This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on July 5, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.
Matthew 21:12-16 (The Message)
Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:
My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.
Now there was room for the blind and disabled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.
When the religious leaders saw the outrageous things he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”
Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?”
I’ve had to learn over my years of life and time in therapy to simply let feelings be feelings. I was going through a tough breakup in January, and I kept responding to my therapist’s questions with the same formula: “I feel (insert emotion here), but (insert my plan or the silver lining or the way I’ll not feel that way).” So for example, I would say, I’m mad, but I know we both have some growing to do and I think it’s good that happens separately. So after doing this about ten times, I stopped myself, and I told my therapist that I think I have a hard time letting feelings be feelings, to name what I’m feeling and put a period on the end, rather than adding on a justification or action plan. I was placing value on my feelings and emotions, because I was saying that it wasn’t enough to feel embarrassed or upset or hurt or sad for me. There had to be something else. I had to ‘even out’ the sad feelings with happy ones, or angry feelings with excited ones.
I think feelings, true feelings, are often missing from our churches. We often come to church, dressed up and smiling. We have lots of polite conversations, sing songs, then enjoy a cookie or two before heading home. Things much of the time look very civil, even though people struggle. Everyone does, in one way or another. But in the constraints of that hour we spend at church, it might be easier to pretend our problems aren’t even there. We might take the ‘well-behaved’ and sometimes easy ways out. Now, this isn’t a condemnation or an attempt to say that there isn’t time and space for putting on a smile, but I think we’re missing the point of the gospel, if we think we have to worship God looking our best every week, or putting on a less than authentic front, in order for us to fit in or feel loved.
In our gospel reading, we heard about a time when Jesus didn’t take that same approach that is so easy to do, the ‘it’s fine’ approach when things are absolutely not fine. Matthew tells us of a time when Jesus went into the temple, a place for worship. He saw people exchanging money and selling goods, and he got upset. The reason why he was upset likely had little to do with the space being used, but rather for the purpose of its use. People were buying and selling for personal gain. Either they wanted goods or wanted money, or they wanted money to buy the goods. And that is deeply troubling for Jesus.
An interesting note is that this passage is called “Jesus cleanses the temple”. Cleansing is defined as “making something thoroughly clean”, “ridding someone or something of something seen as unpleasant or unwanted”, and also “freeing someone or something from sin or guilt”. I find it interesting because it’s almost completely contrary to how we might imagine this to work. You see, in this account in Matthew, Jesus kicked out the merchants from the temple, in order to make room for the marginalized to get in and to take up space. Among those marginalized were blind folx, disabled folx, folx with mental health issues, and I’m sure the list goes on. Where we might use cleansing as a term akin to healing, meaning ‘magically making all disease and illness go away’, using it in that way centers those with disease, disability, or illness as ‘the problem’. But Jesus is using the term “cleansing” to say to the marginalized who entered the temple: ‘No, you are my beloved. And you are not the problem here.’
So Jesus was angry that the temple was being defiled, not because the physical building was in use, but because the way the house of worship functioned, it no longer centered itself on the people.
The temple is supposed to be this sacred place, a place to pray and worship and rid oneself of ‘worldly thoughts’ in order to be present with God. Jesus tells the people that they are making what is supposed to be a house of prayer into a den of robbers.
We don’t see direct evidence of anyone taking money, but the robbing is taking place because the people are stealing from God when they take from God’s position to be worshipped. Jesus has the right to be mad about that, and he lets people know, by flipping the infamous tables.
In reality, there are times when people pleasing isn’t all that loving, and that’s tough to wrestle with. But this story is a reminder of a not-so-typical action of Jesus, one that we can follow. Here, Jesus stood up for what was right, even though it went against the norm of society. He made people mad by doing it too. And sometimes, just as it’s okay to be mad, it’s okay if we make people mad, when we are following the call to make the world a better place. Jesus teaches us that anger is holy, and anger is often a part of love.
We know that love is patient, love is kind, love does not boast, and the list goes on. I do believe in them, don’t get me wrong. However, these terms, when read with society’s style of interpretation, present themselves in an almost passive way. There are these implications that tell us that in order to be loving, we must abstain from reacting or from putting ourselves out there.
The good news is, God’s word is alive and active. It is here in our lives to encourage us to act and to work towards change.
Yes, love is patient, but there are also times when an action of love just can’t wait, when love is urgent. Love is kind, but kindness does not need to mean submissive. Jesus, the most loving person there has ever been, shows us that in Matthew.
What else is love to you?
Jesus cares so much for his cause, and is so convicted about it, that he responds in such a way that really turned people on their heads, and likely inspired them to stop what they were doing and think about it.
I believe we need more of that in our church, stirring things up for the purpose of love. When we think about church as a community of people, rather than the four walls that make up a building, we can see that church is a huge place. There is so much room for love to happen, and for love to manifest itself in different avenues.
There is room for fellowship, for talking to those we know very well, and for those we’ve never met before. There is room for putting aside our struggles for an hour, so we can simply take time to breathe and be still for maybe the first time that week. And there is always room for cookies and coffee.
But it doesn’t stop there.
There is still more room, because church is for honoring God, not just for making us feel good.
So there is room for change, for asking what is right more often than asking what is always done. There is room for pain and for grief, in whatever ways it presents itself. And there is room to be angry, to turn the (hopefully metaphorical) tables over.
Our Wesleyan tradition even points to some of this anger, anger which leads to change. I once read an article written by BUSTH’s Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore, which was her pointing to some of the changes happening in the UMC. She writes about reinventing the future by remembering the past, especially in regards to our need to address historical shifts in the changing social order of the church.
Talking about John Wesley’s movement, she writes:
“This early Wesleyan movement was not a mild-mannered, socially acceptable groundswell. It evoked charges of “enthusiasm” and, on occasion, provoked crowds to anger. Its own spiritual depths, together with the eagerness that miners and others expressed, and the anger that still others expressed, led this early movement to create new church forms. Such forms could help people respond to the inner witness of the Spirit within a changing religious landscape.”
A huge portion of our existence as Methodists is rooted in this. And, if it worked for both John Wesley and Jesus, to love through deep emotion, why wouldn’t it work for us?
I believe in this, because saying that God is big would be an understatement. Nothing is too much for God to handle, and that means that nothing is too big that the church can’t handle it. We need to bring our whole selves to the causes at hand.
And that is what is so great about this church. We don’t need to check ourselves at the door or the screen. We can check in with both our heart and our mind. We can ask questions if something doesn’t seem right, and we are encouraged to celebrate that. We are privileged to be part of a body who hopes for change, but also and especially acts to bring that change.
Today, in our community here in San Diego and beyond, and in our world as a whole, we need more of that, more active table-turning from people who want to live a life of love, like Jesus teaches us over and over again.
Our world needs more people who can reference God’s standards over worldly standards.
Are there places in your life where you can better consider God’s way, amidst the world relaying a completely different message?
My challenge for us all is to find ways to make that happen. If we look where our passions are, God is there too, ready to help us create change all around us. Maybe there is a cause you believe in that hasn’t been focused on enough? Or perhaps it is as simple as telling someone they hurt your feelings? Whatever it is for you, know that if it comes from a place of love, it is holy.
How can we stir up love in our world in active ways?
Will you pray with me?
Loving God, We thank you for the ways you inspire us, and the ways you act in our lives. Help us to better see those things that you do, and to use our gifts to respond to the areas of our world that need our response. Help us to remember that love is an action, and that love can look like so many different things, but it is all love. Help us to know this week that we are yours, and that your steadfast love never leaves us. And remind us that it is always okay to be mad. In your name we pray, Amen.