Flipping Tables

On March 7 I spoke at Silver Spire United Church in St. Catharines. You can listen to the whole church service, or fast forward to around 30 minutes.

These are my remarks:

Good morning. Whenever I speak I get anxious that I’ll never have another opportunity, and I try to say all the things but I’m working on that, and Karen has invited me back to Church After Dark in a few weeks so I’ve whittled this down to most of the things.

The first church I ever attended was a United Church in Niagara Falls. Since then I’ve attended Associated Gospel, Baptist, flirted briefly with the Catholics, Mennonite, and now Presbyterian. And it feels right that despite speaking in various settings over the last few years my first time speaking in a church is at a United Church. It feels like a full circle.

I wanted to speak on this text because I can understand Jesus flipping tables. As an Ojibwe/Ukrainian woman, the more I learn about settler colonialism in Canada and the church’s own role in it the more I want to flip tables.

I get angry.  My paternal uncles went to residential schools. I still hear about sweat lodges being destroyed and our ceremonies derided as pagan. I talk to those who support two-spirit youth in communities overrun with churches dispensing anti-queer theology along with much needed charity and then listen to other Christians tell me that they are oppressed and persecuted and I want to flip tables.

I listen to Canadian politicians decry Russian incursions into Ukraine and the Russian military firing on civilians with a complete lack of awareness about the RCMP’s treatment of Indigenous people from the 19th century to Wet’suet’en and I want to flip tables.

In the church we read this story of Jesus clearing the temple every year around this time. John puts the story much earlier in his narrative, just after the wedding in Cana and at the beginning of his ministry. But Matthew, Mark and Luke (the synoptic gospels) put it near the end, in the days leading up to the crucifixion and so it becomes part of our Easter story.  Man of us see Jesus in this moment as a social revolutionary and we like the idea of Jesus flipping tables and accusing the bankers and money lenders, we would like to flip those tables too and drive them out of our society.

But while I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading that confronts capitalism, we need to think about who the oppressors are in the story. When we think about who is safe in our churches we need to think about why and how people are made unsafe.

In Jesus’ time the oppressors were Romans, not Jews. As an Ojibwe woman I can assure you, those living under oppression can align with power but we will never have power. We often frame Jesus’ anger as anger towards the religious elite. But the religious elite of our day are not the same as the leaders of his day.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had no power just as the Indigenous leaders of our day have no power. The government has a duty to consult our communities about pipelines, but we don’t have the power to refuse. Refusal has consequences. So we need to understand that his anger at the actions within the temple was not anger at oppressors, it was anger at his own community. Which means that when we read this story we should not cast ourselves in the role of Jesus confronting oppression, but understand that he is confronting us. We can see ourselves in the text, but it is important where we see ourselves.

And it is also important to note that there isn’t anything in the text about bankers and moneylenders. It talks about people selling animals for sacrifice and people changing money. Services that were necessary as those living in diaspora returned to Jerusalem and the temple. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish woman and a NT scholar, notes that there was nothing inherently wrong with either of these enterprises, they were necessary services. Business as usual she calls it.

Is there another way to read this story? I think there is.

Last Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday and so in preparation for this morning I scanned the synoptic gospels from Transfiguration to table flipping to get a sense of the weeks leading up to that moment. And what I saw were stories of expansiveness and challenge. There were items lost and found, conversations about forgiveness and acceptance. Generosity, healing on the Sabbath. Inversions of hierarchy, people coming from the east and the west. And in expanding their vision Jesus also challenged it, because expansion comes with challenge. Give away everything. Seek justice, not punishment. Welcome newcomers. Work on your day off.

I want to pause a moment and think about healing on the sabbath because as any activist will tell you, it is important to take time for yourself, to set boundaries. God put boundaries around one day of the week, calling it the sabbath and while you would certainly intervene in matters of safety or urgency, rest was to be protected. Needs are always important to the person who has them, but after 16 years in social work I came to understand that not everything required an immediate response. So often we hear this exchange as the Pharisees being unbending and legalistic but I have assured activists that it’s ok not to answer the phone, not to check their email.  And I can tell you that when I was working, I often chided workers for doing things on their breaks, not only because it would burn them out but because it created unfair expectations on others to also work themselves to burnout. The government had to put in a law, the right to unplug, because workers were pressured to respond to work emails and phone calls on their time off.  And here’s Jesus telling them to check their email, answer the phone, work on their day off. 

I bring this up because as I read the stories leading up to the scene in the temple there’s a desperation in some of what he is saying, perhaps because he knows what is coming. There’s no time for breaks, no time for rest. He says often that the time is short. He knows the temple is going to fall, both metaphorically and literally. He tells the disciples twice that he will be betrayed and killed. Matthew and Mark record him saying “they will crucify me.”

So when he enters the temple he sees the normal business of temple life. And he explodes.

I remember standing on the steps of city hall in St. Catharines in 2018 after the acquittal of the man who killed Colten Boushie. Then a week later on the same steps, using the same candles, after the acquittal of the man who killed Tina Fontaine. Last summer we had vigil after vigil on those steps. For the graves of children found in Canada. For the children lost in Palestine.  We stood there grieving and the world went by like nothing was going on. Business as usual.

After two years of a global pandemic that has seen millions of deaths, millions more with long term complications people who are tired of government restrictions occupied Ottawa for two weeks. Not because they want improved testing or investment in ventilation infrastructure. Not because they want housing for those on the streets or in unsafe and overcrowded shelters. Not because they wanted mental health care for the impacts of living through a pandemic. Not because they want better medical coverage or national pharmacare or childcare spots or any of the things that governments can and should do. But because they want to go back to normal, back to business as usual.

The writers of the gospels cite the earlier texts that we heard today.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote Isaiah followed by Jeremiah “My house is a house of prayer for all nations has it become a den of robbers to you?”  Isaiah sends out a promise, a promise that Israel will return to Zion and so will foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord. It describes welcome, an open door. No questions or conditions for these foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord. There are no outsiders.

Jeremiah flings out his accusation. Will you steal and murder? Commit adultery and perjury? Burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known and then come stand before me in this house which bears my name and say “we are safe?”


To do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my name become a den of robbers to you?

Because a den of robbers is, according to the passage in Jeremiah, a place where robbers feel safe. Those who take what isn’t theirs, who place profits over housing, who cheat and lie, who sacrifice the most vulnerable.  They come into this house which should have been a place of welcome for all nations, and they feel safe.

What happened to the promise of Isaiah? To his expansive vision of welcome and acceptance? Because this expansiveness is echoed in Jesus’ words, in the stories and parables leading up to his anger in the temple.

So I want us to think about that. About that expansive vision for our communities that Jesus talked about throughout his ministry, his plea to remember the words of the prophets, the desire of his father. What he said was not new. It was a call to remember who they were, who they might yet be.  There is grief in his anger about the inadequacy of business as usual to provide welcome or safety for the most vulnerable.

I want us to think about who feels unsafe in the midst of what makes us feel safe, and what that means.

Mariame Kaba has said that safety is a relation, it is not a thing we can possess. When we mistake it for a thing we can possess we create barriers against threats, against outsiders. When safety is a thing we can possess, business as usual masks all the ways our possession of safety makes others unsafe.

Safety is a relation. It means actively seeking the lost: noticing who is not here and searching for them. It means looking inward and asking ourselves what it is about this space we have created that tells them they are unwanted, unvalued. We must be the kind of people they want to be found by.

Safety is a relation, so it also means being careful how we interpret the presence of those who are marginalized because their presence doesn’t always mean they feel safe. Those that this society has violently pushed the margins are used to feeling unsafe. We have learned to navigate unsafe places, to protect ourselves within them. We must be the kind of people others do not need to protect themselves from.

Safety is a relation, which means rejecting the hierarchies and things that make the most vulnerable among us unsafe. It might mean rejecting the very things that make us feel safe. I am an abolitionist because I do not believe that the police keep Indigenous people safe. They do not keep Black people safe. They do not keep poor people safe. So for me, thinking about safety as a relation I reject those hierarchies of power that make the most vulnerable unsafe.

Safety is a relation, which means rejecting hierarchies of exclusion. Canada has announced that it will lift restrictions on Ukrainian refugees. But it maintains a safe third country agreement with the US that keeps refugees from Central America far from our borders. It maintains criteria and quotas for refugees from other countries.

Safety as a relation means thinking about who finds safety in our communities, in our churches. Is white supremacy safe in your church? I don’t think so, I heard last weeks’ message and in a couple of weeks we are going to talk more specifically about that. I know that this is an affirming community so homophobia and transphobia are not safe here either. But what other hierarchies exist in the world that still find safety in these walls?

Solidarity, safety as a relation with the marginalized may feel dangerous, may feel unsafe. But the warning of Jeremiah echoed in Jesus’ words reminds us that the Lord is watching, and we may think we are safe in our den of robbers, but we are not.  

Business as usual masks the ways in which we are complicit with an empire that promises us safety while making others unsafe. So I leave you with the expansive vision of Isaiah, of Jesus. With safety as a relation.

And invite you to consider a world with no outsiders.


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