A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 13, August 11, 2002, dedicated to men and women who have been injured and abused and have every right to be angry; may God work for their healing and always dedicated to the glory of God!
Part IV of VII in the Summertime Sermon Series: "The Lost Keys for Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus"
Jonah 4:1-11 and Mark 3:1-7
Today, I continue the seven-part sermon series on the lost keys to understanding Jesus which when complete, will have spread over four months - but not four months of Sundays. The first three sermons were Law, Grace, and Meekness. Today is Anger. Next week I will preach on Sanity, taking in the multiplicity of dimensions of madness and love. Contentment follows with Touch ending the series on September 1st.
I imagine this sermon on anger may strike a chord with you. Anger, I believe is one of the most unexplored feelings of Christian life because, historically, we have been afraid to express it in legitimate fear that it could become a consuming fire. But, today, let us lay our fears at the altar of God and let us step into this lost key and look more closely. I commend to you an exceptional book published just this month by Jossey-Bass Publishing House entitled, The Enigma of Anger by Episcopalian priest Garret Keizer. I draw from the Rev. Keizer's wisdom and experience. Let us pray . . .
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
The book of Jonah tells the story of a prophet whom God calls to deliver a message of doom to the wicked people of Nineveh. Nineveh was in the Assyrian Empire which was Israel's most dreaded enemy at the time. Jonah doesn't want to be the prophetic delivery-boy for God. So he takes a ship headed in the opposite direction, in fact to the very edge of the known world, a place where every angry man or woman dreams of going at one time or another. When a storm blows up, Jonah attributes it to divine retribution and urges the pagan sailors to throw him overboard into the ocean. The pagans sailors respond as pagans often do with a clear sense of right and wrong that puts most of us to shame. They don't listen to him and just keep rowing. Finally, Jonah prevails upon them and finally they throw him into the sea and the sea is calmed.
Everybody knows that he is swallowed by a "great fish" (whom popular legend refers to as a whale). While in the belly of the fish, Jonah undergoes something like a conversion experience in which he praises God in a neat little psalm and (like many converts before him and after) he offers a few condescending remarks about those who worship vain idols ("Yes!" he is talking about the men who tried to save him on the ship!). No sooner has his song of praise ended than Jonah gets spit out on the beach.
So he goes to Nineveh, as he should have done from the start. He delivers the message of doom and destruction and the Ninevites repent and many people think this is where the story ends. But, as Rick read earlier, this is where the real story begins. God also repents of his destructive designs upon the Ninevites and Jonah is furious with rage that cannot be consoled! He yells at God:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing!
Now we may have thought that he fled because he thought the message he had was too harsh. Rather, he fled suspecting all along that God wouldn't punish these "evildoers" (sound like a word we have heard often in the last year!). Jonah continues, "And now O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better to die than to live."
As you have heard in the reading today, God provides Jonah some shade and protection as he sits outside the east gate of Nineveh stewing in his anger. But, with the dawn the Lord sends a worm which devours the protective bush. And God sends a sultry east wind and a beating-down-sun upon Jonah. Jonah responds again, "It is better for me to die than to live." But God responds to Jonah:
`Is it right for you to be angry about a bush?' And Jonah said, `Yes, angry enough to die.' Then the Lord said, `You are concerned about the bush for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?'
We gain two important insights into anger from this story. First, all the events that trouble Jonah, frustrate him, infuriate him, and send him to the edge of death are meant for his education. Now, God spends a lot of energy and trouble with this lesson plan. The Lord sends great winds upon the sea, a regurgitating large fish, a bush, and a worm - not to mention 120,000 penitent pagans and many animals to teach his servant, Jonah. You can make the claim that this theology is naive and anthropocentric and that's just fine. But, I guarantee that those of you sitting in this room who name it as such, also harbor a belief that the source of your frustration and anger; your pain and struggle is some malevolent force, some cosmic meanie whose design and purpose in your life is to mess things up. I know you are sophisticated people. Yet, some of us see bad things happen and think God's judging us. God is out to get us. God has picked us among the billions of God's children for a particular curse of judgment. Am I right?
The book of Jonah raises some very important questions for us: If we have enough faith to say that "God cursed it!," (Expletive deleted) why do we not possess the faith to say, "God appointed it!" If we can say, "What have I done to deserve this?" Why can't we also say, "What am I to learn from this?" True, neither question is absolutely valid. In certain predicaments - a death camp for instance - both questions are utterly absurd. But none of us are in death camps! We are in depressive holes, where we can believe in God enough to think God might hate us, but not enough to think God might teach us. It is more likely that we will curse the universe for giving us a brain tumor than to trust it for the brain we have.
The second lesson we learn from Jonah is simpler and more startling. We learn that the things that make us most angry with God, more angry than droughts, famines, male pattern baldness, cellulite, poor report cards from our children is this: God's mercy. It is God's mercy that enrages Jonah. If you and I are completely honest, that is what infuriates us too. When a child dies in a car crash because of drunk driver, we are angry, but we are angrier still that the drunk driver lives on. It is mercy - not justice or injustice - that really ticks us off in the end. We wonder, how is it that a "supposedly benevolent God" could allow so many calamities to go unaddressed? The mercy is what becomes so maddening.
And perhaps it is the "mercy" that is the real cause of anger in the church. In the end, is it really the sad and too often convoluted history of "organized religion" that galls us so, or is it the our rather subconscious disdain for any club that would have us as a member - like Jonah - wondering how we could ever live up to the forgiveness, mercy, and love of God - a God who actually cares and cares intensely for us and for the folks praying, singing, and worshiping beside us, who like us, often muddle through and feel like misfits in their heart of hearts?
I must admit, by looking at Jonah, whose anger at God is significant and important in our exploration of anger, I have abandoned the misunderstood Jesus. My focus on Jonah is not without thought. Like William Shakespeare's Hamlet, there is a method to my madness! I feel that facing his very human struggle with God and angry response to God is crucial for each us. Jonah offers us that.
Before focusing on Jesus, I would like to offer you a definition of anger that I really appreciate. I say this as one who struggles with the multiplicities of anger every day. I don't know about you, but anger is an emotion that too often undoes me. Having grown up in a family where anger was rarely expressed, I find my struggle, as Garret Keizer says, "an enigma." Keizer defines anger this way: "Anger is an emotion of extreme frustration poised at the possibility of action." If we think of our emotions as having purposes, might the purpose of anger be to enable us to break loose, to struggle free, and at the most basic level to survive?" (Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, Josey-Bass Company, San Francisco, CA, 2002, p.16). "Yes!" I say to his question! Think of it. We become angry when we are extremely frustrated by something. Like a baby who doesn't have words to express feelings, we begin to boil. But, it's more than that. For, we have the possibility of action. We have the capability to break loose, to struggle free of that which binds us, to move to a new level of action on our behalf or on behalf of others.
During the congregational forums on ONA in the last six weeks and through the educational process of the last year, I have heard the question from well-meaning people, "Why do we need to vote or say anything on Open and Affirming? Aren't we already open and affirming?" I believe the questions are honest and heartfelt. But, I also feel the anger of those who have been told through generations, "Just wait! The church will move on this issue or that issue. If you wait, good things will happen." So on and so forth . . . In his excellent essay, "Why We Can't Wait!" The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lays out a history of black people in America up to 1963. He points out that in various periods of the early 19th Century, there were as many black people in America as white people! Nevertheless, here they stood 150 years later waiting for the same equal rights and civil rights of their white sisters and brothers. Dr. King's extreme frustration poised at the possibility of action could not wait any longer! His anger had reached a point where the only way forward was action, not waiting! Is it any wonder that anger rises in the hearts, minds, and souls of those who have for too long been told that their day is coming, that justice will (someday - the operative word) prevail? For those who have waited for the church to say and do something, anger is justified as their point of extreme frustration is poised at the possibility of action. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read often about the wrath of God. In the face of injustice, God's righteousness is often coupled with God's anger. If we are compelled to proclaim God's perfect righteousness without God's anger, then we subject those who are oppressed to a life of passive suffering without hope of recourse, retribution or equality. That said, God's righteous action doesn't need to take on the form of violence. Jesus lived this way. You see, the trait of anger in the face of injustice was not lost on God's son, "in whom God was well pleased!" Rather, Jesus like Gandhi, and King after him, used nonviolence an active resistance to indifference and injustice.
There is only one place in the gospels where Jesus is explicitly said to be angry. It happens in today's text from Mark 3:1-7 in which Jesus looks with anger on his critics as he seeks to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. In this story, as in the story of the cleansing of the temple (where Jesus turns over the moneychangers tables and in John's gospel uses a whip to do so), Jesus extends himself in anger on behalf of others. In the face of human suffering, he will not stand silent and allow unkindness and injustice to prevail. He acts at the point where his extreme frustration meets the possibility of action.
When considering anger and righteous action, I remember the story of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief, who, upon receiving reports that some of his braves, with the support of their British allies, were scalping American prisoners of war during the war of 1812, immediately took to horse and rode to the camp where the atrocities were taking place. Kicking one of his scalping braves to the ground and brandishing his tomahawk over another, he is said to have cried in a loud voice, "Are there no men here?" The answer reverberates throughout history: there is at least one man. If the Son of God was anywhere in the American wilderness at that moment, where was he but in the heart of Tecumseh? (Quoted in Keizer's book, pp.34-35).
There are many people who are justified in their anger. Women who have been oppressed and deeply wounded by rape, are justified in their anger. The countless men who we are reading about who were abused by priests as young boys (and the statistics are about 75-80% boys, now men), are justified in their anger. Those who have suffered in any and all ways, shapes and forms because others have used power and violence over them, are justified in their anger. And I haven't even touched upon the toughest issue of anger and that is how to forgive others who have deeply wounded or injured you. I will say this, "the injuries we suffer almost always involve constraint and diminishment; they confine us to a prison of fear, of hatred, of self-loathing. And so often our anger arises from the desire to break free of that confinement. Anger shows itself as an impulse to knock down walls. As forgiveness, it walks through walls - as the resurrected Christ is also said to have done" (Keizer, p. 249).
But, we must remember, even as Christ found ways through death to life, even as he walked through walls and forgave those who crucified him, he still had holes in this hands as evidence of the hurt and pain he went through.
As we face our extreme frustrations, poised at the possibility of action, we will overcome some of that which angers us. I hope, most. But, I also hope that we channel our anger into righteous action. In so doing, we will be resurrected by anger, rather than be killed by its wrathful stream of destruction. Amen.
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