Sermons

From Destructive to Constructive; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 4, 2018

 

 Anger. Being mad. Being sharp with others.

Annoyed. Chronically displeased.

Fuming. Exasperated. Furious.

We know these emotions.  We know how heat can build in our relationships with others until one day, the pot goes from a slow simmer to a roiling boil like when we forget and leave a pot to explode rice or some other sticky starch on our stove.

Or when something hard sparks us, igniting a rage that we didn’t even know was there until one day someone said something that triggered us and then we found ourselves saying or doing something that we may have regretted afterwards.

Or how we can project onto others the deep disappointments or the unsaid words or the hardness of heart of which we have been the recipient.  We don’t intend to do so.  Others were…just… there.  And we resented their being there, when the person with whom we needed to speak or clear the air or fix things…was not there. They were vulnerable, like us.  They were convenient targets, like us.  And we watch as they try to shield themselves from all the unhappiness exploding inside.

Yes, we know anger and how it can ruin relationships, livelihoods, family dinners, and our health, if it is not controlled or channeled appropriately.  What were our models in handling anger when we were growing up?  Were angry feelings ever talked about or dealt with out in the open?  Or was anger always flowing just beneath the surface of things, or silenced, or handled passive-aggressively?

Did anyone ever tell us that it is a normal and healthy thing to feel anger?  That anger was energy and when used appropriately, it could fuel a substantive movement, prompt a behavioral change, or let someone know that our boundary or limit had been crossed?  Did anyone ever tell us that anger could be our guide, a homing device to help us to understand our passions, or the particular loss that we couldn’t acknowledge or process any other way?

Today, Jesus gets angry.  Even though Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” we don’t know that he intentionally planned to overturn the money-changer tables in the Temple.  We don’t know if his actions were the result of a “slow boil” or the impromptu reaction to a deep disconnect between what he believed he would see at the religious center and what he actually experienced.  We don’t know if his action was premeditated, or the impulsive, heated response to what he saw taking place in the outer courts of the Temple, where God-fearers and outsiders who were not converts were allowed.

What we do know is that his anger propelled him forward into action and confrontation.  In that moment, was his anger constructive or destructive?  Some might say that those vendor tables needed the turning over.  Scholars have deemed his actions as that of a prophet, correcting the likely corruption that was occurring as poor pilgrims used their money to obtain animals for sacrifice.  In obtaining unblemished animals or birds for sacrifice on site, one would encounter those who were charging exorbitant rates.  Furthermore, one would need to exchange currency imprinted with Caesar’s image with the imageless Temple currency.  Could corruption occur in that exchange?  Some say that yes, this was likely.

Others say that this demonstration was less about the need for money to change hands in the temple courtyards, and more about access to God and sacred space.  This marketplace activity was occurring in the one space, the outer courts, reserved for those Gentiles, who though not coverts, sought to worship God.  So Jesus’ actions could be about correcting practices that had infringed on the outsider’s ability to access God.

Now, some might reasonably argue that this very public demonstration of righteous anger was necessary to make a point.  Indeed, in the three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this activity purposely precipitates his crucifixion. Others could also argue that Jesus might have cooled his jets a bit and been more strategic in his public outcry.  Yet, I’ve never heard a sermon on this passage preached that way.  Usually, we hear that Jesus was fulfilling his prophetic role and that his anger was righteous, unlike ours– most times, anyway.

In any case, what Jesus did that day was a political act.  It was as if he had spontaneously shut-down the fare card systems for D.C. Metro for the day.  What he did was to channel his anger in ways that made the powers-that-be uncomfortable.  And according to the Synoptic gospels, what Jesus did that day in the Temple courts made him a target for not only the Temple leaders and vendors, but also the Romans.  You don’t just overturn the tables on the status quo and walk away unscathed.

Still, I am troubled by this passage of Jesus entering a public space wielding a whip of cords that he makes on the spot.  Perhaps you are too.  For some reason, it doesn’t matter as much to me that he is righteously angry.  I’d rather him take up a collection and buy up all the doves, sheep, cattle, and whatnot, and sell them at a fraction of the cost for the pilgrims who couldn’t afford them anyway, or use his charm to get the sellers to sell them for free.  Or I’d like him to set up his own table, like a table at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, wedged between the Pro-lifers and the young men with microphones selling the latest kitchen gadget, and help people to see that God doesn’t need our hate or require our endless consumption.  I want Jesus to put down his whip of cords and pick up some Girl Scout cookies or some thread and a needle so that we might be better stitched and more joyously fed for a good cause.  I want Jesus to use his charisma and his tag-along disciples to persuade the vendors to move their tables over to the perimeter, to make room for the outsiders who don’t have a place to worship.

Truth is, I can’t read this passage about an angry Jesus upsetting tables and wreaking havoc without all the images of violence that have been in our news lately.  And I don’t want an angry Jesus who, having just arrived in Jerusalem that day for the festival, doesn’t really know any of the money-changers or why they chose that life and not another livelihood.  John’s Jesus could have, in his anger, indiscriminately chased out the one honest seller who had a family to feed and who relied upon the pilgrim traffic.  But perhaps I am making excuses from a more privileged place in history.  Yet, I don’t want John to label the Jews as if Jesus were of some other faith, as if the whole Jewish people were the problem, given that years of Christian interpretation have conveniently done just that.  I want John to show how all institutions, including—but not limited to—the church, can universally marginalize people, both knowingly and unknowingly over time, as the powers-that-be can become entrenched with the status quo, like government representatives flooded with NRA money, or the citizen more apt to cite the 2nd Amendment then how others nations achieved a higher degree of public safety.  There was no whip in the other gospels and I see no reason for John to include it, despite the desire to drive the animals to another locale.

Yet, if this passage has something to teach us this morning—and I think it does—we might ask ourselves whether our anger when expressed is constructive or destructive?  Constructive anger does not intentionally create pain in retaliation or through frustration or through projection.  Constructive anger uses the energy and passion of the host to work for change even when the way is slow, tedious, and difficult.  Constructive anger participates in peaceful, non-violent demonstrations, calls out the greed that consumes our institutions, engages in compassion, and problem-solves.  It does more than finger point or call out names.  Constructive anger does not destroy simply for the act of destruction, or the fame of the moment, or because there is a convenient target, or to prove that it is right and everyone else is wrong.

So, perhaps the most useful part of this passage, the most inspiring part of our scripture today, is when John’s Jesus answers the religious leaders who question by what sign, by what authority, he overturns the tables and clears the area of abusive and corrupted practices.  Jesus answers that if the temple is destroyed, if the temple comes to ruin, he will raise it in three days.  True, John writes that Jesus was talking about the temple of his body, but also he speaks of the destruction of the human religious enterprise, whether it be our capacity to wantonly hurt others, or to block access to basic needs or to God’s blessing, or to cheapen the beautiful and holy with our greed, our persistent violence, or our unholy behavior.  Jesus will raise the temple in three days; he will be part of the re-creation of our ideals, priorities, and souls, he will be with us constructively and not destructively.

Desmond Tutu once said, “You can’t be a solitary human being. [We’re] all linked. … Because of this deep sense of community, the harmony of the group is a prime attribute. And so you realize that anything that undermines the harmony is to be avoided as much as possible. Anger and jealousy and revenge are particularly corrosive, so you try … to enhance the humanity of the other, because in that process, you enhance your own.”[1]

How might we, who stand in the shadows of our anger, use that anger to enhance the humanity of another?  What would that look like for you or for me?  Whose humanity can we uplift, support, and bless this week?  What anger, in us, needs to be better channeled, better understood, or diffused for the sake of our own well-being or the well-being of others?

The word, “zeal,” means having great passion or enthusiasm for a cause or objective.  Gayle Sommers writes, “Unlike a ‘zealot,’ who unleashes violence on others, Jesus’ ‘zeal’ for his Father’s house would consume him, leading to his own death on the Cross.”[2]  Jesus’ disciples remembered this, after he was raised from the dead.  Jesus’ zeal for his God’s house would consume him—mind, body, and soul.  What if we were to substitute “anger” for “zeal”?  In what way, does our anger consume us?  In what way, does our zeal for particular causes propel us forward to correct what needs correcting?

There is a story from the Buddhist tradition that deals with anger.  It is told in multiple versions, but here is a recent version:

Once Gautam Buddha was travelling from a village. Everyone was happy to see him and heard his speeches with lots of dedication. However, one young man was not at all happy to see him in the village. He believed Buddha to be a fake master fooling the masses.

While Buddha was delivering his speech, the man stood and started shouting in a very rude manner. Buddha did not pay any attention to him and continued speaking without bothering about him. This made the young man more angry. He came in front of Buddha and facing him, he began insulting, “You have no right to teach anything to others. You are as stupid as everyone else. Stop fooling everyone. You are fake!!”

The followers of Buddha tried to overpower that man. But Buddha stopped them and said, “It is not always necessary to counter aggression by aggression.” Then he turned to the young man with a smile and asked, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not feel insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

The man understood the message and he felt embarrassed. Buddha said, “No matter what the situations are, if you surrender yourself to anger; the anger will always take your life away from you.” [3]

 

Sisters and brothers, may your anger be constructive and not destructive.  May it give you the energy to work for change, both in yourself and in your community.  May you find ways to use it compassionately, wisely, and well.

 

 

[1] Desmond Tutu, The Progressive, February 1998, cited in the Utne Reader, May-June 1998, 43.

[2] Gayle Somers, “Jesus and the Moneychangers,” March 7, 2012. https://catholicexchange.com/jesus-and-the-moneychangers.

[3] Retold by Alok Sinha on his blog, http://spiritualstories4u.blogspot.com/2013/02/buddha-and-angry-man.html