This sermon was preached at Walnut Hills UMC in Urbandale, Iowa on Sunday March 8, 2020. I was invited to preach as part of a sermon series for Lent, created by Dr. Marcia McFee. The series is titled "Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story." I was assigned to week 2 - The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger. It was a bit of a challenge to step into the middle of a series I am unfamiliar with but I think it was received well. Enjoy reading!
When’s the last time you got really angry about something? I don’t just mean annoyed that your spouse bought the wrong lightbulbs or frustrated that your kids won’t put their laundry away, I mean really, really angry. Seeing red, spitting fire, ready to smash some dishes, angry.
I don’t get angry very often, but I have had an experience of this kind of anger recently. As many of you know by now, I am planning to serve in the British Methodist Church for a five year period that will start in September. What you may not know, is that I was also offered the opportunity to work at a church in London starting earlier this year. Now, in order to live and work legally in the UK, I have to get a work visa. Easy enough, right?
I thought the process of getting my work visa started last fall when I was first offered this early opportunity. However, the person I was working with in the HR department of the church was, well, less than forthcoming with all of the information I needed. It’s a long story but let’s just say that I first asked her in November if I needed to return to the US to get my work visa. All she said, and kept repeating for months, was that we would need to leave and re-enter the UK. So we thought we’d just hop over to France or Ireland, then return.
All of January passed with us thinking my job was going to start any day now. Then February started. Finally, on February 11th, this person finally told me that she would be happy to start my visa application process when my husband and I returned to the United States.
Y’all, I was mad. I may have let some very non-pastoral words slip. I spent hours writing a very long email detailing this person’s incompetence to her supervisor. I raised enough of a fuss that the church agreed to pay almost £1000 extra to expedite my work visa because this was something that should have been taken care of months ago.
The bright side is that we got to come back to the States and spend time with family and friends. It’s why I’m here preaching for you now. And, spoiler alert: My work visa came through this past Thursday so we are officially returning to the UK on March 17th and I’ll start work the following Sunday! But this experience with my rage, and then reading the story of Jesus’ rage this week, got me thinking about the kind of things that make us angry. And I’ve been thinking, that for me, and I suspect for a lot of us, we spend too much time being angry about the wrong things.
There’s a famous evangelical pastor named Tony Campolo who has a quote that illustrates this point. I’m going to...modify this quote so as not to give my mother a heart attack, but it goes something like this:
“I have three things to say to you today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a... *you can insert impolite word here*. What’s worse, is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said *impolite word* than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
Shocking. But effective. Campolo uses the impolite word to demonstrate to people that we find our ire more easily raised by the use of a “bad word” (especially from the pulpit) than we find it raised by masses of children dying from a solvable problem. We are often angry about the wrong things.
Let's take a look at Jesus and our Gospel reading from today. This story is actually found in all four Gospels, though it is told somewhat differently in John that it is in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is a lot to unpack in this story but I’m going to focus on three things - 1. What exactly was Jesus angry about? 2. What does this teach us about what we should be angry about today? 3. What do we do with that anger?
In her book, Entering the Passion of Jesus, renowned scholar and seminary professor Amy-Jill Levine discusses this incident in the temple and explores what made Jesus angry, angry enough to flip over tables and use a whip of cords which he made himself. Levine spends a good part of the chapter debunking several theories that abound about why Jesus was angry.
Many preachers (including myself in the past) have posited that Jesus was angry because the Temple was corrupt, in cahoots with Rome, oppressed people with purity laws, and the moneylenders and changers were exploiting the poor who came to worship. Yet there is no real evidence in the Bible or other historical resources that support this view.
Yes, the temple and the high priest Caiphas cooperated to an extent with Rome, and with Pilate, Rome’s representative in Jerusalem. But he did that because it was the best way he knew how to protect the people. While purity laws could be seen as oppressive, Jesus didn’t come to abolish them, rather he restored people to purity when he healed them. And Jesus said nothing about the exploitation of the poor in his rampage through the temple court.
So if none of this was what made Jesus angry, what did? Levine posits several theories but the one that resonated with me the most focuses on the phrase “Den of Robbers.” Jesus said, (quoting from Isaiah), “Is it not written, my house will be a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
I know that for me at least this den of robbers phrase is where I got the idea that the merchants in the temple were cheating and swindling people. After all, that’s what robbers do. But Levine pointed out that a robber’s den is not where they do the actual robbing, rather the robber’s den is where they return with the loot to relax, celebrate, and count up their bounty.
Levine suggests that Jesus was angry because people were coming to worship for the wrong reasons. Jesus was angry because people came to worship because it made them look good to others. They were making sacrifices to God, donating to the Temple, and making promises to live a certain way that they would not keep when they walked out the door.
We have the same problem in our world today. We come to church for an hour on Sunday, sing our hymns, put our money in the offering plate, and we think this makes us right with God. But if we walk out those doors and do not put into action what we have learned about following Jesus, then we are making the church a den of robbers, a house of thieves. Jesus indicted the people then and he indicts us now for this kind of behavior.
If we find ourselves more angry about the possibility of a pastor using a swear word from the pulpit than the plight of starving children, we are making the church a den of robbers. When I find myself more angry about my own immigration problems in my privileged move from the US to the UK than I do about the treatment of the desperate migrants at our southern border, I am making the church a den of robbers.
We get angry about the wrong things, and Jesus calls us to do better.
It is important to note for a moment that anger is different than wrath. Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins - wrath seeks revenge, is often aimed at an individual, and is destructive of both the target of wrath and the one dishing it out.
Anger, on the other hand, particularly righteous anger which Jesus demonstrated, seeks “restitution, not revenge, it seeks correction, not retribution.” While Jesus made his point in a dramatic way by flipping over tables and cracking a whip, he did not direct that anger at any one person, but rather at a system. He didn’t seek to punish individuals, but to inspire change.
So now we know what Jesus was angry about then. What would Jesus be angry about today and what should we be angry about today?
We can look around us and see the systems that oppress people and make this world a more difficult place - white supremacy, sexism, gun violence, needlessly restrictive and punishing immigration laws, lack of access to healthcare, lack of response to climate change...the list could go on and on. We know this world is a fallen place and we often feel so far from the promise of the kingdom of God that we are given in Christ.
Why don’t we get more angry about these things?
Why do we find ourselves mad about cuss words but not about starving children?
Because one of those things feels small and within our control. The other feels big and completely out of our control - therefore it’s easier to just ignore it instead.
But if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching - we need to not only let ourselves get angry about the right things, we need to take that anger and channel it into a fight for justice.
We have a great example of this in John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination. When I was in Bristol, England last year I went to a John Wesley museum (yes, I'm a bit of a church nerd.) They focused on his various fights for justice throughout his ministry, and at the end laid out everything he fought for in one visual.
What Wesley fought for justice on in the 18th-century feels oddly relevant today:
- Reducing the gap between the rich and the poor
- Seeking to ensure full employment for all who are able
- Introducing measures to help the poorest including a living wage
- Offering the best possible education to all people
- Empowering individuals to feel like they can make a difference
- Promoting tolerance
- Promoting equal treatment for women
- Creating a society based on values not on profits and consumerism
- Ending all forms of enslavement
- Avoiding engaging in wars
- Avoiding self-interest and promote a world view
- Caring for the animals with whom we share our planet
So how do we fight for justice?
We pray. We pray to God for the eyes to see what needs to be changed and the strength to be a part of that change.
We repent. We repent of the ways that we are involved in upholding systems of oppression either by our action or our inaction.
We vote. We vote for candidates we see working on these issues. We dream big and we fight hard.
We advocate. We contact our representatives and ask them to pay attention to the issues that we think are important and to vote in a way that actually represents us.
We organize. We bring people’s attention to these things. We raise awareness and combat apathy.
We give. We give our time to organizations that are doing the hard work. We give our money to agencies that fight for change and help people who are caught up in unjust systems.
We do all of these things so that our time here in church, when we repent of our sin and promise to follow Jesus, actually means something in our daily lives. We do these things so that we do not allow the church to become a den of robbers. We do these things so that we, too, can risk righteous anger, just like Jesus did.
There will be fallout when we get angry. We might make a neighbor mad or offend a family member or even anger the authorities. There were consequences to Jesus’ righteous anger that ended with him on the cross. But the risk is worth it. It is always worth it to follow Christ.
So let’s get angry about the right things. Let’s channel that anger into fights for justice.
And when someone asks us that famous question - “What would Jesus do?” let’s remind them that flipping over tables and breaking out whips is always a possibility.