03/03/2019: Angry at Religion?

ANGRY AT RELIGION?

John 2: 13-22
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
March 3, 2019

Angry at religion? You’re not alone. Plenty of people, including religious people, are angry at religion. They resent the obvious fact that religion too often provides cover for wickedness in this world. They resent child abusers who hide behind their ordination certificate; they resent the use of religion to gain political power; they resent the mistreatment of women. They resent the arrogance of religious hucksters who take in millions with promises of health and wealth. If you find yourself angry at religion, you are in good company.

I

Some would say the best company, for Jesus himself was angry at religion. I doubt if there is any place in scripture where we see Jesus as angry as in the text we read this morning. It was so out of character that all four gospel writers record it. They all remember it! But Matthew, Mark, and Luke discreetly place this outburst toward the end of their gospels. And there, at the end, during the last week of his life, we can more easily understand the rage of Jesus, what with his critics picking and poking him for months, trying to entrap him. His rage is more easily understood in the other gospels—it is the final, tortured lashing out of one whose patience has finally been overcome by their cruelty.

But here, less than two chapters into John’s gospel, there is no easy way to explain away his rage. At this point, no one has said a word against him. Everyone has been impressed with this young man. He is the shining star of his hometown—they all expect big things from him. So you can’t explain his anger in the gospel of John by saying that they have pushed him to the limit, or that he is at last at his wit’s end with their opposition. This outburst in the temple, at least in John’s account, is early, at the beginning of his ministry.

To make this even more puzzling, Jesus is not just angry in general; he is angry in the temple during Passover, the great religious celebration of the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery—the highest, happiest feast of Israel’s year! With everyone else full of happiness to be there in the temple at Passover, Jesus throws a fit, whip in hand, kicking over tables and screaming, “Get out of here!”

What made him so angry? In the temple that day, he did not mention the sins that we consider the big ones—things like murder, stealing, lying, cheating, adultery. Oh no; what he was attacking was nothing less than worship! He assaulted religion! As one who has spent his adult life leading worship, that makes me nervous! I would much rather he light into the Pharisees for their snobbishness, or condemn the violent for their cruelty, or denounce those who became rich on the backs of the poor. But oh, no! In this story he barges in and attacks the religious for their way of practicing religion! His is not an assault upon the secular world; it is an attack on the heart of religion!

II

Now let us pause here long enough to remind ourselves that we get angriest at the things that mean the most to us. Chances are that Jesus got irritated at some laws handed down by the Sanhedrin. He likely groused with his friends over some political decisions made by Pilate. No doubt he shook his head in disgust over the immoralities of Rome. But he did not truly love those institutions. What he truly loved; what he was devoted to; what he expected the most from; was his religion!

So we can understand the anger of those who feel betrayed by their religion. When a minister betrays trust by stealing church funds or having an affair with a member; or when a leader in the church sexually assaults little children who trust him; those things are in a different category than irritation or even anger. You have to create a new category that includes both hurt and rage. To be betrayed by religion feels like being betrayed by God! And when a tragedy like that happens in a church, it sometimes takes more than a generation to get beyond it.

Maybe there are some here today who carry that burden. Maybe you have a love/hate relationship with the church. Yet you still love the church, and you try your best to keep it faithful to its task.
III

Now a word about what made Jesus so angry. The merchants in the temple were a service for the thousands of people who came through during Passover. Roman coins, the only kind of currency used for commerce in Jerusalem, were not allowed in the temple. So if you wanted to give to the temple, you needed shekels. So there were money-changers there. And if you wanted to offer God an unspotted sheep or pigeon, as their scripture required, then you had to buy one from a temple merchant. What’s wrong with that?

Here is what is wrong: they had domesticated religion to the level of a business transaction. Put your money here and you get a little dose of the divine. It is not much different from a TV evangelist who says, “Send me your money and I’ll send you a blessing!” It is purely a transaction, and it has nothing to say about how you live your life or how you treat people!

To domesticate religion into a little business transaction made Jesus mad as a hornet! Religion is never a technique to achieve health and happiness. It is, rather, a meeting with the holy God who cannot be manipulated to serve our selfish desires. We do not shape God to fulfill our desires; God shapes us! We are never to confuse who is the potter and who is the clay.

IV

Much later in the gospel story, Jesus would be dragged from the very same temple, beaten and stripped, and hanged on a cross to die a tortuous death. We remember that during Lent, and when we ask him for a sign of what is real, authentic religion, he shows us symbols of his body and blood and says, “Chew on this; swallow it; digest it; make it real. Take this, and remember.” Remember what? “Remember what I said; remember what I taught; and remember what I did for you.”