Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon for February 24, 2013 / Lent II

Where is God When I’m Angry?
February 24, 2013 / Lent II
At that time some Pharisees said to him, “Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!” Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow; and the third day I will accomplish my purpose. Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn’t do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem! O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned. And you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Luke 13:31-35
Every once in a while, we meet someone who is REALLY angry. I remember cutting someone off in traffic when I lived in Boston. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, you know that cutting people off and being cut off is a matter of survival . . . and enjoyment! But this was a close call, even by Boston standards. The driver not only laid on his horn in anger, he followed me to my destination. When I parked, he ran out of his car while it was still rolling to a stop, approached my humble, maroon Ford Taurus station wagon and began pounding on the roof of the car, swearing and shouting. He was out of control – telling me to come out of the car and apologize. There was no way I was getting out of my car. I was afraid of his anger.

Sometimes I hear people talk about feeling angry toward God. And sometimes they feel guilty about it. Take this letter for instance. It was written to a newspaper columnist:

At an early age, my mother was taken from me and my family due to an illness. It was a terrible blow for all of us to take. My biggest struggle then and now is my anger. I acknowledge the existence of a higher power but find it hard to believe in God. I'm angry with [God] for taking my mother from me. It seems as though God is made out to be our savior, our forgiver and our friend. Why would [God] tear my family life asunder by taking her from us? I've moved away from the Lord as a result, angry that [God] robbed such a powerful figure from my life. How can I cope with and heal my anger?

Death not only cost this man a mother. That alone is hard enough. He also feels alienated from God. His sense of how and why he belongs in this world has shifted. The one whom he intimately called “God” is now a source of abandonment. I wonder if that’s how the psalmist felt when writing the words of Psalm 27. Addressing God, the psalmist writes, “Do not turn your back on me. Do not reject your servant in anger. You have always been my helper. Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me, O God of my salvation!” We hear this desperate tone in many of the psalms. Listen to the opening words of Psalm 13:
    Long enough, God— you've ignored me long enough.
    I've looked at the back of your head long enough.
    Long enough I've carried this ton of trouble,
    lived with a stomach full of pain.
    Long enough my arrogant enemies
    have looked down their noses at me.
Let’s be honest. Sometimes we get angry. Sometimes we get angry when we feel like we have no control over our lives. It may be a failed relationship. Or the death of a loved one. Or growing worry over an unending health crisis. Or financial concerns. Sometimes, we get angry at God. And sometimes we feel guilty. The problem is some of us have been told that it’s inappropriate to get angry at God. We worry that God's feelings will be hurt. Or worse yet, God will return our anger. God will be like that angry man in Boston, pounding on the roof of my Ford Taurus Wagon with frothing, unbridled rage. Many of us were raised to believe that God is much better at being angry than we can ever be. There is an old saying: Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig. Some people think the same reasoning applies to our relationship with God. Never get angry at God. It wastes your time and annoys God. And you do not want to be on the receiving end of God’s anger. Remember good old Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Sinners in the hands of an Angry God? Edwards imagines people dangling from the hand of God over the pit of hell. He writes, “they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them . . .” No one wants to get that God angry!

I no longer listen for God in those texts. I say go ahead and let yourself feel angry. Anger is a sign that something is wrong. And it’s OK to let God know about it. God already knows that we are angry, and God knows WHY we are angry. God knows our feelings of helplessness, fear, confusion, and disappointment that lead to our anger. Sometimes we feel angry because we are powerless. God knows our powerlessness. Sometimes we get angry because we are hurt. God understands pain. God might even share our anger!

Consider the scene we read from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has some allies in the camp of the Pharisees. They warn Jesus to run, because Herod is on the lookout from him. Jesus would be wise to follow their advice -- Herod is worth running from. Herod is a menace and an iconic bully. Herod is not so much a despot as a manipulator, which is a bully’s prime talent.  He achieves his goals through economic oppression.  Money, taxation, and opulence are among his weapons. Herod’s works are huge, elaborate, and expensive. In contrast, Jesus’ works are disarmingly simple, freely given, and liberating.  Jesus says Herod is like a fox, and he is like a mother hen. Herod wants to rule with slyness and fear. Jesus wants to draw and protect the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

I hear some anger in Jesus’ words, too. To me, Jesus sounds angry at a ruler who is, by all accounts, a sociopath. Jesus is angry at a political system that where leaders use poverty as a tool of domination; where the rich become richer as they devour resources that could be used for the common good. Jesus is angry at a city that closes its ears to the truth of God’s reign, kills its prophets and punishes God’s messengers. Even thinking about it stirs anger within my own heart. I wonder if Jesus feels the same way.

Remember, Luke is collecting and compiling his stories long after Jesus has died and risen. Luke and his congregation are still living in a broken world. He wants his readers, his congregation, to understand something through this event. He wants them know that when they look at the condition of the world around them, there is plenty to be angry about. Luke sees idolatry, persecution of prophets, injustice, inequality, exploitation, poverty, scarcity, violence, and death. He sees people who are beat up, worn down, and angry. But that’s not the end of the story. Anger is an invitation. It’s an invitation to experience their violent, alienating world as it really is. It’s an invitation to make a change. Luke’s audience has an opportunity to join a movement that can free them from the entwining values of their broken world. In Christ, they can weave new values into society; values like love, peace, justice, equality, mutuality, solidarity and life.

Luke is preaching to our congregation, too. We can look around us and get angry at the broken world around us. And that is OK. The anger is an invitation to make the world better. Our anger can lead us to the realization that cultures built on self-centeredness, racism, exploitation, manipulation, sexism, homophobia, ultra-nationalism and threat of violence can expect those very things to lead to the eventual breakdown of that culture. Luke offers a vision of the church, our church, as a prophetic community that engages in ministry on behalf of the aims of God.

Listen to this quote about prophetic anger:
"I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth . . . but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."
Nelson Mandela wrote those words in his book Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela was angry at the injustice of apartheid. He was not remorseful or ashamed of this anger — it was actually a source of blessing. Anger moved people enough to stand up, to fight for freedom, and to change the unjust system of oppression that was governing South Africa. What an incredible gift anger can be -- to be upset and aware. Anger can be a great motivator to help us seek justice and change in the world.

Our feelings do not surprise God. Instead of letting your anger block God, use your anger to let God in. Tell God how you are feeling. Let God know your deepest, darkest fears and concerns. Invite God to know your sorrows and count your tears. You may never get all the answers, but you may get something else. You may get comfort instead of answers. You may get motivated to change your part of the world.

I think it’s OK to be angry at God, but it’s not OK to stay angry. That only hurts you. Ongoing anger doesn’t affect God. But it changes you. Ongoing anger changes the way you perceive reality. Ongoing anger harms your relationships. Over time, these feelings keep us from experiencing the liberating, transforming, renewing, glorious new life that God wants us to have. Anger is a holy, if difficult intimacy. Whatever causes you to feel pain is now part of your spiritual journey. It calls for strength, and honesty, and the steadfast assurance that God is for us.

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy,” said Aristotle, “But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” A minister named Dale Turner reminds us of this one certainty in life: “Were anger and moral indignation to die out of the world, society would swiftly rot to extinction. It is possible to be good — and at the same time — be angry. God both wills and encourages it.” There are still things that still make God angry in this world. There are still things in this world that make God weep. Injustice, aching poverty, discrimination and systematic oppression. God is still angry, and we should be too. We can commit to doing things about them. The important thing is that we be angry about the right things, and express it in appropriate ways. May our anger be directed to constructive ends so that God’s love may grow, and all people may know the God of compassion, justice and peace.


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