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The Good News of Anger

A sermon on John 2:13-22

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash]

This week, I got a message from one of our members (who gave me permission to share about our conversation in this sermon).

The message was an expression of deep frustration – frustration to the point of real pain – about the way that political divisiveness is tearing apart relationships and triggering disdain for anyone who doesn’t line up with a given “side.”

As someone who seeks to do their own thinking and to weigh the arguments and evidence on every side, this member of our church feels attacked from all sides… all because they are seeking to engage from a place of thoughtful deliberation.

They wrote “I am sick of people using a political bias to feel the fire of anger and hatred toward either side.”

I knew exactly what they meant (as I told them). I share their frustration!

One of the central elements of my ministry here at Abiding Peace has been the cultivation of our commitment to Loving Dialogue, to the practice of deep listening, and loving challenge, and the belief that it is more important to learn, and grow, and seek to deepen our understanding of different perspectives, than it is to “win” an argument, whatever that means.

I want to live in the same world that this member longs for, where (to use their words) “all sides are able to discuss, acknowledge, reflect, look ourselves in the mirror, hold others and ourselves accountable, and humbly admit when we are wrong.”

What a world that would be!

Of course, that’s not the world we get. We get a world of posturing and politicization; of media bubbles and confirmation bias; a world that seems so full of hate… or is it anger… or are those the same thing?

It’s easy to link them in our minds, to assume that one implies the other, and to levy our own unthinking judgement of anything that is suggestive of rage.

We know that hatred is corrosive of community and human dignity, so let’s not even get close to it. Let’s abhor all anger, just to be safe. Let’s set civility as the standard for mature discourse. What good can anger possibly do?

This is my bias. It’s the position I instinctively take. I deeply dislike anger, to the point that I struggle to even let myself feel my own. If it weren’t for the inconvenient timing of this week’s gospel reading, I probably would not have even questioned the utopian vision of a world that permits disagreement, but not anger.

But Jesus won’t let me do it. Not this week. Not if I want to follow him, rather than just cherry-picking the teachings I like.

Because today’s gospel shows us a Very. Angry. Jesus.

The reasons for his anger are pretty clear. He arrives in the Temple, the center of worship for the One True God, and it is not a place of worship. Or, at least, not the worship of God.

The outer court – the only court accessible to non-Jews – has been turned into a marketplace, where animals are bartered, and Roman coins exchanged for shekels to pay the temple tax.

These are exchanges that are necessary for the business of the Temple – they provide the means for the sacrifices that assure ritual purity before the Passover Holy day… but is the Temple supposed to have a business? Is worship supposed to be a source of profit?

For Jesus, the answer is clear: No! What he sees is wrong, and it makes him angry. He won’t agree to disagree about this. He’s not interested in a calm, reflective, humble conversation. He is interested in turning over tables.

It’s uncomfortable to face, but it is the story scripture tells us. Jesus got angry, and he acted on that anger.

But before we see in this story a defense of whatever derisive meme we shared on facebook this week, it’s important to consider what Jesus’s anger looks like.

The first thing we notice about Jesus’s anger, is that it is not an immediate explosion. It’s not a cathartic release. He doesn’t just go-off on a hair trigger.

Rather, he takes in the scene, and then he makes a whip of cords.

This would take time. Time to gather the materials. Time to braid them together. Time to secure them so it wouldn’t just come apart after driving out the first few animals.

He took time to prepare, to deliberate his actions. This wasn’t an uncontrolled moment of rage. It was intentional. It was the action he considered necessary to get his message across.

And that’s the second thing to notice about his anger. It has a purpose, a message to convey. He is seeking to effect change.

Jesus isn’t just venting his spleen. He’s not spouting off to prove to his team and to reassure himself that he is on the right side of the culture wars.

He wants to actually change the situation. When he yells, it’s to issue a clear directive: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

There is no reason to believe he was successful, beyond the temporary cleansing of a day or two. But even so, his words and actions had a purpose beyond his own emotional gratification.

And finally, his anger was directed at the behavior; it did not attack the people.

He turned over tables. He poured out coins. I would bet the merchants whose business he disrupted had a few choice words for him. But he did not attack their humanity. He did not call them evil, or vile, or predict that God would punish them for their sin.

He just told them to stop. They were causing harm, and he wanted them to stop.

In other words, Jesus was angry, but he was not filled with hate.

Far from it. He loved them, that’s why he longed for them to change. These were the very people he came to save. These were the very people for whom he came to give his life.

And I think this is a vital lesson for all of us who struggle to know how to faithfully, compassionately disagree in today’s polarized environment.

The lesson that anger is NOT the same as hate.

We are rightly repulsed by hate. We despise the way that scorn is wielded as a weapon and we are repulsed by the use of mockery to score political points.

We want dialogue that rises above such dehumanizing pettiness and engages thoughtfully, with the dream of finding real solutions and making our relationships stronger, and our society a better place.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to be angry. Our goal is not passive, intellectual detachment. We CARE about the world, and we CARE about the people who disagree with us, and… sometimes, that will make us angry.

A friend of mine shared a powerful thread[1] in the days following the Capitol insurrection during which the divides in our nation and our relationships were so jagged and raw.

It begins with the shocking but powerful claim “there is value in being mad at each other,” and it then continues to explain that such anger is DIFFERENT than hatred.

“If we are mad at each other, we can still have some kind of relationship. We are mad because the gap between us hurts. It hurts and we wish it didn’t exist. That’s good. There can be grace in that. There can be connection.”

The thread goes on to contrast anger with indifference, and to explain that anger is about real hurt, precisely because the other people still matter to us. It concludes by explaining:

“There’s value in our anger. There can be so much love through anger. And that’s what I want to convey right now. I am angry because I so strongly desire to be closer together.”

I think that is the anger we see in Jesus in this gospel scene.

The anger of deep, persistent LOVE.

The anger of a love that won’t give up on change.

The anger of someone too committed to the relationship and to the vision of God’s people to just shrug his shoulders and stop caring about the real damage being done.

In a world were plenty of damage is being done by anger, and by hate, and where it can be hard to tell the difference between the two… it can make more sense to just reject it all. To propose a set of rules about how we all behave and refuse to talk to anyone who won’t follow the rules.

But maybe that’s not actually the answer. Maybe, instead, we commit to the kind of tenacious love that will make space for anger. Not volatile, hate-filled anger, but the kind of anger Jesus models of us.

The kind of anger that takes the time to assess the situation.

The kind of anger that is working toward a goal.

The kind of anger that refuses to hate the people on the other side, and instead pleads with them to stop the harm they are causing.

Perhaps that kind of anger, could actually teach us more about love.

Thanks Be To God.

[1] The thread was not in a sharable format, and I have hunted for the original source without success, but it appears to have come from the Pantsuit Politics podcast. I will gladly credit them if I can find the original content.


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