Isaiah 56:1-2, 6-9
Here we are, a little over a week into Lent and the days are indeed lengthening and growing warmer. We are enjoying clear sidewalks and clear skies. As the rains came and the snow melted and the temperatures rose last week I recalled the old folk song with roots in the abolition movement: “Take off your old coat and roll up your sleeves.”
That’s what many downtown and on campus were doing!
The message of Lent this year is off with the old. Away with the old snow that Robert Frost likened to
a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.
It’s speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten—
If I ever read it.
January and February—and even March’s weary beginning—are all old news now.
Roll up your sleeves, because, yes, it is warmer.
But also, roll up your sleeves because, as the next line of the song tells us, “Life is a hard road to travel, I believe.” Roll up your sleeves because there is work yet to be done.
In these days we are called to take off our old coats—to shed old ways of thinking and acting and to get on with the struggles and challenges of life. We are called to roll up our sleeves so that we might be better able to engage the struggles and face the challenges.
As we gather for worship on these Sundays, we will watch as Jesus moves through the last week of his life so that we might gain new wisdom for moving through all the weeks of our lives—however many or few we have. We’re looking at some of the same stories in the 9:15 adult education sessions downstairs in Rockwood Hall. It would be great if you would join us for that—and it’s good as well if you’re just here for worship.
This morning we heard Mark’s account of Jesus entering the temple in Jerusalem.
This event has been called the “cleansing of the temple,” and the “temple incident,” and the “temple act”—all ways of trying to get at both what happened and the significance of that event.
The more we reflect on this story, the more difficult it becomes for us—which happens a lot when we look at and listen to the things Jesus does and says. And new difficulties appear as we struggle to understand its importance for us today.
But then, preaching and listening to sermons is not for the faint of heart. So let’s look and listen.
All four Gospels tell some version of this story. John puts it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke, along with Mark, tell it as part of the story of the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. Luke suggests that it happened on Palm Sunday. Mark says that it happened the next day—on Monday.
But all four Gospels are pretty clear that it is an angry Jesus who disrupts what is going on, who drives out the buyers and the sellers, who turns over the tables.
Now, the temple complex covered a large area, some thirty acres. Thousands of people could—and did—fit into it at any time. And during festivals such as Passover those numbers would swell. Imagine, someone down at the corner of Washington and Clinton shouting in anger at the top of their lungs—here in this sanctuary, we probably wouldn’t even be aware of that. So when the Gospels tell of this event, of Jesus stopping all the action—well, it is probably an exaggeration.
What is not exaggerated, however, is the anger of Jesus.
Now, the angry Jesus is not necessarily the Jesus we would go out looking for. Those who are accustomed to the Sunday School Jesus who is surrounded by children, are surprised when angry Jesus shows up in worship.
But you’ve probably read enough of the Bible to know that “Gentle Jesus” is not always the person we encounter in the Gospels. It is not Gentle Jesus who is so often frustrated by his followers and fed up with the crowds of people pressing in on him. It is not “Gentle Jesus” who gets upset with good people who should know better.
When we hear a story like this, we must always remember that Jesus was a Jew. He kept the Sabbath. He participated in the religious festivals. He and his followers worshipped in the temple. As with the prophets, Jesus’ criticisms, his anger were addressed in love to his own people.
We should also remember, as the New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, tells us, that unlike the quiet, decorous churches that we are all too familiar with, the temple was crowded, loud, and boisterous. Especially during festivals, it was a place of happiness and celebration.
The Passover was a pilgrimage festival. People came from great distances to the temple in Jerusalem. These pilgrims would come to make a sacrifice in the temple. Most likely, however, they would not bring a sacrificial animal with them. So they would buy animals for sacrifices—oxen, sheep, birds—at the temple.
All of this took place in the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles, people from everywhere, were welcome in the Temple because it was indeed a “house of prayer for all nations.” God’s Torah was clear: “love the stranger who dwells among you, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Those who sold the animals were facilitating the proper and acceptable worship of God.
Of course, the pilgrims usually would arrive at the temple carrying Greek or Roman coins that bore the likeness of the emperor on them. These could not be used to pay the temple tax, so money changers were there—again to help pilgrims in their worship of God.
This was worship that worked.
And along comes Jesus, who throws this whole system into chaos as major religious holiday approaches. Turning over the tables, he shouts to those within hearing distance: “You have made this into a den of robbers.” Contrary to what popular imagination, tinged with some antisemitism, might tell us, the robbing wasn’t being done in the temple and the robbers were not the money changers or the sellers of animals.
Again, Amy-Jill Levine tells us that a robbers’ den is the place where robbers go to feel safe, comfortable. She invites us to consider people who benefit from their elite status at the expense of others and come to a place of worship only to find comfort and assurance. This happens not just in ancient temples but in contemporary churches. Those who take from the poor, those who put themselves above others because of their race or financial standing or intellectual ability—such are those who seek safe haven in a den of robbers—a place of easy assurance and cheap grace.
This story of the angry Jesus is a gospel story—it is good news. This story suggests that when life is disrupted, when the tables are tipped over, the living God is still at work in us and among us. Indeed, it might be that God is the very one doing the tipping.
And this is where the story comes back around to meet our own lives.
An angry Jesus disrupts what is going on, drives out the buyers and the sellers, turns over the tables, and announces an end to business as usual.
That’s the same message that was delivered last Tuesday evening when an interfaith group of over 200 people gathered in a vigil to express our support for the Church of the Nazarene. Our congregation was represented at that gathering—the presence of some of us speaking a message of unity and support from all of us.
By now you’ve probably heard that the Church of the Nazarene was the target of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism at the beginning of the month. It might not have come as a surprise. This church is known for its ministry with immigrants and refugees in Iowa City. Having developed partner congregations that work with Hispanic, Chinese, and African communities, it is, in many ways, a model for what a “house of prayer for all nations” might look like in our time. Our congregation has supported that work and their pastor, Teresa Stecker, spoke at an adult education session here last fall.
In some sense, it seems as though it was only a matter time before someone—even in Iowa City—caught the growing wave of fear and nationalism and white supremacy and took matters into their own hands. We can only be thankful that they resorted to words rather than weapons.
At the vigil Ousainou Keita, the president of the Iowa City Mosque, voiced the strong Muslim support for a Christian congregation. He spoke as one who knows personally of the harassment that Muslims in Iowa City have experienced. And it was a powerful moment when this immigrant reminded all of us that such hatred was not the American way.
Our friend, Rabbi Esther Huegenholz gave voice to the Jewish and Christian imperative to welcome the stranger.
And we all left with a renewed commitment not only to stay united and to support one another but also to engage in the difficult and important work of loving our enemies.
Together we announced an end to business as usual—the hatred and division that is growing in our nation and our world—as we committed ourselves to God’s powerful way of love.
It was, of course only a matter of days before we woke to the news that those demonic forces of hatred and division had found new expression half a world away in New Zealand, as a white supremacist murdered 49 Muslims and wounded dozens more as they attended their Friday prayers. In a new twist, the attacker live streamed the carnage. The news was as grimy as Robert Frost’s leftover snow.
This horrible event is fueled by people around the world—and here in the United States.
Iowa’s own Representative Steve King, infamously asked: “White nationalist, white supremacist…how did that language become offensive?
Our president has openly said “I think Islam hates us,” lied about seeing Muslims celebrate the September 11 attacks, and retweeted a fringe anti-Muslim group’s fake videos of Muslim refugees committing violence.
Such words by our elected officials have far-reaching consequences. The manifesto written by the Christchurch, New Zealand murderer praised our president as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
We must continue to join with the prophets and with Jesus, with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors in declaring an end to business as usual.
Like those disciples, who after the death of Jesus, after Easter, could look back and see the call to new life in the Temple chaos, so we, too, might come to see God is our lives, in our congregation, in our world in ways not quickly apparent. Following along with the Jesus who is human and suffers and gets angry, we will discover that we are on a path that leads to life.
Take off your old coat and roll up your sleeves.
We have work that still needs to be done.