Excerpts from a sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent 2018
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
All Saints' Episcopal Church, Phoenix, Arizona
In John’s Gospel, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem just before Passover. It was like the day before Christmas in a busy shopping district. The streets were bustling with activity: women picking up last-minute items for the Seder meal, children running around excitedly poking their heads in and out of shops, and men gathered in small groups talking about religion and politics.
The Temple was equally crazed. What should have been a place of prayer had been turned into a sprawling religious market, roughly the size of two football fields, with thousands of pilgrims, hundreds of merchants selling animals for sacrifice, and yes, the moneychangers.
In the first century, Jews had to make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer ritual, animal sacrifices and pay the yearly temple tax. Because the tax could only be paid with shekels, Roman currency had to be exchanged, and the moneychangers demanded a ridiculous surcharge for this essential service. I liken them to check-cashing businesses or payday lenders.
In the Temple market, merchants supplied the sheep, oxen, turtledoves and pigeons certified by religious authorities to be acceptable for sacrifice in the Temple. What began as a service of convenience for out-of-towners had evolved into an abusive, expensive and exploitative practice, which today would have been exposed on the evening news.
On the days near Passover, the Temple was a three-ring circus filled with corruption – a corruption endorsed by the combined, synergistic forces of politics, religion and the market economy. No wonder Jesus got angry.
Most of us have experienced this kind of anger, hurt, loss, pain and angst. It might have been caused by childhood abuse or neglect. It might have been ignited by something that happened to us in school or a first job. It might have been instigated by something we witnessed in our parents’ experience or learned about by reading a book or watching a movie.
Jesus was angry that the Temple celebration of Passover, a feast of liberation, had evolved into a politically and religiously licensed activity of economic exploitation. He was angry that God’s sacred house had been turned into “a den of vipers.” His righteous, Passover anger led him to a passionate and fiery act of public engagement.
Can you begin to imagine the scene? It would be like someone coming into the national cathedral on a Sunday morning and turning over chairs, yelling at the preacher in the pulpit, upsetting the souvenir shop, and creating a general ruckus.
Jesus’ action in the Temple was a symbolic one. He knew that within a day or two, business would resume. Based on what happened to other Jewish rebels, Jesus also knew that he was putting himself and his companions at the risk of arrest and crucifixion.
Was this action successful? The answer depends on what Jesus’ intentions were. If he simply intended to get a reaction, to be recognized, he was successful. According to John’s Gospel, many came to believe in his power. If his action was intended to change the system, it didn’t do much good – at least, in the short-term. It was, however, an act of deep-seated, passionate anger by our Lord.
Anger is a complicated emotion, and it’s not one that we typically associate with Jesus. Yet, Jesus teaches us that anger is like fire: it can be used to clear a field, to rejuvenate it for the next planting, or it can destroy an entire forest. The fire ignited in Jesus’ belly was a hot, slow-burning fire, a long-lasting passion for peace and justice fueled by righteousness, grounded in prayer.
When I think of Jesus’ actions in the Temple, I recall the founders of our nation, remembering that this country was built on the foundation of a righteous rebellion that continued to evolve over two centuries. We are a country formed by revolution; so when you’re told that it’s not patriotic to demonstrate, don’t believe it.
When I think about Jesus’ actions in the Temple, I recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and so many more who have taken action in the name of God’s justice. The fire of their angst was carefully built and tended to burn steadily.
And when I think of Jesus’ actions in the Temple, I see all those young people lying in front of our nation’s capital, saying “Enough” to gun violence and school shootings.
As Jesus’ disciples, our mission is to plant ourselves at the gate of hope, outside the doors of the Temple, the place from which we experience the world both as it is and as it could be. We are called to stand there, telling people what we see and asking them what they see. And then sometimes, out of our angst, we are called to even greater action, taking the next step we never imagined, maybe even turning over a table or two.
For in doing what Matthew Fox has called “the small work within the Great Work,” we honor the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt and gave us freedom, and we follow the beloved Son of God who returned from the land of Egypt to give us new life. Amen!