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Holy Anger

Imagine this: you’re at the doctor and you receive hard news. It looks serious; you need to start treatment soon. Anger prickles at the top of your head and then gushes through your body fast and hard. Fury overwhelms you. “Why me? I should not have to suffer like this,” you think.

Leaving the bank, you see your ex-brother-in-law getting into his truck. Anger blooms in your chest. You will never forgive him for what he did to your sister. “I will be angry at him forever and he deserves it,” you say to yourself.

You’re running late but you need to get some lunch. You’re hungry and stressed when you pull into the fast-food restaurant. But of course, the line is moving slowly, the woman in front of you acts like she’s never seen a McDonald’s menu before and then, as they hand you your drink, an employee says “can you go park up front? We’re cooking up fries.” As if they don’t already know they need fries at lunchtime. You bite back the anger you feel. You’ll be even later. “I should not have to be frustrated like this by other people’s incompentence,” you think to yourself.

You’ve silently competed with a co-worker for years. He is annoying and not great at his job, but somehow, he always seems to get promoted into leadership, and now somehow, he’s become your boss. With every email you send, you think of the angry email you wish you could actually send. “I work harder than he does! I make him look good! Life should be fair,” you say to yourself.

You can smell dinner burning on the stove, but when you turn to move the heat, you knock a glass off the counter. There’s glass and water all over the floor, the kids are coming into the kitchen, and the dog is right there too. “GRRRRRR!” you yell out in anger. “Why am I such an idiot? Why do I ruin everything? I’m not supposed to make mistakes like this.”

You’ve worked so hard to clean up the house this weekend. It looks so good because you took the time to clean things you never clean. Even the baseboards are dust free. But when you get home from running errands, someone has made a mess in the kitchen. Someone else threw their dirty laundry on the floor in front of the washing machine. There are wet footprints down the hall and dried toothpaste in the bathroom sink. “Does everyone in this house want me to hate them?” you think as anger tightens in your throat. It’s lucky your family members seem to be hiding out. You know the rage building in you would lead to a verbal lashing beyond what they deserve. “Not one single thank you, and now I have to get right back to work? Why does no one in my life love or respect me like I need?”

You leave the Navigation Center after cooking breakfast and you’re feeling pretty good. It’s good to do good things, you know? You’re proud of the way you’ve been using your time to help people lately. So when the “check engine” light starts glowing on your dashboard, it feels like someone just smacked you. “Why is this happening to me?” you ask angrily. “If I do good things, I’m supposed to get good things in return. But it’s always something, isn’t it?”

There is so much that makes us angry all around us. I invented these particular scenarios based on what Dr. Bernard Golden’s research about anger.[1] He explains that we have these stories in our head about how life should be, and when things don’t unfold as we expect, the result is anger. But, of course, the story was really the problem all along. These are stories like “I don’t deserve to suffer, life should be fair, I shouldn’t make mistakes.” The stories we tell ourselves about how the world should be result in our anger when they are proved wrong. So, according to Dr. Golden, the answer to the anger problem begins by addressing the faulty stories. But…is anger always wrong?

I’ll tell you, talking about anger seemed like a good idea until it was time to actually start researching, planning, and writing this sermon. Anger is tough. It’s complicated for a lot of reasons- because sometimes anger can be useful, but more often it’s harmful, self-destructive, and damaging to our relationships. Sometimes anger causes us to confront ourselves in ways that might lead to growth. But in other times anger controls us and contorts us into something we do not want to be. Sometimes anger needs to be expressed in order to promote healing and change. But often times it frightens and alienates people. Researcher and professor Brene Brown explains that “anger is a powerful catalyst but a life-sucking companion.”[2] We’ve seen the life-sucking part, and the way that anger can be a catalyst for harm, but can anger lead us into positive change?

In Matthew 5:22, Jesus says “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.” Yikes! That’s a lot of liability for our anger. Okay, so we are very responsible for what we do when we are angry. And then over in Ephesians 4:26-27, we read “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Okay, so we’ve got the all clear to be angry, we just need to not let our anger cause us to sin.

But then we come to the story of Jesus clearing the Temple in John 2. And I don’t know, it’s a pretty intense story, right? Jesus seems pretty mad. He even seems a little bit scary. But we trust that Jesus was without sin, so perhaps we can learn what holy anger is from this story. Maybe here we can find the good catalyzing force of anger. The author of John’s Gospel doesn’t exactly reveal to us what Jesus is so mad about. We can put the pieces together though and make a good guess. The temple was full of people who sold cattle, sheep, and doves to those who came to make a sacrifice. We don’t know how fairly or unfairly those animals were priced. Similarly, we don’t know how fairly or unfairly the moneychangers operated. See, the temple would not accept Roman coins for temple tax; those coins were covered with the faces of the emperor and military leaders, along with words praising them as gods. Roman money was inherently idolatrous; it was Roman propaganda by design. So, upon entering the temple, anyone who wanted to pay their temple tax or make an offering had to exchange currency.

Nothing in the gospel of John tells us what exactly was wrong about what they were doing, beyond Jesus’ words to “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s versions of the story though, Jesus says “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations…but you have made it a den of robbers.” Professor Richard Swanson invites us to imagine the noise level and chaos of people bargaining and haggling as they seek to get the best possible price on the sacrificial animal or the best exchange rate.[3] What should be a place of worship and prayer has become, as John suggests, a marketplace. The other Gospel writers would have us to also understand that it was a marketplace where people were being scammed, tricked, robbed. Everyone there, both buyers and sellers, has missed the point of the temple and the sacrificial system. It’s about approaching God, not getting the best bang for your buck. And Jesus looks around at the injustice and the perverse distortion of religion and he is BIG MAD.

And he doesn’t hide it. The disciples are reminded of Psalm 69:9 that says, “zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal can look differently- it can be energy and excitement, but it can also be out of control. Zeal can lead to insurrection or terrorism. In Jesus’ own day, a group of Jews known as Zealots had among them extremists who would enter large crowds and stab people who supported the Roman occupation.[4] In Paul’s zeal for his religion, he participated in and supported the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Zeal has some negative connotations, but not all zeal looks like that. As Richard Swanson says, “There is vicious, violent zeal, and there is the sort of zeal that leads to real change.”[5]

And Jesus, consumed with anger and zeal, makes his anger count. Jesus’ anger isn’t rooted in the false narrative we mentioned before. Jesus’ anger isn’t a cover for fear, like ours so often is. It isn’t the manifestation of guilt or shame. Think back to the last time you can remember being really angry. What was going on? What led to that strong emotional response? Were you angry because you were actually frightened? Were you angry because you felt disrespected? Were you angry because you refused to let go of control? What was the story behind the story?

And what was the result? Did your rage make you feel better? Did it change the situation or provide help or healing? What was accomplished? What did your anger catalyze?

Holy anger is different. It isn’t covering up for another emotion. It isn’t a response to a false understanding of how the world should be. Holy anger is a response that comes from knowing God’s truth. Holy anger isn’t self-serving or about convenience; holy anger is passion for transforming the unjust to the just. And Jesus’ anger is a catalyst, it’s powerful, it’s the beginning of something new. He disrupts this broken temple system in a dramatic fashion, driving out the animals and dumping money bags out. And then he proceeds to prophesy to those around him, foreseeing his resurrection and the way that his sacrifice would supersede the exact work that had been bustling in the marketplace just moments before. Jesus, filled with holy anger, makes it count; it’s about effecting change, transforming something broken into something beautiful, it’s about zeal for the house of the Lord.

This week, I want you to take time to notice and evaluate your anger. When it flares up in you, can you identify why? Can you find the true story below the emotion? And here’s the thing- there’s no need to even attempt to eliminate anger from your life. There’s nothing wrong with being angry. It’s a reality of life. Emotions are information, and they tell us something about the situation we are in. But you don’t have to allow your emotions to dictate your behavior. You will be angry sometimes. And you should be angry sometimes! People are annoying and things go wrong, and we all make mistakes. We get tired and cranky. And the world is deeply unjust and there is so much that is broken. But we all must learn what to do with our anger, how it helps or harms, what it may lead us into.

Be angry, but you don’t have to sin. Be angry, but about the things that matter- about injustice, exclusion, the ways people get taken advantage of, the way religion becomes performative big business. Be angry and let your anger lead you into the transformative work of sharing the good news of Jesus. Pursue peace in your heart and in the world, and practice holy anger when you can’t. Amen.

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