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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.

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Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 11, 2013: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Isaiah 1:1,10-20  +  Psalm 50:1-8,22-23  +  Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

Fifty years ago next month, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the tragic occasion to deliver a eulogy at the funeral service for three of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th St. Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.  In his speech, which is remembered by history as “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” King spoke of the redemptive power in the blood of those murdered children.  He said,

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

That was fifty years ago, and this morning I want us to ask ourselves if, indeed, the innocent blood of those four little girls has caused the South, the North, and the whole of these United States to come to terms with its conscience.

Trayvon Martin w/ hoodieIn an article titled, “Why White Evangelical Churches Don’t Wear Hoodies,” published last Friday on the Huffington Post’s religion blog, the Rev. Mae Elisa Cannon, an Evangelical Covenant pastor and graduate of North Park Theological Seminary just three miles north of here, writes,

“Over the past few weeks, Black churches across the United States grieved and lamented the Zimmerman verdict of ‘not guilty.’ … Many churches of color and others joined in solidarity with Trayvon Martin by wearing their hoodies to worship. Church services addressed concerns of race, the legal system, gun violence, and issues of justice within communities of color.

On the other hand, the vast majority of white Evangelical churches haven’t been talking about the Trayvon Martin case on Sunday mornings. Besides a brief mention and perhaps a prayer the focal point of the Sunday sermon hasn’t been about racial injustice…”

A little further in her article, Cannon describes the reaction Lisa Sharon Harper had to the Zimmerman verdict.  Harper is an African American evangelical who works for Sojourners, a national Evangelical organization working on  racial and social justice, peacemaking, and environmental stewardship.

“Devoted to the Scriptures, Harper takes to heart the words of Isaiah, ‘Learn to do right; seek justice.’ (Isa. 1:17).  In a recent interview, she described her response upon learning the news of the verdict: ‘Shocked. Absolutely shocked … I went to sleep that night feeling numb. I slept hard that night. Then, as soon as I woke up the next morning, I started crying. Weeping. It hit me. The reality of the moment really hit me.’”

Fifty years after the nation was jolted out of its racist slumber by the deaths of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama we find ourselves divided once more by profoundly different reactions to the death of an African American child.  Jurors in Florida, a state with laws that make it possible for a person to kill another person if they feel threatened, to “stand their ground,” struggled to determine whose hands were stained with Trayvon Martin’s blood.

The book of Isaiah opens with the prophet Isaiah speaking as if he were prosecuting a case in a different kind of courtroom, the heavenly court:

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me … What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; … When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isa. 1:2,11a,12,15)

The issue of accountability is as complex today as it was for the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.  Imagine how confusing Isaiah’s righteous anger would have sounded to the average Israelite, the kind of person who rose early, worked hard all day long, paid his taxes and made his offerings at the Temple.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats … bringing incense is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” (Isa. 1:11,13-14)

It’s easy enough for us, reading through the text from a safe distance, to join with Isaiah in denouncing the hypocrisy of his time, of rulers and peoples who gather to worship God with their lips but not with their lives. From the perspective of that everyday Israelite, however, it’s not so easy to understand what is being asked for.

Those people, like Ryan and Gina who have brought their daughter, Chiara, for the appointed festival of baptism, were simply trying to live their lives with some sense of reverence for God in light of a tradition that was passed down generation after generation.  Those people’s offerings in the temple, like Chiara’s baptism this morning, were a way of keeping faith with the traditions that had shaped the identity not only of those individuals, but of a community, of an entire nation.

Like the ancient Israelites, we have words and actions we perform as signs of commitment to the God who calls people out of slavery; who brings people into lands of abundance; who restores the exiled; who heals the sick and comforts the dying; who brings new life to people and places left for dead.  We have even incorporated Isaiah’s critique of empty religion into our own rituals, so that as Chiara was baptized this morning we asked her parents to promise before God and before the whole Church that they would raise Chiara to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

But doesn’t Isaiah’s spirit push back against our sense of satisfaction? After all, so many baptized people in the world, so many promises made in sanctuaries just like these, and still so many eulogies being preached at so many funerals.

In describing the difference in perception that shapes the radically different response to public events like the Zimmerman verdict by White communities and communities of color, Mae Elise Cannon cites the work of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, authors of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

“Emerson and Smith describe the findings of thousands of phone interviews and hundreds of face-to-face interviews they conducted for their sociological study. In general, the found, White evangelicals view the world through the paradigm of rugged individualism, relationships, and anti-structuralism.  Black evangelicals also view the world through a lens of rugged individualism and relationships, but they are not anti-structural.  Rather, they understand the impact of systems and structures on whole people groups.”

In this regard, I think the historic Black church, and communities of color in general, may be better situated to understand the voice of the prophet Isaiah, who is not, really, addressing the people of Israel as individuals, but as a community, as a nation.

The difficulty of a ruling like the one in the George Zimmerman trial is that the jurors were able to find him innocent under the law, even though we know that individual jurors felt certain that he was guilty in some obvious sense.  That he was culpable for the death of Trayvon Martin, even if he was not held accountable.

It is that gap, the gap between culpability and accountability, through which the stain of a single death spreads out to mark the community around it.  It is the tragic gaps in our systems of justice, in our laws, in our public policy, in our sentencing guidelines, in our penal system — systems none of us own individually, but all of us own together — that leave us praying with blood-soaked hands.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Pittsburgh for the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.  At this assembly, our denomination will be debating whether or not to adopt a social statement on Criminal Justice that has been in the works for six years now.  Some of you took part in our own study of an early draft of the proposed social statement a couple of years ago.  The proposed social statement, in its current form, makes the following basic points:

  • The ELCA is prompted to speak and to act because so many cries of suffering and despair emerge from the criminal justice system — from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system — and have not been heard.
  • Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human imitations and yet is a mirror in which justice in this world, God’s world, must always be assessed.
  • A fundamental transformation of mindset about criminal justice is required that challenges the logic of equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.
  • Because mass incarceration causes significant harms, both personal and social, the ELCA strongly urges those who make and administer correctional policies to take all appropriate measures to limit the use of incarceration as a sanction for criminal offenses.  Toward that end, this statement identifies three specific paths: pursue alternatives to incarceration, reform sentencing laws and policies, and closely scrutinize national drug policy.
  • Four other imperatives also require vigorous action from policy makers: the criminal justice system must acknowledge the disparities, and address the implicit and explicit racism that persists within; it must recognize the special needs of juvenile offenders; it must also stop the privatization of prison facilities; and finally, it must foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into community.

(from the ELCA’s “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. A Proposed Social Statement on Criminal Justice. Brief Overview”)

It was Dr. King’s hope, and the prayer of every parent and person of conscience who gathered to mourn the loss of those four little girls, that those “tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color.”  Dr. King suggested that our nobility derives from how we act rather than how we look, and in this judgment he echoes the judgment of the prophet Isaiah, who said,

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:16-17)

I would ask you to pray for our church, the ELCA, as we gather in assembly this coming week.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us in all wisdom, so that the divisions that characterize our nation might be set aside for the sake of a probing, prayerful, and prophetic statement from the church God has called to the world God has created, and loves, and is laboring to restore.  Pray that the spilled blood of too many children might find a voice in our assembly, so that their deaths might not be in vain. Pray, most of all, that at the end of all our debates and our voting that the church’s action would be more than words, more than one more burdensome solemn assembly.  That whatever social statements we pass would find their ultimate expression in the lives we lead and the actions we take as a community gathered and sent for the sake of the world.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 21, 2013: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Amos 8:1-12  +  Psalm 52  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.

So, let’s go there.  It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry.  And when God is angry, it’s at humanity.  Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity.  God loves us.  God pleads with us.  God forgives us.  And God is angry with us.

It’s hard for me to say that.  Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words.  I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.”  But those are both dodges.  Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.

These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.

These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.

The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge.  Particularly from a pulpit.  While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians.  The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone.  The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.

So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.

When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ.  That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.

This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college.  I was mostly done with my coursework.  I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer.  I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health.  I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment.  I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself.  Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.

We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point.  Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll  somehow become better than we’ve ever been before.  It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis.  It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.

If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good.  That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch.  Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list.  We have our favorite politicians to blame.  Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light.  The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.

This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)

For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time.  It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another.  It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them.  The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.

To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a)  It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)

Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”  The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet.  The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.

Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites.  Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God.  In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction.  After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions.  If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted.  If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year.  Actions had consequences.

That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine.  If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out.  Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil.  If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings.  Natural consequences.

My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.”  It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled.  Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry.  He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.

In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,

“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge.  One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.

However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”

Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,

It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.  Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.

God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).

Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.

trayvon-martinThe thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke.  The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.

As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown.  My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak.  And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger?  Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again?  Is there any value to this wrath?”

Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes.  The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required.  The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.

The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.

The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.

The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.

The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for.  For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.

Amen.

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