Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
Media Reference: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/02/20/691298594/the-power-of-martin-luther-king-jr-s-anger
Sometimes, when I’m working with a group and we encounter something uncomfortable together I like to pause and do a check in. So before I go too deep into my homily, I want to check in with you: how are you feeling about this Gospel image of a very angry Jesus? You can think about that and if you feel inclined, put a word or two in the chat. This Gospel lesson is very emotionally evocative. I’ve heard some people say it is liberating while I recognize that for other people it can feel very disruptive and even downright disturbing. I want to name and honor all of those reactions before we lunge ahead.
Wherever you are, its OK: let’s enter into this passage together for what it offers us today.
Scholars consider this account of Jesus’ public display of anger at the money-changers in the temple to be historically accurate. It appears in all four Gospel accounts of our Holy Scriptures. In the synoptic Gospels…Matthew, Mark, and Luke…it is placed toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, suggesting that this action was a catalyst for the events that lead to Jesus’ arrest. But here in John’s Gospel, this portrayal of Jesus driving out the cattle and pouring out the coins of the money-changers appears early in the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry.
The later placement of the story seems logical and might even be more plausible historically. But John’s Gospel invites us into viewing this particular image of Jesus as a visible and foundational aspect of the arc of Jesus’ ministry. So let’s ponder that prospect. I’m going to ask us this morning to consider that this story, in this place, at this time in Jesus’ ministry is a message of Good News. It invites us to take a journey together into exploring the role of anger in God’s economy of Love.
There are three important things to remember about anger: anger is a passionate emotion; anger makes us vulnerable; and anger often reveals deeper truths.
Anger, the passionate emotion, leads to unpredictability: at its most effective, anger is jarring when we encounter it and makes us pay attention. At its most damaging, anger inflicts hurt and pain.
Anger, the vulnerable emotion, tells people something about us and where our hidden and precious breaking points are. At its most effective, it shows where our heart most wants to protect us. At its most damaging, it lashes out where we have been hurt the most.
Anger, the revealing emotion, tells people where we stand and situates us in opposition to what we cannot tolerate. At its most effective, it shines a high-beam light on hidden injustice and systems of oppression. At its most damaging, it showcases our own biases, prejudices and brokenness.
With these attributes of anger in mind, perhaps we can revisit the depiction of Jesus in today’s Gospel and ask: what is this image of an angry Jesus revealing to us?
I’ve been sitting with that lesson this week. While doing so, I listened to a very powerful episode of NPR’s “Code Switch” about the power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s anger. The episode includes an interview with King’s speechwriter Clarence Jones who asserts that from Dr. King’s standpoint, anger is part of a larger process that encompasses anger, forgiveness, redemption and love. Think about that: passionate, vulnerable, revealing anger. This is not the anger of hatred, power, privilege and destruction. This is anger that shatters assumptions and breaks open the possibility of transforming Love.
Jesus’ anger disrupts business as usual in the temple marketplace, that is clear. This story also breaks us open during this Lenten season and makes us pay attention. It fills us with profound emotions, like the ones we carry with us into this narrative. We use another emotional term during this season,“Passion,” when we relate the story of Holy Week. In our annual retelling, we are emotionally broken open to take in the poignant magnitude of gut-wrenching love evident in Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Jesus’ anger at the Temple and Jesus’ eventual willing submission to an unjust and brutal death disrupts our belief system that good things happen to good people; that following the rules of the authorities always leads to justice; that society’s marking of something as acceptable means that it’s right and good. In this story as in Jesus’ Passion, it isn’t the violence and brutality that prevails; it is God’s transforming love.
Jesus’ jarring actions in this narrative disrupt a scene which in that time and context was socially acceptable and seemingly benign: temple activity aimed to make it easier for people coming into town to offer required sacrifices. People needed to exchange local money for Roman coins, to buy the livestock that were required under the law for sacrifice which would have been burdensome to bring with them. At first glance, all that activity seems rather ordinary: but had the status quo taken away the meaning of these actions in the hearts of those making the pilgrimage? Had convenience morphed into profiting off the needy? Were the activities taking place benefitting the Empire in Rome, as much or even more so than the purported piety of these activities? Did the public face of the temple begin to resemble a facade of cheap and easy grace, rather than the holy house of God?
Jesus’ disruption of the status quo placed him dangerously in opposition to both Temple and Roman authority. It publicly marked him as oppositional to what was socially acceptable. It also allowed him to make known a powerful truth about what God sees in the actions that society is blindly following, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Jesus’ vulnerable anger placed him at risk, tangibly. His actions revealed his alignment, and that alignment wasn’t with structures of power in this world’s terms. It was with the vulnerable, the oppressed and the outcast. Jesus’ revealing anger enacted in that space poignantly placed God’s reign above human convenience. It revealed rifts between the heart of ministry and the clutches of Empire. It shone a light on the commercial aspects of purported piety and forced those present to question the intention of their own hearts.
Seen in these ways, Jesus’ anger is a jarring, vulnerable and revealing revelation of God’s abundant and freely given grace to all of humanity. I allowed it to jar me this week into asking hard questions and thinking differently about the choices we make in our Christian lives. When we shake up the status quo…and this year has certainly done that…where and how is Jesus speaking to us in new and transformational ways?
I was reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through angry outcries against injustice, and that injustice can too easily remain hidden beneath a conflict-avoidant status quo. Lest we forget, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written as an outcry against a group of seemingly well-intentioned white clergy people…including two Episcopal Bishops…who had signed a statement asking King to moderate his protests and leave Birmingham to end the violence erupting there. In pointing a finger at protestors, the clergy leaders had missed the whole point. They failed to see and acknowledge that racial injustice was the real heart of the issue. You see, when the silence of the status quo perpetuates oppression, it leads us all away from the vision of God’s transforming love. At those points, we need to be shaken up to our common identity and mission. Or, better stated in the eloquence of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I was also reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through our own anger. What is it that ignites us with anger? How does our anger make us vulnerable, or break us open in new ways? What does that anger reveal in us that is in need of healing and transformation? In our own anger, where do we see Jesus? And if we don’t, perhaps we can ask Jesus to help make known to us whether our anger is pointing us toward or away from the knowledge and love of God. God wants to love us, and does love us: fiercely and unconditionally. If anger gets in the way of experiencing that, God’s desire is that we seek healing and wholeness so that we can experience the enormity of divine love and grace which always enfolds us.
This is what Jesus’ anger reveals to us: a vision of Jesus where justice and love are so inextricably linked that no human places, practices, or prejudices can stand in the way of that love. Jesus tells us this in sermons, in parables, in healings, in conversations, in miracles, and yes, in anger. Jesus tells us this with his whole life and in his death. And in resurrection we are given the ultimately divine reassurance: Love always wins.
Anger, forgiveness, redemption, and love: this is the unfolding story we are given in the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Perhaps John’s Gospel places this story exactly where it needs to be.
Revealing God, open our eyes to see and grant us the inspiration to transform this world in which we live. Amen