As Jesus and the disciples practiced weekly sabbath, they worshipped alongside a person with a paralyzed hand. Now because of the paralyzed hand, the person was only half welcomed at church. They could attend, but not lead worship; this was true for women, blind people, and many others. (Leviticus 21) The religious leaders watched Jesus closely to see if Jesus would break any rules by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus brings their conflicting values into sharp focus, inviting the excluded person to “step up where people can see you.” Jesus directly addresses the preachers, experts, and judges, “What is the right thing to do today? What is the purpose of these Sabbath laws? Is the law designed to bless people or to curse them, to do good or do evil, to uplift or kill?” Jesus is asking about more than how to adhere to the rules, Jesus is questioning the morality of the law. Perhaps hedged in by their legalism or just wanting to win the fight, Jesus’ ordained critics say nothing. They refuse dialogue. Jesus lets their silence linger, observing it and them. Mark tells us their silence angered Jesus.
The Greek word for anger in the Bible has roots in a blast of hot air shot out of an agitated person’s nose: an involuntary snort and grimace. Psychology Today tells us that “Anger is one of the basic human emotions, as elemental as happiness, sadness, anxiety, or disgust.” These emotions are basic human survival skills. “Anger is related to the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response of the sympathetic nervous system; it prepares humans to fight… but not necessarily throwing punches. Anger might motivate communities to combat injustice. Of course, anger too easily or frequently mobilized can undermine relationships…” (You might add community, denominations, churches, or even nations). (www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/anger)
Looking around watching the silent hypocrisy, Jesus grows angry and simultaneously “was deeply grieving.” Grief and anger often are not very far apart. Mark begins Holy Week telling us that Jesus entered Jerusalem and “looked around at everything.” Before Holy Week is over Jesus will weep over the city, label religious leaders as “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23), and flip over the Temple’s exchange table. Why was Jesus angry? Mark tells us Jesus grew angry with their unyielding hearts. Remember how God’s anger burned against Pharaoh’s hard heart and with the “chosen people” for their stiff or unyielding necks? Maybe God still grows angry when our unyielding hearts love winning more than healing, value rules over people, and prefer personal comfort to justice.
Angered at their silence and grieving their unyielding hearts, Jesus spoke hope to the person with a withered hand, “Stretch out your hand,” and their hand was whole. You would think everyone would celebrate that miracle. But, the most maddening or saddest part of this story is that the church leaders could not celebrate love’s victory. The miracle did not soften their judging hearts. The law mattered more than the healing. Pious and proud, the clergy folks silently aligned with pagan political interests to destroy Jesus. Unexplored anger is often the deadliest.
There is a lot of diffuse anger out there. There is a lot to get mad about. Look around at everything. Take a moment to linger over your anger. Breathe and pray asking, “what am I angry about?” Unexplored anger can flash up in ways that harm people while missing the systemic evils that beguile us all. This global pandemic produces actual airborne threats to our physical health. These droplets trigger a flight, fight, or freeze response. Additionally, our best defense to a communicable disease depends on our shared practice of social distancing, getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and washing our hands. So uncooperative people actually become threats to our lives. These last 18 months of fighting Covid and with each other are wearing us down. Masked and unmasked people are all crying out, “How long, Lord? How long will we wander in this wilderness?… I am in deep anguish.” (Psalm 6, 80). It is kind of funny that in the wilderness God complains to Moses, “How long will these people refuse to keep my commandments?” (Exodus 16) We are surrounded by daily moments of fight, flight, or freeze. We ask ourselves, “Is this okay? Will my beloved be okay? How dare ‘they’?” Our anger and grief centers are lit up and overheated! We need Sabbath cool downs or freezes. We may need to turn off some news notifications and email alerts.
Even without the stress of Covid, we are in uncharted sociological and psychological waters. The advent of hand-held publishing houses has made us all reality TV producers, publishing our content without the benefit of peer review or even the wrinkled foreheads of a circle of friends who, before Facebook, might have kept us from posting our first reaction to the world. Have you noticed how our phones lure us into judging everything with a thumbs up, frowny face, heart, comment, or share? Maybe for the first time ever, it is hard to simply look around and digest something. We are challenged to enjoy a sunset without thinking we need to repost the scene into a virtual space. It is hard to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
James does not say “don’t be angry,” but rather be slow to grow angry. Look around at everything; deeply drink it in. Polite white churches can at times act like anger is the unforgivable sin, but Jesus looked around and experienced anger at the church and deeply grieved unyielding hearts. I’m not about to judge Jesus. Prophetic voices like Jesus or John the Baptist resounded with a sometimes almost too angry tone bellowing “you brood of vipers, who told you to flee God’s judgment.” Dr. King deeply lamented his “regrettable (almost) conclusion that the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) Perhaps, we polite church leaders need to listen to the angry voices inside or already outside of the church. God’s message of truth and communal salvation may come from a voice shouting in the wilderness or leading a protest in the streets.
The polite church’s aversion to anger can make us think that anger itself is sinful, but James tells us “to be slow to grow angry.” Ephesians 4 advises “get rid of lying to each other, instead tell the truth to your neighbor because we belong to each other.” True community requires us to be truthful with one another, even if this is painful. Be angry without sinning. Try not to let the sun set on your anger. Don’t give the devil a foothold. Anger buried often grows toxic roots within our souls. So be angry, but don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Be angry, but put aside bitterness, shouting, and slander… be angry, but be forgiving to each other. Be angry, but pray for your persecutor. Be angry, but love your enemies. Be angry, but treat others in the way you want to be treated. Harmful actions, not angry feelings, are sinful.
I think it is even okay to be angry with God. Seeing the clergy abandon love, the government forget justice, the crowds enjoy suffering, the faithful scatter, while feeling the physical agony of crucifixion, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Christ’s shout echoes the Psalmist’s sharp questioning of God, “How long, oh Lord?” and “why are you so far from saving us?” Indeed, directing our anger towards God in prayer may help us unpack it. Exploring our anger with God, may help us address the deeper sources of our anger. Our loving God can turn the other cheek absorbing our anger. Friends, if God holds a grudge, we are all doomed, but we believe God is love, at death nothing remains but love and nothing can separate us from God’s love. (1 John 4, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8) God created anger. At times it is an alarm clock alerting us to hungry wolves or telling us to flip over unjust tables. A wise parent does not tell their child to not feel angry, but helps the child explore the whys of their anger. Angry prayer may open an avenue to deeper dialogue, healing, and grace. Perhaps we need to spend some time praying and talking with others, not so much about who makes us mad, but what our anger is doing inside us.
So let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. Listen to your anger, look it over, pray over it. It may be a catalyst to change ourselves or fight for systemic change. Let us never bury our anger, giving the devil a foothold, nor let anger rule over us. Begin with prayer and conversation with friends and if your anger or grief seems too hot or too deep reach out for help. Listen for the cries of the oppressed and shouts of the prophets. Follow Jesus who looked around at everything before flipping over unjust tables. Notice who is half welcomed, shut out, or knocked down. Ask moral questions of old systems and rules. Be slow to anger, slow to post, slow to blame, slow to accuse (is not accusation the devil’s work?). Our slowing down, listening, and looking around may stop us from flipping over the wrong tables or blaming the wrong people. Dear friends, I am on page 3 of my manuscript and have a lot more to explore about anger. We can do that next week. Let me close with a story about exploring anger.
A few weeks ago, Connie and I walked through Opry Mills. You might fairly judge us for doing that! I was instantly aggravated that 95% of the people were unmasked. I grimaced and said to Connie, “Don’t these people love their children?” But before I spoke aloud to them, I slowed down and explored my own snap judgments about them, “don’t they love their children?” I slowly turned my anger over and observed the unmasked hordes deeply engaged in back-to-school shopping. Did these unmasked hordes love their children? They packed around embossed gift bags like summer Santas and stood in lines for pretzels, Hawaiian ice, and other treat. I am pretty sure none of them woke up and said, “Let’s head to the mall and try to get Covid or give it to others by not wearing masks.” It was not a lack of love for their children that kept them from making a simple sacrifice that could protect themselves, their children and me. Once safely back in the car, I felt some compassion for people out of touch with our best medical advice. Perhaps they were lured into risky behavior by a governor who assured them they needed no scientific, medical, or educational reason to exempt their children from a school mask policy. Maybe they were harmed by business owners who put profits over customers’ or employees’ health. Maybe we are all victims of social media algorithms that reward inflammatory speech. Maybe their pastors have forgotten Jesus sums up the law as loving others. When I thought about all that, I found some compassion, and somehow compassion usually grows hope.
Look over your anger. Look at everything. Pray. Remember, Jesus grew angry and grieved. Converse with others about your anger, not to build fires, but to seek relief from the heat. Listen- try to understand those that stir anger in you. Be slow to post. Be slow to grow angry. Be forgiving, as God forgives you. Amen.