Ushering in the Kingdom

+ In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

“Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.”

Matthew 11

We had just finished Morning Prayer about a week and a half ago, when one of the participants asked a question.  She noticed that a good-sized chunk of one of the readings had been left out. An entire 18 verses from the Old Testament Book of Numbers had been omitted. And she wanted to know why had that happened? 

There are different reasons for this that depend on the readings themselves.  Sometimes verses get left out because the lesson is long enough and the omitted verses don’t add anything or move the story along. Sometimes the passage includes hard-to-pronounce Biblical names that are better avoided.  And sometimes the omitted passage is just plain offensive. There are whole sections of the psalms, for example, where the psalmist asks God to do unspeakable things to his enemies. That sort of ugliness is hard enough to listen to when it’s shared in political rallies or it gets re-Tweeted by the Tweeter-in-Chief. We hardly need to read scripture in church that add more cruelty and viciousness to an already unpleasant world.

The reason I’m talking about leaving out verses from readings is because, when I started to prepare for this sermon, I noticed that the Gospel passage for this morning had a big gap in it. Six verses had been left out. When I discovered what they were, I added them back in. I’ve indicated which verses they are by putting them in italics in the service leaflet.

In these restored verses, Jesus calls down calamity on the cities where “most of his deeds of power had been done.” Jesus does this, Matthew says, “because they did not repent.” In demanding disaster, Jesus singles out three villages – Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum – and he predicts that these three villages will come to a worse fate than some other places that were far more notorious.

I can’t tell you exactly why the people who put the lectionary readings together left out the “woes” that Jesus proclaimed over the villages, but I have a theory.  I suspect is that the people who compiled the readings wanted to protect us from such an angry Jesus.  And he certainly was angry!

Jesus let fly on these cities where he had worked the hardest – “Doom to you, Chorazin!” he said. “Doom to you, Bethsaida! If Tyre and Sidon had seen half the powerful miracles you have seen, they would have been on their knees in a minute. But not you! And Capernaum!  You think you’re pretty darn special, but you’re going to end up in the abyss. If others had had the same chances you’ve had, they would have changed their ways!” 

Ouch!  What happened to the Jesus of the Way of Love this morning?  Where is that Jesus?  This story about Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida is probably new to most of us and, to be honest, we don’t like it very much. It doesn’t jive with our image of Jesus, and it’s going to take some serious work to integrate it into our understanding of the Jesus we know and love,

But here’s the thing – when Jesus gets really angry, doesn’t it get your attention?  Isn’t it interesting?

We all know that Jesus is fully a human being, but sometimes that fact gets lost in all the lofty words used to describe him: God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God, seated at the right hand of the Father – those words.

I am more drawn to the human Jesus – the one who weeps when his friend Lazarus dies – the one who shouts at Peter when he doesn’t “get it” for the umpteenth time – or the one who laughs with his friends when they share a joke around the table.  Because Jesus did laugh – a lot. In contrast to the exalted language often used to describe Jesus, the Gospels portray a flesh and blood human being – a passionate person who cared deeply about others, who was moved with pity because of the situations they brought to him, and who, in today’s reading, is shown to be someone who could be wounded by criticism and injured by apathy.

When I read today’s story, I want to know more about this Jesus, what got under his skin, and what he did about it. Because I’m convinced that when Jesus got angry, it was never about trivial or petty things. Jesus’ anger was aroused by things that really mattered to the reign of God he was trying so hard to inaugurate.

Don’t you wonder what these towns and villages did that made Jesus so angry.  I do. Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida were all nondescript little fishing villages in Galilee. There was nothing notorious about them. They were the same small villages where most of his disciples came from. Nothing in the Gospels points toward these villages as being full of terrible sinners. Jesus’ main complaint was, apparently, that they were apathetic. They didn’t care. He had preached and healed in each of them, performed what Matthew called acts of power, and they were unmoved. They weren’t transformed; they just went on about the business of catching fish. 

Jesus compares them to children in the marketplace, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

 They don’t seem to have wanted the tough asceticism of John the Baptist. Nor did they seem to have wanted the lighter touch of Jesus, who welcomed everyone and hung out with sinners. My sense is that they probably just wanted someone to bless them the way they were rather than challenging them to change. Their apathy, indifference, and comfort level with the way things were really bothered Jesus.  And he was angry to the point of telling them to go to hell.  After all, that is what he was saying when he told the village of Capernaum that they will “be brought down to Hades.”

Anger is not something we talk a lot about in churches. Parishes typically avoid conflict if at all possible. Fighting seems un-Christian, and at least a few of us have been part of church communities when things blew up, and war broke out, and people we cared deeply about were badly hurt in the process. Those situations are blessedly rare, but if we’ve ever been in the middle of one of them, we don’t ever want to repeat the experience. Those of us who serve as priests learn pretty quickly how to navigate conflict and negotiate disagreements and soothe hurt feelings, or we don’t last very long in parish ministry.

But there’s a different kind of anger that can be healthy and motivating – and it’s the kind of anger that Jesus displays in today’s Gospel. It’s the anger that flares when it sees injustice – that refuses to accept “the world as it is” and is impatient for “the world as it should be.”

I came to Chicago nine years ago for Community Organizing training with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Before I arrived, I had to read two books – Michael Gecan’s, Going Public, and Gregory Augustine Pierce’s The World as It Should Be.  The books are still on the bookshelves in my office at All Saints’.  Tom Lenz was our trainer.  At the time, he was the lead organizer for United Power for Action and Justice – the same IAF affiliate All Saints’ and Lawndale Christian Development Corporation belong to. 

I still remember a lot about that week – about 1:1 meetings – which are part of All Saints’ DNA – about relational power and self-interest – and about the DuPage United action we participated in in West Chicago. But what I remember the most about that week is what happened after I went back to the congregation I was serving.  What happened was that I worked with the parish leadership to disorganize and reorganize our Outreach Committee. The chair of the committee had stepped away, and it gave us an opportunity to do something different. The Outreach ministry of the parish needed to go in a whole new direction if it was going to be transformative not only for others but for ourselves, too.

We conducted 40 1:1 meetings. In those meetings we were trying to identify people’s anger. What I’d learned in the training was that it’s anger that motivates people to act. People who are angry make good leaders. That may seem surprising: if you’re looking for a leader, look for someone who is angry. I know it was surprising to me at the time. After all, anger is often presented as the antithesis of what should motivate the hearts of good church people.

Organizers point out that the word anger derives from an old Norse word meaning memory or grief. The late Jeff Krehbiel, who was the Pastor of the Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC for 16 years, wrote that “healthy anger is deeply related to loss,” He said, “If you cannot remember what you really value, if you do not grieve over the ways things are that do not respect those values, you cannot sustain the struggle to organize for change.”

If you’re looking for scriptural basis for healthy anger, it’s in today’s Gospel – Jesus shows us what healthy anger looks like. 

Jesus looked at the very people he had known all his life, the people from whom he and his disciples had come, and he couldn’t believe that they could look at the world as it was and remain apathetic, immobile, not caring. He knew that change, repentance, transformation – whatever words you want to use – were impossible unless something affected their indifference and lack of concern. So, he let them have it.

Let me ask you: what makes you angry? What injustice makes you so darn mad that you want to do something about it?

The anger and frustration that have erupted in so many different cities and communities since Memorial Day weekend are giving people the energy and resolve to look at the world very differently and to begin to change things. We see now how monuments to those who fought to preserve slavery honor the wrong values –  how schools named after racists at Ivy League colleges shouldn’t be named after them, whether those names belonged to the former president of the United States or not – how wrong it is that black and brown men go to prison in numbers all out of proportion to their representation in society – how the redlining of neighborhoods has made home ownership impossible for generations of people while, at the same time, massive amounts of money have been invested in our own neighborhoods.

Here we are. It’s another holiday weekend. So much has changed since the last holiday weekend because of righteous anger. What makes you angry about the world as it is? What injustice makes you so darn made you want to do something about it?  All Saints’ has picked one wrong and is working to right it through the Greenlining Campaign– but transforming redlining through greenling doesn’t have to what you care about. It could be something entirely different. Whatever you do, don’t be complacent. Don’t be apathetic.  Not caring, evidently, made Jesus really angry. Energized by his own righteous anger, he ushered in the kingdom. We are invited to join him.      Amen.