A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

Well, I don’t have any pictures to go with this week’s sermon.

I changed my virtual background last time, from a picture of the altar in church to an image of the desert where Jesus went to face his personal demons.

Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the animals and the money changers he found there. It’s a scene that’s been painted by a lot of artists; El Greco is perhaps the most famous of those. But today, instead of looking at someone else’s picture, I’d like us to paint our own picture, each one of us, our own mental image of this scene.

I’ve been reading a novel by a writer named David Bradley and I came across a line yesterday that said, “If you cannot imagine, you will never know the truth.” And I think that’s true. So let’s imagine this scene in the temple. What do you see in your mind, in your own mental image, when you picture this scene?

It’s right before Passover and people are going up to Jerusalem to get ready to celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The animals in this scene would be offered in sacrifice as a ritual of purification, to get ready for that celebration. So although they’re quite different from our customs, maybe you could say these preparations were a little bit like Lent for us, our time of preparation for Easter.

The money changers would have been there to trade Roman coins, which have an image of the emperor—and the emperor claimed to be divine. So they would trade those coins for other coins to pay the temple tax, which you could maybe say was something like paying your annual pledge for us.

It’s a very busy scene. People are crowded around, maybe jostling each other a little. I actually imagine it as something like the lunch buffet at Diocesan Convention at the cathedral in Philadelphia, I think probably some of you have been there for that.

And suddenly in this scene, there’s Jesus with his homemade whip, he’s chasing the large animals away. He’s turning over the tables of the money changers, and he’s probably turning over some of the money changers themselves, and tossing their money on the ground.

So have you got that picture? Can you see the frightened cattle and sheep rushing away? Can you hear the clink of money hitting the ground, the banging of the crashing tables? And do you wonder what was Jesus thinking?

For me, at least, it’s really hard to imagine such an angry Jesus, even though in last week’s gospel, he called Peter Satan, when Peter pushed back against Jesus’ talk of the suffering that was to come. But in my mind, I count on Jesus to be meek and mild, to always be a model of love. In the Palm Sunday Gospel which we’ll hear in a few weeks, Jesus doesn’t resist arrest. He really doesn’t say much at all at his trial. He receives those false accusations and insults and humiliation without raising his voice, without fighting back.

So why is he so angry here in the temple?

Well, one of the recurring themes in the gospel is Jesus’ concern for the practice of true religion. He wants to bring people back to paying attention to what religious observance is supposed to really mean. The people in the temple were supposed to be preparing for Passover. And instead, they’re concentrating on commerce, on money. Their concerns are more worldly than spiritual at this point. And Jesus says, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” This is righteous anger that we see.

I’ve been reading another book that’s titled, See No Stranger. It’s by a woman named Valarie Kaur. It’s partly a personal memoir and partly a prescription for healing the world through love. Now, Valarie Kaur is a Sikh, that’s S-I-K-H, and until I read this book, I really didn’t know much about the Sikhs. I think of them as the guys in turbans who run gas stations, which at least in my part of the world is true. But in fact that they believe in living a good life. They believe in serving God by serving others. They believe that everyone is capable of change, and they believe that empty religious rituals have no value, and all of that sounds familiar. And that part about the meaning of religious rituals is exactly what Jesus himself is saying here. So there are some similarities between Sikhism and Christianity, though obviously there are also some very big differences.

But what really caught my attention in relation to this morning’s Gospel is what Kaur has to say about anger. She says that anger—righteous anger—is actually an aspect of love. She says you get angry when someone threatens the people or the things you love, or the things you believe in. And she specifically mentions this story of Jesus in the temple. She says the kind of righteous anger that he displays in this story is divine anger. And she says that divine anger is precise and purposeful, and that its purpose is nothing less than reordering the world.

It reminds me of a quote from Cornel West, an author who was a professor at Princeton back when I worked there. West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public, just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.”

So many people have this idea that Christians are supposed to be nice. Sometimes we think of niceness—you could call it being polite—as a Christian virtue. We think we’re not supposed to raise our voices or shake our fists. And it is true that out of control anger isn’t good. But anger that’s precise and purposeful, I think that’s something else. That kind of anger energizes us to fight for what’s right. Kaur says, “Perhaps our task as human beings is to find safe containers for our anger when it’s out of control”—so go punch your pillow, or whatever it takes to release that rage in a safe way, and then choose—”to harness that energy in a way that creates a new world for all of us.”

So I wonder, what are you angry about this Lent?

I’m angry about all the places in the world where some people are considered less than others, less important, less deserving. God doesn’t love those people, those children of God, any less than any others. God doesn’t intend for them to live in situations where they and their children can’t thrive, where there are no good jobs and people aren’t prepared for them anywhere. Does God want people to be sick and die for lack of good medical care? I don’t think so. Do you think God wants children to go hungry, or to be sent to schools that are failing, or to have no good opportunity to use their God given talents when they grow up? I’m angry about all of those things, and these are things that are happening all over the world, and also things that we know are happening very close to home.

So does God welcome us to share in the divine anger that can energize and empower us to do what we can to help fix those things, to show what love looks like in public, by fighting for justice? How can we answer anything but yes to that question.

I’m angry about all of these things, and I wonder, what are you angry about? And if you’re not angry, then I have to wonder why not? Lent is supposed to be a special time of traveling with Jesus toward the cross. And the point of doing this traveling with Jesus is to be changed, to be transformed in some way. Not just in quiet, personal ways, but to be transformed so that we can be a transforming force helping to build God’s kingdom in this world. So we can go to work, as Kaur says, creating a new world for all of us.

So what are we angry about this Lent, and what are we going to do about it? Amen.

Preached for the Church of the Ascension, Parkesburg PA