Overturning Tables

Beth A. Faeth March 4, 2018

Scripture John 2:13–22

I do not think I have to travel out on a very long limb to suggest that many of us—most of us—are uncomfortable with anger. As a child I was reduced to tears every time my father raised his voice, regardless of whether I was the one to make him mad or if he was irritated with my siblings, the dog or the weather. His loud voice was bold, persuasive and intimidating, and whatever I was doing to cause his ire to rise, you can bet I stopped it instantly when I heard his voice rapidly increase in decibel. The sad irony is that my dad has battled throat cancer for the last ten years and four years ago had a complete laryngectomy. His voice is mechanical now, and while he still has no trouble expressing himself when he is mad, I find myself longing to hear his big, booming yell one more time . . . I think. It has been decades since I have been a child, and while my parents taught me many things about love and grace and a million other lessons, I realize that I was never taught anything about anger—how to manage it, how to express it, when it might be appropriate and when it isn’t. And so anger has never been a comfortable emotion for me. The fear of my father’s big voice has led me to a lifetime of struggling when people are angry with me. People often tell me I wear my heart on my sleeve and that I am easy to read, but when I am angry I shut down rather than find a way to accurately communicate my feelings. I am a stuffer of anger, and the times I have tried to articulate it, particularly with ones whom I love, it comes out backwards and sideways and I find I never really say what I want to say. In the heat of the moment I become tongue-tied and inarticulate. My former husband and I figured out after years of frustrated fighting that we argued best over email. So much for direct communication. And while I always promised myself that I would never yell like my father, my children would love to tell you that I can indeed get obnoxiously loud and become unleashed. It isn’t a pretty sight. Anger baffles me.

My “anger angst” is exactly why I have always been drawn to the biblical scene of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple marketplace. In today’s text, Jesus has just performed his first miracle—the changing of water to wine at a wedding in Cana. This is early in John’s Gospel, and the writer is establishing Jesus as Divine and that all signs and phenomena point to the cross, the sacrifice of Jesus’ life, the resurrected Christ and continued purposes lived out through those who believe.

After a few days break following the wedding feast, Jesus enters Jerusalem during preparations for the Passover, which celebrates the liberation from foreign control. Jesus doesn’t like what he sees, which are buyers and sellers and cattle and sheep and doves right outside the Temple doors. And while no emotion is articulated in the words, Jesus’ actions speak loudly—he is hoppin’ mad. He overturns tables, scatters coins everywhere, makes a whip to emphasize his argument and forces all the sellers and the shoppers and their livestock to disperse. The eruption seems to come out of the blue, especially because this scene was not out of the ordinary. Merchants and money changers in the Temple courtyard was common practice and necessary for Temple sacrifice. Pilgrims traveling long distances to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem could not always bring along the required sacrificial animals; ordinary coins imprinted with images of Caesar could not be used to pay Temple taxes and needed to be exchanged.

This scriptural story can be found in all four gospels, but in Matthew, Mark and Luke it comes much later in the narrative, Jesus’ erratic and antisocial behavior seemingly acting as a catalyst for his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Here, in the gospel of John, we are only in chapter two, and Jesus’ actions suggest a zeal for upsetting the status quo. This is Jesus’ first public appearance, and what an entrance he makes! The crowd demands an explanation for his actions and Jesus responds in his esoteric way: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Taking his words literally, the Temple authorities scoff, “Well, this Temple has been under construction for 46 years, undergoing a massive renovation under Herod the Great, so what you suggest is absurd.” But of course Jesus wasn’t speaking literally: he was talking about himself. He would be destroyed and raised up in three days. Jesus was the new Temple. It was through Jesus that people would know God, not within the walls of an ever-under-construction sanctuary. Followers of Jesus will know him as the meeting place of God and humanity, which for the readers of John’s gospel was only understood after the events of Jesus’ death. Verse 22: “It was only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that the disciples remembered this statement and believed the scripture—and the words that Jesus had spoken.” Jesus caused a scene to make his point; he created chaos so as to introduce order. Your priorities are wrong, Jesus chides the crowd. Defiling the Temple courtyard so as to pay off corrupt priests is not the way to grow close to God. “I am the way. You come to know God through me.” Jesus’ anger may make us a bit uncomfortable, but it gets our attention, because Jesus used anger to evoke societal change. Jesus is reactive and mad and demonstrative and we can’t help but take notice. His passion leads to something new. And, as unsettled as I am with anger, I like this Jesus.

I like this Jesus, because we have lots of reasons to be angry, don’t we? Personally and globally, anger roars. Just because I deal poorly with anger doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. Every day anger simmers in my belly as I walk with my beloved children through the aftermath of their father’s death—caused by a powerful addiction he could not overcome. I am angry as I consider my dear father, battling cancer again and again for the last ten years with little respite or peace, brave and courageous as doctors poke and cut and pursue and offer little relief for his discomfort. And now it seems he must gear up for another round, which I know in my heart will be his last. I am angry when I think of all the people I know and love who are carrying burdens too heavy to bear, who stoically move through the days even though they are hurting, grieving, worried, downright scared. And I am angry along with all of you that we, as a nation, are more concerned about our right to bear arms than the security of our children. I am angry that our children must learn lockdown drills and active shooter response while our politicians cry that it is not the right time to alter antiquated law. I am angry that the world leaders care more about the size and power of their nuclear weapons than they do about the welfare of their own citizens. I am angry that along with every woman in this room I have had to endure harassment, attacks on my character, unwanted sexual advances and a great deal of shame purely because of my gender. Oh yes, I am angry. Aren’t you? And as my stomach churns and my head pounds and all those painful feelings come dangerously close to the surface, I know that I do not want my anger to simmer in vain. I want my anger to create change.

Because we do not get angry over things we do not care about. And so anger signals our passion, and our passion is what can fuel revolution. So let us claim our anger but not let that anger rule us. Jesus didn’t stay angry. John’s gospel continues, and there is Jesus as we know him—preaching, healing, meeting a woman at the well, walking on the water, teaching his disciples. There is no anger in those stories. Jesus says what he needs to say, overturns some tables, rattles a few cages, makes a spectacle that people won’t forget and moves on to continue his mission: to live out his proclamation of peace and justice known through God. So recognize your anger, my friends. Even when it is hard and, if you are like me, makes you nauseous. Because unattended anger leads to resentment. Built-up anger leads to violence against others. And unaddressed anger often triggers us to take out our feelings on those who do not deserve our wrath. None of these are productive. None of these move us forward to action. None of these instill hope. Let us instead use our anger to point towards our convictions, what we really want to be different, what we are willing to seriously pay attention to and give of ourselves toward. Whether in personal matters and relationships or in challenging the status quo, let us use our righteous anger to power our motivation to make things different.

Because we also know that anger does make a difference, particularly in issues of social justice. Tables needed to be overturned in order to attend the need for religious freedom, the abolition of slavery, the right of women to vote and the changing of laws to allow women to inherit property. Anger opened minds and hearts in the Civil Rights Movement, made cultural shifts in our views of LGBTQ+ equality and recently turned the far-too-common experience of sexual harassment in the workplace into #MeToo. Yes . . . peaceful protest, voting, personal relationships and reasoned arguments are often what change our culture. However, all these effective strategies sprang from widespread anger over injustice, unfairness and ill treatment. And I know that most of you have been unbelievably inspired by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida as they, traumatized and grieving, overturned table after table to grab the nation’s attention and call for radical change and common sense gun laws. Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and many other teenagers have eloquently expressed their anger in ways people finally seem to be able to hear, creating fertile ground for change. Anger born out of tragedy, rising from the wails of grief, challenging a nation to look closely at its values and priorities—this kind of anger not only evokes change, it produces hope.

It is the essence of hope that attracted me to Tupac Shakur’s poem “And 2Morrow.” Tupac Shakur is consistently remembered as one of the greatest and most influential rap musicians of all time. From 1991 to 1996 he sold 75 million records, his five years of fame making him one of the top-selling musical artists of all time. Shakur was also an actor and served time in prison for sexual assault. He led a complicated, seemingly angry life. On September 7, 1996, Shakur was shot four times in a drive-by shooting, dying six days later in the hospital. He was only 25 years old. In addition to the powerful messages in his music, Shakur wrote poems not intended to be rapped—at least by him. Since his death many musicians have used his poetry as musical lyrics. Now more than 25 years old, Shakur’s poem “And 2Morrow” could have been written yesterday:

Today is built on tragedies
which no one wants 2 face
nightmares 2 humanities
and morally disgraced
Tonight is filled with rage
violence in the air

The picture painted is bleak. And angry. And true. And then there is a shift at the end of the poem that points us towards something else. Hope.

But 2morrow I c change
a chance 2 build anew
Built on spirit intent of Heart
and ideals
based on truth
and tomorrow I wake with second wind
and strong because of pride
2 know I fought with all my heart 2 keep my
dream alive

Sometimes anger is necessary to bring attention to injustice and to motivate others to join in doing the right thing. And rarely is this comfortable or intuitive. But rage without hope is a practice in futility. We must believe that change is not only possible, it is probable. Jesus overturned some tables and people noticed. And then they listened to what he had to say and they followed him into a new way of life. How will we use our anger to effect necessary change in our community . . . in our world . . . in our church? How will our anger speak to the status quo? Let us raise our voices to be heard, let us knock on doors and turn over tables to speak truth to power, let us move out of our fear and discomfort to effect the change we seek. And through it all, God’s beloved ones, let us rise up, angry yet focused, as people rooted in hope and motivated by love. Amen and Amen.