Second Sunday of Lent
Scripture: Mark 11:12-25
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger
Good morning. I want to begin today by saying thank you to the preachers who have offered messages during our “Why We Can’t Wait” series and Black History month as well as to David Ourisman who started our Lenten series last week. Epworth is blessed by many persons gifted with bringing insight to our scriptures and offering guidance for living faithfully, and I was blessed both by their willingness to preach as well as by their messages, as I know you were too. Thank you to each of you.
In this season of Lent, this six week season that brings us from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we are focusing on entering the passion of Jesus, and you’re invited to feel with Jesus what he felt during the last week of his earthly life. From the point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem through the next seven days, his ministry and message reach a crescendo that demands our attention and engagement. As we walk with Jesus through his passion and through Lent, we are asked to consider the great risk he was taking to have even gone to Jerusalem in the first place. The occupying Roman power would likely have been threatened by Jesus’ own ascendant power, his following, and his revolutionary teachings. And yet he does go to Jerusalem, whether from conscious choice or compulsion, the scripture does not fully clarify. I suspect it was both. And this is a risk, he must have known, that could cost him his life.
As part of this series, we are asked to risk alongside Jesus. To look at the events of that last week and see how he was pushing on injustice, challenging the status quo, radicalizing what it means to be faithful and follow God’s will. We are being asked to consider what risks for God and faith he calls us into. Last week as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, a humble leader not a military king, he was risking reputation. Some surely said, “This is indeed a different kind of leader!” and felt that his entrance confirmed his messianic identity. And some probably thought, “Hmph. He isn’t a leader at all. Look at him on that donkey.” To enter on a donkey was a risk that he would harm the movement he had inaugurated and the hope of freedom and liberation he proclaimed. I hope you spent some time in the last week in prayer and meditation about your own reputation and how protecting it may prevent you from walking with Jesus.
And this week, we’re confronted with the story of Jesus turning over tables in the temple, and we are asked to risk wrestling with anger. And anger does feel risky. Anger can feel irrational, it can so quickly spiral out of control, it can feel safer to avoid it altogether. And yet we have to make sense of a raging and destructive Jesus. Often, when sermons are offered on this scripture, the focus is on Jesus’ righteous anger. The line typically goes that what is happening in the temple, with the selling of animals to sacrifice, is so egregious, and the changing of coins from all parts of the Roman empire to the Temple currency so profaning, that Jesus has no choice but to rip the place apart. The message then follows that when there are situations of extreme injustice and needless suffering, anger is an appropriate response. For us today, when systems of domination and inequality result in refugee children being taken from their parents or persons of color murdered by bias, the appropriate response is righteous anger and action. That’s an important message. Injustice and needless suffering do require an impassioned and urgent response.
But is there more to what is going on in Jesus’ anger here? Biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine tells us that while sometimes this passage is interpreted as an indictment of market practices at the Temple, there is no evidence that the poor were being exploited in the Temple courtyard, and Jesus’ own parents, Mary and Joseph bought a dove from the Temple table as sacrifice in an earlier chapter of Jesus’ life. An offering of an animal was a required part of the culture and religious tradition, and pilgrims from all over, to complete their pilgrimages, needed what was being offered at the tables to practice their faith.
And so if it wasn’t that, we might wonder if it was that practice itself that Jesus was objecting to, or what might be termed “The Temple Domination System” and the sacrifice and purity rituals, but there is no evidence that Jesus hated the Temple or rejected it. He continued to worship there, encouraged his followers to worship there, and called it his Father’s House. So if it wasn’t these things, what was the source of Jesus’ anger? Levine suggests it wasn’t so much the Temple or what was happening in the Temple courtyard that Jesus was angry about, but people’s attitudes. Listen to the scripture again, Jesus says, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Jesus’ concern is the people coming to the Temple and around the Temple are more concerned with trappings and the souvenirs than the purpose of the Temple itself: to be a house of prayer for all nations. Levine, who is herself Jewish, tells us this wasn’t so much about not allowing non-Jews into the Temple, because non-Jews were welcomed. A whole section of the Temple court, which was itself the size of about 12 soccer fields, was named the Court of the Gentiles, and all were welcomed to the Temple: Jews, non-Jews, rich, poor. But saying “all are welcomed” and making space for all persons are two different things. Levine says, “Already we find the challenge and the risk. Are churches today houses of prayer for all people, or are they just for people who look like us, walk like us and talk like us?” And what do we really mean by welcome? Do we mean that all are welcome to live out our human and Christian vocations through all ministries of the church, or just some of us and some ministries?
Jesus righteous anger is not just directed outward toward any practice that may be oppressive or exploitative, but inward, too, when the Temple or in our case the church is not fulfilling its mission and purpose. Anger is a complex human emotion, and the teachings from Jesus in this verse are an important part of how we think about anger.
But there is even more here. When we widen our lens and frame what we are looking at to take in the verses just before and just after the Temple scene, we see an even more inexplicable scene of anger. In the verses you heard Brit read just before and just after this scene, Jesus sees a fig tree, that’s bearing no fruit, though we’re told it’s because it’s not in season. But Jesus becomes enraged and curses it. Then he and disciples past it again the next morning and the poor tree has completed withered and died from the roots. I can just picture the disciples looking at Jesus kind of incredulously, and saying, “Uh, Jesus…it’s just a tree.” I don’t know how we could categorize this as righteous anger.
I have a friend who is the mom of four kids. I’ve always appreciated how she holds it all together—she has a demanding job, her husband has a demanding job, the kids are involved in many activities, they are both active as parents in the community. One day several years ago we were picking up our kids from a birthday party. The party was over and we were waiting outside, talking, and she was running down her list of everything else she needed to get to that afternoon. She was clearly stressed, but still holding it together. The kids were taking a while to come out of the house. One of her other kids was in the car, and she asked him to go inside and tell his brother it was time to go. She said, “Tell him if he’s not out here in 10 seconds, I’m going to lose it.” Within about 2 seconds, her child was walking out of the house. Now I know this kid. A good kid, great sense of humor, but I hadn’t known him to be quick to follow direction or stop what he was doing on a dime. So I was shocked. “Wow!” I said. “He came right out!” She said, “He’s seen me lose it before and he knew he didn’t want that.”
Who among us hasn’t, at some point, lost it? Who among us hasn’t lost our temper, even if it was when driving alone and being cut off in traffic and letting out a big frustrated “UGH!”? Or maybe it’s just you can’t find your keys and you’re becoming later and later for the appointment you need to get to, and you feel anger rising—anger at yourself for misplacing them, or maybe misplaced anger thinking someone moved them, you feel yourself about to lose it. Or maybe just the stress and being cooped up that comes from living through a pandemic just boils over. And though we may immediately regret it, it happens. Is it possible that’s what is going on with Jesus here with the fig tree? Is it possible that in addition to righteous anger, that Jesus just lost it? Was he stressed and frustrated, anxious about the persecution he was experiencing, angry that he was facing death when all he hoped was to do God’s will for the benefit of all?
One of our enduring theological conundrums as Christians is how Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine. And yet, this kind of anger is a human emotion. So surely Jesus must have felt it. And if he really was FULLY human, well…then it seems like he had to have lost it like this, at least once.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying it’s ok to curse living objects or do harm in any way. I’m saying that anger is among the range of human emotions. Jesus, as fully human, felt it, and Jesus is offering us a teaching on how to deal with it and its pull. In our culture, particularly in white culture, anger can be seen as taboo. Ironically, white culture tends to be more comfortable with the expressing of anger from white men, but not white women, and not persons of color, particularly Black men and women. But anger is an emotion common to all humans. We all experience it. In itself, it is morally neutral. To feel it and name it, is human. When expressed, if it is the channeling of righteous anger, it bears witness to an unacceptable reality and can lead to necessary challenge and change. If it is the more common frustrated, stressed, fearful, or irrational anger, expressing it can be destructive and harmful.
In the totality of these verses, Jesus seems to be expressing both a righteous anger and a frustrated and stressed anger. What these two episodes have in common is that in both cases, something that was created by God is not fulfilling its God-given purpose. The Temple is not being a house of prayer for all people and the fig tree is not bearing fruit.
And Jesus does express this anger, and particularly in the case of the fig tree, it causes harm. And what does he do when Peter calls out to him that the fig tree has withered? Jesus seems in some ways to be at a loss. How does this get reconciled? And then he makes a statement about the power of faith in God, in God’s power to do the impossible, and the necessity of forgiving and asking for forgiveness, and trusting that God forgives. God always forgives. As fully human, he acknowledges his dependency on God’s forgiveness.
Sometimes we are called to take a risk to express our righteous anger at the obscene and tragic injustices we experience and see. And we are assured that God, in the fullness of God’s power, carries this expression as it supports the liberative and loving purpose of God on this earth. And sometimes we just lose it. And in the regret and remorse that follows an expression of this kind of anger, we are asked to take a risk of trust. To rely on God’s power to accompany, forgive and reconcile. We are assured that God waits for us to turn in faith, to ask forgiveness and to be forgiven. What a blessing it is to have a God who knows us in our complexity, has experienced in fullness what we experience, and loves us unconditionally. This, my friends, is good news. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - February 28, 2021
ENTERING THE STORY
Gathering Music: “But Who May Abide” Handel's Messiah - Charles Lynch
Entering the Story - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Annette Cayot
Prayer of Confession - Sharon Strachan
Assurance of Pardon - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "Inspired by Love and Anger” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Carole Klokkevold
Scripture Reading: Mark 11:12-25 - Brit Toven-Lindsey
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: “If I Had My Way" by Rev. Gary Davis - Judy Kriege
Dwelling in the Story: "Cleansing of the Temple" by Pieter Aertsen - Katie Johnson
Message: “The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Hymn of Response: "No Hiding Place Down There" - Judy Kriege
Call for Prayer - Orion Lacey
Special Music: “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" UM Hymnal #349 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Sharon Strachan
Offerings and Opportunities - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Offertory Music: “Let Justice Roll" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Carole Klokkevold
ENTERING THE WORLD'S STORY
Prayer of Dedication - Orion Lacey
Closing Hymn: “What Does the Lord Require of You” arr. Mark Miller - recorded in worship 2/23/2020
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: “Fantasia & Fugue in C minor" JS Bach - Rev. Jerry Asheim
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Annette Cayot, Susan Jardin, Katie Johnson, Carole Klokkevold, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Charles Lynch, Sharon Strachan, Brit Toven-Lindsey Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Design © 2019 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.