Sermon Dear Sir
The email began with the words, “Dear Sir.”
I could feel the anger on the other end of the email. The author wouldn’t even acknowledge my name. He was a quiet man, and I could hear him spitting the words, “Dear Sir,” at me. I could feel his anger. You know what?
I. Was. Glad.
I had picked a fight. He didn’t know I was angry when I sent the first email. His message, the one that began with “Dear Sir,” was probably his third or fourth message in the string. He was pushing back.
I was glad that he finally got my outrage, my righteous indignation. He could feel my anger and I was glad. I was angry and maybe a little hurt. When he finally met my anger with his own anger, I knew I had broken through. I knew I had produced an emotional response. So, even if I didn’t get what I wanted, well, at least he knew how I felt.
Of course, all of this was completely unhealthy—even if I had a good reason to be angry in the first place. And if I’m completely honest, it was a bit childish.
Did I mention that I picked this fight with the treasurer of the church I was serving at the time? You know, the guy who signed my paychecks?
I should also mention that I was completely wrong in how I handled the situation. Completely wrong. But in the heat of the moment, I’d run the gamut of negative emotions, from fear to anger, to hurt, and then back to anger, and then settling on blind rage. And in the moment, I really wanted to indulge my rage.
The anger that we see in Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John is a very different kind of anger. On the surface, the conflict seems to be the mixing of the sacred and the profane, corrupting the purity of the Temple by introducing money. Jesus screams at the merchants: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus’ anger is righteous, to be sure, but there’s more going on in this story than meets the eye.
First, it’s important to note that this story takes place around the Passover festival. I’m sure that most of you know that Passover is the most important religious observance in Judaism. It’s central to the faith; it commemorates the Jews’ release from slavery in Egypt. In fact, the Book of Exodus tells us that the festival was first celebrated in Egypt before the Jewish people left—Passover marks the beginning of their freedom and the Exodus from Egypt.
By Jesus’ time, the animal sellers and the money changers had become necessary features of the religious ecosystem around the Temple in Jerusalem. Pilgrims would have come to Jerusalem from all over. Most would have come from nearby: Judea, Samaria, Galilee, parts of present-day Israel. Others would have come from much farther away: present-day Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and even Rome.
In short, people would have come from lots of different places, with lots of different kinds of money. And if they wanted to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and make animal sacrifices, they had to buy the animals there. They had to buy them in the local currency. So, of course there had to be money changers at the Temple. This wasn’t a new practice. It was part of the religious infrastructure; it was a practice that everyone accepted.
In Judaism, as it was practiced in Jesus’ time, animal sacrifices were necessary as part of the atonement for sins. If a man had done something wrong and fallen out of relationship with God, he could go to the Temple and make an offering of an animal. A priest would then slaughter that animal, and then the person who had sinned was restored to a right relationship with God.
But what if you can’t afford to buy a dove, or a lamb, or a ram, or an ox, or any other sacrificial animal? What if you can’t afford to atone for your sins?
That’s a real problem.
That’s a bigger deal than where the different coins were from or whose face was on the money. It’s a bigger deal than whether the money changers were giving a fair rate of exchange. The real problem isn’t the money. The real problem is that the religious ecosystem has developed an economy of grace. That is, the society had set a price for God’s forgiveness.
That was way bigger than individual sins.
I think we lose sight of the bigger picture in this story.
I love this story, but I love it even more when I focus on Jesus’ anger. When Jesus is raging against individual sinners, then I can be a part of his rage. Then, when I’m mad at someone else, I can focus on them. I can call that person a money changer. And once I’ve done that, my anger becomes righteous. I can embrace the rage, believing that I’m being Christ-like.
In fact, as a society, I think we’re consumed with anger and outrage. No, it’s not everyone and it’s not all the time, but for many of us, it’s far too easy to go there. For many of us, it’s like flipping a light switch. Once that switch has been flipped, everyone else has to respond to the rage. And some people rage back. The cycle continues. This is where we are definitely not like Jesus.
Jesus came to break these cycles. All too often, we amplify the rage.
In the Gospel of John, this story occurs right after the wedding at Cana—that’s the story in which Jesus turns water into wine. In John’s Gospel, it’s the first miracle that Jesus performs. But in the Gospel of John, it’s not called a miracle, it’s called a sign. For those of you who don’t remember the details of the wedding at Cana, Jesus is at a wedding celebration. All of the wine has been consumed. The bride and groom would have suffered great shame for not providing enough food and drink for their guests. That shame would have followed them for years.
By transforming water into wine—making something from nothing—Jesus saves the couple from shame and ridicule. People in Cana might have been outraged if the couple hadn’t provided enough wine. Not only does Jesus provide them with more than enough wine for the wedding celebration, Jesus provides the best wine, the kind of wine you save for special guests, but Jesus offers it to all.
The signs in the Gospel of John point toward the presence of God in the world. The signs point toward the fullness of life that we may receive when we are in a right relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. The miraculous transformation of the water into wine is a sign of the abundant blessings that are offered to everyone. It is a sign that God is enough, more than enough.
Yet the story of Jesus cleansing the temple is a reminder that our human response is often misdirected. At the Temple in Jerusalem, we see a power structure that controls the means of grace and reconciliation. We see systemic sin and moral rot in Jerusalem.
The wedding at Cana happens in Galilee, on the periphery of Jewish life. The cleansing of the Temple happens in Jerusalem, at the center of Jewish life. After he cleanses the Temple, Jesus argues with some of the people who were watching, saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up;” then the text tells us that Jesus “was speaking of the temple of his body.”
When Jesus cleanses the Temple and says those words, the bystanders don’t understand that Jesus is God. We do. We know that Jesus is fully human, fully God. We know that Jesus is the Word of God, made flesh. What Jesus is really saying—the deeper meaning behind this text—is that the people are to worship God, not the Temple at Jerusalem, which is dedicated to God. Jesus is raging against a system that has misdirected the objective of worship, remaining in a right relationship with God.
If we ignore the deeper truth to this story, if we make it about individual sins, we can twist this text to suit our own ends. If we ignore the deeper truth to this story, any person or group that we’re mad at becomes a scribe or a Pharisee or a money changer. Then, in some dark corner in my mind or your mind, Jesus hates all the same people I hate or you hate.
That kind of rage rots our souls.
That kind of rage ruins relationships.
That kind of rage diverts our attention from Jesus; it diverts our attention from our relationship with God; it keeps us from sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there are things that are worthy of our anger. But we always need to look for Jesus, before we charge in, guns a-blazing. We also need to recognize the places in our lives where we’ve been wrong.
When I unleashed all my rage at that church treasurer, I certainly wasn’t looking for Jesus—or following Jesus. I was following my own anger, which was made worse by my personal fears.
You see, when I first started in ministry, I didn’t really understand how clergy taxes work. We file as independent contractors. For most of us, the smartest thing to do is to file quarterly estimated tax payments. But I had never done that before. I always worked for companies that deducted all my taxes from my pay. I didn’t realize that I needed to be setting aside so much money for my income tax.
When my accountant told me that I owed the IRS close to $7,000, my jaw dropped. I might have screamed a little. I might have cried a little. I had no clue how I was going to pay that bill. I was confused. I was scared. I was angry.
I hoped that maybe there was a mistake, but there wasn’t. The previous pastor had nothing withheld from his pay, so the finance and personnel committees set it up the same way for me. They should have asked, but they didn’t. They assumed I knew how all of the taxes worked. But I didn’t. And then I was blindsided by my accountant.
Too be honest, it seemed like I was getting paid a lot more at that church than I was at my previous church. Yet, on paper, I was only making a tiny bit more. That should have been my first clue. I needed to ask more questions. I could have avoided most of my problems.
It turns out, this is actually a common mistake that lots of pastors make, especially new pastors. I learned an expensive lesson; I won’t repeat those financial mistakes and I’ve paid my debt to the IRS.
I’m sharing all of this as an example of what happened when I let fear and rage take over. I missed lots of opportunities to ask questions that might have saved me from that mess. Instead, I started from a place of fear and hurt and went straight to rage. I decided that I was a victim and I made an idol of my victimhood, which justified my rage.
I didn’t get anything that I wanted from that rage, but I did poison a relationship. I did the opposite of what I was called to do as the pastor of that congregation.
It took me a lot of self-examination to get to the point where I could figure out where and how I went wrong. I’m sharing all this, because I think we all need to practice this sort of self-examination before we cast rage at one another; cast shame at one another. We need to practice this sort of self-examination when we’re angry and hurt. We need to practice this before we post memes on Facebook and Twitter, before we send nasty emails, and before we pick fights with people we love. We also need to atone for our past transgressions.
Next Sunday’s Gospel reading includes John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
We always need to remember the context for any of our favorite Bible verses. We also need to remember that all of those people whom we rage at—they’re part of this world, too. This world that God loves so much he gave his only Son, so that all may live abundantly through him. When we give into our anger, our hurt, and our rage, we lose sight of Jesus and we cease to practice relationship. Let us learn from our mistakes and move forward with grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, remember that Lent is a season for looking within. When you feel anger and rage taking hold, pause, and then do some self-examination. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!