Sunday, December 14, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Tapping into Anger"

Jeremiah 12:1-4

If I took you to court, Lord, you would win. But I still have questions about your justice. Why do guilty persons enjoy success? Why are evildoers so happy? 2 You plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. 3 Yet you, Lord, you know me. You see me. You can tell that I love you. So drag them away and butcher them like sheep. Prepare them for the slaughterhouse. 4 How long will the land mourn and the grass in the fields dry up? The animals and birds are swept away due to the evil of those in the land. The people say, “God doesn’t see what we’re up to!” (Common English Bible)

Two years ago today, on December 14, 2012, a madman took an arsenal of high-powered guns and ammunition to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where, after having already shot and killed his own mother at their home, proceeded to then end the lives of twenty children and six of their teachers before committing suicide.  The massacre prompted much talk and navel-gazing from us as Americans, but very little substantive action was ever taken on a grand level as a result of Sandy Hook.

And so, this past week, one of the mothers who lost a child to the depravity of this mass murderer penned an open letter to the world on the Today show’s website.  Nicole Hockley wrote, in part:

To the mom I used to be:

Two years ago, on December 14, 2012, the world changed and you changed with it.  A disturbed young man with access to high-powered firearms went to your sons’ school and killed six educators and twenty first-graders.  Your eldest son Jake survived, but was changed by the day he discovered some monsters are real.  He describes it as the day “when hell came to my school.”  Your youngest son, Dylan, your beautiful baby boy…was killed.  Shot multiple times, dying instantly in the arms of his special education assistant who also died while trying to protect him.

The tragedy changed every single aspect of your life, not only because of the obvious absence of your child, but because of the constant hole inside you that can never be filled.  Your eldest son has been forced to grow up way too fast because of the unfathomable loss of his baby brother.  The pain has altered the lines on your husband’s face.  The way you look at the world has changed.  Your interactions with family and friends seem foreign.  You’ve become much harder.  No longer brimming with optimism, you are now someone far more realistic and still. 

Imagine tapping into that deep reservoir of hardness.  Imagine trying to reach for that kind of emptiness and use it for anything.  A lot of us would want to lash out, and so, too, I think, would the prophet Jeremiah, in this passage.  But that is only one small part of tapping into our anger.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something
along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  We started out with Hannah’s chapter entitled “Realizing How  Much You Have,” last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Tapping Into Anger:”

Some of us know right off the bat what we want to get involved in.  Whether it’s orphaned children, global warming, or abortion, some of us just know our thing.  But for those who haven’t latched onto something yet, one great tool to determine the answer is to think about what makes you really angry.  We care about issues because our gut says, “This is unfair—I should fix it.’

I cannot think of anything more unfair than a terrorist attack that snuffs out the lives of twenty children before they’ve learned to write in cursive—and I use the term “terrorist attack” very deliberately, because a terrorist can be white and American and still inflict mass terror on a people.

No, there is nothing fair about Newtown.  We’ll talk about it today, many of us across the United States, maybe even a few of us in churches, but then we will go right back tomorrow to the peppermint mochas and the light displays and that godawful “Christmas Shoes” song.

So what do we do with our fleeting moments of anger and despair at the injustice that is endemic to how we live today?  I mean, we’re just as prone to experiencing injustice now as in Jesus’ time, or even before, all the way back to Moses or Abraham.  In the span of over three millennia of recorded human history, we truly have evolved very little in the ways of fairness and justice, despite the presence of laws that are supposed to make us a civilized people and despite the presence of religion centered around a God who is supposed to make us a loving people.

And that’s where Jeremiah cuts in.  He is a prophet, a mouthpiece for that loving and just God, and what are almost the first words out of his mouth in this chapter?  “Why do guilty persons enjoy success?  Why are evildoers happy?  YOU plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit.”  Jeremiah is going through the exact same lament any of us would, bemoaning the state of the world and asking God, basically, why do such good things happen for such bad people?

On a micro-level, we might see this…a jerk in our neighborhood receiving a windfall, or a good-for-nothing so-and-so winning a jackpot lottery ticket, but those sorts of things tend to inspire envy rather than anger, and while anger goes unmentioned in the Ten Commandments, envy absolutely gets called out and prohibited.

So…back to the original question of just a few paragraphs previous: what are we to do with anger when we feel it?  A growing school of thought among Bible scholars and pastors is to include our anger in our prayers, to bring that anger to God.  After all, God’s a big boy, God can handle it.  At the very least, God could certainly handle it from Jeremiah, who demands that God take the evildoers around him and “butcher them like sheep, (and) prepare them for the slaughterhouse.”

We may well recoil at this sort of vividly violent wishing on Jeremiah’s part, but we ought not to, lest we come across as holier-than-thou to one of the greatest of Hebrew Bible prophets.  After all, how many of us—myself included—have not at one point wished ill upon another person purely out of anger or out of spite?  So let’s dispense with turning our noses up at what Jeremiah is saying, and instead turn our ears to what he is saying instead.

And what he is saying really is the angry lament of what should be all of us: why does God allow evil to prosper?  It’s the biggest existential question in a life of faith, and it’s the biggest because there is no good answer.  We can blame the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub, or whatever we’re calling him nowadays, but that’s incomplete because we usually just end up treating him like a biblical bogeyman or a conveniently created invisible friend to blame all of our wrongdoings on…because, again, if we are to be honest with ourselves, evil works within us and through us precisely through some of that very same anger and spite that we use to wish ill upon others.

We can blame God, but that’s just passing the buck in the worst possible sense.

Or, we can look inwards, towards ourselves.  We may not be the people who have most directly brought ruin to the world—we may not be the warlords in the global south, or petty despots running a countries as absolute dictators, or even the jerk who steals our internet and cable (I know, first world problems), but as long as we fail to care about soul-sized concerns that prevent people from having a certain minimum security about their livelihood, we are part of the problem, too.

But I also know we are aware of that—one of the best things that has happened to me this holiday season was the church lunch we had together on Thursday—several of us all gathered in the library, set out tables and chairs, and shared the comfort food of chicken and macaroni and cheese together, and the conversation around the table wasn’t centered around the more superficial aspects of Christmas—the visits to Santa or the recipes for egg nog—but about our own experiences of seeing and being part of true, back-breaking poverty around the world.  The stories came from peoples’ time in Africa, and Asia, and Mexico, and all points in between—there was a lot of life lived in the people in that room, and it showed that day over lunch.

And believe me, trust me, when I tell you that this is absolutely what Christmas is all about. When God came to earth, He did not do so in the form of a pampered, catered-to prince, ensconced in some palace far from the people, no God came to earth in the form of a baby boy as poor as the dirt He was born in.  God spoke to us with His birth, and that choice of how He was to be born was an emphatic choice for those of us who have been put down in the dirt as well, those of us who have been brought low by the iniquities and evils of this world and pray to be lifted up again once more.

There is an ending to Nicole Hockley’s letter to the mother she used to be, and to all of us.  It is an ending that demonstrates how she has tapped into that emptiness and powered on to work towards the real, substantive change we desperately needed on this day two years ago and never truly found, and I leave it here as the most appropriate ending to today’s message, without any further comment:

I am beginning to feel some of my old optimism returning, because more and more people are engaging around this issue.  Our conversation is gaining momentum.  I sense a sea change is coming.  I know everything we’re doing at Sandy Hook Promise will protect more children.  We’re fighting a good fight.

But after every sort of victory, there’s also a moment of incredible sadness for me, for whatever happens, I know I still can’t bring Dylan back.  That hole will never be filled.  No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back.  But you can go forward, and make a difference.  With love, Nicole Hockley


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 14, 2014

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