Jesus, Whistle Blowers, and Anger Management

This is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, in Milwaukie, Oregon. The text was Exodus 20:1-3 and John 2:13-22. You can read the sermon text or watch the video below.

Near the end of every year, Time Magazine declares their annual Person of the Year.

The Person of the Year has been presidents, scientists, lawyers, popes, kings, and astronauts.

I like it when the Person of the Year is not an individual, but a group of people. I think that’s because the group usually stands for a cause that I believe in. For example, the Person of the Year last year was women from the MeToo movement. In 2005 it was the Good Samaritans and in 1993 it was the Peacemakers.

The Whistleblowers

One of my favorite Persons of the Year was in 2002. They were the Whistleblowers. On the cover of the magazine that year were three women who risked their careers and even their lives in order to reveal the truth about economic and political corruption in the US. Cynthia Cooper blew the whistle on the telecommunication company WorldCom as she exposed the company’s 3.8 billion dollars in fraud. Next was Coleen Rowley, an FBI Special Agent who documented how that organization mishandled and failed to act on information that could have prevented 9/11 from ever happening. And the third woman Time put on the cover that year was Sherron Watkins who blew the whistle on Enron’s financial fraud.

According to the editors at Time, they chose these three women because “They were people who did right just by doing their jobs rightly – which means ferociously, with eyes open and with the bravery the rest of us always hope we have and may never know if we do.”

Indeed, it takes bravery to blow the whistle. The women stated that many former friends and colleagues hated them for revealing corruption. Cynthia Cooper who blew the whistle on WorldCom claimed, “There is a price to be paid. There have been times that I could not stop crying.”

To speak the truth about injustice often comes at a price. It may cost you your job, your security, your safety, and your friends and family. Unfortunately, we see throughout history that that’s the price we may need to pay for making the world a more just and loving place.

These whistleblowers from 2002 have inspired people to blow the whistle on injustice and corruption ever since. The women and men of the more recent #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Never Again movement started by the teenagers in Parkland, Florida are a few of the latest examples of people blowing the whistle.

In many instances, underlying those who blow the whistle is a sense of anger. It’s an anger that stems from the sense that something isn’t right. That the world isn’t supposed to be this way.

The Spirituality of Whistle Blowing

I think it’s important to point out that blowing the whistle against injustice and corruption is actually a spiritual tradition. This anger that’s rooted in an intuition that the world isn’t supposed to be corrupt goes back thousands of years and is at the core of the Jewish prophets.

Take Moses, for example, the greatest prophet in Jewish tradition. As a baby, Moses was placed in little basket on a river by his mother in order to save him from a decree by Pharaoh that all Hebrew baby boys be killed. Moses floated down the river and was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him as her own son.

Moses grew up in the house of Pharaoh. He had privilege. He was an adopted son of royalty with all the power and prestige of being a prince of Egypt. But as he grew up, he witnessed the corruption and injustice of the Egyptian political, economic, and religious establishment.

The Egyptians worshiped the sun god named Ra. In fact, the Pharaoh was thought to be the son of Ra, the son of God. Many Pharaohs incorporated Ra’s name into their own name. One of the great examples of this was Ramesses, who seems to be the Pharaoh that enslaved the Hebrew people. Ramesses used his seemingly divine power and authority to enslave the Hebrew people and force them to build his pyramids and palaces.

According to Egyptian religion, that’s what the gods were like. They were pure power; the power of being over and against another. The power of injustice.

Moses grew up as a grandson of Ramesses, with all the power and privilege of being a leader of the Egyptian political, economic, and religious systems. But one day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster abusing a Hebrew slave. In his anger, Moses killed that Egyptian taskmaster. And in that moment, Moses made a decision. Instead of being part of the system of oppression, he blew the whistle on Egypt.

The Dangers of Anger

But here we also see a problem. In his anger, Moses blew the whistle on Egyptian corruption, but he also broke the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder.”[1] This reveals one of the problems with anger. Anger is often an emotion that we don’t have; rather, so often anger has us. Anger needs an outlet and if we aren’t careful it will be channeled in the wrong direction, against a scapegoat. What is the right direction to channel our anger? The story of Moses provides a good example – God didn’t call Moses to channel his anger against individuals; God called him to channel his anger against systems of oppression and bring his people out of slavery.

And so Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt. But he did much more than that. He led humanity in a revolution of our understanding of God. Before Moses, humans always thought that the gods were seen primarily in the powerful, in the Pharaohs and Kings and other political and military rulers who hold the power of war, conquest, and enslavement.

But Moses revealed a different God. He revealed the God who stands not with the powerful, but with the victims and survivors of those rulers and those systems that abuse their power.

What’s Wrong with a Little Idolatry?

It’s important to have this backstory in mind when we hear the Ten Commandments. In the first commandment, God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me,” we might ask, “What’s wrong with having other gods?”

Other gods look like the gods of Egypt. They lead to religious, political, and economic oppression. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. The false gods can be faith in a deity like Ra that leads to injustice against another, or false gods can be an idol that we devote ourselves towards – money, political parties, economic power, patriarchal structures, white supremacy, and guns, are a few modern examples. And like out modern-day whistleblowers on the cover of Time Magazine, Moses blew the whistle on the oppression of his day. The ancient example of Moses and the modern example of whistleblowers reveal that we may need to risk some privilege as we blow the whistle and stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed by violent systems.

Jesus, Anger, and the Temple

Jesus did the same thing in his day. He blew the whistle on the abusive power structures of his day. He went to the Temple and saw that the Temple elite who held religious power worshipped the God of Moses in name, but in practice, they might as well have been worshipping Ra.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus complained that the Temple had been turned into a marketplace. Merchants were selling sheep and cattle and doves for people to purchase in order to make a sacrifice to God. These sacrifices were meant to be an act of confession and assurance of God’s forgiveness. Now, confession and assurance of forgiveness are good things. They are signs of God’s eternal love for us.

God’s Grace is Free

But notice that those in power made money on God’s grace. They sold God’s grace for a price. There was an economy of exchange for God’s forgiveness. You had to pay to play. The high priest and the money changers acted as the gatekeepers of God’s grace. Even worse, the money changers, merchants, and high priests were in on the scheme together. Someone who wanted to make a sacrifice had to purchase an unblemished animal from a merchant. But often the merchant would cheat by giving them a blemished animal. When the worshipper took the animal to the priest, it would be rejected and the worshipper had to pay a fine for bringing a blemished animal into the Temple. The fine enslaved him to years of debt with the Temple system. The poor suffered the most from this religious and economic exploitation.[2]

This made Jesus angry because he knew that God’s grace is free. We never have to experience debt with God, for God freely gives and we can freely receive. So, like Moses and our modern day whistleblowers, Jesus blew the whistle on these corrupt practices. He was angry at systemic injustice, and so he created a whip of cords and drove the animals out of the temple, he overturned the tables and yelled, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!”

And like our modern day whistleblowers, Jesus knew that blowing the whistle on corruption always comes at a cost. He knew that those in power would destroy the Temple of his body. You see, it’s not God who killed Jesus; it was humans. Jesus knew that by taking sides with the poor, the powerful would be angry with him. They would kill him, even doing so in the name of their idolatrous view of God. But death doesn’t have the last word. God’s love does, and so Jesus trusted that after he was killed, the true God of life and love would resurrect the Temple that is his body.

Managing Anger

And so what do we do with our anger? It seems today that our culture is permeated by anger. Everyone tells us that we should be angry at something or someone. And I know there are some things that are worth being angry at.

But there’s a fine line between anger and Jesus’ call to love all people, including our enemies. You see, I’m often more like Moses. I have a hard time managing my anger. You’ll be glad to know that unlike Moses, I’ve never murdered anyone in my anger. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that if you are even angry with someone, you’ve already committed murder in your heart.

Those are tough words to live by and tough to understand. If we can’t be angry with another person, then what are we supposed to do with our anger?

I think Jesus offers a good example. When he saw corruption that angered him, he didn’t go after people. As one author of the New Testament proclaimed, our fight is not with flesh and blood, it’s with the powers and principalities. Jesus channeled his anger against the powers and principalities in hopes to make radical transformation.

Guided by Love

I’m not sure what you may need to hear today. Maybe you are already so consumed with anger that you need to take a break from it – for your own sake and for the sake of your family. But as I thought about it, I realized that I like to think of myself as a nice person. And as a nice person, I’d just rather not be angry. Even more, I’m an Oregonian, so I avoid conflict. In other words, I’d rather just be passive aggressive. Or I’d rather just stuff my anger inside, in part because I’m afraid of my anger. I’m afraid I won’t be able to control it because I’m more like Moses than I’d like to admit.

But as Jesus shows, there’s often a place for anger. When there’s injustice in the world, we need people like those women on Time Magazine and like Moses and Jesus. We need people to blow the whistle and risk their jobs, security, and possibly their friends in the name of justice. But as we do that work, we need to be guided by love, not by hate for any individual. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the powers and principalities of injustice.

So when we experience anger, may we be guided by love.

May we channel our anger against the powers and principalities, not against flesh and blood.

And may we continue to worship the God who leads us out of oppression and into liberation, grace, and love.

Amen.


[1] The commandment, given later, reveals that Moses’ act of murder went against the desire of God.

[2] See Melvin Bray’s excellent book, Better: Waking Up to Who We Could Be, chapter 8.

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