A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 4, 2018
University Baptist Church
The title of this sermon is “Holy Rage”. You may not think there is anything holy about rage. We think of people who invoke God’s wrath on people with whom they disagree. If we’re on their side, it’s a cheep thrill. But it also gives us the willies. We don’t like to think of an angry God. We scurry from the idea of God needing a blood sacrifice to appease holy wrath. We even call the Hebrew Bible God the god of wrath and the NT God the god of grace. So what do we do with the Son of God exercising anger in a holy place? Is it Holy rage? And if so, are there times when our rage can be similarly holy? Hold those thoughts.
Today we remember the one instance that Jesus got angry, or at least got so angry that he showed it. We can imagine there were plenty of things for him to be angry about, but he remained remarkably restrained, content to get people talking, reconsidering their lives, gently encouraging people to reverse their course. Even as he went to the cross, he forgave those who were torturing him. But in today’s text, Jesus shows a bit of his humanity. Something pushed him to the breaking point. And he unleashed his anger.
The Choir has already set the scene. But let’s look at it in a bit more depth.
Jesus went up to the temple at Passover, that festival that marks the people’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. It was not lost on any of the Hebrew people that they celebrated this liberation festival while they were under present occupation.
They longed for the Messianic age to begin and a new power balance to be established.
The temple is on the top of a mountain. Jerusalem is literally a city on a hill. As he approached the holy peak, Jesus found people selling oxen, sheep and doves. At a high holy day, it was obligatory to purchase a blessed animal to be sacrificed. Oxen and sheep for the more well-off, and doves for the poor. But to be ritually pure, you could not purchase these animals with dirty Roman money. You needed to change your currency into Hebrew sheckels, the last vestige of Hebrew holiness in this occupied city. Naturally there were money-changers at their tables. We can assume that they made a hefty profit off of these festivals. Some have even suggested collusion between the priests and the money-changers. It was a privilege to be a money-changer and the priests may well have taken a bribe in order to give their favored money-changers a place at the table. Oh, when the banking system and religion get aligned, it can spell collusion.
We can imagine what Jesus saw: maybe he saw the money-changers charging different exchange rates based upon the accents of their customers. Money-changers taking credit if the people couldn’t pay for their animals to atone for their nasty sins. He saw the debt system making a profit and keeping this nasty structure in place. He certainly encountered a menagerie of animals and their excrement, the blood from the sacrifices, the Romans holding guard over this holy practice.
No weapons or sticks were allowed on the temple mount, so Jesus made a whip out of cords and in a provocative act of civil disobedience, he turned over the tables, drove out the cattle and sheep, set the birds free from their cages and messed up the whole stately affair. Imagine herds of cattle roaming the streets and merchants trying to chase them down. Imagine the Passover AD4 hats strewn from their nice neat stack. Imagine Roman and Hebrew money all mixed up. Imagine the merchants and the priests looking on with horror. Imagine the guards trying to keep the peace with a heard of oxen around.
Here are a couple of things to pay attention to:
- In John’s gospel it’s right at the beginning. The other gospels put it at the end right before he enters Jerusalem for the last time.
- Jesus does not use the whip against people. He never lifted a finger in anger toward a person.
- John plays with the image of temple. As is often the case in John’s gospel, words have more than one meaning. There’s the literal temple that Jesus is in the shadow of, and the figurative temple of Jesus’ life of which we are all in the shadow.
- No one seemed to object very much. There is not an outcry by anyone except those invested in keeping the status quo. Some have even suggested that this is the reason that Jesus was crucified. He messed with the system too much. People were not interested in reversing their dependence on blood sacrifice. Theologically, Jesus became the replacement blood sacrifice.
Jesus turns over the tables and tells the people to not make the temple a marketplace. Borrowing from the eternally grumpy prophet Jeremiah, Jesus says “You have made this a den of thieves.”
Tradition says that in order for the Messianic age to begin, the temple must first be cleansed of sinful actions.
So Jesus uses holy rage to cleanse the temple. But it hardly seems clean. It’s a mess. There are tables strewn about. There are oxen and sheep tramping around, the currency exchange compromise has been compromised. The stench of blood and slaughter seep into your clothes and your hair. The incense tries to hide it, but it lingers for too long. Maybe the stench of the injustice, the tired old rituals that pointed out class and accentuated it were too much.
Anyhow, Jesus used his one act of embodied anger and used it against the religiously sanctioned system of bribery and extortion that masked as righteousness.
Resa Aslan gives a succinct account of the political meaning of this: “An attack on the business of the temple is akin to an attack on the priestly nobility, which, considering the Temple’s tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to an attack on Rome itself.” (Zealot p. 75) Aslan says that Jesus’ actions were those of a zealot. One committed to the takedown of Roman rule. Jesus’ zealotry, his holy rage, put the temple, and its complicity with Roman occupiers on notice.
So, where’s the line between anger and rage?
I heard a counselor say that rage is what you get when anger and shame are mixed together.
Jesus may well have been angry at the whole bloody system and ashamed that it was done in the name of God. We approach the Gospel from the perspective of turned over tables. Not the rage so much as the reversal of it all. But the rage sticks in my craw.
The old activists say, if you are not outraged then you are not paying attention.
We can make a righteous list of all the things that tilt our rage meter:
The way people’s lives are torn apart by guns.
The way their pain gets explained away or lost amidst the gun lobby or the anti-gun lobby.
The way people’s families are torn apart because of their citizenship status. It seem we can hardly go a day without a new story of a US born person losing their noncitizen parent to deportation or the fear of it.
The nuclear posturing of international leaders.
The environmental seesaw that we could control if we just had the guts to tell the truth about climate change.
Oh yeah, then there’s the constant lying or exaggeration of the present administration—so commonplace that we expect it.
Sometimes we need a little holy rage.
Maybe we need to turn over a table or two.
What makes rage holy and unholy?
Rage that turns over the tables of injustice is holy rage.
Rage that seeks to inflict bodily or emotional harm is unholy.
Holy rage seeks to expose wrong and reverse the flow of negative energy.
Unholy rage just wallows in the destruction, as cathartic as it may be.
The film Black Panther plays with the image of whose holy rage is righteous. When race and lack of reparations are thrown into the mix, might one turn to violence? Is that not an appropriate response?
Rage’s shadow is patience and trust. Something holy that we trust has been compromised. Our patience is lost--that’s what brings this kind of rage to the surface. And it’s often messy, too messy for a lot of us. But creation happens in the chaos.
Matty Strickler was asked during his ordination council how he was able to be a non-anxious presence in his hospice work. He wisely responded that being non-anxious is not always the best posture. When all hell is breaking out, then anxiety is one of the natural responses. He said that anxiety is energy. And it tells him to pay attention. The challenge is to not let anxiety control us, but to pay attention to the energy that anxiety brings and channeling it in a constructive manner.
Anger in like manner is an energy. It can take us over, choking out our other best impulses. But it can also be channeled into something transformative. I think of Emma Gonzales and her colleagues in Florida. Their anger says, pay attention.
The holy rage got an audience with the president. But one sit-down does not a change make. Just like one turned over table didn’t ban money-changers from the temple mount for eternity. But it put them on notice that God is watching and the people enraged will take back their place. Of course, the people also engaged and enraged, shouted crucify him and Pilate listened.
I have spent the past week considering the water. Even on vacation, you get something that will work its way into a sermon. At sea, we churned up a lot of water. The water, teaming with life, gets disturbed by the ship’s propellers. The sea gets cloudy. The water gets choppy. But that’s also how the ship moves. Eventually, the water calms down. It clears itself. Sometimes things under the surface are dislodged, even set free. And we move forward.
So what is in the wake of the convergence of your anger and your shame?
Anne Lamott said that paying attention to your anger can lead you to a deeper truth. Maybe that’s a good thing to consider during Lent. She said, “You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.”
The question is, how do we channel that energy to make the best long-term change for us and our community. A fit of anger might feel good, but it doesn’t really change anything, unless it’s harnessed. Do you notice that Jesus does not stay in the holy rage. He turned over the tables and then walked away. The ones who longed for a campaign of table-turning rage-displays that would instantly topple the current regimes were confounded and disappointed in Jesus. He even let another seemingly holy rage take his own life—perhaps to show the futility of unholy rage and how holy can flip to unholy in an instant if we are not careful.
So the challenge for us, we who are righteously angered and ashamed, even enraged is to find a way to strap ourselves onto the power of a more powerful force that is leading us toward health and wholeness. What Jesus gives us instead of zealous press-worthy displays of civil disobedience was movement of people who have awoken to not only the need to reverse course, but to steer us in the right direction. We call this, for all of it’s flaws, the church. That’s where we find holiness sometimes because of and in spite of our rage. And we support each other as we create a new worled even as we make strategic cracks in the armor of the old order.
So turn over a table or two. Tell the truth to power. But only do so if you are willing to join a movement to support lasting change that steers us in the direction of the beloved community.