Shaking Things Up -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13C
Shaking Things Up
Last summer I participated in a week of training for persons involved in faith-based community organizing. The leader of our session kept asking us what made us angry. The premise of the presentation was that if we are to have power to change things in the world we must get in touch with our own anger. In other words, what gets you riled up? As we sat there in that session there was great unease with this suggestion. The feeling of many, especially the clergy in the room was: we’re Christians; we’re not supposed to get angry. That didn’t deter the leader who kept pushing us (and we pushed back). What was he getting at? His point was simple – you won’t act simply because you’re concerned about injustice. It takes passion. That is, it takes a bit of righteous anger to move from being concerned to acting in a way that changes the realities lying in front of us. Otherwise, we’re probably little different from the Seinfeld crew in the final episode. Perhaps you remember it – they’re arrested because they didn’t get involved in preventing a man from being robbed. Instead they watched and laughed. And as the trial that ended the series showed – that was their nature.
I would venture to state that many Mainline Protestants have long had a problem with anger. We prefer a God of love, thinking love conquers all, and so the idea that God could get angry baffles us. Why? Well anger is the equivalent of evil. To quote the Emperor Palpatine, it is the path to the dark side. Yes, there is power in anger, but it will consume us, even as it consumed a young Anakin Skywalker. But the way of the Jedi is Stoicism. Will Stoicism lead to action? Then there’s love, but as powerful as love may be, can it lead to passivity as well?
I raise the issue of anger and wrath because these appear in one way or another in the lectionary texts for the week. There is also a call to being a faithful witness, but there is also a word here regarding divine judgment as a call to action.
In the first reading, Jeremiah reminds us with a degree of gentleness that God isn’t our buddy. There is a tendency among some to romanticize God. We see this present in much of the contemporary Christian music, which is often comprised of “love songs to Jesus” – that is, “Jesus is my boyfriend.” But Jeremiah reminds us that God transcends our realities. Yes, God is nearby, but that is because God fills heaven and earth. There is nearness but also distance. One of the values of Karl Barth’s emphasis on God being wholly other is that it reminded us that we can’t approach God on our own terms. God is the one who does the revealing. Jeremiah writes in this passage a word to the wise, reminding his audience that you can’t hide from God, which means you also can’t pass on lies without God knowing it.
To the prophets among us – those who proclaim the Word – do so with faithfulness, because God is the one who judges with refining fire. God says to the people “isn’t my word like fire and like a hammer that shatters rock?” Is this not a reminder that when God speaks, God can and does speak words of judgment? It’s not enough to live and let live. There are signs of injustice that require a word of judgment – a little righteous anger that leads to action.
Hebrews 11 offers powerful testimonies to the life of faith. It’s not about doctrine – it’s about trust. But trust requires substance. We may not see or perceive the hand of God, but trust requires something more than simply a dream – a figment of the imagination. Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land – while the pursuing Egyptian army was swept away. Jericho’s walls fell. Rahab was spared. The list of faith events goes on. We might see God, but we act in the knowledge that God is with us, leading the way, beckoning us forward. How do we know?
There is a great cloud of witnesses, who have lived by faith, knowing that God will fulfill God’s promises – in God’s own time. This host of voices bears witness of God’s faithfulness. It is important that we remember these witnesses – the voices we often hear in the witness of tradition/history. They remind us of the importance of perseverance. While must be careful, especially in modern America, in highlighting the lives of those who have suffered, it is important to remember that the life of faith isn’t a bed of roses – unless the roses are still connected to the stems with thorns! Yes, the witness of these voices reminds us that God is not meek and mild; God is love, but God is also just and justice requires “lowering the boom” from time to time. And so, how should we respond? The author of Hebrews declares: “let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter” (Heb. 12:1 CEB). Why? Because Jesus endured the cross on our behalf.
Hebrews 11 is fairly gentle. It is a call to let go of the things that hold us back as we run the race of faith. In Luke 12, Jesus takes this a bit further. Here is the word of anger that I promised you. Here is where we learn that the Sunday School teacher might have been wrong about Jesus being meek and mild. Here we find, in Luke’s telling, Jesus telling those listening to him: “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze” (Luke 12:49 CEB). Now, that’s a word fitting of Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon on sinners in the hands of angry God. Don’t think Jesus doesn’t get angry – except for that one case of the money changers – well think again. There is passion in those words. We hear people tell us not to rock the boat. Keep the peace. I’m good at that – really I am. But that’s not Jesus. He comes to shake things up. When he comes to town people get divided. Even families will find themselves caught up in this division. Do you like this word? Probably not. But if we’re to participate in God’s work of bring wholeness to a broken world, will we not have to join God in stirring up the pot? Can there be true organization without a bit of disorganizing going on ahead of time?
The second part of the passage follows up on this statement by asking whether we’re really aware of what’s going on around us. Jesus tells the people – if you see clouds forming in the west you know it’s probably going to rain. A south wind? Well, probably a heat spell. If you can sense what’s happening with the weather – how come you can’t do the same with what’s happening in the world? Why can’t you interpret the present? Can you see the signs of God’s judgment?
Do I like the idea of an angry God? Not really. But maybe what I’m thinking about is a capricious God who acts out of malice. That’s not the biblical God. That’s not the God I serve. But this God I seek to serve is also committed to justice – and that requires a bit of righteous anger!