Hands: Angry Hands

Hands: Angry Hands
John 2:13-16
Rev. Louis Timberlake
March 4, 2018

When Kate and I first started dating, I quickly realized something. She had not seen any of the movies from my childhood. I’d make a movie reference and it went right over her head. Now, her parents are good people who didn’t let their daughters watch movies of a crude or immature nature. So, consequently, Kate had been deprived of most of my favorite movies. Now, my parents were pretty discerning too, but I grew up on a healthy diet of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler--in large part because I had friends whose parents weren’t quite so discerning.

We all have those friends growing up, right? Or maybe you were the friend who corrupted all of your other friends. No judgement here. I’ll leave that to God.

Anyways, once I realized that Kate had been so deprived, I tried to introduce her to the great movies that she had missed. We watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Tommy Boy, Caddyshack, Spaceballs, all the good ones. But, there was a problem. Kate is a more mature person than I am. So, she found most of them more offensive than funny. Now, this was almost a dealbreaker. I thought I was going to be doomed to a life of cutesy romantic comedies. And, you know, we all have our limits. But, then we discovered that, even with her refined, mature sense of humor, she likes Adam Sandler movies. There was hope for her and for us.

I realized something this past week that had never occurred to me before. A good number of his most popular movies are about a guy with anger issues. Happy Gilmore is about a failed hockey player turned golfer who has to get his anger in check in order to improve his game and win enough money to help his grandmother. The Waterboy (Kate’s favorite) is about a water boy in cajun country who becomes an unlikely college football star by channeling his anger on the field. Anger Management is literally a movie about a guy with anger management issues and his extremely odd therapist, played by Jack Nicholson.

There’s something comical about anger to us. A lot of comedians have built their careers on expressing anger--whether it’s the subdued outrage of Jerry Seinfeld or the overt rage of someone like Lewis Black. There’s something about an over-the-top reaction to the minor absurdities of the world that is just...funny.

Do you watch late night talk shows? I do, but not at night because I can’t stay up that late. I watch them on Youtube at 5am while I’m making coffee. And, I’ve noticed something over the past year. The undercurrent of anger in their comedy has continued to escalate. It seems to have shifted in order to resonate with an anger they sense in their audiences. And, every once in a while it stops being comedy and becomes just plain outrage over the state of the world.

We have a lot of anger in our world today. Many people have this escalating discontent over the state of our world--and this is across and outside of the political spectrum. And, at times, this discontent boils over into full fledged anger. And, we’re not quite sure how to deal with it. We have an anger management problem.

You might read this story and say that Jesus has one, too. We picture Jesus as this gentle person with patience for days. But, then we read this story, where Jesus walks into the Temple and is outraged by what he sees. There’s no attempt to talk with the authorities, to lodge a complaint, to preach to the crowds about the wrongness of the vendors and the loan sharks being in the Temple. He just starts flipping tables and then makes a whip and physically drives them out, like livestock. They have taken the center of religious life and commercialized it. And it provokes a profound anger.

But, there’s something different about most of the anger in our world today and the anger of Jesus. It’s the difference between misdirected anger and righteous anger.

Misdirected anger is when you stub your toe and then lash out at your friend. You’re not mad at your friend, but something has just caused you pain and you have this impulse to express anger. I think about the scene from the Breakfast Club where Emilio Estevez’s character, a state champion wrestler and a bully, has this realization that the reason he bullies other kids is because of the way he’s been treated by his father. He masks his pain by lashing out at others. It’s misdirected anger.

Anger is a reaction of extreme discontent with the present reality. And, we have a lot to be discontent about at times. Life can be painful and unfair. Our world is full of injustice, suffering, and violence. There is a wrongness about things, at times. And, one of the basic responses to that wrongness is anger.

The problem emerges when that anger is misdirected. Misdirected anger is anger that isn’t focused on the actual problem. It’s about directing blame, pointing fingers--not about getting to the heart of the issue. We see it in our political process right now, where we spend more time hurling accusations at others than we do trying to solve serious problems in our country. We see it when we spend more time pointing out another group’s failings than acknowledging our own. It’s that whole thing Jesus said about taking the log out of your own eye before trying to take the speck out of someone else’s eye.

Misdirected anger doesn’t improve the existing reality, because it doesn’t focus on the core problem. It distracts from it and, in doing so, perpetuates the wrongness. It doesn’t seek a solution to our discontent, it normalizes it.

After a while, we just get used to the discontent. We acquiesce. And apathy sets in.

That is the difference between misdirected anger and the anger we see in Jesus--righteous anger. Misdirected anger is focused on the wrong thing and changes nothing. Righteous anger is focused on the transformation of what is into what should be.

So, how do we know when our anger is righteous anger?

First, what are the things that make you angry? Now, I don’t mean the small things like someone going 10 miles under the speed limit in the passing lane or people who talk in movies. I mean what stays with you. What about the present reality upsets you so much that you cannot stand it?

Once you know what makes you angry, there are a few questions that help us to discern whether it is righteous anger.

  1. Is it destructive or constructive anger?

    Ultimately, righteous anger is driven by a desire to create a better reality. Getting revenge or taking frustrations out on someone else isn’t constructive. If your anger isn’t about building a better world, then it isn’t righteous.

  2. Is it about you or is it about others?

    Misdirected anger is often about distracting us from painful truths about ourselves or diverting blame to someone else. It causes us to ignore the log in our own eye. If it’s about making yourself feel better, not about improving the welfare of others, then it probably isn’t righteous.

  3. Is it something that angers God?

    In scripture, we find that anger isn’t a foreign concept to God. Now, unfortunately some twisted this to paint an image of God as vengeful or unforgiving. That is not the God I know and not the God I believe we see in scripture. But, there are things that anger God, such as:

    - people ignoring the needs of others, particularly the marginalized people worshipping things besides God
    - people doing unethical things in the name of God
    - people abusing their power
    - people not taking care of what God has created

    Using scripture, along with the collective knowledge and experience of the church community, is helpful here. If it isn’t something that also angers God, it is likely not righteous anger.

Let me offer one last thought on anger. While we need to discern between misdirected and righteous anger, I don’t know that misdirected anger is the opposite of righteous anger. The opposite of righteous anger is passivity. And, I believe that the greatest threat to the relevance of the church in the modern world is passivity. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the “big C” Church will always be relevant, but the “little c” church is something framed by time and human constructs. When the “little c” church becomes passive, it risks losing touch with the urgency and passion of the gospel.

Every time I read this story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, I think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This letter is a profound, timeless reminder to the church of the dangers of passivity. Let me share a few excerpts as we end:

“I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows...In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

When Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, he invites us into the life that he modeled. It’s a life that calls us to build relationships with outcasts, to critique the abuse of power, to heal the broken, to love the unlovable, and, at times, to flip over tables in search of the world God envisions.

May we, as the Body of Christ, be angry about the right things and, when the occasion demands, may we not be afraid to flip some tables.