Posted by: smstrouse | February 4, 2018

The Gift of Anger to the Church

be-the-change-9781481442657A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany             Isaiah 40: 21-31; Mark 1: 29-39

Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? God reduces the privileged to nothing and throws the rulers of the earth into chaos. God blows on them and they wither, and a storm wind sweeps them away like chaff.

I’ll be honest; I’m having a hard time believing that today. I hear the words of the prophet calling me to hope, to trust. But what I’m experiencing – and have been experiencing for a while now – is anger. Which creates a problem for me – because like a lot of women (and I’m sure a lot of men, too), I was raised to believe that anger is bad and you need to just get over it. It’s somehow not “Christian.”

So I’ve been wrestling with this anger over the state of the union, with the unending revelations of sexual assault by men in positions of power. And even over the church, and its seeming inability to really address – and change – issues of patriarchy and privilege. To top it off, I’ve been reeling at the sudden death of a beloved colleague. So add grief to the mixture. I was taught in seminary not be too self-revelatory in my preaching. But over the years I’ve found that my struggles have often been the same ones experienced by people in my congregations. So, like a good Lutheran: here I stand. God help me; I can do no other.

Now, I’m sure you are quite aware that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean that we’ll never get tired, discouraged, upset, or even angry. We’re full-service human beings. Along with all the joyfulness, excitement, and energy we often feel, there are also “those times.”

Jesus himself knew this. The gospel writer doesn’t give us any indication of what Jesus was feeling that day in Capernaum. But after a full schedule of teaching, healing, and tending to the needs of others, he decided to go off to a lonely place in the desert to pray. It’s such a small part of the text. We usually tend to lift up the activities: the healing story, those pesky demons. But tucked in there is the self-care that Jesus needed to do in order to go back into his work in the world. So when the frantic disciples came looking for him, he was ready to go, because after all, that was what he knew he had come to do.

So this one little verse – in the very first chapter of the very first of the gospels to be written – is also advice to us when we become overwhelmed with the weight of the world: not only the day-to-day challenges of life, but also the very real challenges of being a disciple of Jesus in the midst of trying and troubling times. Especially when we get angry and discouraged by news of those who also profess to be Christians saying and doing things that simply are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

I was talking to a member of another congregation yesterday about this. He’d been trying to organize what he called a “day of outrage” for Christians to come together to find a way to get the word out that “Christian” did not have to be a pejorative among those who hear about and experience only that kind of Christianity. He was wondering why it was so difficult to get people together to even try to make a change. One idea several of us had was that so many people are discouraged. With so many issues, so many things wrong, we have compassion fatigue.

I though about this as I wrote this sermon – still feeling my anger and grief. And I heard these words about Jesus again: go to a lonely place in the desert to pray. And, no, you don’t have to go out to a desert; you don’t even need a particular prayer. It’s really the inner “lonely place in the desert” where inspiration comes. And we each have to find how to get there. For me, it’s taking time out from thinking and instead focusing quietly only on my deep breathing. Evidently that works for the Holy Spirit because she showed up for me last night.

Unexpectedly, I was drawn back to Second Isaiah, who was offering hope and encourage-ment to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon who had finally been given the opportunity to return home. But when we dig a bit deeper into the story, beyond the obvious good news of the release of the captives, we find that with that opportunity came many soul-searching questions. Why should they go back? After decades of wondering if their God had maybe lost some kind of cosmic battle with the Babylonian god or had simply abandoned them, their faith and trust had been depleted. Maybe, like me, their first reaction was anger.

I don’t know. In any event, recognizing their spiritual depletion, Isaiah calls them to remember: to remember their identity as people of God, to remember what their relationship with God had once been. The prophet paints a picture of a powerful, caring, creative deity. Even if the devastation of exile has sapped their faith and their strength, he assures them that they can still draw on Divine strength for spiritual renewal and for the energy they’d need for the journey home. In the midst of all the emotional and spiritual baggage they carried, Isaiah encourages them to go back.

Although, in reality, they’re not going back; they’re going forward. The really good news –for them and us – actually comes a bit later in Chapter 43, as God proclaims:
Look, I’m doing something new! Now it springs forth;
can’t you see it? I’m making a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The way back is paradoxically a forward movement into a future of new possibili-ties. Which brings us to where we find ourselves today. We can’t go back – whether to a better day: to a nation that never thought its democratic system could be under attack from within. We certainly can’t go back to a worse day: to a culture that enables the abuse and assault of any of those deemed weaker and therefore fair prey. We can’t even go back to a time we’re not quite sure was better or not: like the “glory days” of the church.

Dinosaurs like me often say that the church I was trained to serve doesn’t exist anymore -or it’s holding on with its last breath. Even some of my colleagues in “thriving” churches recognize the reality of declining numbers and influence. And even those who applaud the emergence of innovative missions question how they can fit into the existing structure of the church, how they’ll be funded, what kind of leadership will be required.

These are anxious times. But we can’t go back. As the church, we move forward into an uncertain world. There will be days when we’ll experience indescribable joy and wonder. But there will also be “those days” when we wonder how to go on, how to make a difference in the world in the name of Jesus. There will be days when we’ll feel fatigue, grief, disappointment, and anger. But even these can be transformed for the sake of the gospel.

For example, in his book (which I love), The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from my Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi, Arun Gandhi describes how at age eleven he was sent to live with his grandfather, and for two years learned pivotal life lessons about social justice and community transformation – even though the fight against hate and extremism can often feel endless and overwhelming. In an interview he said, “My grandfather said that anger is a wonderful emotion. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. It’s a very powerful emotion but we need to learn how to channel it intelligently, so that we can use it effectively. Anger is like electricity. It’s just as useful and just as powerful but only when we use it intelligently. It can also be just as deadly and destructive if we abuse it. So we must learn to channel anger so that we can use that energy for the good of humanity rather than abuse it and cause violence. If we learn to channel anger effectively and positively, it can turn into courage, it can turn into something positive that we can use.”

And so, fueled by Gandhi and Jesus, my anger about the deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny in our nation and our church has led me to a place of action in organizing a leadership training follow-up to the San Francisco Women’s March. And Second Isaiah propels me forward.

That’s not to say that you should do the same thing. However, the process is the same. Recognize when, like the exiles in Babylon, your spirit is depleted. Then, go to a lonely place in the desert to pray. Breathe deeply. Listen for the murmuring of the Spirit as she breathes along with you. Rest in the strong arms of the One who has named you and claimed you.

And then, when you feel the nudge to get up and get back into the world, remember – as Isaiah preached it in days of old and now to us. Remember your identity as a child of God. Remember your relationship with the Divine that called you into discipleship. Remember the picture Isaiah painted of a powerful, caring, creative deity. Even if the devastation of the daily news has sapped your faith and your strength, remember that you can draw on Divine strength for spiritual renewal. Even if anxiety about the future of the church raises questions about its survival, breathe deeply. Have faith that we will be guided by the story of Jesus and sustained by the presence of Christ within the body of Christ. And trust that the Church will become whatever the Holy Spirit is birthing into being.

Amen

 

Isaiah 40: 21-31
Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
YHWH sits above the vaulted roof of the world,
and its inhabitants look like grasshoppers!
God stretches out the skies like a curtain,
and spreads them out like a tent for mortals to live under!
God reduces the privileged to nothing
and throws the rulers of the earth into chaos.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root on earth,
than God blows on them and they wither,
and a storm wind sweeps them away like chaff.

“To whom can you liken me?
Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
“Lift up your eyes and ask yourself
who made these stars,
if not the one who drills them like an army,
calling each by name?

Because God is so great in strength,
so mighty in power, Not a single one is missing.
How can you say, tribe of Leah and Rachel and Jacob,
‘My destiny is hidden from YHWH,
my rights are ignored by my God?’

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
YHWH is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
This God does not faint or grow weary;
with a depth of understanding that is unsearchable.
God give strength to the weary,
and empowers the powerless.
Young women may grow tired and weary,
Young men may stumble and fall,
But those who wait for YHWH
find a renewed power:
they soar on eagles’ wings,
they run and don’t get weary,
they walk and never tire.

Mark 1: 29-39
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s and Andrew’s house with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up, and the fever left her. Then she went about her work.
After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was.
Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said to him, “Everybody is looking for you!”
Jesus said to them, “Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do.”
So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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