Monday, March 16, 2009

Holy Anger

Scripture read on the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 20:1-17, I Corinthians 1:18-25, and John 2: 13-22

Have you ever seen a stained glass window devoted to that scene in the life of our Lord, his overturning the tables of the money-changers, driving out the sheep and cattle? Do you imagine that Louis Comfort Tiffany ever designed such a window? I’ve never seen one. I’m going to guess that you haven’t, either.

What a shame. I think I’d be attracted to a church that had an appetite for art like that. Think of the message. Anger accepted here. We have a Savior who understands how you sometimes feel. Even what you sometimes do.

Maybe the message might be, Come and flex your muscles with us for justice in the world, starting with how we manage the affairs of the Church.

Let’s stay with this theme of holy anger. What do you say we aim some at the moguls and former high priests of high risk whose greed has led us into this time of trial? And if you’re reaching for your whip of cords, let me guess you might be looking for federal regulators who should have been minding the store—and for the old gang formerly in power who told them not to bother.

Is it tempting to consider also the vast number of pretty ordinary people who coveted their neighbors’ houses and decided to build or buy bigger ones? My guess is that we won’t judge them harshly. Their tables have been overturned. They’re suffering badly.

But I’ll bet we want to aim those whips at executives who have profited from oversized untimely bonuses while millions of lower-paid workers lose their jobs.

Can you get into this? It’s hard to stop. That may be one reason we consider anger to be beneath us. If we don’t keep it locked in the basement, it might take over the dining room and wouldn’t that be a mess?

Friday is my day to prepare Sunday’s sermon. Friday morning, as I read that day’s entry in Martin Smith’s challenging Lenten book A Season for the Spirit, listen to what I found there:

“If the thought of facing Jesus’ anger is troubling and repellent, that is probably a sign that we have trouble in giving a place to ‘the forceful one’ in our own inner society. What do we do with our aggression? Where is our anger? If we are not prepared to face our own aggression and bring it into contact with the forcefulness of Jesus, then this element of our humanity will be left unredeemed. Unredeemed, it will poison our lives and through us the lives of our neighbors.

“How did Jesus demonstrate that aggression can be holy? He showed that (it) can provide the energy for us to assert the primacy of love, to cut away all that is not love, to differentiate the important from the trivial, to provide the strength to separate the authentic from the false and pretentious…

“Often we are so afraid of (our anger) that we deny and suppress it behind false smiles. So it smoulders below like a fire deep down in a ship’s hold, with the fumes seeping out here and there, igniting now and then in nasty remarks and peevish moods. Or anger rejected and bottled up inside leaks out and eats away at our own self-esteem like a caustic, inducing depression. We endow others with our own unlived aggression. We become terribly hurt by others’ remarks because we inflate their anger with our own, which we are refusing to acknowledge and use. Or we allow anger, still disconnected from the love of God… to grab the reins and drive us in this direction and that, trampling others down on the way.

“We must love our capacity to be forceful, love our aggression, as God…loves it in Jesus. (This) means honestly expressing in prayer what actually does arouse our anger, including the way God seems to treat us. Only when we vent and name our anger can we be open to the purification, healing and redirection of our anger. This is a humiliating and messy business, because it compels us to recognize two things. First, how much energy we expend smothering the rage caused by past injuries, pretending that ‘it was nothing, really…’ and that we have no need of the healing and consolation of God. Second, the extent to which we pervert and trivialize the God-given energy of aggression. We fret and fume over minute frustrations, but as for the outrageous injustices in the world, in the church and in our own local communities that cry out before God for correction, we feel almost nothing beyond a vague sense that ‘there’s nothing I can do about it.’ A passionate God tries to stimulate and recruit our passion, and we resist by numbing and dissipating it. The absurdity is that we think we are being penitent as we confess to God in our prayers that we have been angry, when our real sin is our dogged refusal to let the Spirit arouse our anger in the causes of love and justice.”

I thank Martin Smith for carrying about a third of this sermon today. At this moment in our national and global life, it’s important that we claim and harness the energy of anger. Jesus used it to clear the temple, to confront his culture with its failure to fulfill the mind of God. Attacking its signature sin, the big business of religion as a supermarket for animal sacrifices allegedly pleasing to God and required for purity, Jesus dismantled a system that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. It had to have triggered his aggression, seeing peasants pay their next-to-last denarius to convert street money to temple money, then pay their last denarius to purchase a dove to sacrifice both its life and theirs. Each transaction lined the pockets of the rich, emptied the pockets of the poor. “Enough!” he cried.

This is good scripture for the year 2009.

And it is good scripture beside which to hear, later this morning, Thomas Mikelson spread before us the social witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cleansing the temple placed Jesus in the cross-hairs of his enemies. Confronting Jim Crow, both south and north, exposed Martin to the toxic aggression of the enemies of the civil rights movement. There could have been no such movement without holy anger, without quiet and peaceable people claiming their anger and declaring, “Enough!”

To what are we called to declare that today? What tables need overturning to free us to fulfill the mind of our maker?

We may find out, as each of us follows the lead of Jesus and dares to see his or her body as a temple of God, not a marketplace (as we have been taught to see ourselves, since childhood) but a sanctuary. A sanctuary.

--The long quotation in this sermon comes from Martin L. Smith's "A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent", Cowley Publications, 1991, pp. 60-61.