Habakkuk 1:1-4 (The Message) God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place. Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke. The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head.
A former student recently posted on Facebook a link to a story showing that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 69,000 immigrant children were separated from their families over the past year. The student wrote, “How are we letting this happen?”
Joining a series of replies expressing heartbreak and outrage, I posted, “Sorry. I tried. We tried. I hope your generation can do better.”
My seemingly innocuous reply resulted in some well-deserved criticism. Another student wrote, “Wow, Joe. Way to give up.”
As someone who teaches journalism, I have to keep up with the news. Each day I’m inundated with stories about another mass shooting, more terroristic threats, governments brutally assaulting protestors, men sexually assaulting women, intentional destruction of our land and water, the President degrading a fellow citizen via a tweet, and the Supreme Court ruling against anyone who is not a rich, white, straight man.
At times, the parade of never-ending bad news elicits one of two emotions: I either get so angry that I want to punch something, or I get so beat down that I want to give up.
The little-known book of Habakkuk makes me feel like I’m not alone. Although Biblical scholars aren’t sure on the exact identity of Habakkuk, it is likely that he was a prophet around 598 BC when the Babylonians marched against Jerusalem. Habakkuk is witnessing substantial evil in his midst and cannot comprehend how God could be letting this happen. He is angry. And he wants to give up.
Habakkuk’s questioning of God does not go unanswered.
Habakkuk 1:5-10 — God’s response Look around at the godless nations. Look long and hard. Brace yourself for a shock. Something’s about to take place and you’re going to find it hard to believe. I’m about to raise up Babylonians to punish you, Babylonians, fierce and ferocious — World-conquering Babylon, grabbing up nations right and left, A dreadful and terrible people, making up its own rules as it goes. Their horses run like the wind, attack like bloodthirsty wolves. A stampede of galloping horses thunders out of nowhere. They descend like vultures circling in on carrion. They’re out to kill – death is on their minds. They collect victims like squirrels gathering nuts. They mock kings, poke fun at generals, spit on forts, and leave them in the dust.
God not only hears his complaint, but doubles down on Habakkuk’s criticism of the Babylonians. What joy this must have given to Habakkuk (which he later expresses in song in chapter 3). Not only did God hear him, but God gives justification to Habakkuk’s anger. Most importantly, God closes his response by noting that the Babylonians will get what’s coming to them …
Habakkuk 1:11 They’ll all be blown away by the wind. Brazen in sin, they call strength their god.
It’s easy to get angry, and give up hope in the wake of today’s troubles. It’s easy to plot revenge and fantasize about vigilante justice against those perpetrators of death, violence and greed. But that is beyond my human capabilities — I need to let go of anger and leave that part to God. My focus needs to be on spreading love, social justice and caring for God’s amazing creation, in any way that I possibly can.
Prayer: God almighty, you have given us an awesome world. Although there are people intent on destroying this world, give us the strength to persist in doing the work we are called to do. Help us have faith to know that our work is making a difference, and that you will be there in the end. Amen.
Proverbs 29:11 Fools give fool vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.
I was filled with rage.
I was crippled with anger as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to continue its discriminatory policies on LGBTQ people. I shot argumentative texts back and forth with Carla about leaving the church. I scoured the internet, consuming fiery responses from like-minded Methodists. I provoked social media debates with those who disagree with me.
But none of my actions mattered. The outcome of the General Conference vote didn’t change. The words in the Book of Discipline weren’t altered. I didn’t convince one person to think differently. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel any better.
I was a fool.
In the immediate aftermath of General Conference, I single-handedly took on the issue without God, convinced that my outrage was the solution for the injustice of the day. But my anger did nothing to help the people who were persecuted by the decision — LGBTQ Methodists who were labeled as “less than” by the governing body of their own church.
Don’t be mistaken, I’m not downplaying the importance of speaking out against injustice, but it must be done with God at our side, prayerfully, reflectively and intentionally.
The theme this Lenten season is “Make Room for God.” It’s critical that we take this message to heart as we discern how we — individually and as a church — move forward. Although we cannot change the decision made at 2019 General Conference, if we allow God to help us, we can be confident our way forward will bring calm, peace and love to those who need it most.
Prayer: Dear God, we are hurting today. We are sad. We are angry. We are letting you in. Please guide us. Amen.
2 Corinthians 5:7:For we walk by faith, not by sight.
Much like my middle child, I’m an emotional person. Lots of big, full-forced feelings bounce around my heart and soul all the live-long day. It’s super fun … Maybe you’re like me in your emotional life. Or, maybe you’re more like my husband, James — steady, even as the storm rolls on around him. Perhaps, though, you’re not like either of us and fall somewhere else along the emotional spectrum.
For almost the entirety of my life I’ve judged myself for being so emotional. I’ve yearned to be more like James. I’ve wanted to feel in control of the visceral feelings which, at times, dictate my thoughts, actions and mood. While it can be exhausting to parent a child with lots of hot and cold switches, it is, from my experience, even more difficult to live with those buttons adhered to your insides, ready for the world to push them at any moment.
Like any self-aware person with amazing health insurance, I have happily marched myself into therapy for years to mull over and sort through and observe my many states of mind. During a recent session, we focused on anger. Anger is a tough emotion; if done wrong, it can be a forceful traffic light, a drunken GPS sending you down the wrong route.
You see, the night of Nov. 8, 2016 is one that will live in infamy within my soul. That night is the one which broke my back, it cracked my heart and soul wide open, and I finally became the messy puddle I had been trying my best to hold back for years. As my neighbors shot their pistols in the air in celebration of a madman being elected, I lay sobbing on my floor, my anger having turned inward and my faith in humanity pouring out. For weeks afterwards, I walked around with swollen eyes who leaked at any provocation, small or large. It would take several months to get the diagnosis of depression and a prescription to help realign the neurotransmitters in my brain. I’m grateful to have found respite and healing in those glorious SSRIs and in the support of friends and family with whom I shared my journey.
Like many who suffer, until now I’ve kept it a fairly-private struggle. It seems like a heavy burden to share, and it’s also hard to know who to trust with something so fragile when you feel so vulnerable. During this dark time, I did find the strength to search for a church – I first heard of Oconee Street at an activist meeting where someone mentioned those in the community working towards helping our undocumented brothers and sisters. A month later, I saw an advertisement for an upcoming Christmas pageant at Oconee Street and decided to check it out. Y’all got your hook in me that night – what an amazing pageant that was. I want to thank y’all for being the community I needed to start walking back towards the light.
I’m happy to report that after nearly a year, I’ve weaned myself off medications and feel better. The issue now is that I no longer have a nice, warm, thick quilt insulating me from the world – my emotions are back to full strength, and the world is as it ever was. That’s how I came to be sitting across from my therapist, discussing anger. Anger is a difficult emotion because it’s a secondary response to fear, frustration, hurt and hopelessness. It is also a necessary emotion that serves us well if utilized correctly. Without a black man, in his righteous anger, sitting at a lunch counter he was banned from; without a black woman, in her righteous anger, refusing to stand up on a bus, I’m not sure how the Civil Rights Era would have turned out. Righteous anger, tempered with nonviolence. Sounds pretty Jesus-y, yes?
When I’m feeling acutely-judgey about myself and all my emotions, I find solace when I look to Jesus. He, too, was a person full of feelings. As G. Walter Hansen so eloquently wrote,
“The gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant “emotional” colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.
In our quest to be like Jesus we often overlook his emotions. Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human and made in the image of God. His emotions reflect the image of God without any deficiency or distortion. When we compare our own emotional lives to his, we become aware of our need for a transformation of our emotions so that we can be fully human, as he is.”
During this time of listening and turning away from that which distracts us, I want to urge you refine those things about yourself which catch on life’s hardships like a hangnail. Refine, transform, not eliminate. My buttons will always be there, but my reactions can be worked on. If I, rather than using my ego as my guide, use Jesus as a model for navigating my emotional landscape, then my emotions won’t be (wholly) in charge of me. If I can walk by faith rather than by sight, if the world pushes my buttons and I respond by looking to God rather than to my ego, then I feel like I’ll be well on my way to shaking hands, laughing, with the savior true.
Prayer: (lyrics from “No Hard Feelings” by The Avett Brothers)
When the sun hangs low in the west
And the light in my chest
Won’t be kept held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church
And no hard feelings
Lord knows they haven’t done
Much good for anyone
Kept me afraid and cold
With so much to have and hold
Under the curving sky
I’m finally learning why
It matters for me and you
To say it and mean it too
For life and its loveliness
And all of its ugliness
Good as it’s been to me
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
Jesus went all “Jerry Springer” in Matthew 5:17-32. He upended traditional thought by preaching that it’s not the religious laws that ultimately matter, it’s what’s in one’s heart. And if we have God in our heart, we will ultimately follow the law.
For example, anger against another person can grow inside us to the point that it turns into contempt, and we begin to dehumanize the person with whom we are angry. But if God is truly in our heart, anger will never get to that point.
“Jesus Goes All Jerry Springer”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 5: 17-32
Feb. 12, 2017
This has been quite a week, hasn’t it! Snow, ice, and earthquake during the week, and now to top it all off, here on Sunday morning in our Gospel reading, we have anger, murder, lust, deceit, and even a little self-mutilation! I don’t know how we’re going to top it all next Sunday!
Jesus is speaking to his disciples about what it means to follow him, what it means to be part of the community of faith that is so different from the communities they know – their towns, their places of worship, even their families. His vision is nothing like what they have been used to, and it would have been easy for them to think that he was rejecting all that had come before him as he speaks of the kingdom of heaven. But then he makes it clear in a verse immediately preceding today’s reading that it is not his intention to do away with the Laws of Moses that have given identity and purpose to Jewish people for centuries: laws that have set boundaries, and defined what is clean and what is unclean; laws that reveal what is of God and what is not; laws that have prescribed appropriate behaviors that will be pleasing to God and condemned behaviors that will invoke God’s wrath. No, Jesus says, “I don’t want to do away with these laws; I intend to fulfill them.” The disciples must have been thinking, “ You’ve got to be kidding! Well how do we do that Jesus? We’ve been pretty good at observing the laws, but it sounds like you want us to become like the Pharisees—those guys have focused their entire lives on following scrupulously all 613 laws of faith. You don’t really want us to do that do you?” And Jesus answer is, “No, I don’t want you to become like the scribes and Pharisees; I want you to exceed them!”
Well, if there was ever a moment to throw in the towel, and say “thanks, but no thanks;” that would have been one of them. It must have felt overwhelming, impossible.
What does Jesus mean by fulfilling the law and exceeding the scribes and Pharisees’ righteousness? What is it that the Pharisees, who look so right, are doing wrong? Certainly the Pharisees took their faith seriously. They attended all required religious services, they were observant of all the rules; they prayed; they fasted; they tithed. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things.
Well, if the behavior itself isn’t in question, then perhaps Jesus wants us to look at the motivations behind the behavior. What makes a person pray, fast, tithe, give alms to the poor, or spend all their time in church? Why do you do any or all of those things? For many motivation comes from the outside – concern about what people might think, what others have taught and said is right and wrong, a desire to follow the rules and measure up to those standards, or to escape God’s punishment and displeasure. All these motivations come from a need for structure and security, for protection, approval, or control and are based in anxiety and fear over losing them and of the painful consequences.
However, if we are to believe Jesus, motivation must come from the inside. It has to come from our love for God and for our neighbor, without fear or concern over what others may or may not think is appropriate; it means taking risks and not worrying about playing it safe; and it takes into consideration not only our personal relationship with God, but also the well-being of all of God’s creation. In other words, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, unless we can get over ourselves (it’s not all about me!), and focus on God and others. Father Thomas Keating has written that Jesus’ challenge to exceed the scribes and Pharisees is an invitation to follow him “out of the swamp of self-centered motivation [and] into the freedom and accountability of full personhood,” where then “we can take our place in the mystical body of Christ as a living cell responsible for the well-being of the whole body.”
And what in the world, you might easily ask, does that mean? What would that look like to responding positively to the love of God within us rather than reacting negatively to and defending against our fears of the world around us. In a variety of real life situations, Jesus first states the law as it has been handed down through scripture and tradition — You have heard it said . . .” and then gives his own radical interpretation –“but I say to you . . .” His interpretation is not radical because it is far out and crazy, or extremist or fanatical, but because it gets to the root of the law. And that root is love of God and love of neighbor over love of self.
His first radical statement is that the anger we carry towards someone is as destructive to our lives and the lives of others as if we’d committed murder. And words can kill spirits and reputations as surely as guns can kill bodies. If you’ve ever been the victim of someone’s rage, you know that is true. And if you’ve ever carried around anger and resentment for any period of time, you know how it can eat at you and be as destructive to your own life as it is in the lives of those towards whom you unleash it.
The solution is the hard work of reconciliation, making things right between you and the other person. In Jesus’ restatement of the old Law, it is not just refraining from murder that is required, it is living free from hostility. God wills not only that we not kill each other; but even more, that we live together in harmony. This law is so important today – on the world scene or the national scene – almost every day now, there is someone who is “outraged” over something or other. Usually because they didn’t get their way. And so much energy is put into condemning the offender and venting the anger, but very little into finding solutions. It’s almost as though people would rather live outraged than live in harmony with those who disagree. Compromise seems impossible, even traitorous. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. And now more than ever, we need peacemakers among us.
Not only does Jesus stretch the definition of murder to include words that maim and kill, he also expands the definition of lust and adultery to include not only actions, but thoughts as well. It’s not just what we do that counts. It’s also what we think about doing.
Although Jesus didn’t live in time that was as overtly sex-saturated as ours – no internet porn or x-rated movies, or suggestive TV shows and advertisements that use sex to sell products. But human nature is human nature. Then or now. And it would be disingenuous of us to excuse occasional fantasy now and again or a little lust in our hearts from time to time, as no big deal, not hurting anybody because it’s just a part of our culture now. Do you remember when Jimmy Carter confessed, I think it was to Playboy Magazine, that he had lusted in his heart, and everybody laughed. I think it was an embarrassed, nervous laugh. Nervous because we know the truth – been there, done that – we know that retreating from reality and creating our own fantasy world hurts us, and it also hurts the targets of the fantasy by dehumanizing them and making them objects for our pleasure.
Jesus is saying, we are what we think about, or spend time watching, or reading, or hearing, or buying. And he’s so adamant about it that he goes as far as to say if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hands or feet offend you, cut them off. This is – by the way – always a good passage to quote to your friends who insist on a completely literal interpretation of scripture? Do they really think Jesus wants for us to go around being blind amputees? Maybe Paul’s words in Philippians gets at what Jesus is suggesting we aim for, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.
In our closest human relationships, there is no room for self-centeredness. Lives are at stake, hopes and dreams are held in the balance, and should be treated with dignity and respect. Nowhere is our absolute honesty and fidelity more important. There is no room for deceit.
If we are truthful in our daily dealing with one another, if our yes can be trusted to be yes and our no can be trusted to be no, then in all of life’s situations we will be able to maintain integrity and stay in right relationship with God and one another. The old law required truthfulness under oath, but Jesus expands that law by saying we must be truthful at all times. Oaths are only required in situations where there is mistrust and lack of relationship. We admit, when we take an oath, that we can’t always be depended on to be truthful, and therefore have to call God in as a character witness to guarantee our words. In the courtroom we are asked, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And sometimes friends will ask, “Are you telling the truth; do you swear you are?” “Will you ‘pinky swear’?” That’s because sometimes we lie. They know it and we know it. But if we live as Jesus wants us to live, then oaths would no longer be necessary.
Following Jesus, becoming more Christlike, requires freeing ourselves from the kingdom of self in order to be open and receptive to the kingdom of God. And it won’t be accomplished in bursts of anger or resentment. It won’t be found in cheap substitutes for real relationships; and it won’t be found in crossing our fingers and saying “yes” when we mean “no.” It won’t be found in any of the superficial legalism or strategies for self-preservation, or by relying on the “rules” or the “law” as an external enforcer.
If we want to be a part of the community that follows Jesus, we have to change from the inside out, and build lives characterized not by fear, but by love and respect for ourselves and others – love that shows no hostility, love that is not predatory or demeaning; love that is not fickle or self-centered, or dishonest.
Jesus was honest – he never said it would be easy. It takes tremendous energy and commitment to live differently in the world from the way we are accustomed to living and which is not supported by so many of our cultural values and priorities. But the choice is one of freedom or bondage, life or death. The Old Testament reading for today from Deuteronomy says in a different way, what Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.” May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.