This is the sermon I delivered today, the Third Sunday in Lent, at Putney Methodist Church. The set text was John 2:13-25 (Jesus cleanses the Temple).
Sadly, we seem to be a very angry generation, even an angry world, at present. One cannot turn on the television, seemingly, without seeing images of people rioting or screaming at one another. The internet – a tool designed to connect people and allow the free exchange of ideas – is too often hijacked by angry streams of abuse, directed at anyone who thinks or looks differently to the abuser. Our roads, our politics, our news seems to be dominated by angry people.
In this context, it seems hard to praise Jesus’ outburst of anger in the Temple two thousand years ago. What makes his violent outburst different from the rage we see directed at Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers, feminists and anti-feminists, Corbynites and anti-Corbynites, and so on and so forth? Surely, the rest of scripture has it right, when it urges restraint from anger. From the days of Jacob and Esau’s fraternal frustrations (Gen. 27), to the wise word of St Paul who urges his readers never to “let the sun go down on” their anger (Eph. 4:26). And those of us in relationships, are often told to ‘bite our tongue’ or ‘keep a lid on it’ in order to preserve harmonious living conditions – and that applies to church life, just as much as domestic life!
Yet, if that is the end of the story, then we have forgotten something. We have forgotten that sometimes ‘righteous anger’ is just what the world needs. In the case of our reading today, this is not Jesus simply flying off the handle because he’s had a bad day, and his donkey got a parking ticket in the marketplace! Jesus has seen what has been happening in the Temple ever since his first visit there, so many years previously with his parents (Luke 2:41-51). He has seen how the Temple was re-built not so much to the glory of God, but for the glory of the Herodian kings, who wished to buy the popularity of their people and cement their hold on power. He has seen the traders move from outside the Temple to inside its courts, at the behest of – and for the financial gain of – those in authority. And he has seen poor and faithful pilgrims fro across the Jewish world being systematically fleeced by money changers and animal sellers, who are exploiting the Temple’s purity laws to make a very large profit. This is anger that has built up over the years and now boils over, in this symbolic act of defiance. It is, to employ an often misused phrase, truly ‘righteous anger’.
This righteous anger, of course, has excellent precedents. In this passage, Jesus alludes to the prophet Zechariah (as he does on several occasions), who foresees the day when the Messiah shall come and, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts” (Zech 14:21). And the prophets were no stranger to this kind of righteous anger – displaying the “zeal” for God that truly “consumed” them (Psalm 69:9). Delivering unpopular judgements on the rulers and evil practices of their own day; standing up to corrupt and failing monarchs, false religion, and the neglect of the poor, and often paying the ultimate price for their righteous fury.
Such righteous anger still has a place in our world today. One of the most challenging lines from a film that I have ever heard comes at the end of the 1986 film, The Mission. I am sure most of you know the film a little and are aware that at the end, the Jesuit missionary, played by Jeremy Irons, is ultimately unsuccessful in protecting his Christian mission of indigenous Indians from the rapacious grasp of the Portuguese slave-owners. Because of the machinations of international politics in Europe, the people are all either killed or sold into slavery. One of the slavers, Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, remarks to the Cardinal who has reluctantly found himself dragged into this sordid business:
We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.
To which the weary Cardinal, struggling with his conscience, replies:
No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.
“The world is thus.” How often has that excuse justified inaction and acceptance of every horror and injustice under the sun, from slavery to the Nazis and on to the refugee camps of Syria. We shrug our shoulders and simply say that nothing can be done, so what’s the point in even trying. The money changers and dove sellers will simply gather up their coins and set up their benches again, so what’s the point of making an effort today?
As the Christian writer Timothy Radcliffe has observed, “There is a difference between hopeful anger which believes that things need not be as they are and will struggle to ensure that they are not, and just moaning.” “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” Jesus’s anger wasn’t just moaning, or having a rant on a Facebook page. It was anger that was designed to stir people out of their apathy and to point to the truth that the world can be different; indeed, that God wants his world to be different. And, thank God, people have shown just that over the years.
Many of you will know the story of Rosa Parks better than I. She was the brave black woman who refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus, and so started the Montgomery Bus Boycott: a vital chapter in the Civil Rights Movement of the USA. I had often been told that Rosa Parks failed to give up her seat that day because she was simply tired from a long week’s work but, as so often, when you dig a little deeper, you find the truth is far more interesting.
The story actually started many years earlier, in 1943, when Rosa had boarded a bus and paid the fare. She had got on at the front of the bus, though, and the city’s rules ordered that black people had to get on by the rear door, and the driver, James Blake, told her to get off and board the bus again from the back door. This she reluctantly did but before she could re-enter, Parks had slammed the doors shut and driven off without her, leaving her in the rain.
More than ten years later, in December 1955, Rosa again paid her fare to the same driver, James Blake (whom initially she did not recognise), as she boarded another bus in central Montgomery, Alabama. She sat in an empty seat in the first row of the rear seats reserved for blacks in the “coloured” section of the bus, directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus travelled its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus began to fill up. At its third stop, several more white passengers got on and Blake moved the “coloured” section sign behind Parks and demanded that the four black people there give up their seats so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
According to Parks, the driver, Blake, said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied but Parks refused. After an argument with the driver, the police were called and arrested her. Her defiance triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, which started on the Monday after this incident and lasted for a year, until the law was changed.
In her autobiography, My Story, Parks wrote:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Rosa Parks, as far as I know, was not an angry woman. Hers was not the kind of anger that makes people scream at each in the London traffic or write hate-filled, racist tweets to one another. It was the righteous anger of a good Christian woman – a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church – who refused to be part of the injustice of the world anymore.
It was the same righteous anger that inspired the fight against slavery, and apartheid, and the oppression of women and gay people. It is the anger that inspires the determination to save our environment and to protect God’s planet. It is the anger that denies the lies that “the world is thus” and we can do nothing to save it.
At the end of today’s passage, Jesus’ opponents ask him for a sign to justify his actions. He points ahead to his death and resurrection: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19). The world told Jesus that his rage was impotent and his fury pointless – “thus is the world” and there is nothing you can do to change it. Jesus proved them otherwise. Even death itself does not have to be “thus”.
In a moment we shall sing John Bell and Graham Maule’s excellent hymn, Jesus Christ is waiting. The second verse reads:
Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the streets, where injustice spirals and real hope retreats. Listen, Lord Jesus, I am angry too: in the Kingdom’s causes let me rage with you.
In the power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, we can be part of God’s wonderful plans for his world. Let us be angry in his name, and change our world forever! Amen.
Quote: Timothy Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian, 80.
Hymn: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 251. Words: From Enemy of Apathy © 1988, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. http://www.wgrg.co.uk