(Here’s my sermon that I preached yesterday. You can find the full service on our church website – www.ststephenlc.org).
A 2015 Psychology Today article titled: “Anger’s Allure: Are you Addicted to Anger?” offers a fascinating look at anger. The very first sentence caught my attention – remember, this was written in 2015. Here’s the first line of the article – “Anger is a public epidemic in America.” That was in 2015!
The article stated four things – 1. In the moment, anger feels good. The body rewards it. You know this – anger offers a warm feeling and gives an adrenaline rush. 2. Anger is similar to other addictions. In anger you get a hit of dopamine, which is like a reward for the brain and can make us want more of it. 3. Anger can make people temporarily feel like they are in control. And 4. Anger can actually offer something to help some people avoid unresolved emotional and psychological feelings and issues like fear and emptiness.
Do you ever get angry? I do. There are certain things that will trigger me. Now, I will say that it takes an awful lot to get me to the point of anger though. It’s usually something around abuse or exploitation of someone – maybe that comes out like when I see purposeful hypocrisy designed to mislead for personal gain, or narcissistic behaviors and attitudes. I can get pretty angry over these type of things and I don’t have much patience for these kind of behaviors.
That first line of the article though. “Anger is a public epidemic in America.” Would it be fair to say that this has gotten worse since 2015?
I mean, just think of the list of things that people get angry over. Some of these might apply to you. There are things that directly relate to us – People get angry if they have to wait too long. People get angry driving. People get angry over bills they have to pay – especially if the amount is wrong. People get angry over relationships, work, medical procedures and test result. People get angry at family gatherings. People get angry at sporting events. People get angry over poor service.
Other things that cause anger speak to larger issues and touch our very identities and beliefs. People get angry when their identity and beliefs are touched. People get angry if what they define as politics is talked about in church, while others get angry because difficult topics too often are avoided all together.
People get angry over racism and the death of black men and women and others get angry over the protests that rise up over. People get angry over the destruction of property and others get angry because it seems as though human lives are worth less than property. Just in the last couple of days people have gotten angry over whether a vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled or not and the rules around that. People get angry over wearing masks and angry over those who refuse to wear them. People get angry over election politics, how money is used and abused, and people in positions of leadership. People get angry over the wildfires in California and the Hurricanes in the Gulf region and what their cause is and how they are handled. I’m sure you can come up with an endless list of things to get angry over.
Is it ever alright to get angry? Or is getting angry always wrong? Good question. I don’t think there is a nice easy answer for this. And I don’t think the lessons for today are about trying to say that getting angry is a sin and should be avoided at all costs. That’s not healthy either. Anger is a part of what it means to be human. There are things to get angry about after all. The question is really what we do with that anger. And anger is not a blank check though either.
In the midst all of this, I find it comforting to know that humanity hasn’t changed in literally thousands of years when it comes to anger – anger has been around for a long, long time, and it has been a problem for just as long. And it’s not going away anytime soon.
In our first reading, we hear the end of the story of Jonah. Jonah was the unwilling prophet sent by God to go to Ninevah to proclaim God’s warning to the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t want to go because he knew that God would relent and save the people if they repented – we hear that right in his prayer to God. He didn’t want that. He wanted them destroyed. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria – the empire that conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, where Jonah was from.
We’re a little over a week past September 11. Imagine God calling on you to go proclaim a message of repentance to the people responsible for the destruction of the towers in New York – that’s the equivalent of what Jonah was facing.
Why on earth would Jonah want to willingly go and proclaim a message of repentance to these people? They were his enemies after all. He was angry with them for what they had done to his homeland.
We hear at the end of chapter 3, “When God saw what the people of Ninevah did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” And then chapter four starts – “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” And it goes on how he complained to God, and pitched a fit and pouted because God wouldn’t play by Jonah’s rules. Jonah didn’t think that what God did was fair. And it wasn’t by Jonah’s standard. They didn’t get what they deserved!
In our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus tell a parable – the workers in the field. The workers are hired throughout various times of the day, and at the end of the day, it’s time to be paid. And in the end, they all receive the same wage, regardless of how much they worked. And we are told that when the first workers received their pay and it was equal to the last workers who only worked a short bit, they grumbled against the landowner. Grumbling is complaining about someone or something in an annoyed way. It wasn’t fair by the workers’ standards. The late workers go what they didn’t deserve!
When we are angry it is often because things are not the way we think they should be – the way we expect them to be. Someone else isn’t getting the punishment we think they deserve. We aren’t getting the reward we think we deserve. We become angry because things and people are not doing what we want. We come up against an unpleasant reality – that we are not in control. We don’t get to set standard. And boy, we don’t like that.
God isn’t doing what Jonah wants done. The landowner isn’t doing what the workers want.
And so, they become angry and grumble because they aren’t getting their way. They are trying to put God into a box. To set the limits of what God can and cannot do, what God is allowed to have a say in, what God gets to touch in our lives and the lives of others. Putting God in a box means that we get to control God, we get to tell God what to do and how to do it.
We get to tell God if and when and how God has a say over our anger, but also other things in our lives – our money, our politics, our relationships, our work, how we use our time, how we use the materials we have, and more.
But God doesn’t fit into a box. God is so much bigger than that. Look at the Psalm again. It’s a psalm of abundant praise. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” Says the psalmnist. “There is no end to your greatness. One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power. I will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works.” And on it goes.
God doesn’t fit into a box. That’s already been tried. Jesus was killed and put into a tomb. And that box couldn’t contain him. The anger that put him there couldn’t keep him there. He rose from the dead. He touched the topic that is most uncomfortable for us – death. The thing we certainly have no control over. And he overcame it.
Here’s the good news from these Scripture lessons – God was big enough to handle Jonah’s anger – God didn’t need to squash it. Jonah’s anger was real and God met Jonah where he was in his anger.
Jesus was confident enough to tell a parable where people grumbled and to have the landowner meet the grumbling workers where they were and still talk with them in their grumbling.
And God is big enough to handle our anger too, especially when we are in the midst of anger. God is there to acknowledge it and to set us free from it. God isn’t fair by our standards, and that’s a good thing. Because our standards are lacking. We don’t know the whole story with people. Often, we want to ignore the unpleasant parts of our own lives. The things that we expect would anger God.
God isn’t interested in what people deserve. We should be really grateful for that. Because if we got what we deserved, it would not be good. Instead, God is a God grace and mercy. God gives us what we don’t deserve and holds back on what we do – no different than the people of Ninevah, or the late workers in the field.
God isn’t fair, but God is just. God is consistent with what is morally right. That’s another way of saying God is righteous – concerned with right relationships. We see it in the example with Ninevah. God relents because God is more concerned with a right relationship with the people of Ninevah, not with what they deserve. The landowner pays the late workers an equal amount to the early workers because the landowner is generous and just, giving abundantly, not based on what they deserve.
God is big enough to hear and handle our anger. God accompanies us in our anger too – not avoiding us like so many others would. And God is big enough to do what is right anyway in spite of our anger.
You see, God is on a mission – a really big mission. A mission that will anger some because God doesn’t play by the rules of this world. Jesus talked about this all the time. Love your enemies, see the image of God in others, live the way of peace, care for the poor and undeserving, welcome the stranger, serve your neighbors – especially the unsightly ones who the world says don’t deserve it.
God is on a mission. And God’s mission has a church. And it’s bigger than the church. And it’s bigger than each one of us. We don’t deserve it. And that’s great. Because God isn’t fair, but God is just, and abundant in grace and mercy. That’s true for everyone – those we get angry with and think they don’t deserve it and with us too. Thank God for that. Amen.