Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 11, 2012
He was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it any more. The truth is Jesus looked a little nuts that day. This is a far cry from the image of the Good Shepherd. It’s divine fury! Anger, after all, makes many of us uncomfortable. Yes, anger is a normal human reaction and one that is often justified but when the whip comes out and the tables start flying I’m not sure we want to be there.
This story is one of the few where we get a good look at the humanity of Jesus. It is also a window through which we are able to get a glimpse of the full emotional life of God. And it’s pretty unnerving. The idea that God would get so angry that tables are flying and money was going everywhere probably makes us a little anxious. The incident is recorded in all four Gospels which gives special credence to its authenticity: it really did go down like this. And this is not a story we can ignore or sweep under the carpet. This is not just Jesus having a bad day.
The temple at Jerusalem had a vital place in the life of the Jewish community. Recall that Mary and Joseph came there to present Jesus as was the requirement of the religious law. Many of the milestone events in life were celebrated there. People likely came not only to pray but to seek the counsel of the Rabbis. The Temple was a focal point of their lives and of the entire Jewish community.
When we enter this Gospel story it is Passover, the major religious holyday. People were everywhere—as many as three million of them. They have come to worship and offer sacrifice, to pray and to pay their dues to the temple, a tax that had to be paid with a special coin because Roman coins with pagan images were unacceptable. They had to be exchanged for Palestinian shekels in order for people to pay the tax. The money-changers who were there performed a necessary service and were situated for that purpose, but they were charging an exorbitant price for this service—as much as 300% in interest fees— and both the bankers and the temple were making enormous revenues at the expense of a powerless public. Fraud was rampant through the system.
To make matters worse, one was required to offer a sacrifice with an animal that was without blemish. Every animal had to be examined by the priests who would almost always find something wrong with it and reject it. So the people were forced to buy an animal from the temple herd at a hugely inflated price. This was outright extortion and often targeted the poorest of the poor. These swindlers had set up shop directly in front of their access to the temple making it nearly impossible for anyone to pass. A group of powerful, greedy, men had taken control of their religion. They blocked the entrance to this house of prayer with their booths and tables creating a real obstacle for those who had traveled a great distance to pray there.
They were making a mockery of the worshipful atmosphere of the temple. This was religion at its worst—the commercialization of a place that was designed to give glory to God—and Jesus had seen quite enough. So amidst the smells of dirty pens and agitated animals and within earshot of the clinking of coins, Jesus takes the time to make a whip and thrashes the whole temple area into a frenzy, waving and swinging it at the merchants and hurling their tables over yelling at the top of his lungs as he moves about. What a scene! What a major fuss! Yes, the truth is Jesus looked a little nuts that day.
The centerpiece of the story is how systems whose purpose it was intended to support their lives was the instrument of great oppression because of the abuse of power. The institution of religion battered its followers because of its leaders’ control and greed. There was a sense of entitlement on the part of the religious leaders that it was perfectly acceptable to grow their personal coffers at the expense of ordinary, working folk. They took advantage of the congregation’s vulnerability in their requirement to obey religious laws.
It is the bane of organized religion, isn’t it—the powerful taking control of religion and abusing those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Two thousand years later the institution still falls short. In his book, Re-imagining Christianity, Allen Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, writes: “The Church organizationally has often preferred to control rather than attract, dominate rather than invite, compel rather than win over.”
When we think of all the ways that organized religion has strayed from what Jesus had in mind when he created his church, it is amazing that he has not shown up over the centuries, mad as hell with whip in hand, overturning pews and Altars and sending its leaders running for cover. And, if he did show up, what would send him ‘round the bend? I imagine it would be things like the church creating obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God’s unconditional love—instead spewing forth the tenets of a fear-based religion; a community built around rigid rules that make life more difficult rather than offering radical hospitality; paying more attention to maintaining property and building than engaging in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation to which the church is called; leaders who amass great wealth at the expense of those who go without to fund their expensive lifestyles; smug self-satisfaction, political idolatry, economic greed in the name of God—these are just some of the tables Jesus would overturn.
Some of you may still keep the practice of “spring cleaning” when you clear out clutter, wipe down walls, and open the windows to air out the house. The derivation of the word Lent is found in the Anglo-Saxon word that means “spring.” It is a time of self-reflection and a time to ask ourselves questions—some of which may be tough ones.
We might begin by asking where as a faith community we need to clean house? Have we created obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God’s grace? Have we removed barriers that keep them away? Is our Temple ablaze with zeal for what is a house of prayer—a sacred space. Are we standing on tip toes eagerly awaiting the very next guest to arrive? Are we consistent in our offering radical hospitality as if we were entertaining angels and does the entire congregation take an active part in that ministry and own it as key piece of our ethos?
And then what about our own temples—our very lives through which God’s work in the world gets accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit? What tables might Jesus overturn there and what kind of cleaning might he suggest we do this Lent?
Do we celebrate our identity as one of God’s own beloved and live as if we really believe that we are just that? Are there old resentments of which we need to let go? Relationships we need to mend or to which we need to pay more attention? Are there opportunities we need to recognize and gratefully pursue as gifts from God? Where in your lives do you encounter systems and institutions where justice is so absent that you want to turn over some tables?
Stories like the one we hear in the Gospel today are meant to get our attention. They are not just about how a religious community in the very distant past got it so wrong when it came to the practice of religion. They are about us here in Norwalk in 2012—how we have received the gift of the church Jesus has given us and what we do with that gift.
Author and poetess Maya Angelou put it this way: “You did then what you knew then. When you knew better, you did better.” As the Church that God in Jesus has created we do know better because we have Jesus standing there in the Temple holding with that whip rather than a Bible, showing us just how passionate he is about what he expects us to be doing—and not doing; announcing that the Word of God has become flesh and has dwelt among us; that the high altar of the temple has become a supper table where bread and wine is shared in a community from which no one is excluded. That’s the church Jesus gave us. All other expressions of it are counterfeit.
So if Jesus looks a little nuts today in this Gospel, he has good reason to be; good reason to rant, good reason for his seemingly outlandish behavior. He loves the Church—this wonderful and sometimes quirky thing born of the Spirit; He loves you and me who are gathered here in worship and those not yet here and whom he has commanded us to gather in. He loves us so much that he’ll turn over some tables to prove it and yes, even die for us.