Bad Religion
Matthew 21:12-17

Jesus is angry. He is making a scene in the holiest of places: the Temple in Jerusalem. And he is not holding back. He is flipping over the tables of money changers. He is throwing the people who sell doves out of their own seats. Anyone who is buying or selling anything he is grabbing them by the tunic and showing them the door. But why is Jesus so angry, and who (or what) is he angry with?

The first words Jesus speaks give us a clue. As he is turning everything upside down he says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” The passage he is quoting from is Isaiah 56. And Isaiah goes further. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” he writes. Another translation may be, “A house of prayer for all nations.”

From the time of the exiles returning from Babylon 500 years ago up to Jesus’ own day, this has been the hope of the prophet. All people, not just Israelites will meet God here. Every nation and every person will be welcomed to see God’s light and walk in God’s ways.

But as Jesus enters into the Temple, he realizes this is not the case. Inside the Temple there are stark divisions and barriers. At the heart of it is the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest may go inside only one day out of the year. Outside of that is in the Inner Court, where Jewish men who can trace back their ancestry without any mixing of other people are allowed. Outside of that, Jewish women are allowed in the Outer Court. And then, outside of that, is the Court of the Gentiles, where all foreigners, immigrants, and people whose families trace back to many different peoples and languages are forced to stay.

It would be like if I said, “Those of you who were born in Virginia, you are welcomed in this sanctuary while we worship. Those from outside Virginia but still born in the South, you can stay by the entrances. But those of you from New Jersey and Ohio and Puerto Rico and anywhere else further away, you stay down that hallway out of view from us. I don’t think that those of you from New Jersey would really feel like you are a part of worship here.

In this scene, Jesus is not in the Inner Court. He’s not in the heart of the sanctuary. As someone tracing his linage directly back to David, he would be pure enough to be welcomed there. But his people, the people he came to serve, are more the ones on the outside. His people are the ones who aren’t as welcome inside that Inner Court, but have traveled for days to worship and pray here anyway.

And here, from the outer court of the Gentiles, Jesus witnesses something very disturbing. As these people who are kept outside are trying to pray and worship and sing the Psalms, they keep getting drowned out by other noises. In the midst of their worship space are people buying and selling doves and pigeons for sacrifice. Here are people changing their coins that have pagan rulers on them (which are not allowed in the Temple) for Tyrian shekels that are welcomed further in. There are market stalls set up. This court is no longer a place for worship and faith and healing. It is a place for the formalities and business of religion to take place.

And Jesus can’t stand for this. So he gets angry and he gets rid of that which is separating anyone even in this outer court from prayer with God. He is getting rid of the noise of the money changers. He is getting rid of the business of selling the sacrificial doves. And he is bringing more people in.

The blind and the lame, the deaf and the mute have been forced out even from this court. They are deemed too impure to be in any part of the Temple. But Jesus waves them in. And as they come in and begin praying, he offers them his touch. He offers them prayer and healing. The blind are made to see. The deaf are made to hear. And out of this angry and scary scene comes something beautiful: the Temple is once again a place of prayer for all people. It is a place where people are meeting God. It is a place for healing and new life. It is a place for singing and joy and hope to reign.

As I read this passage this week, I realized that Jesus wasn’t angry at the individual money changers and dove sellers in the Temple. He was mad at the system that was in place. He was mad at his own religion. Because it had been turned into something wrong.

The Temple and religious system it represented was now more focused on formalities and business and rules than on people getting to meet God. It had forgotten its purpose – to be a house of prayer for all people.

Our own religion today often does the same. We get so wrapped up in our traditions and rules and arguments sometimes that we stop being who we are called to be. Our own denomination has argued for the past half century over who can be a pastor or not, forgetting to celebrate and sing out in joy the fact that God has put that faith and calling on somebody’s heart. We have been hesitant to join with other Christians and denominations in worship and communion, because our practices and traditions might be a little bit different than theirs. We talk a lot about ethics and morality, but we are not all that quick to offer real healing and help and wholeness to our neighbors. We still judge those who are different from us and keep some people away as outsiders. We argue more over interpretations of scripture instead of making time for prayer and actually letting God’s Word breathe into our own lives. We do a lot of talking about religion. But we don’t do as much listening to God and following Christ’s love.

A couple of months ago I remember a pastor posting on Facebook that what happens in the basement of the church – the Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings, the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the food pantries and overnight shelters, are actually more of what worship should look like than what happens on Sunday morning in the sanctuary.

That message has challenged me. He was right. In those settings, there is an honesty and an openness, and a willingness to grow and love and share with God that for whatever reason we are hesitant to do in religious settings.

Maybe it is because we think here at church, we have to act a different way than we do in our lives. We have to hide a part of ourselves. We have to be all about the formality and rules. We have to be pure enough to be welcomed into that inner Temple. I can’t tell you how many people think they can’t swear or drink around me because I am a pastor. You should know I do both of those.

You don’t have to fit a certain stereotype to be a Christian. You can be angry in this place. Jesus was angry. You can shout for joy. You can bring your tears and sadness. There are plenty of Psalms about both. You can be honest and ask questions and share doubts. You can admit that you don’t have everything figured out. Look next to you. That person doesn’t either. I don’t. You can tell God how you need healing.

Jesus didn’t care if you were pure enough for that inner Temple. He just wanted to meet you even on the margins, even in the outer court. He just wanted to offer healing and prayer. He wanted to help you meet God.

In that Temple on the day of his joyous arrival into Jerusalem, Jesus risked a lot. Many scholars believe it was that moment in the Temple where he overturned the tables that sealed his fate. The Temple leaders were so irate at his breaking these rules and making a scene that they began plotting his arrest, trial, and execution. Jesus could have remained silent. He could have gone along with the rules. He could have stayed safe. But he wanted each one of us to know God. He wanted you to know more than religion, more than rules, more than barriers, more than who is in and who is out. He wanted you to know real healing. Real wholeness. Real welcome. The real love of God.

A couple of years ago, I remember working in the food pantry of a church the day before Easter (I didn’t have to preach that next day). And I can remember shopping with a mother who told me that this would be the first Easter with her children where they would really have a full meal because of this pantry. As we were putting in a ham and vegetables and rolls she was telling me what recipes she was going to cook. She sounded like a much better cook than myself. But at the end she said, “I am surprised you are open today. I would have thought this church has far too much to do this week than to keep its pantry open.” She was right that it was a busy week. But there is something wrong if we believe our religion makes us too busy to do this. How can I celebrate that night Jesus gave his body and blood if I can’t make time to share with someone else? How can I remember and give thanks for Jesus kneeling and washing his disciple’s feet if I also don’t learn how to serve? Walking next to that woman, shopping with her, it didn’t take away from my time of worship that week. It was an act of worship. It was remembering the God who loves us and the God who calls us to love.

As we journey this week towards Calvary, may we not worry so much about religion and labels and who is in and who is out. May we not worry if we don’t know all the traditions and rituals and rules perfectly. Instead, let us reflect on the reason God’s house was built in the first place, the reason this house was built, the reason this community was built – to meet God, to know God’s love, and to shine that love as a light to all people. Amen.