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Sunday, March 15, 2009

" . . . making a whip of cords . . ."

Jesus Cleansing the Temple - Jeffrey Weston

III Lent – March 15, 2009 - John 2:13-22
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.

One of the most memorable sermons I have ever heard on this gospel passage was about 15 years ago, during a weekday Mass at a Roman Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach. I try to get to one of the daily masses there whenever I’m on vacation, primarily because the preaching by any one of the five priests on staff is uniformly good.

The time came for the priest to read the gospel and then we all sat down for the homily. The priest paused for a moment, heavy in thought. Then he said, “Jesus is very, very angry.” He paused for another long, heavy moment and the said, “When Jesus is angry, I wouldn’t cross him.”

And then he sat down and held a long silence before he got up and continued the service. Two sentences and lots of silence. No wonder I remembered it, eh?

I must confess to you that I was very tempted, this morning, to do the same. You will be glad to note that I have resisted that temptation. – or, perhaps not. I am intrigued by this image of an angry Jesus and what it would take to cross him. (An interesting pun, right?)

What would it take to get Jesus angry enough to ‘make a whip of cords’ and let fly in the sacred temples of my life? Or, as author Annie Lamont puts it, to get him angry “ . . .enough to make Jesus drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Anger is always a secondary reaction. It is a common human expression which can range from minor irritations to flat our rage.

It is one of those human qualities that the world’s religious sages caution against. Anger ranks number 5 among Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins. (They are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride).

The Bhagavad-Gita teaches: “Hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.”

Traditionally, Lent is a time for us to learn how to control our vices – although we usually focus our attention on gluttony, sloth or greed. Many of us love to talk about what we gave up for Lent and chocolates, laziness and ‘retail therapy’ are the easy targets.

But, what about anger? Is it something we should ‘give up’? Can we? Or, is it something, rather, that ought to be ‘managed’?

What makes you angry? What is it in your life that is important enough that, if someone crosses you, you would be angry enough to ‘make a whip of cords’ and let fly?

Many, many years ago, I was working with a Spiritual Director about something or other that was really making me angry. I wanted to get rid of that anger, because I didn’t like what it was doing to my soul. I asked my “Soul Friend” what could I do to be more serene, more peaceful.

Actually, I asked her what I could do so I would never be angry, ever again.

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you her response. She burst out laughing. Right in my face. “You?” she laughed, “A woman with Mediterranean blood in your veins? No way!”

You also probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that her laughter made me angry. Not the flat out rage kind of angry, but let’s just say it was more than minor irritation.

As my face got redder, my mouth got tighter and my eyes became smaller, my Spiritual Director said, “Ah, is this it? You want to be able to completely stop THIS reaction? Why? Anger in this situation is absolutely appropriate. I laughed at you when you were being very serious.”

Now my face was red with embarrassment.

She looked me straight in the eye and right straight to my soul and said “If you try to stop a completely normal and, in this case, appropriate, response like anger, you could hurt yourself – or, unintentionally, someone else.”

“I want you to visualize your anger as a large stone,” she said. “Now, close your eyes and see it,” she continued, waiting for me to follow her instructions. “Now, imagine yourself picking it up. It will take some effort, but try it. It’s very important, because what you will find under your anger is something that is very important, something that matters to you very, very much.”

And then she said, “Work on THAT thing, whatever it is that is under that hard stone, and you will find a way to deal with your anger.”

I have never forgotten those very wise words which have helped me over the years in more ways than I can even remember or begin to articulate.

Some of us need to remember this story about the time Jesus got angry. Although I can’t prove it, I’m quite certain this was not the only time. It’s just the only story that got reported.

There are, however, many times Jesus got mildly irritated and even annoyed at his disciples. Some of his best parables were in response to his annoyance at something they said or something they didn’t – or couldn’t – understand.

If memory serves, Jesus also did his fair share of rebuking some of the apostles. I think that at least counts as “minor irritation”.

There’s a saying in my business, that “the thing is never the thing, it’s always something else.”

There is a story Betty Williams told me about a parishioner who left St. Paul’s years ago because his car got a scratch in the church parking lot while he was here at church. No way, you say? Yes way.

He was so angry, he never returned, she said, until his sons bore him in his casket into church.

Now, there are many reasons that people get angry and leave the church, and some of them are pretty silly and some are very legitimate, but you know that in this case, it had nothing to do with that scratch on his car door.

It had everything to do with his understanding about God and his expectations about how God and Jesus and the church worked.

If his car couldn’t be safe in the church parking lot, could anything be safe? How could he trust a community of faith when he couldn’t trust that his most prized possession couldn’t be left unharmed in the church parking lot?

Betty went on to describe him as a very sad man. No surprise there, really. Anger can be a very heavy stone, especially when it is carried around for many years. Years of anger can be a burden that makes the heart very sad. Indeed, it is the classic definition of the cause of depression.

Look under the stone of his anger, and trust was obviously a HUGE issue. One wonders about the stories of betrayal in his life – or of the ways in which he didn’t trust himself.

Look under the stone of Jesus’ anger and you find that integrity and intention are very, very important. “Stop making my father’s house a market place!” he thunders. And, apparently, rightly so.

The church is many things to many people, but it is more than a social club at prayer. If the church can’t be a sanctuary, a place where one can find solace and succor, as well as inspiration and challenge, a place to find the courage needed for spiritual transformation and a place from which to take the risk of your dreams, well, it ain’t much of a church now, is it?

As you examine your life in this Season of Lent, and you look at the elements of your own mortality, this morning’s gospel lesson might be a good time for you to take a look at your own anger.

Instead of trying to get rid of it or ‘manage it’ or medicate it or try to change yourself to conform to some idealized expectation of yourself, or someone else to conform to your expectations, ask yourself to look under the stone that has knotted itself up in the middle of your body. What is it, under there, hidden beneath that heavy stone you’ve been carrying around that you care so passionately about?

Ask yourself if you might not need – at least once in your carefully constructed, life – to allow yourself the luxury of getting angry. Turn over a few tables. Shake things up a bit. Punch a pillow. Yell back at the ocean’s roar. Get out on the tennis or racket ball court and picture the thing or the person or situation that is making you angry and give it a good WHACK.

Consider if it might not, in fact, be healthy to make a whip of the cords that have tied you to your Stone of Anger and let it fly.

You know. Like Jesus did in the Temple.

Perhaps, once that’s out of your system, you can then find the energy to lift up the Stone of Anger in your life and finding out what’s important to you. What you’re really passionate about.

Find your passion, and you might just be able to find your bliss, and if you follow your bliss, your anger will be transformed into the energy you need to do what your heart desires.

Find your passion, and you might be able to move more deeply into the baptismal waters of your faith, taking a risk for the sake of the gospel.

Find your passion, and you may be able to more deeply understand the passion of Jesus – who was so passionate about the human enterprise and the holiness of our relationship with God and each other, that he was willing to live and suffer and die for it.



it's margaret said...

I noticed today, in reading the Gospel, that one could read that Jesus made the whip to drive out the cattle and the sheep --not the people....

And nice meditation on getting under the stone --mine was a revelation of moving through the emotion like the meat of the fruit of an apple to get at the seed--the hard knotty stick in you teeth part that will grow new life... maybe because my stone moving days are over!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Margaret, I did too. I've never read it that way before, but there it was. Interesting.

Love your imagery, too. Either way, it's hard work, isn't it. Much easier to just "let fly" without ever examining it.

Sara said...

Wonderful message, thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Sara.

Bill said...

Elizabeth writes: “Ask yourself if you might not need – at least once in your carefully constructed, life – to allow yourself the luxury of getting angry. Turn over a few tables. Shake things up a bit. Punch a pillow.”

There are times when there is something absolutely therapeutic about making a fist and hitting something. Years ago when I was working in NYC, some of the men (young men) I was working with pooled their money and bought a heavy bag. For those that aren’t familiar, it’s a heavy canvas or leather bag about 14” in diameter and maybe two or three feet long and can weigh anywhere from 60 to 100 lbs. You suspend it from a beam with chains and have at it. They use them in gyms to train boxers. Two minutes on the bag is one heck of a workout both physically and psychologically. You can let out your aggression and the bag doesn’t seem to mind.

David said...

This is a very wise sermon Elizabeth, almost identical to a teaching on working with anger non-judgementally in the zendo.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, David. It's pretty basic stuff, but sometimes even I need to hear it, living as I do in Outer Whiteovia, located in the Upper Regions of Status Symbol Land.