13th July 2008 - "Of tears and anger"

Usha Hull - St Mary's
Luke 19.41-20.8

Let us go to AD 66. The mighty Roman empire rules the world with a rod of iron and little mercy. In Judea, the Jews revolt against Roman control. In Rome, Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian, is a gifted young man, but dangerously like the notorious Nero in his charm, intellect, ruthlessness, extravagance and sexual desires. In the summer of AD 70 he is put in charge of the military operation against the rebellious Jews. Jerusalem is subsequently to fall to his troops and the great Temple is destroyed. His success wins him much praise and respect among his peers.

The massive arch of Titus, celebrating his victory, still stands today in Rome. In Jerusalem, the only part of the great temple to survive is today known as the Wailing Wall, a tremendously holy place to followers of the Jewish faith. Between 600,000 and 1 million civilian Jews were said to have perished and the destruction of the temple is still mourned annually by the Jewish feast of Tisha B’Av. Of the destruction, the historian Josephus was to write, ‘This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness... a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.’

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus foretells this destruction 40 years before it happened. His anguish expresses itself in a passionate outburst, with tears. Later in the reading Jesus is to show anger too, at the exploitation of the poor in the Temple precincts. Tears and anger. Two emotions that we as human beings often tend to hide, often tend to deny, often think of as destructive or negative. Yet in showing these emotions, Jesus is revealing to us a truth about the nature of God: a God who suffers and a God of righteous anger.

Let’s look at the tears first. Jesus expresses the feelings of God as being like that of a mother hen, someone who is protective, tender, caring, someone who would guard us against danger and gather us, vulnerable as we are, into safety and freedom. But a God who loves would also be a God who suffers. Which brings us to a theological question.

Does God suffer? Early Christian theologians tended to say no. The early Greeks put forward the notion that God is above and beyond the realm of human pain and sorrow and the early Christian fathers embraced this idea, too. And yet, throughout the Bible we have a God who loves, who suffers, and who because He loves is vulnerable. It is this God who throughout human history has sent envoy after envoy to mankind, to convey a message of love and peace, only to be met with rejection, hostility and indifference.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, tells this terrible but true story from a Nazi concentration camp that you may have heard. Several men and a youth were hanged by the Nazis and all the other prisoners were paraded past to witness the horrifying spectacle. The men died quickly, but the youth, perhaps because he was lighter in weight, took more than half and hour to die. In the silence, someone asked, ‘Where is God?’ And a voice inside Weisel answered, ‘He is here. He is hanging on the gallows.’

A God who loves must also be a God who suffers. In a fallen world, a broken world, to love must also entail suffering and that is the way of the cross, the way of a God who loves so much that He is willing to keep company with us, through His Son to keep company with the sick, the dying, the despised, and to die the most degrading of deaths.

Colin, myself and a few members of the Liturgical Drama Group went up to Chester recently to see the Mystery Plays. There, God was depicted as not only visibly suffering because of the torment His Son was put through, but also in the latter part as a vulnerable God, a God in a wheelchair, dependent on others for everything, a suffering God, a God who is with us in our pain.

So Jesus cried at the foolishness and folly of this world. He cried for the stupidity and sheer lack of vision of it all. He cried for opportunities lost, for dreams trampled underfoot, for what could have been and never would be because of human folly and ignorance and indifference. He cried for beauty that would be lost, for love that would never be realised, for the rejection of all that God offers us only to be rejected in indifference.

Elie Weisel was to say that the opposite of love is not hatred. It is indifference. And it was indifference throughout the history of the Bible that rejected messenger after messenger from God. Indifference that would turn away from what was life-giving and redeeming, that would dismiss beauty and tenderness and wisdom, and all the reasons for which we live. And it is indifference to God that continues in our own lives, whenever we do not heed what the God of love says in our own hearts.

So we have the tears, but what of the anger? The world we live in is an angry place and always has been. A whole new terminology has evolved in the past few years, and terms such as ‘road rage’ and ‘anger management’ have become part of our everyday dictionary.

In Matthew 5:22 Jesus warns against the negative effects of selfish anger, saying ‘But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.’ However, there is a huge difference between selfish anger and righteous anger. To quote William Barclay, ‘Selfish anger is always a sin: selfless anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world.’ To quote Bede Jarrett, ‘Anger is sometimes good, the world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.’ To quote Henry Ward Beecher, ‘A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good. Now and then a man should be shaken to the core with anger over things evil.’

Yes, a great many people have written about this most basic of human emotions. And in looking at an example of how Jesus showed anger, we need to ask ourselves what on earth was he thinking of when he seized a whip or whatever it was to drive out the money lenders and the stall holders, the sellers of pigeons and of doves, the exchangers of foreign currency. We need to ask, how did he dare to challenge the mighty institutions of his time, to go into the places of utmost respectability and exploitation and overturn the tables, scattering pell mell upon the earth the coins bought with human blood, the money that exploited the poor, the vulnerable, the widowed, the sick.

Because isn’t this type of exploitation happening in our own world, when the leaders of the G8 summit, on gathering to discuss the global food crisis, sit down to an eight-course meal? Isn’t it happening when our beautiful and fragile world suffers irreparable climate change when the richer nations refuse to sign up to meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions? Isn’t it happening when many neighbouring nations refuse to condemn a dictatorial and repressive African regime because they themselves know little of the true meaning of democracy?

Yes Jesus was angry and he shed tears too. Wouldn’t he cry today over Tibet, Sudan, Iraq, Guantanamo? Despite the fact that God created all of us equal, wouldn’t he shed tears over how people continue to be opposed in their ministry because of their gender, their financial status, their sexual orientation, the colour of their skins? And how would he reconcile the fact that a great deal of the injustice and exploitation in the world today is aided and abetted by the silence, the fear, the tacit consent of those who know and could do better, people like you and like me?

Never think that people like you and I cannot change things. It is the righteous anger of people like you, like me, that brought about an end to slavery, to apartheid, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was righteous anger that established the vote for women, that continues to promote women’s rights and ministry, that speaks out with love wherever there is oppression, violence and injustice.

I leave you with a few words by John Bell of the Iona Community.

Inspired by love and anger,
disturbed by endless pain,
aware of God's own bias,
we ask him once again:
‘How long must some folk suffer?
How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest
turn prayer and pity blind?’

To God, who through the prophets
proclaimed a different age,
we offer earth’s indifference,
its agony and rage:
‘When will the wronged be righted?
When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous
to all instead of some?’

There is a challenge here for all of us for these are the questions we should be asking ourselves. We are the ones God sends into the world to answer them.