Sunday, February 17, 2019

Phil Kniss: To burn with a pure fire

“Moving from ANGER, toward PASSION for life”
Jonah 4:1-11

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What if we tried to match one biblical character, Old or New Testament,
with each of the seven deadly sins.
One person that could be our prime example, or archetype,
of what happens when a particular sin overtakes us.

I talked about the envy of Cain,
how it destroyed him from the inside out,
and drove him to murder his brother Abel.
James and John the sons of Zebedee
let vainglory or pride grip them
and they vied for seats of honor to the left and right of Jesus.
Greed—maybe King Solomon? Judas?
Sloth—who knows?
Could be an interesting exercise.
A little biblical homework for you.
Totally optional.
Extra Credit.

But I’ll tell you who gets my vote as the archetype,
the perfect example, of the sin of anger.
It would be the prophet Jonah—hands down!

There are so many different ways
that anger expresses itself in the story of Jonah.
Different sources of anger.
Different expressions of anger, some raging,
some nuanced,
some almost silent.

We caught the end of the story in our scripture reading this morning.
That may well be the most obvious outbreak of anger,
when he raged at a bush, and a worm.
But that’s not the only place anger shows up in Jonah.

So let’s go to the beginning of the story.
From Jonah’s perspective, the city of Nineveh was not just
a city of wickedness and sin.
Put aside the children’s Sunday School version of this Bible story.
When I was growing up in church,
the image I got of Nineveh was an evil urban metropolis,
the kind that good little Mennonite boys stayed away from,
because of all the immorality taking place there—
alcohol, drugs, sex, and other unspeakable things
done by individual persons in certain dark private places.

Actually, nothing in scripture suggests the people of Nineveh
were being punished for personal immorality.
No doubt some people in the city were mis-behaving.
But what scripture makes a point of—
especially in the short 3-chapter book of Nahum, read it—
is that Nineveh was a violent, power-hungry,
and oppressive regime that enslaved other nations.
It was the capital of Assyria,
a regional superpower who had already overpowered
and subjugated the Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Persians,
to name a few.
It had a reputation of brutality.
After a big victory, the king of Nineveh might bring home
the severed head of the conquered king,
raise it on a pole at a royal banquet to celebrate,
and then mount it over the city gate to rot.
Torture, slavery, institutional brutality, was considered normal.
And this empire, in the time of Jonah,
was now breathing down Israel’s neck.
Had not yet captured Israel, but was close.

Care to change your opinion of Jonah,
who ran the other direction,
when God asked him to go be a street preacher in Nineveh,
the capital city of his oppressors?

So Jonah runs away, boards a ship to Tarshish.
His escape doesn’t work out so well, as this fantastic tale unfolds.
A storm comes up.
He is thrown overboard, at his request.
A great fish swallows him alive.
Jonah has time to pray and think and repent.
The fish vomits him up on the shore.
And he goes to preach to Nineveh after all.

Over the years,
we’ve done some pretty odd things with this disgusting story,
making it a whimsical children’s tale for one thing,
singing cheerful ditties, like,
“Who did, who did, who did, who did,
who did swallow, Jo, Jo, Jonah? . . .”
And we’ve gotten into bizarre arguments about
what species of large fish in the Mediterranean
has the right kind of gastrointestinal system for a man to
not only stay alive in it for three days,
but enough space and the right ambience
for someone to kneel in prayerful meditation.

My goodness, how badly we can mess up a great Bible story!!

So let’s just listen to what the story tells us, on the face of it.
This is a story about God’s great love for all people,
and how the sin of anger can blind us to that beautiful truth.

So where does anger show up in this story?
Well, I think Jonah—and most Israelites—
spent a lot of energy nursing anger toward Nineveh and Assyria.
It was how they maintained a semblance of self-determination.
They had every other power
stripped away from them by their oppressors.
But they had the power to be angry.
No one could take that.

So maybe . . . God’s command to Jonah
to go to Nineveh and preach a message of repentance,
was really a command to think differently about his enemies,
to see them as whole human beings that God loves,
and to let go of his anger toward them as fellow humans,
to stop dehumanizing them,
stop categorizing them.

Anger at a person or people, on the one hand—
and a desire to see them made whole and redeemed, on the other—
those two cannot coexist.
You cannot invite people toward something good and whole,
while you secretly pray for their destruction.

I think Jonah realized the impossibility of doing both.
So rather than release his anger and hatred,
he turned tail and ran,
trying, in vain, to outrun the unconditional love of God.

We usually think of Jonah’s escape as an act of cowardice.
That he was afraid to go to Nineveh.
I don’t think so.
I think it’s an act of misdirected anger.
Think about it! What else could it be?
In fact, at the end of the book, he admits it, plainly.

After the people of Nineveh repent in sorrow,
and pray to God for mercy
we read in Jonah 4:1, when Jonah saw that God relented,
and spared the city,
he “was very displeased, and became angry.”
He cried out to God in bitter sarcasm,
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning!”
Jonah could not stomach the unending mercy of God.
Not only was he angry at his enemy oppressors.
He was angry at God for having a reputation
as a God of mercy and grace.

If Jonah was that angry about God’s mercy,
and that angry about the possibility that the people would repent,
I can only imagine how obnoxious his preaching was.
There was clearly nothing winsome or appealing
about his message, or his delivery.

The biggest miracle in the book of Jonah is not
a man surviving three days in the belly of a fish.
The biggest miracle is that all the people
in the capital of the world’s most brutal empire
humbled themselves in repentance,
after a loud and angry and bitter Israelite man walked the streets
yelling in a grating voice
that God was going to destroy them in four days.

So angry was Jonah, after he finished his street preaching,
that he lost the will to live (ch. 4, v. 3)—
“And now, O Lord, please take my life from me,
for it is better for me to die than to live.”

So Jonah went out on the hillside east of the city,
and took up a position where he could sit and sulk,
and see what, if anything, might unfold before his eyes.

And as it turned out,
something else emerged for him to be angry about.
God made a bush grow up to give him shade,
which made him temporarily happy.
Then God sent a worm who chewed on the bush and killed it.
Without shade again, God sent the sun and wind,
and Jonah was miserable, bitter, and even angrier.

It’s like Jonah’s moral character is being spelled out for the reader
in big, bold, letters.
Jonah is angry, bitter, self-centered,
lacking in the capacity to see beyond his own circumstances,
and therefore, lacking in his capacity to love.
The sin of anger, like all other sins,
is shown, at its core, to be an offense against love.
It takes away our capacity to see and appreciate God’s love
for all people and creation,
and it takes away our capacity to truly love,
because sinful anger draws us into ourselves.

So . . . here is a good time to think about the difference
between sinful anger,
and righteous anger.

I talked some about this in a sermon last fall,
when we explored the book of James,
and I made the point that, for James,
sinful anger is that which does not reflect accurately
the image of God in us.

I think I would say the same thing today,
and maybe expand a bit.

There’s no question there is a place for anger in our life with God.
God, as a matter of fact, exhibits anger. Often.
There are lots of Bible references to God’s wrath.
God gets angry when people work against God’s good purposes.

The church has always recognized and named God’s anger.
One of the ancient parts of every Roman Catholic funeral mass,
the Requiem,
is the Dies Irae, literally, the “wrath of God.”
It doesn’t get used very much any more,
because . . . as it turns out,
people don’t much enjoy focusing on God’s anger at funerals.
Who knew?
But it was written into the liturgy.

Any theological portrait of God,
that ignores or denies God’s judgement,
or God’s anger at injustice,
or God’s wrath at those who work against God’s mission,
is only presenting a partial picture of God.

I know it’s popular to downplay God’s anger,
because it makes us uncomfortable.
That’s not a good enough reason to take a theological short-cut!
We should do the work, 
and talk about God’s anger in a healthy way.
Injustice will always elicit the anger of God,
and it should elicit our anger as well.

I say this because when talking about the sin of anger,
we can soon start confusing ourselves,
if we lump all anger together in one basket.
It’s not that simple.

Sinful anger is anger that offends against the love of God.
It is anger that is misdirected, that hits the wrong target.

So if we want to name a particular practice to shape virtue,
help guard us against the deadly sin of anger,
let’s call it . . . “target practice.”
We need to improve our aim.
We do that by first examining what the appropriate target is,
and then figuring out the most effective way to hit the mark.

Jonah was way off the mark!
Jonah aimed his anger at the whole city, a tribe of people.
The target of Jonah’s anger should have been
the systemic evil of oppression,
that had overtaken the powers within the Assyrian Empire,
and were working against God’s loving purposes.
His anger should have been aimed at any and all forces of evil,
including those present among his own people,
forces causing harm to the poor and vulnerable.
There were plenty of poor, obviously, inside the walls of Nineveh,
plenty of vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed peoples.
Jonah chose not to see them.

In the largest city of the world, capital of a brutal empire,
there were people paying the price for that brutality.
Authoritarian regimes don’t hold on to their authority
without the violent repression of their own people.
But Jonah’s mentality was
we Israelites are, as a class of people, the innocent victims,
and the Ninevites are, as a class of people, the evil empire.
They . . . deserve to be wiped out.
We . . . deserve to be saved.

That way of dividing up the world is off God’s mark.
That’s not how God’s unconditional love works.
That’s not how God’s wrath against injustice works.

Are we justified in getting angry sometimes?
Are we justified in voicing, and expressing, that anger sometimes?
Without a doubt!
Look at Jesus!
Look at his righteous and well-aimed fury
at the systems of oppression in the Temple,
that crowded out the marginalized
by filling the Court of the Gentiles
with vendors making a profit off the poor.
He turned some tables.
We should admire, even emulate that kind of anger.

Garrett Keizer, author of The Enigma of Anger, wrote,
“I am unable to commit to any messiah
who doesn’t knock over tables.”
In other words, if God’s messengers, ones who come to announce
good news to the poor and freedom for the captives,
don’t sometimes righteously rage against injustice,
and take action to unmask and unseat the powers of evil,
then they cannot be authentic.
That litmus test should include us,
who claim to be followers of the Messiah.
We should get angry at injustice.

But what we should not do,
is ever lose sight of God’s love for all people—all people—
including those we call our enemies.
And if, upon closer inspection,
the anger we do have seems to be focused on persons
who are getting in our way,
making it inconvenient to achieve our agenda,
or otherwise being difficult or disturbing or irritating,
if they are the target of our anger,
we need to recalibrate.

Or if we are rightly angry at the systemic injustice
perpetrated by certain people in power—
be that the president,
or leaders of congress,
or other powerful heads of powerful institutions—
and, upon honest examination,
notice that our righteous anger has somehow
progressed beyond anger at injustice,
and is now morphing into blind rage,
and a hatred of persons God still loves unconditionally,
then maybe we also need to do some repentance,
and recalibrate our anger,
so that it is aimed at the appropriate target.

We human beings are created by a God of passion,
a God who feels, deeply.
And we were created in the image of God.
We flourish as humans when we allow ourselves to feel deeply,
like God does—
and act in ways that have integrity with our passions,
but do not offend against the covenant love God has with us,
and with all people, and all creation.

As soon as our actions do harm or violence against covenant love,
we distance ourselves from God,
we stray from our created purpose,
and we sin.

There is a fire burning within us—a fire God has set.
That fire can burn
in a way that has integrity with God’s intentions for us,
in a way that produces life.
We can burn with a pure fire.

Or that fire can burn out of control,
spreading flames of destruction in every direction.
That fire is not from God.
It is not consistent with the image of God in us.
It must be repented of,
and doused with the love of God,
which, in turn, will ignite a new life-giving flame.

Let’s sing about that pure fire.
You can pull out Sing the Journey, the green book.
But keep it closed for the moment.
I first want you to prepare yourself to sing this song,
“How can we be silent?”

Think about some injustice in the world—
maybe on the global stage, in the middle East,
on our own borders,
in our nation’s capital,
in our state’s capital,
in our town,
in the church.
With that injustice in your mind,
go ahead and sing with a righteous anger,
sing with heart and soul, this is not a polite song.

But if you find your anger veering toward hatred of a person,
any person, recalibrate.
Focus your anger on that which makes God angry,
and get in touch with the anger of God within you,
touch the spirit, as this song says,
the spirit burning now inside you.

Turn now to #61.
And if we’re going to sing angry, we’re going to need to stand.

—Phil Kniss, February 17, 2019

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