Some of you grew up in multi-cultural environments. I can’t imagine how awesome that must have been.
I never saw a bagel as a kid, never ate Indian food. My late ’60’s world was pretty mono-chromatic and mono-cultural, so it was quite exciting when I was ten years-old and the scandalous divorcee who lived in the house behind ours sold it to an elderly Chinese couple who had, stereotypically, made it in America by opening a laundry business. Their discarded Chinese newspapers were sources of mystery and wonder to the neighborhood kids.
As is typical for immigrant families, they had worked hard, and the second generation thrived, going on to colleges, professional schools, and successful careers. But we were no sophisticates, didn’t quite understand the gifts that every wave of immigrants has added to our stew-pot nation. The most important topic of neighborhood discussion wasn’t the wonder of their success. It was the vegetables Mr. Yip was growing in what seemed chaotic disorder in this suburban paradise of orderly rows, beans that were too long and cabbages that didn’t look like cabbage. He had a sense of humor about it all, no doubt a necessary survival trait as a stranger in a strange land. One day, when my dad and his close friend Baxter were standing where the four backyards joined, Baxter yelled out to ask Mr. Yip why he was digging such a deep hole. Without missing a beat, he responded that he was going home.
If Mr. Yip was a funny guy, so too was Pat Morita, a Japanese-American actor who would soon appear on our television screens as Arnold in “Happy Days.” Morita spent most of his childhood hospitalized, often in a full body cast, the result of spinal tuberculosis, and when he was finally discharged at the age of eleven, he was taken directly to an internment camp, one more flare up of xenophobia and racism in our imperfect nation.
Most will know Morita from that role in “Happy Days,” but for a couple of generations he was and will always be Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” “wax on, wax off.” Like most of his roles, it was freighted with racist stereotype, the inscrutable Asian, and yet the role transcended stereotype, as did his performance. Few will remember that Morita received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the eccentric maintenance man who was really a great karate master.
In the film, Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, had recently moved from New Jersey to California and quickly found himself in conflict with a group of local boys, all students of the Cobra Kai Karate Dojo run by a loud and aggressive Special Forces vet. Daniel was being pounded by this clutch of cobras when Miyagi rescued him. He asked the old man to teach him, but quickly became frustrated when Miyagi’s tutelage looked nothing like what Daniel-san expected of karate lessons. Painting the fence and waxing the car? Really? Daniel-san thinks he knows better than his teacher, knows what karate is all about, knows how training is supposed to work.
Understand that Daniel is the one that asked for Miyagi’s help in the first place, help Miyagi was initially reluctant to give. Miyagi only relented after a visit to Cobra Kai, where he realized that what is passing as karate there has nothing to do with the art and discipline he himself mastered. The boy slowly came to realize that his teacher was wise, could see the big picture, was part of a deep history, a powerful tradition of teachers and students. He also came to see his teacher as human, imperfect, with a personal back-story marked by sorrow and loss.
Of course, it would not have been a smash hit nor would it have become a classic that spawned three sequels, each worse than the one before, plus a remake starring Jackie Chan, if it had ended with Daniel losing to Cobra Kai. The good guys win because we need stories where the good guys win. But the good guys can’t win right away, because then there is no story, no movie, and besides, life doesn’t work that way.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” emphasis on long. The phrase itself is adapted from the thinking of the Unitarian abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, for Congregationalists and Unitarians, while divided over the nature of Jesus, were united in opposing slavery, a stand many said was “too political.” But the moral universe trope itself risks making us passive while we wait for the universe to self-correct like some self-driving car from Google. Mychal Denzel Smith wrote about this risk of passivity in an opinion piece at HuffPost on Thursday. The universe may trend toward justice, but that justice requires active partners and prophetic leaders.
And here is Jesus, a prophetic leader, in this gospel from the Johannine community, cleansing the Temple. In the other three gospels, this dramatic act of civil disobedience and destructive protest comes in the final week, as we are hurtling toward Golgotha. Not here. He’s barely out of the starting gate and he’s already being disruptive. When those folks in Galilee decided to follow him, they probably didn’t think it would be so uncomfortable, so risky. No doubt those merchants and scribes in the forecourt of the Temple, with their comfort and privilege, tut-tutted. “What good does it do to destroy other people’s property? Can’t he find some other way to protest that doesn’t make us so uncomfortable?”
You know, like disguising yourself and dumping someone else’s tea into the harbor, which is celebrated, or taking a knee during the national anthem, which will end your career?
Then, to add the icing to the cake, Jesus says things that make absolutely no sense at all. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What the heck does that mean?
Wax on, wax off.
When I re-watch “The Karate Kid,” I know how it ends. I see the big picture. Even the first time I watched it, I knew how it had to end. It wasn’t the first movie of a ten book series, for that phenomena didn’t yet exist, so it couldn’t end with a cliffhanger, with Daniel defeated. It was a stand-alone. The good guys win.
When we read the gospel now, we know that when Jesus says “destroy this temple,” he is talking about his own body, because we get that salvation is unfolding then through him, just as it is unfolding now through him and through us as his body. We know, but those followers, that community in the moment, in this uncomfortable place of change and challenge, were asked to trust. We forget, because we know the ending, that every day they faced a decision. Do I trust him? Can I hear beyond the strange stuff he sometimes says, listening for a bigger story? Are there, even now, early on, signs that he has something to teach us?
We forget that every day those disciples were Daniel-san waxing the car, confused, unsure. Wax on, wax off, ready to walk away because God was not working the way they expected God to work.
We have forgotten how to trust. We have forgotten how to follow leaders, how to be in relationship with leaders, because we have forgotten how to be in relationship, period, and so many leaders have proven to be abusive and corrupt. We have forgotten how to select leaders. We have forgotten the scripture’s language of call and gifts.
A toxic distrust of religious leaders is hard-coded into our own Reform tradition, never mind our current age of exposés and the endlessly depressing newsfeed, which tells us that no one is worthy of our trust.
We spring from a moment when the Roman church leadership was drawn from the youngest sons of the nobility, a position not a call, in an age of grace for sale and incredible corruption. It is no wonder that Reform Christianity inverted the structures of the age and placed power with the people.
Humanism would not only re-shape our religious trajectory, it would give rise to modern democracy and to a certain egalitarianism, to strange notions like all men, and eventually all women, being created equal, with inalienable rights. But inverted power can become the the rule of the mob, give rise to the Reign of Terror and later, the Third Reich, for the will of the majority alone is not enough. The quality of the leaders matters too.
We are in an age that celebrates ignorance and despises expertise and teachers. Except for our doctors and mechanics, we want them to be experts. That is as long as our doctors don’t speak about public policy.
It is worth remembering that the last time there was a “Know Nothing” movement in the United States that celebrated ignorance, one hundred and sixty years ago, it was, like today, a nativist group of racists, in that age anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.
We can’t even make it to the Temple today to watch as Jesus overturns tables. We are too busy writing nasty things in the comments section and sending emails filled with daggers.
We are a million Daniel-sans walking away from Miyagi, never learning, always thinking we know better.
And here are these disciples. They start following this charismatic guy, this expert who can explain scripture and who performs miracles, who seems to know more than they know, who tells them that God is doing amazing things and they can be a part of it, this guy who touches the unclean and radiates compassion.
And here are these disciples, watching him flip over tables and dump out money in front of the Temple’s armed guards. It has got to be uncomfortable and more than a little scary. Why do they choose to follow?
Why do we choose to follow? What do we choose to follow? Who do we choose to follow? Is it this same Jesus that flips over tables and challenges authority?
Are we willing to stick together, even when it is uncomfortable and scary?
When we reduce the story of Jesus to a manger and an empty tomb, we lose Jesus. When we reduce church to a space of comfort stripped of challenge, we lose Jesus. When we seek leaders who will do the least, we get the least. Discernment, call, trust… these are not easy things. Who said following Jesus and changing the world was supposed to be easy?
Gospel is a headlong dive into the unknown and mysterious. It is not about comfort or even common sense. It is about relationship and trust. It is about the choice to believe in an age of skepticism and the choice to follow in an age of distrust and sabotage. It is about hearts that are open and minds that are open and arms that are open.
Gospel is about courage, even when we don’t understand, for there is so much we do not understand.
Wax on, wax off.
Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days. If we are to believe the tradition, those words would not make sense to them for three more years. Oh, he was talking about his body!
Three years. Some stuck it out. Watched. Felt the love and courage, even when it didn’t all make sense. It wouldn’t make sense until after that darkest day, when the earth shook and the curtain in the Temple was torn in two.
Wax on, wax off.
We don’t hear the stories of those who walked away, those who couldn’t take the heat when Jesus brought the fire. Our tradition is not a tradition of wimps and quitters. Yet we have created a culture of wimps and quitters.
Ours is a tradition that exists because of courageous and tough leaders who did things like stand at the gates of Zurich, sail across the ocean into the unknown, and march south to end slavery. It is a tradition of courageous and tough congregations who braved high seas and followed leaders into the unknown. It is a tradition of courageous and tough congregations that prayerfully listened for God’s call, discerned God’s gifts, and called leaders that were unexpected, leaders with brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies.
Wax on, wax off.
Paint the fence. Wax the car. It doesn’t make sense, but when the time is right… Crane Technique!
Victory is ours.