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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Lives of Believers - August 09, 2015

I think it's pretty fair to say that if you ask anyone who knows me, they'll tell you that I don't get angry very often. I cry a lot, I worry about things, I get frustrated and stressed and I have a tendency to get pretty serious sometimes, but hitting my boiling point and outward displays of anger are rare.

But this week, I hit one of those boiling points.

It was actually a post on Facebook that got to me. It was a post from one of my professors in Chicago. She and her 15-year-old daughter were traveling to Ferguson, MO, to attend a meeting of black scholars and allies for an event called “Lessons From Black Lives – Black Scholars Gather in Ferguson.”

It's been a year since Ferguson first hit the national news following the shooting death of Michael Brown. My professor and other African-American scholars got together to talk about the important efforts of fostering conversations about the ugly and real problems of systemic racism that continue to plague this great country of ours.

These scholars weren't the only people talking about this issue. On Thursday night Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and church-wide council member Bill Horne hosted a webcast discussion called “Confronting Racism.” The event was prompted, in part, by the recent tragedy in Charleston, SC, in which nine African-American people were murdered during a bible study at the Mother Emmanuel Church. The young man who later confessed to the shootings is the son of an ELCA church. He has said his agenda was to start a race war.

I appreciate the tireless efforts of people like my professor, Bishop Eaton and Mr. Horne to keep these conversations going. It's not an easy thing to do and for a country that, for the time being, remains more than 75 percent white, it's really easy for us to neglect these important issues because, frankly, few of us in this room ever have to deal with the short end of the systemic racism stick.

So here's what happened that made me so angry … On the way to Ferguson, my professor stopped at a 7-11 gas station/convenience store to fill up her tank just before they got to the hotel they were staying at during the gathering in Ferguson. While she was pumping her gas, her daughter asked if she could go check out the store and despite feeling overprotective and immediately worrying about it, mom said it was OK. What she didn't realize was that her daughter was carrying a nearly empty Pizza Hut cup which contained just a little bit of  root beer left over from lunch. She wished she would have noticed and told her daughter to leave her cup in the car, but she didn't. When her daughter began walking back to the car, a man from the store was chasing her and grabbing for her arm. He was insisting that she had filled her cup with soda and hadn't paid for it. The cup was still nearly empty, she said hadn't put any soda in it, but the store employee insisted he watched her refill that cup. It wasn't true. Thankfully, my professor was able to calm the quickly accelerating situation and in the end,  they went on their way, my professor breathing great sighs of relief and her daughter utterly confused about why the man had lied like that. The whole experience prompted a discussion with her daughter about the fact that if it had gotten out of hand, my professor would have just paid the man for the non-existent drink because that's how you survive situations like that when you are a black or brown person in many places in this country.

And that is wrong. As Bishop Eaton said in the webcast – which you can all watch on the ELCA website if you would like – that is a “violation of God's intention for society” – for creation. I was angry – I was angry that this happened to someone I knew and respected. I was angry that she was put in a position where she had to tell her daughter that despite the fact that she believed she did not steal, she would have paid that man for his lie had it come to that. The mother in me wanted to throttle this man for chasing down and trying to grab a child who posed no threat except for the one he perceived in her beautiful skin tone. My Christian self felt like defending my sisters in Christ by calling for a boycott of 7-11 stores across the nation. Yep – I was pretty hot.

And suddenly I realized here I was with these intense feelings and they were coming right smack up against this reading we have today from the letter to the Ephesians. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (26-27) This scripture does give us permission to be angry, it is part of the way God created us after all. But how in the world do we control this particularly challenging emotion, this potentially destructive part of what it means to be human, without letting it become our own sin … without letting it boil in our hearts and minds when we lay our heads down to sleep at night? In other words –  and using my own example from this week – how to I let that anger move me from spewing poisonous words against this man and the company that employs him, to doing “what is useful for building up,” so that my words “may give grace to those who hear?”

That's a long, tall, hard direction we get in this text, if you ask me. But, as it turns out, it is exactly what Jesus is modeling for us in our continued study of John's story about our Messiah as the bread of the life. There's a lot of anger in this passage from the gospel today. First of all, the Jewish leaders are angry. Our text says they are complaining about the things Jesus is saying, but a more accurate translation for this Greek word – egogguzon (egg-go-guzon) – is murmuring. They were murmuring and plotting under their breath because they were angry at what Jesus was suggesting. He was threatening the status quo. He was suggesting to the growing crowds around him that those who thought they were so powerful were in fact not so.

And so they began saying things meant to tear Jesus down, undermine his teaching, and instill doubt in those who heard what Jesus had to say and found life and hope and love in those words.

I imagine Jesus was feeling anger in this part of the story too. We have to remember that Jesus grew up in a place where his people were at the mercy of the dominant forces of the time. The Roman Empire did not hold back in crucifying the peasantry of Galilee as a show of force – it's likely Jesus would have seen hundreds if not thousands of Jewish people lynched as public displays of Roman power … to remind the uneducated and less powerful of who was in charge whenever they tried to rise up against a system set up to continue funneling power and wealth to the empire … a system set up to benefit the Jewish leaders who dictated how these peasants should worship God and made it very costly to abide by those rules.

Imagine Jesus, who remember was created human and experienced all the emotions that  come with that, hearing the Jewish leaders say something like “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” – an uneducated peasant laborer who couldn't possibly have taught his son how to read and write and certainly not how to interpret the scriptures. That is something only the priestly class of religious leaders can do. And don't we know his mother too? Mary? Didn't she bare this son of theirs before they were married? Clearly we know what she really is...she's a harlot! “How can he now say 'I have come down from heaven?'” It's blasphemy!

I think Jesus would have become just as angry as any of us would have to have heard such unkind words toward his parents, to have his own understanding of the scriptures completely dismissed …  and by religious leaders who stood by and did nothing about the lynching and murder of their own people. Talk about blasphemy!

But instead what Jesus does here is model what the writer to the Ephesians is asking of us. His anger is driving him to a proper response to a need for justice, a desire to offer up something that is live-giving, something that builds up faith. “Do not continue this murmuring,” God was in charge there, Jesus reminded them. It is God who works through Jesus and others to teach and grow in God's truth – not those in power or those with the means to inflict earthly brutalities on others.

By modeling what it means to be angry without sin, Jesus is teaching us what it means, what it may look like to live out what we heard last week – that our work is to believe in he whom God has sent.

And so that is why in my anger I seek to build faith and speak truth by sharing this story about what it's like for a black woman and her daughter to travel from Chicago to Ferguson. It is my best attempt to live out what Bishop Eaton suggested on Thursday – to recognize that racism is an issue, to embrace God's vision of wonderful diversity that is illustrated in our scriptures and to begin to live into and build that vision in our congregations.

I suggest that one possibility for what it looks like for any of us to live like we are believers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah sent to ensure our eternal lives is to recognize when that intense and God-given emotion of anger is bubbling up from somewhere inside of us. And then instead of letting it drive us to words and actions that serve to damage creation …

… to listen to what it may be teaching us about our own fears and hurts ...

… to take the time we need to remember that the object of our anger also needs to be built up in faith or may benefit more by a word or act of of grace...

… to at the very least offer what angers us up in prayer to our wise and merciful God who adores all of creation.

It's not easy work, as we also said last week. But our gospel writer knows that too and points us to where we can go for strength and assurance – points us to the bread and wine, where we are invited to eat and take Jesus' model of humanity into ourselves. In doing that we are reminded of the scandalous and powerful Good News Jesus offers us and the murmuring voices of those desperately trying to stay in power on the backs of others … “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

Amen

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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