Sunday, November 27, 2011

Voices of Anger, by Greg

· May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

· How did you spend your Thanksgiving? Cooking? Relaxing? Nibbling? Watching the “Har-Bowl”? A surprising number of our fellow citizens decided that Thanksgiving was a good day for a campout in front of their big-box retailer. What an odd people we’ve become ... simply witness the modern phenomenon of “black Friday”—which itself is a pretty dreadful name. People camping out to get into the stores first. ... stabbings ... shootings ... stampedes ... a woman pepper spraying anyone who tried to get near the merchandise she’d claimed for herself. Is this simply an indication of our “bargain at any price” culture? Is it a reflection of the continued “de-volving” of our civilization and our sacred seasons? These and more, I suppose. So ... what’s it all about? Why do people do this? I suppose you could argue that it’s just an odd modern sport. But they seem to be in pursuit of ... something ... dashing from store to store, mall to mall, sale to sale.

· As we’ve heard this morning, Isaiah was certainly in pursuit of something ... he was in pursuit of a little loving and a little attention from an angry and indifferent God.

· Indifference ... it’s the worst kind of relational offense ... do anything to me, just don’t ignore me. “What have you done for me lately?” seems to be Isaiah’s cry.

· Things are in a very bad way for Isaiah and his people. It’s far worse than what nearly any one of us has known in our lifetime. The Babylonians had overrun the country, destroyed Jerusalem and Israel’s Temple, and hauled most of the population off into a bitter exile. It’s really hard to see how it could have been any worse for God’s “chosen people”. And God seems to have stood at the door of the family home and simply waved as his children are hauled off in chains. “Send a postcard.”

· Today’s words are likely written from the perspective of having returned from the Babylonian exile ... but returned to what? A flattened city and a non-existent Temple. And God ... well God simply seems absent ... God who acted so decisively at other critical times in Israel’s life—like the Exodus from Egypt ... like the journey through the Sinai wilderness. Now God seems moodily distant if God is even “there” at all.

· Bailey White is a southern writer that used to read some of her work on NPR. She describes her elderly mother—“mama”—who gets sick of her children’s backbiting and bickering and decides to go camping, of all things, at the far edge of the family’s farm. At night, mama’s daughters could see the flickering light of her campfire as she persisted in her sanity break and her self-imposed exile from her dingaling daughters.

· Sometimes I like to think of God as “mama” ... in Isaiah’s time and ours. God who has gotten sick of the bickering ... sick of the sordidness ... sick of the self-centeredness. “Fine,” she says in exasperated anger, “you stay in the house because I’m moving out for a while.”

· Maybe we can think of the early days of Advent as the time when we pause to consider that God may be angry with us—but not just us ... a time when we might have to do, for a time, without cozy assurances of God’s presence ... a time when we might shout at the sky to rip open and reveal God, but God still remains hidden ... brooding.

· How do we understand God’s anger? Isaiah knew God as a divine parent who was angry at Israel’s failure to live out their chosenness ... failing to look and act like God’s chosen children ... failing to treat the unfortunate among them with compassion ... failing to acknowledge God and God’s gifts to them when times were good and for imagining that they were “self-made” and needed no one but themselves. At our best, we earthly parents become angry at our children for many of these same failings ... when they repeat mistakes ... sell themselves short ... fail to reach their potential ... fail to be honest with us or themselves ... fail to live according to the dictates of their highest selves. And, of course, we can get angry at ourselves for these very same things.

· But anger is scary ... many of us grew up with parents who had some anger buried within, but didn’t know how to handle their anger ... and it would sometimes explode out in frightening and unpredictable and even damaging ways. The sad truth is that many of us have internalized our parents’ anger and even found new anger of our own. Many of us are frightened and confused by our own anger we know to be within.

· Harriet Goldhor Lerner is a psychologist and therapist who wrote several books some years ago that all start with the word: “Dance.” “The Dance of Intimacy” ... “The Dance of Anger”. “Dance” is a metaphor for our relationships with others and the important and necessary movements we must undertake in order to live in healthy and mutually satisfying relationships. And “anger” is one of the dances that we must not ignore or be unduly frightened by. We do well, Lerner says, to pay close and careful attention to anger—our anger and the anger of others. She says:

· “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self - our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions - is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say "no" to the ways in which we are defined by others and "yes" to the dictates of our inner self.”

· We could have some very fruitful conversations about this description of what anger signals for us. But this morning I’d like to lift up the phrase: our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. I think it helps explain some of God’s seeming absence and marks an important step along the way as Israel matures from a “child” into an “adult”.

· Isaiah’s anguish and frustration at God’s seeming abandonment of the people illustrates painful lessons being learned by the people of Israel ... and they are lessons that indicate an evolving and changing relationship with God. For the once “chosen” people of God, it is that God will not be owned or contained or controlled by them. For a people who are accustomed to getting nearly everything we want, it might help us to be reminded that we don’t control God ... or “own” God ... and we don’t control or own the future, though we may try influence it.

· Israel’s relationship with God is going through a necessary period of maturation and change ... if God at one time fed infant Israel by hand and effected “mighty acts” to protect the beloved chosen child, Israel is learning to understand that God increasingly comes into the world in a different way. If God once parted the waters and vanquished great armies, as the ancient stories told, God refuses to do so any longer.

· Woody Allen has famously jested of God as being something of an “underachiever”. But you know I’ve just suddenly realized that it’s an understandable joke from someone whose fellow Jews were slaughtered by the millions in WWII.

· Learn this, Israel: Divine protection is no longer a part of the bargain, it’s simply not in God’s being. But divine support, the profound undergirding of all that is and all that we are by the Spirit that animates all things ... that’s where Isaiah hard lessons are leading.

· The angry divine parent is saying to Israel, and I hope we’re listening in to this conversation: “grow up ... start taking responsibility for who you are ... for your behavior and decisions ... for your values and your faith ... and stop looking for a bailout every time the going gets tough. Grow up and allow your sense of me and my presence in the world to evolve away from seeing me as a “strong-armed benevolent dictator” and toward a divine, compassionate being whose power is most fully expressed in “non-coercive love and suffering service” ... a divine compassionate being who dwells most fully among the suffering and the disadvantaged and oppressed ...

· Fingerprints of God: Roy Larson, former religion writer for the Chicago Sun Times, has made a practice of examining the world for the fingerprints of God. Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he said he was more likely to find God's fingerprints on a kitchen table than on a holy altar. "Supernatural splendor" is found in "ordinary acts". The place to look for "spiritual substance is in everyday existence", where even the most simple deeds can be "full of wonder". "Why is it, Rabbi", asked the student, "that no one nowadays sees God?" The reply, "People are not willing to look that low."

· Advent is a season where we consider that God may be angry, like an angry, but loving parent. Advent is a season where we risk looking inward at our complexities including our own anger. Advent is the season when we learn to “look low” if we wish to see where God dwells. Advent is a rich and challenging season in which we find ourselves suspended for a time in the tension between God’s judgment and God’s promise.

· But there is a final word of hope … remember we lit the candle of hope this morning?

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

and do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

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