By Rev. Collette Broady Grund
I’m just going to assume that Jesus is angry here. I know the text doesn’t say that, and scholars are back and forth on it. But I need Jesus to be angry here, at the temple system that turns what should be a sanctuary into a market-driven economic center. I need Jesus to be angry here, angry at the misguided idea that there’s some special place where you need to curry God’s favor and the only way to do that is by buying something alive and killing it. I need Jesus to be angry, because I am angry. And I could really use a good example of what to do with this anger that is both holy and productive.
There are lots of reasons that I’m angry these days, but today’s top reason seems especially appropriate to this reading. It’s MLK day today, and the Salvation Army is closed for it’s noon meal, without notice, without publicity. This wouldn’t be so big a deal if it weren’t part of a larger pattern. They are also a men’s shelter in the winter months, and have 33 beds dedicated to this purpose. Four years ago, all those beds were full. Tonight, about 27 of them will be empty. The rules have changed to require not only sobriety but participation in Bible study and worship. And even those who try their hardest to follow the rules report feeling judged and being treated with little compassion.
The shelter I help coordinate, housed in churches a week at a time, was meant to be for women and children, a complement to the Sal. Yet as the season has gone one, one by one the men who would normally stay at the Sal have come to us, asking if we have room for them, hearing their desire for a place that is warm physically, emotionally and spiritually. We try to say yes as much as we can, believing that our the love and dignity we show our guests is not only the right thing to do, but a direct witness to the love and dignity Jesus gives all of us.
So, when I heard that in addition to the lack of welcome every night, the Sal was taking this holiday, honoring one of the greatest servants of Christ ever, OFF from serving God’s beloved and vulnerable people, I got angry. I briefly considered going down to the Sal tomorrow during the noon meal, whip in hand, ready to overturn the desks of the powers that be.
Not really, but the image of my savior doing just that in the temple at Jerusalem, over the perversion of a system that is meant to bring people closer to God, which instead sets up barrier after barrier, helps me feel less paralyzed by my own anger. It tells me that disruptive action and words of vehement protest are a faithful response to the injustices of today. Certainly, Dr. King understood that and had little patience for Christian people and churches that didn’t (see his Letter from Birmingham Jail).
Jesus’ choice words to the dove sellers, those purveyors of sacrificial animals to the especially poor (like Jesus’ own family in Luke 2), remind us that if our churches are not sanctuaries for those who need sanctuary most, we are not being true to God’s call. Jesus’ talk about his own body as the temple, the center of God’s work in the world, reminds us that God’s work is always centered in people, and mostly in the people that experience discrimination, disrespect and devaluation daily.
This story reminds us that being consumed by zeal for the work of God means standing up and speaking out where others are comfortably seated at their tables conducting business as usual. It means driving out from our communities of faith with physical action and words followed by exclamation points those who erect and defend the barriers that are still keeping people from the love and forgiveness of God today. It means destroying everything that we churchgoers have built up around the body of Christ to keep it safe and insulated, and letting Jesus be uncomfortably accessible and free to all as he was in his physical life on earth.