Sunday, July 2, 2006

7 Deadly Sins -- 3: Anger -- When to Shut the Furnace Door

Jonah 4:1-11; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Jonah was an angry man.
I’m not sure I ever thought about how much of the Jonah story,
as we know it,
was driven by the deadly sin of anger.
Jonah was not always expressing his anger, visibly,
But I think it was there all the time,
ruling over the life of Jonah.

The part of the story we heard this morning,
was the angry Jonah sitting outside Nineveh pouting,
for several reasons.
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
From Jonah’s perspective, the city of Nineveh was not only
as a city of great wickedness.
It was the capital of Assyria,
a superpower who happened to be breathing down Israel’s neck.
During the era in which this story is set,
Assyria ended up conquering and occupying Israel.
So Nineveh was command central
of the oppressors of Jonah and his people.

And God directed Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to them,
saying, “Stop your wickedness. Repent.”
That message was directed not merely at the sin
of the individual inhabitants.
It was a wicked city, within a wicked system.
It oppressed others and offended God.
So Jonah, one of the oppress-ees, was to go preach to the oppress-ors,
and invite them to repent.
That’s a tall order.
So Jonah, quite understandably, ran away to Tarshish.
At least he tried.
And we know the story.
A storm came up. He was thrown overboard.
A great fish swallowed him alive.
Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his own disobedience,
and the fish tossed him up on the shore,
and he went to preach to Nineveh after all.

So where does anger come in here?
Well, anger is a great motivator.
I think Jonah—and probably most other Israelites—
got a lot of energy nursing anger toward their oppressors.
It was the only way they could have
some semblance of self-determination.
Every other power was stripped away from them.
But they had the power to be angry.
No one could take that from them.
So when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh
and preach a message of repentance,
he was essentially being asked to let go of his anger.
You cannot invite people to repent, and really mean it,
if you’re harboring anger and hatred toward them.
You cannot encourage a turn toward righteousness and justice,
if you’re praying for their downfall.

Jonah would rather hold on to his precious anger,
even if it meant risking God’s judgement.
So he thought he’d just run away,
maybe get out of the reach of God.

Before this week,
I’m not sure I ever thought of Jonah’s flight away from God,
as evidence of his anger.
But I’m convinced that’s what it was.

Because, when the mission to Nineveh is all said and done,
and we get to the end of the story, which we heard today,
Jonah as much as admits he ran away out of anger.

After he delivered his message of doom—
“Forty days more, and Nineveh will fall”—
and I can imagine he delivered the message
with a touch of glee in his voice—
after this, Jonah sat outside the city, in the hills to the east,
where he had a good view.
He wanted to see the fire come down.

But of course, the people of Nineveh repented.
They cried out to God.
Put on sackcloth and ashes
and pledged to turn from evil and violence.
And God had mercy on them.
God changed his mind.

And then Jonah really got angry.
He was humiliated.
All that loud preaching of doom and gloom,
and nothing happens.
He’s made out to be a fool.

And finally Jonah levels with God.
He is brutally honest about the anger that’s pent up inside.
Look at verses 2 and 3 of Jonah chapter 4.
This is what Jonah says, only slightly paraphrased.
“Lord, Lord, Lord!
This is exactly what I said would happen before I ever left home.
This is why I went to Tarshish to begin with.
I knew this would happen.
I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
At the first little sign of remorse, you always cave in.
You’re a pushover.
So just kill me, Lord. Kill me.
I’m better off dead than alive.”

I love the question that God asks him then.
“Jonah, is it right for you to be angry?”
That’s all.
God doesn’t throw Jonah’s own disobedience back in his face.
God doesn’t point out to Jonah,
the fact that Jonah’s own life was saved quite recently
because of God’s mercy, and slow anger.
Jonah didn’t answer God’s question.
He just sat down and sulked.

Then God made another effort to reach Jonah.
God caused a bush to grow up where Jonah sat,
and the bush gave Jonah shade, and comfort.
And Jonah rejoiced over the bush.
Then the next day God appointed a worm—
I love that phrase in verse 7: “God appointed a worm”—
to attack the bush, and it withered.
Then God sent a bitterly hot wind, and a scorching sun,
and Jonah began to suffer greatly.
Once again, he got angry. He was fed up with life.
“I’d rather die than live.”

And then comes God’s gentle question one more time,
“Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And Jonah snapped at God.
“Darn right! Angry enough to die!”
And then the book of Jonah ends with these pithy lines,
spoken by God to Jonah,
“You are concerned about the bush,
for which you did not labor and which you did not grow;
it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand
persons who do not know their right hand from their left,
and also many animals?”
With that question the book ends.

I think this story speaks volumes
about the nature and consequences of the deadly sin of anger.

In our way of thinking,
there’s a lot about anger that’s easy to shrug off.
Like most other deadly sins,
it doesn’t seem all that deadly at first glance.
It is so commonplace, so much a part of being human,
that we don’t give it a second thought.
Anger is not only excused, it is often lauded.
Far better, isn’t it, to release our anger and express it,
than bottle it up inside?
Better to put our fist through the wall,
than into someone’s face.
Anger can be a force for good.
When we are angry, when we are passionate,
that’s a powerful motivator at work in us.
If a baseball team is getting a little too lazy in the dugout,
all it takes to fire them up is for the manager
to go storming out to the umpire and get in a big argument.
Some managers intentionally pick a fight,
to put some fire into their team, to motivate them.
And going back 500 years, Martin Luther once said,
“I never work better than when I am inspired by anger,
for when I am angry I can write, pray, and preach well,
for then my whole temperature is quickened,
my understanding sharpened,
and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.”
But then, in his anger, Martin Luther also at one point,
wrote some downright awful things about Jews,
and Anabaptists, and others he disagreed with.
And some fights in professional sports turn pretty ugly.
Remember the incident in the NBA a year or two ago,
when players attacked some fans in the stands?
A hockey player once maimed and paralyzed another player.
He later made a statement to the public,
“I’m sorry for what happened.”
Notice his choice of words. It “happened.”
He didn’t say, “I’m sorry for what I did.”
When we lose control, things just “happen.”
And we are excused, in part.

Yes, we all know anger can go too far, and become deadly,
Still, we like to hold onto our anger.
It’s not only our right.
It’s actually as a healthy response, in moderation.

It seems to me, however,
that whether or not our anger is sinful,
has nothing at all to do with how intense that anger is.
The deadly sin of anger can be found in a mere grunt and a scowl.
It happens to me pretty regularly.
Recently, a driver made a quick maneuver
beat me to an empty parking space,
even though I had my turn signal on.
The sin of anger showed it’s face.

On the other hand,
screaming rage and indignation might actually be a righteous act.
Will Willimon tells about a time at Duke University,
after several students had been sexually assaulted in a few days.
Hundreds of students staged a scream-in.
At an appointed time, they walked out onto campus,
and gathered outside the chapel
and screamed loudly in righteous rage and indignation,
at the injustice and the violence and the dehumanization.
Willimon writes, and I quote:
“Rather than urging them to ‘calm down,’
I should be praying, ‘Lord, give us more righteous indignation.’
I wish that they had been free to bring their anger into the church
rather than stand outside the church.”

So if it’s not the intensity of the anger,
what makes anger sin?

Put simply, the deadly sin of anger
is turned toward the wrong object,
or for the wrong reasons.

Anger at the fact of injustice in this world,
anger at the persistence of sin and human degradation
that we witness in our own communities,
anger at the violence and destruction of war,
anger that things are not the way they are supposed to be,
anger, even, expressed toward God,
when injustice seemingly goes unchecked—
these are biblical,
these are even Christ-like.
Remember Jesus, who cleared the temple in anger,
when he saw the greed and injustice
that was corrupting his Father’s house of prayer?

That is not the kind of anger that leads to death.
This is not the deadly sin at work.
But truth be told,
this is rarely the kind of anger that we find within ourselves.
Truly righteous indignation at sin and evil and injustice,
is not something we experience every day.
By far the most troublesome anger,
is what crops up in us every day,
sometimes at the drop of a hat.
It may be come out as a quiet grunt.
It may be completely silent.
It may cause us to run away from a calling, like it did to Jonah.
It may cause us to do harm to someone else.
Or, it may go virtually unnoticed by anyone, including ourselves.

But the sin of anger is persistent and dangerous and corrosive.
Sinful anger drives us deeper into ourselves.
Anger does not drive us toward
addressing what is wrong in the world,
or addressing honestly what is wrong with us.
Anger drives us deeper into ourselves.
It causes us to seethe. To simmer.
To armor ourselves in deep resentment.

The sin of anger leads to isolation.
We are right, the world is wrong.
Martin Luther called sin “the heart all curved in on itself.”
That’s a good definition.
Nowhere is that more true, than with the sin of anger.
Anger protects the ego.
It guards the status quo.
Anger keeps us from having to be affected by the world around us,
from having to change.
That’s why we are so stubborn, in clinging to Anger.
If we were to loose our grip on Anger,
we would be forced to be different, says Willimon.

If Jonah would have let go of his anger,
he would have been forced to change
the way he looked at Assyrians.
He would have had to start looking at them as human beings.
He would have had to see the common humanity they shared.
And he wasn’t willing to do that.
Seems better to be angry,
and maintain control over whatever is unsettling to me,
than to release that anger,
and open myself to possibly painful, personal change.

There is room for anger.
The apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4, which we heard this morning,
“Be angry but do not sin;
do not let the sun go down on your anger,
and do not make room for the devil.”
Paul encourages people in the church to speak kindly to each other,
to let no evil talk come out of our mouths,
to speak only what is useful for building up,
to give grace—I love this phrase in v. 29—
“that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
And v. 31: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath
and anger and wrangling and slander.”
Be “kind, tender-hearted, forgiving.”
Why? He gives the reason at the very beginning of this passage,
“for we are members of one another.”
We are part of each other in the body of Christ.
How can Christians let anger gain a foothold,
when anger isolates us, makes us turn inward on ourselves?

IN previous Sundays we’ve mentioned Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In the Parson’s Tale, which is a long sermon on all 7 deadly sins,
Chaucer says anger is “a great joy to the Devil;
for it is the Devil’s furnace, heated with the fire of Hell.
For certainly, just as fire is the mightiest
of earth engines of destruction,
just so ire (or anger) is mightiest to destroy things spiritual.
Observe how a fire of smouldering coals,
almost extinct under the ashes,
will quicken again when touched by brimstone;
just so will anger quicken again
when it is touched by the pride that lies hidden in man’s heart.”

I think all of us have, at one time or another,
been surprised at our own anger.
We are suddenly seized by an intense rage at something, or someone,
and later we wonder, where did that come from?
Anger is like a furnace.
When the door is shut, we hardly know the fire is there.
But it’s there, quietly smoldering,
until something or someone opens the furnace door,
or shovels in some more fuel,
and with fresh fuel and oxygen,
it bursts into flames.
It might surprise us, but maybe it shouldn’t.
The fire was already there.
We just weren’t paying attention to it.

Sin, as Luther said, causes the heart to curve in on itself.
Most of the time, we can go about our business,
with our heart curved in on itself,
without causing any grief to anyone.
Most of the time, our self-oriented way of life
seems to work out okay.
If we focus on meeting our needs,
much of time our needs get met.
Unless we are especially unlucky,
or are in a time of prolonged suffering,
or are stuck in an economic or cultural underclass.
But most of us here breeze through life without too many cares,
until something gets in our way.
Maybe it’s a little, insignificant, thing.
But because, by nature, we are living in a self-oriented way,
we take offense,
because someone or something got in our way.
We were inconvenienced.
We were made to deal with something
we wouldn’t have had to deal with.
We had to clean up someone else’s mess.
Or worse, someone hurts us.
We are pained, or humiliated.
Our pride, or our self-image is injured.
And anger grabs hold of us.
We turn inward even more.
“I don’t deserve this!”

And the sin of anger, whether it shows up mildly or intensely,
prevents us from looking toward the other
as a sister or brother in our human family.
We see them as a threat.
Because sin—the heart curved in on itself—
has entered the picture.
If left on our own with that sin unaddressed,
it will eat away at us until it destroys us,
like it nearly did to Jonah.

But thanks be to God,
there is abundant grace and forgiveness,
for those who repent.
We can be healed of the wounds
that this self-orientation causes us.
We can shut the furnace door.
We can, and must, let go of the anger,
and grasp onto God’s grace.
And...grasp onto each other in the body of Christ!
The Christian life, lived in community,
can guard us from this self-orientation the world tries to sell us.

Let us commit ourselves to be to each other,
the kind of community that nips anger in the bud,
because we are so busy giving grace to each other.

Let’s bless each other,
the way we did a couple Sundays ago.
I invite you to take your green hymnal, “Sing the Journey,” #73,
and turn so you’re facing the middle aisle,
facing each other.
And let’s sing this song to each other,
extending one hand in a sign of blessing:
The Lord lift you up, the Lord take your hand,
the Lord lead you forth, and cause you to stand,
secure in God’s word, seeking God’s face,
abounding in love, abiding in grace.

—Phil Kniss, July 2, 2006

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