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Appropriate Anger

3/4/2018 Third Sunday in Lent The text is John 2:13-22.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I once was told by someone that pastors aren’t supposed to get angry.  If course, this bit of advice was given soon after I had expressed my displeasure with someone’s behavior.  I guess people don’t like their spiritual leaders to do such things.  Pastors are always to be even tempered.  They are not to become too passionate about anything, including worship, social justice and especially, moral issues.  They are not to lose their cool under any circumstances.  And they are never to cast judgment on the behavior of others.  So, I suppose they shouldn’t cry over the carnage of the school shooting in Florida, or rant about the doctor who was molesting Olympic gymnasts, or get upset that their pews remain empty as the worship of our Lord takes a backseat to everything else. 

Of course, that doesn’t happen.  For not only are pastors human and therefore subject to the full range of human emotions, but also it isn’t realistic to expect them to behave more graciously than Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel, we see just how angry Jesus can become as he fashions a whip and literally drives the money changers and the animal sellers out of the temple.  His behavior, deemed totally inappropriate by the religious leaders of his day, arises out of his zeal for the Lord and his compassion for the whole human family.  It is not the result of some personal insults or injuries, nor does it come out of personal frustration.  His anger explodes as he bears witness to the abuse of God’s temple.  For the temple is to be a place of worship – not a marketplace – and our relationship with God is not to be reduced to the fulfillment of some specific requirements dictated by man, but it is to be lived out in daily life as we receive God’s love and that loves shines through us in our love of neighbor.

So, my friends, there is a time and a place where anger is appropriate.  Just like there is a time and a place where it is not.  Appropriately expressed, anger is directed toward people’s behavior, not people themselves, and it arises out of concern for others.  But, of course, even when anger is appropriate and controlled and specifically focused on behavior, the recipients of an outburst are never eager to listen.

Psychiatrist and Episcopal layperson Robert Coles tells the story of one of his students at Harvard Medical School (told in the New Oxford Review, Oct. 1987).  The student, a sensitive and intelligent young man, shared with him an experience he had in the advance section of his high school chemistry lab.

One day in that chemistry class he saw a fellow student unpacking a substance that he had brought with him.  The student realized that his peer was cheating.  He had brought into class the chemical compound that he was supposed to prepare that day in the lab.  Just then, the young man’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted as another student’s elaborate lab set up of flasks and tubes broke and collapsed.  The other students in the class only laughed at this.  Not one hand was lifted to help her.  The student whose experiment was ruined could only put her head on the table and gently cry.  At this point, Coles’ advisee moved across the room to help her.  The other students kept laughing and buried themselves anew in their own experiments.

That was when the student lost his cool.  He slammed his chemistry book on the table and started in with a James Stewart-like oration before everyone’s eyes and ears.  First, he berated himself for becoming so driven, so competitive, so caught up in himself, and so slow to help others.  He then asked his fellow students point blank what they thought Jesus Christ would have to say about their dog-eat-dog chemistry lab.  Finally, he asked the teacher, just then returning to the room, what he thought of what was happening in his classroom.  Having hushed all present to silence by his tirade, Coles’ student fell silent himself.

The teacher redirected the students to their work and invited this student his office “for a chat.”  During that little talk he was questioned first by the teacher and then by the principal about why he had become so visibly and vocally upset.

The two school leaders asked the youth whether he had thought about others in the lab – their sense of things.  The two of them warned him about “moral bullying.”  Staring at him and lowering his voice, the principal gave a lecture we have all heard before:  Do not forget that each of us has his own ideas and his or her own values.  Don’t forget that this is a democratic society and you cannot go lording your own values over others just because you don’t approve of what they believe or how they act.  The two of them went on and on, until finally, the civics lesson was over.

Ironically, at the end of the “chat” the two school leaders had said nothing about the coldhearted, self-seeking, cheating behavior of the other students.  Forget about anything like lauding this one student still capable of outrage at wrong and injustice, for his courage, for identifying with a lost and ridiculed student.  They showed no awareness that some so-called “belief systems” in that room might be nothing more than lack of ethics and moral values.  And this poor young man left the room, still livid but silent.

How does this old Polish proverb go?  It is a terrible thing to swim upstream in a dirty river.  Jesus learned this the hard way when he refused to understand where the temple moneychangers and merchants were coming from, but instead told them where to go.  Jesus was not about to abandon his own sense of right and wrong just because someone else might speak from a different point of view.

But, in this world of ours, heaven forbid that anyone should stand up and express in no uncertain terms standards of behavior that could be called noble and just.  Instead of expressing our anger, we are taught to keep silent and we round off the hard edge of moral unrighteousness with a concern of “where others are coming from.”  Heaven forbid if we should care enough about others to get angry enough to challenge them to look at what is happening in their lives.

Jesus may have expressed his moral outrage, but we are taught to keep silent.  Jesus expressed his moral outrage and was seen as a trouble maker.  We keep silent for we do not want his fate.  So, too often the way we operate within the church is to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to what is happening around us.  And in doing so, we muffle the anger of Jesus and change our understanding of God.  For, “a God without wrath,” wrote H. Richard Niebuhr, “brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”

Of course, many people use anger as an excuse for beating up others and behaving in ways that they would never otherwise consider.  Some are chronically angry and embittered.  Anger is not the preferred way to deal with people and issues.  And even when it is used, it must be used in such a way as to damage the behavior but not the person.  Still, I thank God that not everyone has lost their capacity for outrage as inhumanity and self-centered behavior grows.  Thank God that some are still courageous enough to step out in front, draw a line in the sand, and unequivocally distinguish right from wrong.  Without these difficult people, we would be more lost than we already are.

So, thank God, my friends, when someone dares to swim upstream in a dirty river.  And pray that someday, you may have the courage to be that person who is willing to take it on the chin for standing up for what is right in the eyes of God and not in the hearts of men.  And as you do so, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.




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