s finances, profited from the city’s businesses. No word. How was that possible?

In all of our historical research at St. Paul’s, we have found no mention of that market. 300,000 people were sold there! It was massive! The slave market was 50% of Richmond’s economy before the war. The deeply imbedded indifference was so bad that Richmond and Virginia history teachers did not even appear to know that the slave market existed until 15 year ago. Then a few people, including our own St. Paul’s member Philip Schwarz, began to uncover the story and to excavate the site of Lumpkin’s Jail.

Richmond built its own Temple of Indifference. We know how the inability to see gets built in. We know only too well the frightful insensitivity, the self-dehumanization, that accompanies our dehumanization of others.

A Temple of Indifference. That’s what Jerusalem was. That’s what Jesus slammed into at the Golden Gate. The gatekeepers were the Religious Authorities of Jesus’ time, the chief priests, the Pharisees and scribes, and the Roman soldiers.

2. What did Jesus do about it?
When we talk about a Temple of Indifference we’re talking about societal injustice — injustice so big, so pervasive, that we’re accustomed to not noticing – or at least not being distressed – by it. That’s the way the racial segregation of my youth was to me. It seemed normal and unremarkable, although vaguely disturbing. It was somehow invisible. Invisibility and indifference go hand in hand. That’s what it means to be accustomed to the desperate inequalities of income being increased in this country. That’s the resegregation of our schools by race and jurisdiction. That’s the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the reality of mass incarceration. Mass killings in our cities. Unremarkably becomes indifference.

Jesus saw the social, economic, racial, gender, and religious discrimination of Jerusalem cloaked in the sort of religious rhetoric that ensures indifference, and he attacked it directly. He was already in trouble for his teaching, for the way he dealt with people and who he dealt with. When he got to Jerusalem he made certain he would be arrested. He attacked the financial system of the Temple – the monetization of the Jewish religion – the complete silence before injustice – the cynical sale of access to God.

One person against the system. Not a good way to go. And even if you survive it, there are limits to your success.

I hope some of you were able to hear Bryan Stevenson at the Richmond Forum last Saturday night. St. Paul’s is sharing his talk with the entire congregation – you can get the link in your Grace Notes before April 7. We will discuss it Wednesday night April 14. Check it out. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy and is responsible for building two museums in Montgomery, Alabama – one dealing with Lynching and one, with the history of Racial Segregation and Slavery. His work on capital punishment has ripped away layers of indifference for millions of Americans.

When you read Just Mercy and listen to Bryan Stevenson, you’ll see how much you didn’t see. Stevenson saw, thank God, and he slammed himself into the Temple of Indifference regarding capital punishment. People seldom survive this kind of effort, much less gain traction. Bryan Stevenson would be the first to tell you he didn’t do this alone – that this effort was prepared and is supported by millions who came before –- and, I think he would say, by the Holy Spirit of God. He would be first to tell you that the battle has been joined, but is hardly won – that America, the land of freedom, today has the highest level of incarceration in the world, that one-third of our black male citizens can expect to be incarcerated, in their lifetime.

Jesus slammed into the systemic injustice of Jerusalem, peeling away the indifference that protected the privileged. A week later he was dead.

3. What does that mean for us?
Jesus descended into Hell. We’ll hear a sanitized description of his torture in just a few minutes. But for more people than we dare admit, Hell is a daily reality. It’s the kind of thing that’s on the other side of the wall of indifference. The horror that Jesus took on was something he had no responsibility for. They beat him and killed him anyway, for reasons of their own – their own misery, their own insecurity, their own greed, their own hatred, their own despair, the rules of their system.

But Jesus makes it clear that, so far as he is concerned, his whole life is about the FORGIVENESS of God. He is walking in grace, a living spring of mercy. You can’t afford to open your eyes to your own sin or the enormous structural sins of this world if you don’t know you are forgiven. Forgiven people are free to see the truth. Others have to justify injustice so they won’t be condemned for allowing it.

Jesus forgives us so we can afford to see things to which we have been blind, where we have required others to carry our own sins. He gives us his holy spirit to lead us into paths of righteousness for his own sake.

He made clear, and demonstrated, on that Thursday night between now and Good Friday, that there is a communion of saints who share his servanthood.

And there’s more: The great explosion of his power will be celebrated just days away. There’s a Great Getting’ up Morning in the near future. I can’t talk about it yet. But I will say this: Jesus didn’t descend into Hell just for the Hell of it.

  • He took on punishment and sins that others had caused so that we might be confident in his love and forgiveness every day of our checkered lives.
  • He slammed into the Temple of Indifference to show us, right up until now, the direction the Spirit of God was taking in this world.
  • He had a last supper with his disciples, initiating them into that holy communion which is found in prayer and service throughout this city and world today – a fellowship of persons here, and on the other side, who surrender their indifference, — hoping, praying, and taking initiative toward the coming of the Kingdom of God.
  • He himself has never left that fellowship. AMEN.