By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 9: 24-34
One afternoon, as a freshman at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, I lost my temper. The music department had offered me a scholarship my freshman year. Because the university had also offered an academic scholarship that would carry across my four years, I assumed my music scholarship would also continue. However, one afternoon, near the end of the year, I was told that was not the case. My piano professor, Mr. Burky – or Mr. B, as we called him – was still in his office. I was so angry when the dean’s office informed me my scholarship would not be renewed. I went straight to Mr. B’s office. I was crying and yelling at the same time. I’m embarrassed to say, I was so angry, I even threw something… although not at Mr. B. I wasn’t that out of control. Still, when I threw whatever it was, my purse I think, with tears streaming down my face, I remember poor Mr. B flinching. In hindsight, it’s very embarrassing that I behaved so badly. I snapped in a way that was quite out of character and, until years later, wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.
My anger masked grief. You see, my dad was the first person on his side of the family ever to go to college. He started college around the time of my birth and I was four when we moved to Ohio for him to attend seminary and earn a Master of Divinity. In the intervening years – more than a decade – between my dad’s graduation and my enrollment at Duquesne, no one on either side of my family had attended college. So, my parents were excited that I would be attending college. But finances were a huge obstacle. My decision about where to enroll came down to scholarships and financial aid. And, when I learned that the music department was not renewing my scholarship, something I and my parents valued was threatened and I snapped. Ready to Snap is the title of the painting made by Pastor Monica to accompany this morning’s message on the topic of anger.
This current preaching series, Lent: A Journey from Grief to Meaning, is themed around the five stages of grief identified by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. We now recognize that the stages of grief are applicable to any significant “death” – a relationship, a dream, independence, etc. Last Sunday, we examined denial, often the first stage of grief. This week we look at anger. Over the past couple of Sundays, I’ve mentioned that – as a nation – we’ve had a lot to grieve in recent years. And, perhaps that is why we have become an increasingly angry and aggressive people.
Anger, like denial, is a normal grief response. At the root of this anger are feelings of sorrow, helplessness and fear, as well as the perception that an injustice has occurred.
As I mentioned last week, I am not a psychologist. And, for that reason, I am not attempting to speak to Ross’ psychological description of the stage of anger. But I am a theologian and it seems to me that much of the anger associated with grief is revealed through this morning’s bible story from the gospel of John.
First, I need to be clear that, the primary purpose of this story within John’s gospel is to illuminate the identity of Jesus; to allow the gospel audience to “see” who Jesus is and, in seeing, to place their trust in him. Within this story, Jesus, the Light of the World, reveals his glory by kindling the light within the man as he bestows vision. Still, this scripture is also an interesting revelation of the anger stage of grief.
Allow me to set the scene…
In the prior chapter, Jesus proclaimed: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life;” a statement which elicits immediate criticism from the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees. Now, a quick aside: there were different types of Jewish religious leaders: scribes, priests and Pharisees. But they were all viewed as having authority. I don’t want this sermon to be interpreted as anti-Semitic so, for our purposes this morning I’ll simply refer to them as “the religious leaders.”
In chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man blind from birth. The disciples ask Jesus some questions about the man. Jesus reminds them he is the light of the world and he grants the man vision. As villagers who knew the blind man see him, they question the man, who tells them what this guy named Jesus did for him. They are baffled; so baffled, in fact, they haul this formerly blind man before the religious authorities who begin to question him. The man repeats his story and the religious leaders, also baffled, introduce a new concern. It’s the Sabbath. If this healer were a man from God, why would he violate the Sabbath by doing the work of healing on a Sabbath day?
Their next step is to call in the man’s parents because the religious authorities “did not believe” the man’s story. (Remember, denial is the first stage of grief.) The man’s parents confirm this is their son, he has been blind since his birth; but beyond that, they don’t know anything and they want nothing to do with this interrogation. And, that is a summary of the action that precedes the verses I read this morning.
In this morning’s verses, the anger of the religious authorities becomes obvious. When the formerly blind man, likely with a hint of sarcasm, asks if they want him to repeat his story because they want to become Jesus’ disciples, the religious authorities snap. In the ancient world, blindness was interpreted as a moral condition; an outward sign of a darkened heart. So this formerly blind man evokes a violent response from the religious leaders who judge him to be arrogant and sinful and they cast him out. The Greek word here is powerful: ekballo. It’s a word used in other places in our gospels to describe what Jesus does to demons during exorcism. This man bears the brunt of the religious leaders’ rage.
“But why?” we might wonder. Well, because Jesus represents a threat to something they love. It was Thomas Aquinas who said that anger is “a disturbance of the heart to remove a threat to what one loves.” They interpret Jesus as a threat for multiple reasons. Remember: Israel at this time was under Roman control. Jews didn’t want Romans marching through their holy city, rendering Jerusalem unclean and impure. And the Romans were happy to keep themselves at arm’s length, just so long as Israel behaved. The Jewish people were expected to pay taxes to Rome and to pray for the Emperor.
And the people responsible for maintaining this delicate balance, for keeping Rome happy, so they remained at arm’s length and did nothing to jeopardize Jerusalem, its Temple, and its people… Well, that was the responsibility of the religious establishment, specifically, the high priest. In fact, the high priest worked closely with the Roman governor. They didn’t like each other, but maintaining a good working relationship, literally, kept them both alive.
Now, in order to maintain this delicate balance of power, the Jewish religious leaders needed respect. And Jesus was undermining their authority. He hadn’t graduated from rabbinical school. He didn’t come from priestly lineage. His father was a blue collar carpenter. But Jesus behaved as if he had every right to teach the scripture with authority and to decide what religious laws could be violated and when and why. Jesus threatened their authority and, in their minds, a threat to their authority was a threat to their nation and their Temple. As Jesus’ popularity grows, what they value most – their role in maintaining national identity and security – is increasingly jeopardized.
Their fear and anger peaks in chapter 11 after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders come together to confer, expressing their greatest concern: “If we let [Jesus] go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our nation.” The high priest Caiaphas, the one responsible for keeping things stable, renders his verdict: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people [that man being Jesus] than to have the whole nation destroyed.” And so, our narrator tells us, “From that day on they planned to put Jesus to death.”
Friends: the anger we feel when faced with loss and grief is normal and natural. It can even be helpful. But, it can also become deadly if we become stuck in the anger stage of grief. It can destroy us and those around us. As I’ve already mentioned, it is – perhaps – our grief as Americans at the rapid changes and challenges within our nation and our world that have caused us to become so aggressive with one another.
Social, religious and political “structures” that gave us a sense of security are increasingly tested, jeopardized, even dismantled. Elements of our culture long-cherished are disappearing and some of us are ready to snap. Perhaps, for a while, we’ve been denying that the world was changing. But, as it becomes undeniable, anger becomes an easier response than addressing our own grief and loss of control.
I have a confession to make: just this week I was in dialogue with a friend about a frustration I am experiencing with someone who seems to me to be “stuck.” She said, “You seem impatient. Why are you finding it so hard to wait with her? What’s going on with you?”
And I suddenly realized. I feel powerless to get everyone back to church post-COVID. Church in America has changed; maybe forever. And, it makes me really sad. But, I’ve found it easier to just get frustrated, and even angry, with someone who appears – to me at least – to lack follow through with something in their life. That’s easier than sitting with my own sadness and grief about the church’s uncertain future. Not just Trinity’s, but church with a capital “C” as clergy colleague after clergy colleague articulates the same experience as mine.
Friends: it’s easy to get stuck in anger; easy for it to become destructive, if we are unwilling to acknowledge our deeper feelings of grief. Anger is normal; but we can’t stay trapped in anger.
Let us be honest. Let us name our grief. Let us mourn our loss. Let us acknowledge that we may be walking through a lonesome valley. Yet, unlike Jesus, we don’t walk that valley alone and the valley is not never-ending. This is Lent; but we are an Easter people. We believe in resurrection although, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, right now we don’t really know what it will look like. But, we don’t have to. We can trust even where we cannot see. The world is changing; the Church is changing; we are changing. And our losses are real, not imagined. But they are not the end. Easter is coming. Resurrection is real. And we serve a risen Savior.
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