RIGHTEOUS ANGER? – A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge
4/III/18 Lent 3 Ex 20:1-17, Jn 2:13-22
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. AMEN.
What place does anger have in our life of faith? That’s a question which is raised in different ways by both of our readings this morning.
As part of a list of instructions to new Christians, the writer to the Ephesians says, ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’ [Eph 4:26]. What place does anger have in our life of faith? Is there such a thing as righteous anger? Is it possible to be angry without being led into sin?
Our first hymn [AMRW 563, v. 2] is one of the few which reflect Jesus’ anger, and it was good to sing it this morning:
Jesus Christ is raging,
Raging in the streets,
Where injustice spirals
And real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too:
In the kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with you.
Let’s come at this slightly tangentially by looking at the media storm about revelations of sexual misconduct at Oxfam. There are at least two shocking aspects to this story.
The first, the less shocking of the two, is the discovery that Oxfam workers had been paying for sex in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. By calling it the ‘less shocking’ of the two, I’m not trying to undermine the awfulness of what happened, or to condone the actions of the aid workers who have done so much damage to individual Haitian people and to the reputation of Oxfam, but simply saying that we should not be surprised that in a large organisation which is helping about 18 million people in the poorest countries of the world each year, there will be a number of bad eggs [See Paul Vallely, CT, 23/II/18, p.15, for that number]. And the reason that we shouldn’t be surprised, is that we know, as God says to Cain, shortly before he murders Abel, that ‘sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’ [Gen 4:7].
Sin lurks at the door – we know, as Christians, and those trying to explore the Christian journey, that sin is ever-present; that often, even when we’re trying to do good, sin creeps in. We do something nice for someone, and we can’t help just dropping little hints about how good we’ve been, so that others will know; we make a donation to charity, and come away with a smug feeling that we’ve done something good, when we’ve only given the price of a cup of coffee; and so on.
Because we know all this, one of the first things we do when we come to worship together each week is to acknowledge sin, both individual and corporate – we have confession and Absolution. And we need this each week, not just once a year! We acknowledge our sin, and the sin of the world, we receive forgiveness, and we move on to the rest of our worship. It is important to acknowledge our sins and failures to God, but that is not his last word to us. Yes, we are fallen sinners, but, more importantly, we are redeemed by God’s love in Christ. That is God’s last word on us!
Human beings have an infinite capacity for good, but also an infinite capacity or evil, and for self-deception. We’re very good at convincing ourselves that we’re doing something bad for good reasons.
All human beings, and all human organisations, are capable of sin – individually and corporately.
And so, although the Oxfam exposé is sad and shocking and makes unpleasant reading, we shouldn’t be surprised that sin has crept into even the most worthy of human institutions.
What I have found even more shocking is the way that some of the media, and some politicians, have used this scandal as a way of attacking Oxfam as a whole, and aid organisations in general.
When there is a sex scandal in Parliament, and goodness knows, we’ve had a few of those over the years, we don’t hear politicians saying that we should cut off all funds to the House of Commons until it has been sorted out. When there were extremely unpleasant revelations about the misuse of power for sex in the film industry, no one said that we should boycott all the cinemas and not watch any films on TV.
And yet, because of the regrettable actions of a small minority of Oxfam employees, people have been calling for a suspension of its funding, from Government and other donor organisations – the only effect of which will be to damage the lives of those 18 million people, living in unimaginable poverty, whom Oxfam helps each year.
The actions of a few are, in some quarters, being used to harm the interests of the many, often by those who question the whole basis of aid. There may be legitimate questions about the aid agencies, but they should be addressed honestly, and not via the back door of a scandal such as this.
Which brings me back to anger.
Very few of us will not be angry at some point – and many people carry large amounts of anger about with them all the time. What’s it for, and what do we do with it?
As Nicky points out on the front of this week’s Partners, Jesus’ ‘Cleansing of the Temple’, as it is usually called, appears in each of the Gospels. In the three Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, it appears as Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of the last week of his life. In John’s Gospel, as we read this morning, it comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.
That’s a very significant placing of the story. In the first chapter of John, we hear of John the Baptist, and his pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God; and Jesus calls his first Disciples to him. And then, in John 2, Jesus is, in effect, called out by his mother, and turns the water into about 150 gallons of wine – that’s a lot of wine by anyone’s standards. And immediately after that, after the narrator comments that Jesus ‘Revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ [Jn 2:11], he goes up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his first action there is to drive out those selling the animals for sacrifice, and to turn over the tables of those exchanging normal everyday currency into Temple Money for the offerings. That must have caused quite a scene!
We know that Jesus was capable of enormous compassion. Here we see that he is also capable of anger – he shares the human condition with us, and he feels our anger and pain.
There is lots in the background of this story, about those making excess profit from selling the animals for sacrifice, and those changing money charging high rates of commission, and so on. I don’t think we can extrapolate from that that every financial transaction in a place of worship is always exploitative.
But Jesus obviously has a burning anger for justice. Unlike us so often, the things that made him angry were not things which impinged on his own self-interest, which trampled on his own feelings, or his own well-being. The things that made him angry were those which impinged on the poorest in society, on those on the margins, on women, children, lepers, outcasts, those mistreated by society, by the wider world.
There seems to be a righteous anger, which is directed at those things in the world which are against God’s will – as opposed to the infant-like anger we so often feel when we don’t get our own way, when the whole world seems stacked against us.
It does seem like there is a place for anger in our faith. But like every other aspect of our lives, sin can creep into our anger. ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’ [Eph 4:26], says the writer to the Ephesians. We should be angry at the injustices in the world, at the terrible things which happen to people, at earthquakes, and cancer, and people dying too young, and children suffering – all of these things and many more should provoke us to anger, to prayer, and to action. Our hearts should burn for righteousness, we should give to charity, use Fairtrade, try to make a difference. This is righteous anger.
Ann Lewin, whose material we are using in the Lent Groups at the moment, puts it like this, in her poem ‘Temple Cleansing [Watching for the Kingfisher, p. 103]: