Sunday, March 19, 2006

Angry Jesus

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: 3 Lent
March 19, 2006

Exodus 20: 1-17
Romans 7: 13-25
John 2: 13-22
Psalm 19: 7-14

I was going to begin this sermon by marching down the aisle to the back of the church and angrily overturning that little table back there where there are calendars and House of Prayer t-shirts and mugs for sale. But then I thought better of it – after all I am only a seminarian here and those mugs are so nice I’d hate to break them!

But, what a scene John describes in today’s gospel! The cleansing of the Temple is one of the stories that actually appears in all four gospels – obviously it made quite an impression on Jesus’ earliest followers. And that’s no surprise – imagine being a follower of this radical rabbi, a rabbi who is not at all part of the religious establishment. And then this outsider rabbi brings us followers of his to the absolute center of Jewish faith and life –the Temple in Jerusalem, the most awesome place in the world, the place where the ark of the covenant was kept in the Holy of Holies. And then this outsider rabbi makes a huge scene, angrily overturning tables, panicked animals baaing and mooing and coins clattering on the stone floor.

In an amazing, shocking detail, John has Jesus wielding a whip and yelling at the people selling doves in the Temple, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Well, this is definitely not the groovy, laid-back, peaceful Jesus of my 1970s childhood. This is a very different side of Jesus, rarely seen in the Gospels, and not usually talked about much in church. Jesus is angry. Jesus is really angry.

So, why is Jesus so angry? The thing is, the people in the Temple changing money and selling animals really weren’t doing anything wrong. These activities were allowed by the Temple authorities – in fact, they were truly necessary for worship and sacrifice to take place in the Temple. The many Jews who were coming to Jerusalem from throughout the Roman Empire could not use coins depicting the Emperor, just as, if the Temple stood today, American Jews could not use their coins with images of Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Washington. That would be idolatry and of course as we were reminded by our reading from Exodus, idolatry is forbidden.

The main function of the Temple was the sacrifice of animals. Probably the first thing visitors to ancient Jerusalem would have seen, and smelled, was the all-day grilling of animals taking place at the Temple, in the center of the city. Jews coming to the Temple, then, had to buy their unblemished animals at the Temple and offer them to the priests and to God as a sacrifice. They weren’t doing anything wrong – just like it’s not wrong for us to sell some t-shirts and mugs to support and celebrate this church.

So, why is Jesus so angry? Well, of course, I’m not the psychology professional up here, but it seems to me that we usually think of anger as a negative emotion. We try to bottle it up, or cover it up (like I sometimes do) with humor. Anger, both in ourselves and in others, is very scary. But, like all our other emotions, anger is very natural and very human and it’s pretty healthy to express anger – it’s a sign to everyone that this is really important, this really matters. It may be a little frightening and upsetting to other people, but it gets their attention. I remember as a teacher I would rarely raise my voice in the classroom, but when I did it usually made my students quickly settle down. (OK, it didn’t always work.) Now, if a person is angry all the time, that’s something different, and then, of course, they need some help to deal with whatever is going on. But, we know that Jesus is not angry all the time. In fact, John highlights this by setting the temple story just after the wedding at Cana where Jesus celebrates a marriage and joyfully, and playfully, transforms water into wine.

So why is Jesus so angry? Jesus’ anger certainly lets us know this is important, this really matters. Jesus wants to get our attention, and he’s got it.

Jesus is so angry because the power of sin is so strong. Jesus’ anger teaches us, reminds us that sin is so powerful; truly sin soils everyone, sin spoils everything, even worship in the holiest place on earth. The Temple had become more about exchanging money and grilling animals than worshiping the one true God. The power of sin!

Now, you know one of the complaints that some people have about the Episcopal Church is that we don’t talk enough about sin. I don’t know if that’s true – after all, each Sunday we publicly confess in front of all our brothers and sisters and before God that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We express remorse for failing to love God and to love our neighbor. And we beg forgiveness. I doubt that anyone here ever chosen not to participate in the confession. I doubt any of us has ever said, “You know what, I had a great week – no sins against God or my neighbor! I’m going to skip this part and go get a cup of coffee!”

So, Jesus is so angry because sin is so powerful and in a real sense contaminates all of us and everything. Sin soils everything, even worship in the Temple, even worship in the church.

Why is sin so powerful – why is there so much sin in all of us? Good question! But, since I’m only a seminarian I’m not even going to try to explain that – even Jesus himself doesn’t explain it – throughout the Gospels he just points to sin’s reality and sin’s power. Traditionally the Church has taught about Original Sin, the sin inherited from Adam and Eve and infecting all of us. Whatever you might think about that, it’s an accurate description of our situation, don’t you think?

On some very deep level, we know that something has gone very, very wrong in the world, and in us. This is not the way the world was supposed to be. This is not the way we were meant to be. This is not God’s dream and hope for the world, and for us.

Throughout history God has tried over and over to nudge us in the right direction – to reveal God’s self, to reveal God’s dream for the world, God’s dream for us. And, yes, sometimes in anger, God has pointed out our sinfulness to us, and challenged us to live in a way that gives life, not death. In the reading from Exodus this morning we heard one of the most central, most dramatic, most lasting examples of God’s revelation to us – the giving of the Ten Commandments. Because the commandments are so familiar, and today so politicized, we miss how radical they really are. The commandments are an attempt by God to reshape the world into a place where all people are honored and respected, life is cherished, and the creating, redeeming God is praised. God offers a vision of a society in which everyone – women and men, children, slaves, foreigners and even animals have the opportunity to rest from the labors, just as on the seventh day God rested and marveled at creation.

Well, what do you think, did the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law defeat sin? No, not exactly. St. Paul spells out the unfortunate answer very clearly for us in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. Paul speaks for all of us when he declares “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul says sin is so powerful, so ingrained in us, that it prevents us from really doing good, even when we really want to do good. Sin spoils everything, everything, even worship in the Temple, the holiest place on earth. The Law serves as an accusation, an indictment – it identifies sin and so we can’t plead ignorance like children, “But, I didn’t know it was wrong.”

So the Law did not defeat sin. Well, one thing many of us have learned is that our God is a persistent God. This is probably not orthodox, but I often think how frustrating we all must be for God. I’m sure it is God’s perfect love that has saved us from God throwing in the towel, and giving up on us. And it is only God’s perfect love and perfect grace that has saved us from destroying ourselves.

No, God doesn’t give up, and instead in the fullness of time God sent this outsider rabbi from Galilee, this Jesus who reveals who God really is, and reveals who we really are. In Jesus, fully human and fully divine, God says, this is who I really am. And in Jesus, fully human and fully divine, God says to us, this is who you really are. In Jesus we see what humanity looks like without the destructive infection of sin. In the end, that’s the message of the Gospel, isn’t it? God says here, this is who I am – be like Jesus, be like me, and share with me in the banquet of eternal life.

As Paul puts it, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

But, even though it’s only the third Sunday of Lent, we know what’s coming, don’t we? Certainly in this House of Prayer, we are reminded of the crucifixion every Sunday as we gaze up at the crucified messiah. Again, I can only wonder at the pain, frustration, disappointment, and yes anger, experienced by God – the ultimate rejection. God comes into the world and because the power of sin is so great, human beings once again reject the message and the messenger, and nail him to a cross.

I suspect that even with all the disappointments of the past, all those golden calves, all that sin, this time God hoped for a better outcome. But, even then, God doesn’t give up on us – transforming pain, humiliation and death into joy, glory, and life on the third day.

You know, the more I study the more I realize that Christianity is kind of a tricky religion. There is what some people call an “already – not yet” quality to our faith. We know that Jesus’ resurrection has changed everything forever – that we have been shown the way to full life with God. In Jesus we have become “at one” with God. And yet, our faith also recognizes that we’re not there yet, and sin remains so powerful in our lives – soiling us and spoiling everything.

Probably the biggest danger for us is to think that sin doesn’t really affect us so much – I mean, we’re not much for sinning, after all we’re good church-going folk, aren’t we? Now, those people who are still home in bed this morning, or having a big stack of delicious pancakes at IHOP, oh boy, now there are your sinners! Or, the people we read about in the newspapers or see on TV doing horrible, unspeakable things – those are the real sinners, not us!

No, Jesus’ anger in the Temple reminds us that if sin infects the holiest place on earth, then sin infects you and me and everything, including, of course, the church. Jesus’ anger has gotten our attention – he’s telling us this is important - we must not place our faith in the Temple, or the church, or any other human institution. Because of sin, we will be disappointed over and over. We must not turn these human institutions into gods, into idols. Instead, with St. Paul let us say, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And so especially this Lent when we make our confession here in church and in our own prayers, let us ask for the strength to put our faith in the one true God, revealed to us in Jesus – Jesus who shows us who God really is – Jesus who shows us who we are really meant to be. Jesus who stretches out his arms on the hard wood of the cross – and draws the whole world to himself.