Sunday, February 16, 2014

transforming anger into compassion: jesus and the power of transforming initiatives

Year A • The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 • Psalm 119:1–8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 • Matthew 5:21–37

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be [always] acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.
                                                                                                        — Psalm 19:14.

We Live in An Angry World And I am Something of an Expert
How many of you watch the news or read the newspaper? How many of you drive in traffic, stand in long lines at the checkout, or follow Twitter? Watch what people do; listen to how they talk to their children; read what they post on Facebook. If you do any of these things, for any length of time, you would be hard-pressed to draw any other conclusion than that our world is filled with angry people, with fearful, frustrated, angry people.  
     We live in an angry world, and I consider myself to be something of an expert. After all, I am a father of four, and I spend my days with middle schoolers as a substitute teacher in the public school system. Need I say more?
     I deal with anger on a daily basis, my own anger, that is. There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel anger. But that’s not the half of it. I find that I use anger; I rely upon it. I find that I have come to trust anger in an effort to control my world. By way of illustration, let me tell you a little story.

7th Hour
I am a building substitute for Pleasant Valley Middle School. So every day I go to Pleasant Valley, and they plug me into whatever classroom I am needed. I teach all grades and all subjects; sometimes more than one in a given day. Before Christmas, I was assigned to sub-teach a 7th Grade Social Studies class. It was a Friday, and the day had gone fairly well until 7th hour, the last hour of the day. For the life of me, I couldn’t get these kids to pay attention or stay on task. I got increasingly frustrated, because I am there to teach, not to babysit. There was lots of talking, lots of moving around, lots of distractions; all the things I hate. One girl comes in ten minutes late from the nurse. As soon as she enters the room, she begins chatting with a couple of students. She does this as she finds her seat and as if I were not in the middle of  teaching a lesson. I am not impressed, and my agitation and anger rises. I tell her to sit down and be quiet; and she is offended.
     This sort of thing continues, and I finally announce that if there is any more talking or disruptions, I will keep people after class. I then spend the rest of the hour with those who are working. When the bell rings, I dismiss two-thirds of the class, and I keep the rest. They are shocked, and express outrage at being treated this way. I am equally shocked and outraged, telling them that they need to pick up any paper on the floor and straighten the desks before they go. At this point, there is more shock, more outrage, and a bit of swearing (not by me).
     One girl says that it isn’t her mess, and so she isn’t picking anything up. Another girl calls her mother and says that she will be late because her teacher is being retarded. A boy insists that he has to get to basketball practice, but he refuses to do any work. The first girl says, “Mister, you may not have anywhere to go, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” A few students do what I ask, and I let them go. But in the end, I march four very angry students to the office, and then I head home very shaken.
     Did I act appropriately,… as a teacher,… as an employee of USD 259? I think I did; and the administration thinks I did. Yet, two months later, I am still bothered by the incident. There was so much anger over something that was fairly routine. Where did it all come from? What could I have done that might have helped myself and my students?

Our Anger Doesn’t Produce God’s Righteousness
I don’t enjoy getting angry or expressing anger. I hate the way it makes me feel. More­over, most of the time, my anger doesn’t actually achieve what I intend. Yet, I find myself turning to it again and again. Is this not the very definition of insanity, according to Einstein, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Anger just doesn’t seem to work very well, and I am reminded of what James—the brother of our Lord—had to say on the subject of anger.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20, nrsv).
Let me read that again:
Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20, nrsv).

Well, I wish somebody would have told me that a long time ago; it would’ve saved me a whole lot of trouble. Oh, I’ve heard that stuff about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. But that last bit, that last bit is what really gets me. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Really? Is that really true? Are you telling me, James, that yelling at my kids—with flared nostrils and eyes aflame—isn’t producing the faith, hope, and love that God is looking for? …that all of my threats are for naught?
Let’s say that James is right, that human anger does not produce God’s righteous­ness. What do we do? Well, the answer seems fairly obvious? Don’t get angry. Don’t ever get angry. After all, isn’t that what Jesus teaches us. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you, don’t even get angry?” Well, how do we do that? How do we not get angry?
     Well, before we try to tackle that question, it should be noted that Jesus never actually says, “Don’t get angry.” What I just quoted a second ago is not what Jesus teaches; it is, however, what we have been taught to hear when we read or listen to the Sermon on the Mount. But, Jesus never says not to become angry. In fact, we have stories of Jesus expressing his anger. But that does not get us off the hook. We’ve still got a lot of work to do where anger is concerned.

We Are Possessed by Anger
Back in 2006, in his State of the Union Address, President George Bush declared, “America is addicted to oil.” That’s true. But the fact is, America is addicted to lots of things: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, caffeine, Starbucks, partisan politics, Downton Abby… You name it; we’re addicted to it. And some­where up there, up near the top of the list is anger. And do you know what you get when you add a D to ANGER? You get DANGER. Listen to this quote I ran across this past week:
     Anger is dangerous because it is addictive. When we feel angry, we feel a sense of power, and that can grip us. Angry people often feed on their own anger and get angrier and more aggressive in their behaviour.
This sense of power is often false. Anger gives a person the illusion of being ‘right’. When we are angry, we feel self-righteous about it, we feel we are right to express our anger as anger, and humiliate other people. That in-turn only creates more anger.[1]
As a society, we are addicted to anger; in fact, we are possessed by anger, and it is from this demon that Jesus seeks to deliver us in today’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount.

Transforming Initiatives
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes what life looks like in the kingdom of God and how we can participate in it. Unfortunately, Christians have been taught to read the Sermon on the Mount as a series of high ideals and impossible demands. So instead of feeling empowered, we simply feel guilty and judged. But the “Sermon on the Mount is not about human striving toward high ideals but about God’s transforming initiatives to deliver us from the vicious cycles in which we get stuck.”[2] So, Jesus is not teaching us how to pull ourselves up by our own boot­straps; rather, he is showing us how to actively and obediently participate in God’s gracious deliverance. Recall the Exodus. Only the power of God could free the Israelites from their Egyptian taskmasters, yet the people still had to make the journey. Only the power of God could have parted the waters of the Red Sea, but the people still had to participate by putting one foot in front of the other. That’s what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount.
     In today’s reading, Jesus covers a variety of topics. He talks about anger, lust, divorce, and swearing oaths. Next week he will talk about non-retaliation and loving our enemies. If you read these carefully, you will notice that they follow the same pattern, they all exhibit the same three-part structure.
First, they each begin with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said….” Here he introduces the traditional Jewish teaching on a given subject. Second, Jesus follows this traditional teaching with a diagnosis of the human condition, one that describes a cycle of sin that enslaves human beings. This part begins, “But I say to you….” And this is where we must be very careful. So on the topic of anger, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
     Those are strong words, but notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Don’t get angry.” In fact, he doesn’t tell us to do anything. He is not prescribing any course of action yet. Why? Because at this point, he is simply describing the vicious cycle of anger, resentment, and hatred that can kill relationships and people. You see, when we harbor anger for another human being, we are disconnected from them. So often, that disconnection is maintained and reinforced through insults, name calling, and labeling, either aloud or internally in our thoughts. Insulting another person, calling them a idiot, keeps us in our anger. It stokes our anger, it serves to justify our anger in our own minds, and therefore disconnection grows and so does our anger. It truly is a vicious cycle.
     So how do we break free from these vicious cycles, according to Jesus? Well, it’s not a simple matter of just not doing these things. The solution comes in the climactic third part of Jesus’ teaching. Listen.
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Here Jesus offers us, not a general principle, but concrete actions designed to set us free from the anger and resentment we find ourselves trapped in. Anger is about disconnection, so Jesus prescribes a course of action that seeks to establish or re-establish connection with another human being. Thus, the solution to our problem with anger is not, “Don’t be angry. Don’t insult people.,” but “Be reconciled.” Because it is only in establishing and maintaining connection with others that we have the resources to work through and resolve our anger.[3]
     So again, Jesus’ solution to our being possessed by anger is not prohibitions: Don’t do this; or, Don’t do that. The solution is to engage in what ethicist Glen Stassen calls, transforming initiatives: specific, concrete, positive actions that are designed to deliver us from the vicious cycles and internal programs that so often dictate our actions and reactions. Transforming initiatives are how we participate in God’s grace, in God’s way of deliverance. Let me illustrate the practice and power of transforming initiatives with one final story.

Thaddaeus and Me
When Thaddaeus was five or six years old, he was outside, and I was doing something in the house. Suddenly, Thaddaeus burst through the front door, slammed it shut behind him, and said to me, “You should be outside.” Well, I grew up in a home where children didn’t talk to their parents that way. I became incensed immediately, and I was just about to go down that old familiar road of, “You shouldn’t talk to me that way,” when something inside told me to just stop and think. I did, and it occurred to me that I had just come in from outside. So I said to Thaddaeus, “Were you scared because you suddenly realized you were alone?” His whole demeanor changed. His anger disappeared; he nodded yes; and then he came into my arms. I apologized, and said I was sorry for coming inside without telling him because I know he doesn’t like to be outside alone.
     I like to tell this story because, for me, it is a perfect illustration of how a transforming initiative has the power to transform anger into compassion and connection. When I stopped and listened, not to what Thaddaeus was saying, but to what lay behind his words, my anger disappeared and was replaced by a wellspring of compassion. In turn, this compassion freed me from my need to insist on my own way, and it allowed me to connect with Thaddaeus at a deeper level, at the level of his feeling of fear and his need for safety. In other words, when I was quick to listen and slow to speak, I found that I was slow to anger. And more to the point, I was granted the grace to perform a transforming initiative that resulted in our reconciliation.
     Had I responded out of my original anger, I know that Thaddaeus and I would have carried on shouting at each other, each insisting that the other person listen. And had I simply told myself not to be angry, that would not have worked either because I would not have had the awareness to recognize what was going on for Thaddaeus. What I needed was a specific, concrete, positive action designed to connect with him; I needed a transforming initiative.
     In the end, one small initiative on my part transformed my anger and Thaddaeus’. In one simple act, we were both set free from the vicious cycle of anger, and we received the gift of reconciliation. That’s what I would like to leave you this morning, a vision for transforming our anger into compassion and reconciliation, a course of action that has the power to break the internal programs of anger and resentment that so often dictate our actions and reactions.
     So, as ambassadors of Christ, as ambassadors of reconciliation, let’s get out there and transform our world. Let’s begin by transforming our relationships and our daily interactions with others one transforming initiative at a time.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Vandana Kohli, “World Anger Day: What’s Driving Our Rage?,”
[2] Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1992), 37. “The Sermon on the Mount describes specific ways we can participate in the new initiatives God is taking. They are not harsh demands but methods of practical participation in God’s gracious deliverance” (38).
[3] Notice who Jesus directs his words to. Not to the one who is angry, but to the one who is the object of someone else’s anger. “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Delivered on Sunday, February 16th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Candlemas of Our Salvation: On Jesus, Candles, and Groundhogs

Year A • The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Malachi 3:1–4 • Psalm 84 or 24:7–10 • Hebrews 2:14–18 • Luke 2:22–40

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon

Dear God, make known to us the salvation that
you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. Amen.

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus — a.k.a., Candlemas
Today is the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Epiphany, but we are not actually celebrating the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. Instead, we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. This is a feast of the church year that is always celebrated on the Second of February. So, whenever the February 2nd falls on a Sunday, the Feast of the Presentation takes precedence.
     But why February 2nd? Because it is forty days after Christmas, forty days Mary gave birth to the Lord and Savior of the world. According to legislation laid down in the book of Leviticus, if a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be ritually unclean for seven days. Afterwards, she enters into a period of purification that lasts for another thirty-three days. So for forty days after the birth of a baby boy, a woman couldn’t touch anything holy and she couldn’t enter the temple. At the end of the forty days, she would come to the temple to offer a sacrifice for her purification (Lev 12). That’s what Mary is doing at the outset of today’s Gospel. Her period of purification has concluded, and she has come to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice. So that’s why the Feast of the Presentation occurs on February 2nd.

By the way, this feast goes by another name, Candlemas. It used to be that this was the day of the year—when all the candles that were to be used during the coming year —were blessed. So it was known as the Feast, or the Mass of Candles, thus Candlemas. The first time ever heard the term was when I was attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The Fall semester was called Martinmas, and the spring semester, Candlemas.

Groundhog Day
I should add that over the years some superstitions have grown up around Candle-mas. For example, there is a proverb about the weather that goes like this:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
      Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
      Winter won’t come again.
Or, how about this little proverb from Germany.
The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and if he finds snow, walks abroad;     but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole.
Does any of this sound familiar? Clearly these proverbs regarding Candlemas stand behind our American tradition of Groundhog Day. But enough of superstitions, let’s get back to the gospel where we might find the truth that will challenge and inspire us.

The Holy Family
Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple discloses some interesting and important details about the Holy Family.
     First, it emphasizes their commitment to the Old Testament covenant with Yahweh, the God of Israel. No less than five times are they described as acting in accordance with the Law, and these references to their covenant obedience serve as bookends to today’s episode. So in the opening scene, reference is made to “their purification according to the law of Moses,” to their presentation of their firstborn “as it is written in the law of the Lord,” and to their offering a sacrifice in accordance with what is “stated in the law of the Lord(Luke 2:22­–24). Then, in the closing scene, they return to Nazareth having “finished everything required by the law of the Lord(2:39).
     This is a faithful family; this is a religious family. This is the family that raised and nurtured the salvation of God—Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Light. Because we know Jesus to be the incarnate Son of God, I think we often overlook the fact that he grew up and matured like any other human being. He didn’t benefit from any spiritual shortcuts. He didn’t get to skip puberty. He didn’t get to skip stages of emotional, social, or spiritual development. He had to pass through every one of them as we do. This, I think, is part of the point that the author of Hebrews is trying to make.
Since the children [God has given him] share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things.... For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God,.... Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 2:14–18).
There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus’ growth and development—his character, his strength, his wisdom, his compassion—everything that endeared him to God and human beings, all of it was shaped by his family, this holy, yet ordinary family who was committed to the covenant—to the worldview, values, beliefs, practices, and traditions of the people of God. That’s not to say that God was not at work in Jesus’ life. Far from it. It is to recognize that God’s work in Jesus’ life was in part—and I would say—was in large part mediated by Jesus’ religious and faithful family. This is something worth reflecting on.
     The second thing that today’s episode reveals about the holy family is their social status. They are poor. This, of course, comes as no surprise to Luke’s readers. In his account of Jesus’ birth, we are told that the infant king was wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a feeding trough. Not exactly the clothing and furnishings of the rich and famous, nor even of the middle class, for that matter.[1] In today’s episode, we find additional evidence that Jesus’ family belonged to the very large peasant class of first-century Palestine. The clue is Mary’s sacrifice. According to Leviticus, when a mother’s days of purification are completed, she is to bring two offerings to the temple: a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. The law states, however, “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons” (Lev 12:8), which is exactly what Mary does.
     The holy family is poor; they are economically and socially challenged, which makes what is said about Jesus all the more remarkable. How is this child, this son of a carpenter, going to bring glory to Israel and salvation to all the nations of the world? How is this eldest son of a poor family, with all of the obstacles and limitations that entails, going to turn the world and its systems of injustice upside-down? This is something worth thinking about. Jesus was the firstborn of peasants. The Son of God is a peasant. That’s why there is no fanfare when this infant king comes into the temple, into his temple. Recall the words from the prophet Malachi:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple (Mal 3:1).
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi said he was coming, but nobody was watching, so nobody noticed when the young Master entered his temple. Well, that’s not exactly true. In my sermon on Christmas Day, I said that God entered the world quietly, that he wanted to keep his arrival a secret. But I also noted that God isn’t very good at keeping secrets, especially where his Son is concerned. So, God let it slip to some homeless shepherds that his son had been born in a stable. Likewise, when God’s six-week-old Son makes his first trip to the temple, his first visit to his heavenly Father’s house, God let it slip again. He just had to let a few more people in on the secret. And, unlike the shepherds, we know their names.

Simeon and Anna
Simeon and Anna are not related, but they share a number of things in common. They are both quite old (and God sure seems to like old people). They are both aware of what God is doing in the world, having attuned themselves to the movements of the Spirit. And, they are both awaiting the redemption and restoration of Israel. Recall, at the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had been subject to foreign domination for the better part of five hundred years, and most recently they had endured six decades of foreign occupation by the Roman legions. So it is not surprising that Anna—eighty-four-year-old, animated Anna—goes about the temple precincts, telling anyone who will listen about this special child. After all, she was alive before the Romans came; she knew what life had been like. And it is of no great wonder that Simeon is so overjoyed having finally setting his eyes on the one God has appointed to deliver his people from their bondage. Simeon picks up the child and blesses God for he knows that what he holds in his hands is God’s salvation, not only for Israel, but for the whole world.
     But it is not all salt and light. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, but the words he speaks to Mary are filled with dark things to come.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he says, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34b–35).
For the past few weeks, as I have read and studied this passage, as I have allowed it to play in my thoughts and prayers, I have been repeatedly brought back to these portentous words of Simeon’s. And I am not exactly sure what to make of them. I mean, on the one hand, it’s fairly clear what Simeon talking about. When Jesus becomes older, he is going to make some waves. He is going to challenge some cherished traditions, and he is going to frighten and anger some very powerful people. He will be betrayed by one of his closest associates, he will be rejected by the leaders of his people, and they will deliver him up for destruction. And through it all, his mother will be there, watching in horror, unable to lift a finger. Surely, this is the sword that will pierce her soul. But… I wonder. I wonder if she will feel the prick of that unfeeling blade long before she sees her beaten, bruised, and bloodied son hanging from a Roman cross. I wonder. When Jesus turns twelve, he will stay behind in Jerusalem, and it will take his parents three frantic days to find him. And when they finally do, he will dismiss their anxiety with a matter-of-fact question, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke says that Mary treasured all these things in her heart, but I wonder if she noticed the sword among all those treasures.
Later, when Jesus is older, he will leave his hometown and moves to Capernaum. He will travel about the occupied region proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom. Mary will get concerned and come to visit him with her other sons. When they arrive, there will be so many people that they cannot get to him. When word reaches Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to see him, he turns to the crowd and says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:20). I wonder, will she feel the sword then?   
     And I also wonder, will we feel this sword? The author of Hebrews writes that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). Well, Jesus is the Word of God, and Simeon said that he would “be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”(Luke 2:). I wonder, are we among those whose inner thoughts will be revealed. I kind of think we are, because there have been times in my life where the inner thoughts of my heart were laid bare. Sometimes it’s been a pleasant surprise, but mostly it has been painful, at least initially. God shines the light of Christ into the dark recesses of our hearts. God already knows what he will find there, and so he is not shocked by what the light reveals. We, however, we who are good at hiding from ourselves, we can become frightened by what is revealed. Like the groundhog who sees his shadow and so retreats into his borough, we are tempted to retreat back into our boroughs, hoping to hide ourselves until winter has passed.
     But that would be a mistake, for that would be to miss out on the salvation that awaits us. For when the light of Christ reveals the darkness of our hearts, it is not to judge us as unworthy, nor is it to punish us; it is, in fact, to set us free. For only that which is revealed by the light of Christ can be healed. The light of Christ is the light of salvation. It is a sword that cuts without wounding. It is a sword that heals, for it is a sword wielded by our Creator in grace, mercy, and love.
     And so, on this day of Candlemas, on this Feast of Lights, let us celebrate the Light that shines into the darkness, which the darkness is not able to extinguish. and with Anna and Simeon, let us rejoice in the salvation that God through Christ has prepared for all the world to see.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Sometimes, we assume that Jesus must have grown up in the middle-class, because he was the son of a carpenter. But in first-century Palestine, there really wasn’t much of a middle-class to speak of, and in any case, carpenters weren’t associated with the middle class, but with the peasantry. Why? Because if you carried on a trade that wasn’t connected to agriculture, it was a possible indication that your family had at one point lost its ancestral lands.

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures