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Turning the Tables

You can watch the sermon here: https://youtu.be/k1oeq-Sbw8U

Mark 11:15-19

You can blame Marvin Ellison for this sermon. OK, not for the sermon, but for the scripture choice. You see, I was meeting with Marvin back in January, and I told him about our Lenten theme, how we would hold on to things rather than give them up. He said, “Please let us hold on to righteous anger!” Since I was limiting our scripture selections to encounters with Jesus, this story we call “the cleansing of the temple” immediately came to mind.

Of course, that phrase, “cleansing of the temple,” is quite the euphemism. It makes Jesus sound rather domestic, don’t you think, like this is housekeeping duty? But would you call it cleansing the sanctuary if I knocked over the pulpit and lectern and took a pry bar to the cross? This is a violent disruption in a holy place. Some people think we should choose a new title for this story. Suggestions include Jesus Flips Out, Jesus Loses It, or Jesus Blows a Gasket.

I read an article this week that began with these words: “We live in angry times.” I couldn’t agree more, though the article was written five years ago. The author talks about how, in the political realm, anger can do several things. It can lead to cynicism and despair, or on the other hand, it can energize grassroots movements. Or, after the anger burns out, it can leave us indifferent and disengaged.

Anger goes far beyond the political realm, of course. We also pay attention to issues of anger in corporate and family life. We understand that “anger management” is a real thing, and an important tool in the workplace and at home.
But then there’s the church. For some reason we think we’re not supposed to talk about anger in church. Maybe we think all anger is sinful, or maybe we don’t know how to be angry without lashing out, or maybe it just doesn’t feel very “spiritual” (whatever that means). I actually had trouble with the bulletin cover this week. Each week during Lent I have put on the cover the thing we’re holding on to that week. I almost didn’t do it this week. I had trouble putting the word “anger” on the cover of the bulletin. Then I realized how silly that was. Anger is a human emotion; why shouldn’t we talk about it?

Of course, there are many types of anger, many degrees of it, as well as many ways of dealing with and expressing it. I think the main problems are that first, too many of us have been on the receiving end of uncontrolled anger, even rage; and second, we don’t know how to deal with anger in healthy ways. There’s also this question of righteous anger. Is there such a thing, or is this just an excuse we use to justify our anger? I guess it depends on your point of view.

This story of Jesus in the temple is told in all four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is clear that what Jesus is upset about is the abuse of the system and its effects on the poor. Let me remind you of how the system worked. The people were required to make animal sacrifices for a variety of festivals and rites, plus things like the birth of a child. Wealthy families might be required to give a cow or ox, while poor families would be required to give only doves or pigeons. Still, the cost of the birds could be more than a poor family could afford, especially after the sellers got through with them. You couldn’t just bring an animal from home. The sacrifices had to be “unblemished animals,” so you needed to purchase them at the gate of the temple, where of course prices were higher.

“To purchase one pair of doves at the temple was the equivalent of two days’ wages. But the doves had to be inspected for quality control just inside the temple, and if your recently purchased unblemished animals were found to be in fact blemished, then you had to buy two more doves for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages!” Multiply this for additional children, etcetera. At least one reference in the Jewish Mishna says that “the costs of birds rose so fast in Jesus’ time that women began lying or aborting their babies” because they could not pay the required fees. Jesus was not the first one to get upset with this system. Jewish historians tell of the occasional rabbi trying to change it but it continued because it meant big money.

Which brings us to the moneychangers. The moneychangers were necessary because the taxes could not be paid with Roman currency. The coins carried the face of the Roman emperor, who claimed to be a god. This broke two of the commandments—no other gods and no graven images. So they needed the moneychangers, but the moneychangers were often corrupt. “They would not only exaggerate the fees they had to charge for the transactions, they would also inflate the exchange rate. The result was that for a poor person, the Money Changer’s share of the temple tax was about one day’s wages and his share of the transaction from international to local currency was about a half-day’s wages. And that was before they purchased their unblemished animals for sacrifice and then had to buy them again (at an enhanced price) because the inspector found a blemish. All tolled, a one day stay in Jerusalem during one of the three major festivals could cost between $3,000 and $4,000 dollars in contemporary value, and Jews were required to attend at least one of them each year. [Historian] Josephus estimated that up to 2.25 million people visited Jerusalem during Passover, which would generate the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

It’s easy to see why Jesus was mad. The system had been corrupted, taking advantage of everyone, but as always, the poor were hit the hardest. Jesus found this unfair, unmerciful, and unacceptable, and so we describe his anger as righteous.

But what about the temple authorities? Could they not claim righteous indignation for their temple being torn apart? The sacrificial system was necessary in their understanding of God. Even if it had become unfair, what gave Jesus the right to come in and tear the place apart?  Whose righteous cause is more righteous?

There is a woman in North Carolina who got upset with one of her neighbors. The neighbor had cars coming and going at all hours of the night. The day in question, there were cars all over the street. They were blocking traffic, making it difficult for everyone in the neighborhood. There were kids in the neighborhood, too, of course, so I’m sure it was a safety issues for children riding bikes. She was angry—no she was indignant. So she went to confront her neighbor.
But this isn’t actually a story about her. It’s a story about my friend Leslie, and here’s the way she tells it.

“Nine years ago, it was Sunday. Mike’s friends from the Raleigh area were still here and brought with them laughter and light. In the afternoon, Mike took a nap and I took the opportunity to go into the hot tub. As I got out, there was an insistent knock at the front door. I opened the door to see an angry middle-aged woman…. ‘Who do you think you are?’ she demanded. ‘You’ve got cars parked all out on the street here. You think you can just hog my street? People have to drive here. Somebody’s car is going to get hit. I want these cars out of my way!’

I looked at her for a moment, wrapping my towel around me. ‘They won’t be here long,’ I said quietly. ‘They’re here to say goodbye to my son. He’ll be dead in a few days and you can have your street back.’ I watched with satisfaction as her angry look melted away. ‘Oh my god,’ she gasped. ‘Is there anything I can do?’ ‘You can drive carefully,’ I said and closed the door.

I wanted her to feel terribly about what she had done. I hated that she thought we were having some kind of carefree fun here. I wanted her to hurt just a fraction as much as I did. Part of me wanted it to be her child, not mine. Anybody’s child but mine. Another part of me was positively gleeful at her shock. Perhaps next time she gets angry about people being in her way she’ll think twice before rushing to judgment. She has never spoken to me again, even though she lives a few hundred feet up the road. I think I scared her. When Mike woke up, I told him about the episode and he laughed. It would be his last belly laugh. Nine years ago today it was Sunday. We had just two days left with him.”

Righteous anger. Who gets to claim it? Whose cause is more righteous? And how do you use that anger? How do you keep it from eating you alive? Because anger can do that, if it goes unchecked, if it’s allowed to fester too long. It can sabotage friendships. It can destroy marriages. It can make you sick and desperate.

Or it can empower you. Leslie used the loss of her son to empower her advocacy. Her son died of a cancer that could have been treated if he’d found it sooner and had better treatment. But her son had a birth defect that was considered a pre-existing condition, which meant he couldn’t get health insurance. She now spends most of her life advocating for healthcare reform.

Maybe that’s how you determine if anger is righteous—if it empowers you to work to improve the lives of others. I’m not saying other anger is wrong. Anger is an important and useful part of the healing process in many situations. So please don’t hear me say you shouldn’t be angry. I have experienced the kind of anger that is purifying and healing and I would never deny that healing to another. But once it hurts you more than it hurts them, once it causes more pain than it relieves, once it becomes destructive to you or someone else, it’s time to let it go.

But go ahead and hold on to righteous anger for if your cause is just, righteous anger will fuel you. It will keep you turning over tables of inequality and throwing out those who rob the oppressed.

Jesus found the conditions in the temple unacceptable and so he turned it upside down. What are the current conditions in our lives, in our communities, in our nation or world, that we should find unacceptable? And are you willing to turn over some tables?

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