Sermon May 22 – Acts 6/7 Crossing the Line Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever felt so angry you could practically taste it?
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, although when you consider the physiological changes that happen when we get angry – doctors saying everything from our hearts beating faster, a rush of adrenaline, blood pressure rising, to our faces getting flushed, our hands getting hot, and the parts of our brains that control rational thought getting numbed in favour of the parts that react impulsively – it’s hard not to think it’s possible that SOMEHOW there’s a ‘taste’ involved too.
Whatever the case, anger certainly does make us physically react – it provokes a physical need for release, a release of pressure building up inside.
It's why some people seem to thrive on getting angry. Because they're addicted to the high of getting the opportunity to release that anger, exercise power, unleash hurt and harm and violence. And if they can't find a reason? They'll make one up.
This is a terrible reading, from the Book of Acts. It's terrible because of its violence, it's terrible because it's literally the story of an actual murder in real time, as Stephen the Apostle is stoned to death by a mob –
But it's terrible too because as we hear it, we become aware as it's all unfolding, that none of it had to happen.
That it was all a deliberate set-up. That the outrage that filled that mob with that rush of adrenaline and explosive fury and the desperate need to release it all in an exercise of power and violence and cruelty – it was manufactured outrage.
It was fomented on purpose and deliberately with lies and false witnesses. Those who wanted Stephen silenced, Acts tells us, stirred up the crowds with stories of his perfidy and blasphemy that were simply made up.
They manufactured that crowd's outrage, on purpose, by tapping into people's discomfort and anger and fear of difference and change – and then stood back and unleashed it.
If anyone ever tells you that the stories in the Bible aren't "relevant" in today's world, just point them to this passage.
Because there's a direct straight line from the manufactured outrage that results in the stoning of Stephen, to the manufactured outrage that fueled mass murder in a Buffalo grocery store. And frankly, in a more simmering state, to a lot of the manufactured outrage that's currently conflating attempts to creep toward a more just society or a world less dependent on fossil fuels, with accusations that some nebulous "they" are stealing our freedoms or destroying our way of life.
Manufactured outrage is terrifying, because it works. Because it taps into all our feelings of discomfort, all our anxieties about change, all our secret fears.
So this story about the stoning of Stephen, for us it should have red flags all over it.
And weirdly, it should also make us angry.
Which if that sounds a little strange and contradictory, it kind of is. Except that manufactured outrage aside... at the same time, sometimes there's actual reason to be angry.
Because we all have a line -- if there’s something we care about, if there’s something we’re passionate about, if there’s something we think is important, vital, valuable, then anytime it’s threatened, anytime something crosses that line, there HAS to be anger.
Because really, if nothing makes you angry, then is there anything you’re passionate about?
One of the greatest misreadings of Christianity, it seems to me, is the notion that because we as Christians are called to love, we are somehow not being Christian if we get angry.
If we abhor the status quo, if we get reactive to a situation, if we disagree strongly and make that clear and refuse to back down...
...then too often we get shamed for being 'intolerant' and 'unloving' -- as though Christian love is meant to be uncritically accepting of everything – or, my personal favourite, we're told we're being ‘unhelpful’ – as though the purpose of Christian love were to achieve some collective agreement so benign that it defies any need for contradiction.
But that's not the purpose of Christian love. Christian love, the sort of love that Jesus talks about, the kind of love that Jesus embodied and lived and encouraged, is NOT uncritically accepting in a sort of universally tolerant sort of way. And it’s NOT about avoiding at all costs upsetting the apple cart by questioning or contradicting or even arguing.
Because Christian love is actually, as strange as it may sound, full of anger. Because it’s full of passion. It’s love that is passionate about justice and passionate about compassion and passionate about people having enough to eat and a place to live and the fulness of life they deserve. And within that passion, if it’s real passion, is equally real anger when something crosses that line: when there’s IN-justice and when there is cruelty and when people starve and have nowhere to live and no reason to go on. Christian love is FULL of anger.
It may sound strange. Usually in the church we talk about ‘the one time Jesus got angry’ – when he freaked out all over the moneychangers in the temple and overturned all their tables and chased them out with a whip.
But the truth is, Jesus was angry all the time. He was angry about hypocrisy, and he was angry about a system that left some people to beg on the streets, and he was angry when money was hoarded and not shared, and he was angry when people were labelled ‘unclean’, and he was angry when people used their power to make others afraid. Jesus was FULL of anger.
What he was NOT full of, however, was violence. Except, of course, for that one time with the moneychangers in the temple. Which maybe was Jesus having a particularly bad day, and we’ve probably all had days like that. Unfortunately. I know I have.
But aside from that one blip on the screen, while Jesus was – in his passion for justice and compassion and peace – routinely full of anger about the sheer abundance of ways in which the world around him was not reflecting God’s vision and God’s hope – what he was NOT full of was violence. Literally, the impulse to violate the space, the safety, the wholeness of another of God’s creatures.
So… Anger, but without violence. It can be a tall order. Particularly since quite apart from the emotional side of things, our physiology practically lays out reacting violently as the quickest and easiest and in some ways most satisfying way to release the pressure of anger.
But as Christians what we’re called to is that exact tall order. Not emptying ourselves of anger, because anger is part of Christian love, with its passion for justice and wholeness and peace, but emptying ourselves of the need to let that anger erupt into violence.
Which brings us back to this morning’s reading. A story that unfolds this message in a way that is not easy to hear. As the crowds surround Stephen and attack him and drive him to the ground in their manufactured outrage to stone him to death.
Because it's hard not to wonder -- Why didn’t he fight back?
Or if he couldn’t -- Where are the other Christians? Why didn’t they fight back for him? Why didn’t they get their own stones and fire back into the crowd? It doesn’t even seem like they tried! Weren’t they angry about what was happening to him?
Of course they were. They had to have been. But no violence. They took it seriously. Love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you. Pray for those who abuse you. No more eye for an eye but turn the other cheek. They took it seriously. Stephen did too, and was killed.
The story does not end well. Anger with no violence. It’s a tall order. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
And frankly I’m not convinced his martyrdom was either useful or necessary under the circumstances. It is, after all, in part from those same teachings of Jesus that the principles of non-violent resistance are derived – so in theory at least the other Christians could at least have stood WITH Stephen, and perhaps protected him from the crowds. Not to mention that Stephen himself could have turned the other cheek – and then the whole rest of himself and gotten out of Dodge – and lived to preach another day.
But the story is what the story is. And it raises, all too vividly, for us as people of faith the challenge not to empty ourselves of anger, but to empty ourselves of the need to react with violence -- to find ways to express our anger without resorting to revenge or retaliation. And that IS a challenge. But it’s also possible.
Most of the time, the way Jesus expressed his anger against injustices or hypocrises was by reacting with positive actions that countered them – sharing meals with the so-called ‘unclean’, telling parables in which the good guy was one of those ‘not quite our class’ Samaritans, striking up conversations with women and children who should have been ‘beneath his notice’. Because all those things, in his context, were really ANGRY things to do. They clearly communicated his anger with the status quo.
But they also embodied the alternative he demanded. In ways that violence – just yelling at the authorities, just fomenting armed rebellion against the Romans or the High Priests never could have. So instead of fighting for something by exploding in retaliation, Jesus’ anger found release in making that something visible.
And that’s a pretty powerful strategy. It takes all the power of anger and makes it CONstructive and transformative, instead of Destructive. It’s a bit like a broader community version of ‘living well is the best revenge’. And I know that whether or not we’d articulate it as such, probably for most of us here it’s been the impulse behind in some cases the volunteer work we do, or the donations we make, or even the careers we’ve chosen.
All ways in which we’ve turned our anger AGAINST something into positive action FOR its alternative. By trying to have patient conversations. Or taking ourselves or others out of a situation of vulnerability. Or just standing in solidarity.
It still makes it difficult, in the heat of the moment, when something or someone crosses the line, when we’re so angry we can taste it, to stand down, to keep from exploding, to refrain from lashing out.
But you know what? We have to. As sympathetic as I think Jesus would be, considering how he had that little issue with the moneychangers, we ARE challenged in our faith to express our anger without violence. That IS one of the hallmarks of the radical – and yes, sometimes even angry -- love that Jesus proclaimed. To overcome that natural physical impulse to release the pressure of rage by striking out, and instead to allow the better angels of our natures to make that anger useful. Transformative.
It isn’t easy. In fact, the truth of the matter is that when I wrote these words several days ago, it was really with the hope that by the time I was saying them out loud this morning they wouldn’t have become unbelievably ironic.
Because if there’s little one thing guaranteed to test my ability to be angry but not become violent, every single year, it's Bluenose Marathon Sunday. And actually getting here.
I guess if you’re hearing this, I haven’t been detained for security reasons…
Thanks be to God who knows we need all the help we can get. Amen.