[On the third Sunday of the month at St James West Hampstead we hold a service run by and for LGBTQIA people called Open Table. It was here that last night I preached for the first time with the theme of Pride Month, and the Gospel Matthew 21:12-13. I spoke as follows [whilst shaking with anxiety]…]
The Conservative Evangelical Anglican tradition I grew up in often struggled with this tale. As children, we’d be assured that Jesus was not, in fact, angry, that Jesus couldn’t be angry because Jesus was God, and God certainly wouldn’t commit the sin of anger like that. Here Jesus is behaving in all the ways that Christians aren’t “supposed” to behave. Where is His gentle polite serenity? But I can’t find a way to read this as anything other than “yes! Jesus was angry! God hates injustice!” I don’t understand how flipping over tables can be toned down, made safe and calm and nice.
This idea of impartial apolitical niceness is one I struggle with. I get angry. Any of you who are friends with me on social media will have seen me fighting with people: often over matters of justice, sometimes over trivial things that there was no good reason for me to be angry about. This is a bad habit that I’m trying to break. But I’m trying to break it because the way I respond to this anger hurts me, and hurts those around me not because anger in itself is “sinful”.
For the Bible itself is full of anger. People cry out to God in anger & in fear & in distress. And God seems okay with that. In fact, often it is God Themself who is angry. Angry at the injustice we pour out upon each other. Angry at how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. In Amos God tells us [to paraphrase] “I hate your festivals, your assemblies are a stench to me. I will not accept your worship. Away with the noise of your harps” This is not language delivered with a polite smile. It sounds very much like the throwing over of tables in the temple. God stands up & says “no! Enough!” But then it continues “Instead let justice flow down like a river”. Jesus is not in that Temple making a scene because he’s in a bad mood because he needs someone to take out his feelings on. Jesus is there ridding the Temple of what was obstructing the flow of justice. The money lenders would cheat those who would come to worship thus making it hard for those without money to offer the required sacrifices, placing a barrier between the already marginalised and God. A not unfamiliar situation for many of us.
Too often this world looks like someone built a massive dam in that river of justice. A tower block, inhabited by the same poor & marginalised people that God calls for justice for, can burn down killing dozens, perhaps even hundreds because to our government, to building contractors, to landlords, to the whole system money matters more than our lives. A police officer can pull over a man simply because he was black, murder that man in front of his kid, and get off without charge. In this country over a million people rely on food banks to feed their families, girls miss school when they have their periods because they can’t afford sanitary products. Our Church is so *toxic* with homophobia and transphobia that it’s killing people. Almost half of young British trans people have attempted suicide (myself among them). Almost half of young homeless people are queer. The murder of trans people [mostly trans women of colour] is so epidemic that there’s a page on Wikipedia listing the small portion of those deaths that are reported. That’s a lot of injustice.
And as we celebrate Pride we remember that it was these same kind injustices that forty years ago led to the Stonewall Riots. A bar full of the most marginalised of the queer community: trans people, drag queens, butch lesbians, homeless teenagers, African-American & Latinx people, fought back against the police brutality they experienced. They experienced injustice again and again and again. And then they started turning over tables. That night is widely considered the beginning of the gay and trans rights movements and led to the beginnings of our Pride marches. Tables overturned to slowly allow the river of justice to begin to flow.
I don’t know how to see our world, to see and hear this injustice and not be angry. But I also don’t always know what to do next. Anger can burn within us, turn us to ash. Or we can use it. Do whatever going to the temple to drive out the moneylenders means today. Protests and petitions and vigils. Sharing what we have with food banks and charities. Giving our time, our love. And in all this remembering to love ourselves too. Sometimes the most radical thing you can do as a marginalised person, as a person whose gender, whose sexuality, whose very being is considered by some to be sinful, is to love ourselves. To love the person who God made us to be. Jesus’s seeking of justice in that temple wasn’t about an abstract idea that the way people were behaving didn’t match up to some code of contact. Justice is about rescuing each one of us as individuals from very real oppression.
This doesn’t always look pretty. Our Church always seems to want to fight injustice slowly. They say that we can’t speak out against homophobia because it might alienate people. That we can’t welcome queer and trans people because of some excuse or another. That we must shy away from controversy. But in this slowness, We. Are. Dying. Maybe some people will leave the church if we welcome and affirm and celebrate LGBTQIA people, if we fly pride flags from our buildings, but even Jesus drove people out of religious buildings when they were causing harm and perpetuating injustice against us, God’s people.