“The Love Within Anger,” by Gary Taylor
The Love Within Anger
Sermon preached April 7, 2011 at Virginia Theological Seminary
The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.
Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them."
This is a troubling passage. It is hard to imagine God getting so angry that he decides to obliterate his chosen people and start over, hard to swallow that without Moses' intervention, God's anger would result in the end of the Israelites. This is not petty irritation or constant grumpiness. This is wrath burning hot. This is passion.
Frankly, I think a lot of us have a hard time imagining God angry at all. This does fit our Sunday school image of God as the smiling shepherd with the lamb held gently across his shoulders. In fact, somehow getting angry seems like a mistake, like losing control of one's emotions, like getting carried away where cooler heads should prevail. After all, blessed are the peacemakers, not the hot heads. If you were like me, you were taught ladies and gentlemen don't get mad. If you were like me, you learned to distrust any emotions that might carry you away.
But I think there is something important in our story about the meaning of anger in the context of real relationship. Consider the context of this exchange in Exodus. First of all, this is a dialogue between God and Moses. This is a conversation between two "old friends" with an awful lot of history together. One sign of this is that Moses is able to talk God down from his passionate rage, can persuade God to “change his mind” which is expressed in the Hebrew by the word נחם, a word which includes connotations of being consoled, comforted. After all they’ve been through together, Moses and God have a complex and intimate relationship.
Do you remember how it all started? God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and calls him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Like many of the other prophets, Moses is reluctant. For almost two chapters in Exodus, God tries to persuade Moses, but Moses continues to resist. Even after God reveals to Moses his holy name "I am", promises to give Moses the words he needs before Pharaoh, and gives him three different signs (turning his rod-to-a -snake and back, turning his hand leprous and back, and the changing Nile water-to-blood) Moses still declines God's summons, "Lord, send someone else."
Now, I'm not sure if that's humility, stubbornness, or Chutzpah, but it seems awfully presumptuous to me. Who are we to argue with God??
And do you remember what happened next? Exodus 4:14: “14Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” Here it comes! Moses has gone too far! God's really going to let him have it! “And God says…. ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently.’ I'll send you both.” God is angry AND God continues to work with the one he has chosen. God really wants Moses to join his team, and that matters enough to him that he gets riled up about it.
This scene from today's reading has its own wry humor. God says, "Moses, YOUR people have acted perversely!" Moses replies, "Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against YOUR people?" With his brief retelling of the salvation narrative, Moses ironically "reminds" God of the relationship God has with his people, a relationship that transcends human frailty, a relationship that makes all of God's frustrations worthwhile.
It's no coincidence that this moment of God's extreme anger comes right when the 10 commandments are about to be delivered, on the very day when God is going to specify what it means for humanity to live in right relationship with their Lord and Maker. It's the climax of a relationship God has been cultivating for generations. And now, at the crucial moment when the relationship will be solidified with a covenant literally written in stone, the people decide 40 days is too long to wait for Moses to come down from Sinai, forgot what God has done for them, and set off spiritually in search of a other things to worship.
And God gets mad. Blazing mad. On-fire mad like a bush ablaze - but the bush is not consumed, it is not destroyed. God is mad - but like in the call of Moses, God's anger doesn't keep Him from continuing in relationship to work to put things right. In fact His anger is a sign of how very much human fidelity to God matters, how important mutual trust must be in our covenantal relationship with God.
In his book God' s Tapestry, Understanding and Celebrating Differences, William Kondrath describes feelings as messengers, signals to us of what is really going on in a relationship. Anger is often suppressed because we are fear that such a feeling might come between us and those we love, might separate us from what we hold dear. But a different way to look at anger is as an indicator that something really important is going on, something that needs our concerted attention. God gets angry because fidelity really matters.
In other words, the hottest anger only burns between those most deeply connected, who mean the most to one another and are doing the important and difficult work of figuring out what that relationship should look like - learning affectively, rather than intellectually, what it will take to walk together with commitment and love.
In the mid nineties I was the school advisor for two boys I’ll call Tony and Sam. Now, we have a saying in our family: one teenager, one brain; two teenagers, half-a-brain; three teenagers, a third of a brain. Well, Tony and Sam, along with several friends had acted with their collective one-sixth of a brain and gotten into some serious trouble with the school disciplinary system. If you have ever been in these situations you know that they are times of intense fear, sadness, and (usually) some anger on the part of the families involved. Some days after the dust had settled, I was at lunch with both of my advisees and Tony was lamenting how angry his parents had been at him and how he was grounded for months. Sam was strangely quiet, but I could tell he was deeply troubled. Later when we talked privately I asked him if his punishment from home was even more severe. He shrugged and looked away, "My Dad took my cell phone away for the rest of the week. We hardly talked about it. It's like it never happened...." He paused and then continued, with a hitch in his voice. "I should be glad he didn't get mad .... right?"
Anger is not the opposite of love. Apathy is. Anger and love are two sides of the most precious coin. God's Anger says: this matters to me deeply. You matter to me deeply. I am going to lean on you to make this right because our relationship is too important to let this slide.
Strange as it may sound, my hope for all of us is that we will encounter some genuine, passionate anger once in a while from those we will serve in our ministries - and that we will experience some periods of passionate anger with them. I’m not talking about petty irritation or constant grumpiness. I’m talking about a fire which ignites us but which does not consume.
For it will be in those moments that we will come to know viscerally, beyond intellectually, what is really important.
It will be in those moments that we will know in our core that our relationships truly matter.
It will be in then that we will know that we and those on the journey with us are invested with our whole selves in the complex and passionate work of God.