Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
March 10, 2018
Matthew 21: 12-17
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
I was talking through with our visual arts team about the plans for Lent and the Sundays and they suggested that this Sunday I have a table here on the chancel to flip. I don’t know if I’m the table-flipping kind. Table arranging: yes. Table stabilizing: I would be happy to put a small piece of paper to adjust a table so it doesn’t fiddle when you lean on it. But table-flipping is not my usual style. I sometimes don’t know what it means to have that kind of anger, that kind of certainty, that etched determination that the world as we know it needs to change, to turn, transform, and to start over so that we can start closer to God’s realm of heaven.
I thought, however, I would give it a try this week. So earlier this week I got one of those short, light, folding tables that we sometimes use in the atrium and I set it up here on the chancel in a completely empty room and I tried to flip it over. There is no one here. There was no one to be shocked, no one to be angry, no one to respond in the least and I had revved myself up. And so then, when I finally did, I turned it over and it fell with a bang and then it rolled down the steps and it rolled all the way into the front pew with a smash. And you can imagine in our acoustics, I nearly gave myself a heart attack, so horrified I was by my own mild rebellion, where nothing was harmed and there were no witnesses.
And so it made me wonder at Jesus, who began his last week on earth with a bang, with a symbol that all was about to be changed and a symbol that would be opposed. Many years, even if you were very faithful and attended every Sunday service, you could be here for Palm Sunday, when Jesus triumphantly processed into Jerusalem, and then the next time you were here you would have traded the hosannas and palms for hallelujahs, going from the procession into the celebration of resurrection. And in that week in between, lots of things happened, and I don’t just mean the brutal details of crucifixion, although that is of course a part of the story. That last week of Jesus’ life had tremendous teachings about what his ministry meant. This is when he shared his last teachings; this is where he did the things that ultimately made the powers of the time view him as a threat to empire. These stories have a wisdom about what it means to walk in Jesus’ way of love and yes, shows the profundity of death that reveals the power of resurrection. And just to put things in perspective, in the gospels of Mark and Matthew a full quarter of the entire gospel is just in that time, in between the procession of palms and before Easter. There is so much there that even as we are spending six weeks on it my heart is broken about how much we are not going to talk about. And so, if you feel so moved, I commend to you reading one of the gospels this Lent; Mark is really short.
We are starting off our journey with a bang: Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the temple. This story appears in all four gospels and in three of them it happens right after the palm procession, as the joyful crowd meets Jesus on the way to Jerusalem with palms. And then, as the story goes, he either immediately or the next day goes into the temple and processes to call the authority of the fiscal and religious systems into question. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus stops all commerce in the temple, not allowing anyone to carry anything through the complex. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a whip. But I love this version especially in the Gospel of Matthew, for Jesus overturns the tables of the merchants and the seats of those who sold doves and then it is the blind and the lame who come to the temple as he makes of that place a place of healing.
The big picture: what is Jesus doing here? The temple is the place where all the people come to make ritual sacrifices. It is the center of the worshipping life of Israel. There are certain parts of the life of everyone where you are asked to come to the temple to make a sacrifice, or to atone for a wrongdoing. There is a ritual action named in the law to be performed at the temple, and many of those in the Scriptures require the sacrifice of animals that were to be without blemish. So, if you are travelling from far away and you need two perfect doves to sacrifice, that’s a thing that’s hard to bring with you. And so what we are seeing here in this story is the commerce that had emerged, where folks sold animals to the pilgrims to be a part of this ritual sacrifice. And the verse that Jesus quotes is actually from Jeremiah, that refers that if a temple is in Jerusalem then God is there to protect the people. And so, the Scripture is saying that they are treating the temple like it is a den for robbers, like you’ve gone off and done terrible things and come back and then this is your safe space; you’re exempt and on base because you’re there and making things right. So you could picture it for us that that would be if you’re spending Monday through Friday doing terrible terrible things, but come Sunday to worship and therefore think you’re right with God. Jesus is standing and upending the systems that turn piety into profit. Jesus is overturning something that feels really normal, saying that it should be something else. Jesus is looking at the systems of this world with anger.
As Aristotle famously wrote, “Anybody can be angry; that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.” Aristotle thought he was writing of universal truths in that there was one ideal right way to be angry, and what we needed to do was learn to be neither too slow nor too fast to anger, just right. However, in the way our culture defines the rules, the goalpost of what it means to be appropriately angry can shift along lines of race and gender and culture. As a WASP, cisgender woman, I’m used to holding anger very quietly, politely even, apologizing as soon as it leaves my mouth. The very first time I was giving someone some very difficult feedback, they stopped me because they were confused because I was smiling while I was doing it. Depending upon the person or race or class or experience, we all have different ways of trying to fit in cultural bounds about how to be angry to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and the right way. Anger is one of the few emotions that is allowed to white males in our country. It is seldom allowed to experience grief or vulnerability or fear or sadness, but anger? That is almost written as synonymous with masculinity and given a wide and expected berth. As a white woman, I know I have been left a very narrow range of acceptable anger when I begin to tiptoe near the edges and I start worrying about words like “hysterical,” or perhaps another word for witch. And for people of color, whose very existence can be experienced as a threat to whiteness, the stakes are very high and showing anger can be seen as invalidating an argument or even more dangerously can endanger a life as someone can be seen as a threat for just experiencing a human emotion.
So for you, wherever you sit in these intersections and your own family story and your cultural traditions about what is even taught are the acceptable ranges of anger, what are the dangers you experience when you step outside those lines? And how does this fit with a story where Jesus was profoundly angry and acted upon it?
I was looking for images of Scripture this week, something to put on the bulletin, and as you can imagine, in many classical imageries Jesus gets a little bit paler. And I kept finding pictures of Jesus angry with a whip and I couldn’t find a way to give that picture to you all. In particular, as this passage is set in the temple and has been read over times fed by anti-Semitism, there are some of these pictures that were white Jesus with a whip before he is flogging people in front of him that didn’t feel Holy, that didn’t feel like a picture of God and instead a bit closer to the worst of what we can be. And yet we know there are things in this world that are worthy of anger. Jesus’ anger here is not towards an individual, although there are individuals involved. It is towards the system, the interlocking systems of economics and control in a place that was to be a place of prayer. So, to give a picture, Jesus didn’t try to make things better by giving someone money so they could have enough money to buy their dove. We might call that charity, and it could be a good thing. But there are times that things are broken in ways that we need to start over, where Jesus is here showing in a big symbolic act what a disruption would look like, what it would look like to say, “Things can’t stay the same.”
We scheduled this week of Lent months ago, but I felt fairly assured that I would have something terrible to talk about when we got here. We do not lack things to name as terrible. I know our incarceration justice ministries have been looking at the profoundly broken systems in our country where profound racial disparity and economic disparity can lead to broken lives and families and somehow this is now an industry that our nation is comfortable having for profit. In one study of teenagers, fifty percent of teen transwomen have attempted suicide, a rate that is directly connected to experiencing anti-transgender discrimination. I think of the disparities in our country are plenty, as the number of folks who walk through our doors every day looking for a place to sleep at night in one of the most prosperous parts of the world. I know that black women are two to six times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy, often because we don’t take their symptoms seriously. I know that since the family separation policy has ended at our borders somehow more than two hundred children have still been separated from their parents, in an irresponsible regard for the harm that is being caused. And I know that if we look back on our history, the land we stand upon was first taken from indigenous peoples and that this land we stand upon was later forced from the hands of our Japanese neighbors in World War II. And suddenly, as we stand, our whole histories are built upon a surface that is not only unstable, not only feels flawed, but somehow needs to be flipped, needs to be turned, and then I get frightened about what this might mean for me, to uproot the stable foundations I have found, the stable places where I stand and that it’s system that’s so profoundly flawed.
This week I found out that a clergy colleague in New York, the Reverend Kaji Dousa, Senior Minister of Park Avenue Christian Church, has been profiled at our government’s border patrol for her advocacy and humanitarian relief at our southern border. I know Kaji. Reverend Dousa and I went to seminary together; I have called her asking for advice; I have quoted her here in sermons. She has had her global entry revoked and news reports have found her name and picture alongside journalists who were documenting the immigrant caravan earlier this year. She traveled to the border to meet some, she performed a wedding, she sought to humanize those who were seeking asylum. And in the news reports there is a picture of her from our government with an “X” through her forehead. And I stand here and I am appalled because I have seen in her her witness and advocacy and how she is so much braver than I to stand before a table and say, “This must be turned.” I stand and I see how her witness has power and as witness that it will be opposed and how I seek to learn from her courage and learn from the ways she has found to follow Jesus. And wanting to speak about it feels somehow like learning to turn something over with bang, it feels like it would roll down the stairs and the whole room would be loud. And it feels loud because anger has consequences, because it means you need to risk that you might be misunderstood, it means to risk that you might not find your way exactly into proportion, neither too big nor too small, as Aquinas would recommend. It feels loud because you want to know how Jesus caught the eyes of the authorities. You want to know how Jesus found his way in the garden. You want to know why Jesus ended up on a cross on Good Friday. You look back to Monday, to his anger that would not let that which had started stand without naming it, without resisting it, without turning the tables and let them fall where they may, because what is more concerning than the trial and the cross? It is the injustice that stood unnamed; it is the hypocrisy that claims the benefits of faith without the transformation. What is more concerning than the wrongdoing we turn a blind eye to, the things that are profoundly wrong which we have come to expect: of racism, of hatred, of homophobia, of xenophobia, of cruelty and cowardice and generations of wrongdoing that have been left to stand? For our work of Christianity in the public sphere is not to be holding our Holy Scriptures to receive an outside power stamp of approval; it is to be transformed by those Scriptures in power and love, to denounce evil, to hold fast for what is good, to love God, to love our neighbor and to let the tables crash if they must.
So tell me the truth: did I smile? I still have much to learn from Jesus who shows us the way of when to push and when to let things fall. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.