Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
I had an internship in college at a vibrant, Presbyterian church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. My supervisor was a man named Hurmon Hamilton. Reverend Hamilton was an incredibly active community leader in Boston. He served as the President of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, he served on the spiritual life committee of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Boston, he met almost daily with community organizers, church leaders, and business owners to explore potential partnerships, and he preached powerful sermons. In addition to all of this, Reverend Hamilton taught a leadership course for a group of seminarians from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. At the first class, Reverend Hamilton asked the group of students to name one quality that they feel is most important for a church leader to possess. The students answered with qualities like: compassion, honesty, patience, hard-working. “These answers are all good,” Reverend Hamilton said, “but the quality that I find essential for good church leadership is anger. You need to be angry at the things God is angry at. You need to be angry at the hurts and wrongs committed against your people. You need to be angry at injustices committed in your community and around the world.”
This past week I was at First Call Theological Education: Leadership Guild or what some of use newbie pastors call “Baby Pastor School.” For the first three years of ministry, pastors and lay ministers in our region attend this mandatory continuing education event. So I get to see friends from our synod or other synods that I haven’t seen in a while. My first night there, I was talking to Emily on the phone telling her about everyone who was there and who sends their greetings to her. “Mark and Ian are here of course, Rachel, Douglas, Gary…” and Emily, laughing, asked me, “Is Gary angry yet?” To which I replied, “Of course he is, we’ve been here for more than an hour, so he is angry.” It is kind of a joke between, me, Emily, and Gary, that Gary is perpetually angry about church things. We are being a little facetious, but there is also a little bit of truth to that. Gary gets angry when he sees church leaders who go on autopilot and stop thinking critically about how to serve the Church, he gets angry when he sees his friends getting burnt out from overworking in the ministry, he gets angry when something happens in worship that stands against a theological truth he believes, he gets angry when the church focuses too little or too much on Christian education… Gary gets angry a lot. So why would you want to have an angry person like Gary be your pastor? Or why would you want to be friends with an angry person like Gary? First, Gary isn’t perpetually angry. He is actually a fun guy to hang around with. Second, Gary is angry because he loves the church so much. If he didn’t care about the well-being of the congregation he pastors, the Synod he serves, or his sisters and brothers in Christ whom he loves, he wouldn’t be angry. He would relax quite a bit and ignore the needs of the Church because he just wouldn’t care. But Gary believes that the Church and the spread of God’s Good News to the end of the earth is worth getting angry about. He wants everyone to know that they are fully and unconditionally loved by God and when poor worship, ineffective church bureaucracy, political idolatry, and ignorance of the needs of the suffering cloud that simple Gospel truth of God’s love, he gets angry.
I think we, as church people are a bit hesitant to admit to anger and especially to think of anger as a potentially good and godly thing. After all, we’re Christian. We’re supposed to be “nice” right? We are supposed to be meek and mild like Jesus was. We are supposed to follow God who is Love right?
But the witness of Scripture doesn’t allow us to reduce the person of God and certainly Jesus to quiet, nice, complacency.
God sends prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah to announce hope of restoration to God’s troubled people, but also to condemn their acts of violence and injustice. God gets ticked off when the most vulnerable people in society are abused, neglected, and exploited. Over and over God says that we are not to withhold wages from laborers, we are to be generous in giving to the poor, the widow, and the orphan (Dt. 24). We are to act with mercy to those who are refugees and welcome them in (contrary to any executive order), for we were once refugees from slavery in Egypt and God welcomed us. And God gets angry when God sees that the people of Israel cheat the poor out of what little money they have, when they use violence for personal gain, and when they turn their backs on the needy for the sake of their own security.
Micah, like other prophets proclaims a message that condemns the cruelty of his own people. God has been nothing but faithful to the people of Israel. God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, from the hands of her military enemies, and has provided them with resources abundant for the entire people. God has shown them by generous example what kind of God they follow and what following God ought to look like. For all of this a frustrated God exclaims, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” God continues to angrily highlight the incompatibility of God’s goodness and mercy and the selfishness and cruelness of God’s people. Our reading from Micah continues, “Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city! 10Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? 11Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? 12Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” Can you feel the anger? God is angry at the terrible injustices taking place among people who supposedly are following God.
Maybe it is just my imagination, but I hear Jesus’ voice with an angry edge to it as he declares the beatitudes. I can hear his anger at the injustices committed against the people he defiantly declares blessed in the sight of God.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you…
God gets angry in this passage from Micah and God invites us to get angry too. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. To do justice is to be angry against injustice. Doing justice begins with being angry at the lives lost to war and to nations closing their doors as the innocent are murdered. Doing justice begins with being angry at the fact that kids in our own neighborhood don’t have proper winter clothes, are food insecure, and some reside in abusive homes. In the midst of doing justice, we must also love kindness. Following after God we strive to not return violence for violence, to forgive those who have wronged us, and to be kind and gentle to those who are suffering- to not be callous and afraid. To do justice and to love kindness, we must also walk humbly with God. Just because we are angry at something, does not mean that God necessarily shares in that anger. When I get stuck driving behind a car going 25 miles per hour in a 50 miles per hour zone, I am pretty sure that God’s righteous anger is not parallel with mine. In our communities of faith, in communal study of Scripture, in participation in the Sacraments, and in prayerful discernment, we can do our best to walk humbly with our God. We remember that God is first and foremost loving, merciful, and forgiving. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love as Scripture asserts over and over again.
Anger is something that I still feel pretty uncomfortable about- whether that anger belongs to me, Pastor Gary, or God. Our anger may sometimes be in line with doing justice as God desires, but at other times, it may be as righteous as me swearing at the little old lady driving 25mph under the speed limit. But God’s anger is always for the sake of doing justice and loving us. God gets angry when the poor are exploited, when violence rules, when sin consumes us, and when death destroys us. God will always act on that anger and that means that God promises that the poor, the mourning, the meek, the justice-seekers, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are blessed. Sin is forgiven and death is destroyed by God’s good, justice doing, kindness loving, anger. Amen.