Last Monday, The Record posted an article entitled “That last ‘normal’ thing you did before the world fell apart” and recalled stories and memories of a time pre-Covid. Do you remember some of the last things that you did before our world changed? (If you do, feel free to type it into our Zoom chat or in the Facebook Live comments if you wish.)
It is almost a year since we had to shift the way we live and move in this world. A year since we’ve had to re-imagine church and community. We’ve had to really examine what church is and what it isn’t. We’ve had to learn new skills, adapt to new ways of worshipping and meeting together. Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube are now a part of our worship lexicon. For better or worse, we have been launched into a new way of being seekers and followers of Christ in this time.
For many of us, these long pandemic months have been a time of grieving and sorrow. We wish we could go back to how things were. To a time when “Covid”, “pandemic” and “unprecedented times” weren’t part of our regular vocabulary. We miss the feeling of being gathered in the sanctuary and as nice as the images and videos of it are, it’s not the same. But even in our sadness and longing, I feel a sense of hope. Hope because I wonder if God is issuing us an invitation. An invitation as a community to reimagine, develop, evolve, and grow. An invitation to ask deep and vulnerable questions about what we’re doing, and why.
In this morning’s gospel reading from John, Jesus forces exactly these kinds of questions. The story is a difficult one. The Jesus we’d rather keep tender and soft-spoken makes “a whip of cords,” drives sacrificial animals out of the temple, overturns tables, pours coins all over the floor, and tells the moneychangers to stop making God’s house a market. When the stunned crowd asks for a sign to authorize his violent actions, Jesus doesn’t flinch: “Destroy this temple,” he dares them, “and in three days I will raise it up.”
So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
This story is an important one; it appears in all four Gospels. And yet the timing of it in the Gospel of John is really intriguing to me. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this story appears towards the end of the Gospels, after Jesus has already made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His time on earth is wrapping up; there is a sense of urgency in his words and in his actions. He does not have a lot of time left on earth; so of course, he is going to be foreshadowing what is to come.
And yet in the Gospel of John, this story appears much earlier on. Jesus is baptized, he calls his disciples, they go to the wedding in Cana where Jesus turns water into wine and then enters the temple and all of this happens. The way the story is told in this gospel, Jesus did not wait until he was about to be crucified to boldly tell people to turn towards him; from the very beginning of his ministry, it was about pointing people towards Jesus and his radical, countercultural message.
As challenging as this story is, I confess to being drawn to its dramatic flair; the image of the coins bouncing around the floor of the temple while the tables flew in the air, Jesus taking a whip and using that to shoo everyone out, people and animals alike. I can only imagine the moneychangers on their hands and knees frantically trying gather up the coins that were scattering everywhere while the animals went in every different direction and the people who were selling them ran around trying to get control.
But even more than that, there’s something that draws me into this story, because there is a real human side of Jesus that we see in this moment. This Jesus goes against the grain of what we’re used to – even-tempered, gentle – the one who healed the sick, fed the hungry, reached out to the marginalized and taught his disciples and followers how to pray. Here Jesus, like many of us do from time to time, got angry and lost his temper.
I’ll be honest, I’m glad to see anger get some airtime as part of the reality of being human and people of faith. All too often anger – (even righteous anger) – is seen as an undesirable emotion. Anger has been viewed not only as an emotion to fear, but condemned as a bad emotion, even a sign of weakness (Jade Wu, Ph.D., Psychology Today.) As a woman there have been times that my anger cast me with labels that my white, male colleagues rarely receive. Yet I acknowledge that my anger comes from a place of privilege. For over half a century Black women have had to endure and overcome “the Angry Black Woman stereotype… which characterizes Black women as bad-tempered, hostile and overly aggressive… Columbia University professor Kimberlé Crenshaw states in her research that the intersectionality of the Black woman’s experience is unique to that of Black men and white women. Crenshaw also asserts that the double minority status of Black women makes them more vulnerable to further marginalization” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2019/05/31/overcoming-the-angry-black-woman-stereotype/?sh=4285afb21fce.) This societal level gaslighting is still present today. “Even former First Lady Michelle Obama recounted in her autobiography how she has felt reduced to ‘Angry Black Woman’ by her husband’s critics” (Jade Wu, Ph.D., Psychology Today.)
We need to overturn the tables of anger stereotypes and misconceptions. Challenge them – call them out. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to reclaim that anger because part of what I think then happens is that when we feel the right to be angry, then we also give ourselves the permission to feel any of the other things that we feel in relationship to that anger. And so, it is trying to restore a full sense of our emotional lives.
Today we see an angry Jesus pushing past the status quo. Jesus has no interest in propping up institutions of faith that elevate comfort and complacency over holiness and justice.
No. “Jesus is a disrupter. A leveller. An upender. As his disciples immediately realize when he throws out the moneychangers and occupies the temple, zeal is what animates the Messiah. Fervor, not casualness. Depths, not surfaces. He will not tolerate the desecration of God’s house. He is not impressed by ‘marketplace’ faith.” (Debie Thomas, 2021.)
I think Jesus went to the temple that day for one purpose; to throw out and overturn business as usual. There are times when we need the tables of our lives overturned and thrown out. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of business as usual.
Have you ever pushed the auto-pilot button and life became mechanical? You go through the motions. You show up but you’re not really there. That’s business as usual. How about this? Have you ever smiled that I’m-good-and-everything-is-fine smile but behind the smile there was an emptiness, you felt hollow, and your heart was breaking? That’s carrying on with business as usual. Or maybe you wake up in the morning and you are as exhausted as you were when you went to bed the night before. Business as usual. Have you ever felt like you were just not yourself? Nothing seemed right? Boredom overcame creativity. There was no enthusiasm, wonder, or imagination. It was just business as usual. Sometimes we look at life and the world and it all seems in vain. We’re busy but not really getting anywhere. There’s no depth or meaning, only business as usual. Business as usual can happen anywhere: in relationships, school, work, church.
The things I just described are not, however, the problem. They are the symptom in the same way that the animals and moneychangers in the temple are not the problem. They are the symptoms of something deeper going on. The problem is not so much in the temple as it is in the human heart.
That deeper issue is, I think, what gives rise to business as usual. Sometimes it’s about our fear. We’re fearful about what is happening in our life or the uncertainty of the future and we want some type of security and predictability so we can keep on doing the same old things. Business as usual is predictable and steady but it creates only the illusion of security. Sometimes business as usual is a symptom of our grief and sorrow. Something has been lost. We can’t get back the life we want so we cling to business as usual because it’s familiar and we want some stability. Other times we are so busy and worn out making a living that life turns into one task after another, one appointment after another, a never ending to do list, and it’s business as usual. Maybe we’ve taken people, relationships, and things for granted. Maybe we’ve lost our sense of gratitude, wonder, or mystery.
Over and over again Jesus is interrupting, disrupting, overturning, and throwing out business as usual.
“Jesus interrupts ‘business as usual’ for the sake of justice and holiness. He interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness. His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger. If we ourselves are temples — holy places where heaven and earth meet — then what would it be like to work, as Jesus does, to preserve and protect all bodies, all holy places, all temples, from every form of irreverence and desecration? What would it be like to decide that our highest calling as Christians is not to niceness? What if we, like Jesus, embraced a holy anger that challenged injustice and moved toward more a robust, equitable, holistic, and impassioned spiritual practice?” (Debie Thomas, 2021.)
As draining as this pandemic is – and I don’t want to diminish that reality in the least – what if, in its own way, it’s interrupting business as usual and moving us to deeper, richer, more balanced ways of living and moving on this earth? What if it’s moving us to a deeper, richer connection with the Divine and each other?
Whenever the pandemic winds down, our communities open up, and we find ourselves free to return to “business as usual” on Sunday mornings, I hope we won’t. I hope we’ll remember the things we’ve learned in this time, the new ways we’ve learned to reach out to others. I hope we’ll burn with the same passion that animated the whip-wielding, coin-scattering Christ. I hope we’ll settle for nothing less than communities of faith that are, truly, houses for question and challenge, prayer and action, welcome and hope.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power