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Sunday, September 30, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.

Anger, Courage, Hope

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 139:1–18
Mark 9:38–50


There is a beautiful quotation that is attributed to St. Augustine. It goes like this: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Now, I’m not sure that Augustine actually said this, but it goes around on the Internet saying he did. I can’t find it in anything that Augustine actually published, only where it is quoted in other people’s books. But whether Augustine said it or not, it actually is an inspiring thing.

If you have Hope, it might lead you to her two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. If there is something you believe in, something you hope for, then you might find anger and courage rising up in you to defend that hoped-for thing.

I think you could flip the saying, too. If you have anger at the way things are, and the courage to work for change, then that very anger and courage might give you hope! Anger and courage are two very powerful emotions, and they might give birth to hope.

I don’t know what comes first: hope, anger, or courage. But I think they might be a family.

We live in difficult times. No matter where you are on the political spectrum on any given issue, our society is extremely polarized, and many people are being traumatized. There is rage going around, as well as depression. There is a sense of urgency to act, as well as a sense of powerlessness and shock. There is a sense of resistance, as well as a sense of people digging into their positions.

This is and has been an extremely painful time for many people. So how will we live as Christians in such a time as this? Who are we as Christians? What is our identity as followers of God in the Way of Jesus?

Our scripture selection for today ends by saying, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). Salt and fire are both forces of purification. We temper metal by putting it in fire: the impurities burn away and a more pure metal is left. Fire makes it stronger.

Salt purifies and preserves food. It makes it last longer. Salt also gives flavor. It highlights the identity of food. “Salt is good,” Jesus said, “but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again?” (Mark 9:50).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).

We want to be good for something, like salt that is salty. I believe that most people do. We want to be who we say we are, and we want our faith to mean something. We want to matter.

The disciples want to matter too. They are doing their best to follow Jesus, even though half the time they don’t really get him. Especially in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples often miss the point.

When John points out to Jesus that the person who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, John explains, “We tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

But Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” His statement has an expansive and inclusive effect. Jesus contradicts the disciples who are trying to limit Jesus’ healing power, trying to maintain control over it and renounce someone who seems to them to be an outsider.

It’s as though Jesus is saying to the disciples, Think bigger. Gather allies. Let’s work together. Let’s let other people be for us and with us. It’s not just us in this battle against demons; it’s us-plus-others who are joining in our efforts to make a positive impact.

This healer/exorcist who John describes is definitely aligning himself with the disciples by doing his work “in the name of Jesus.” When looking for allies, we have to watch what people do and listen to what they say. We might find allies in the most unexpected places.

The disciples did not see an ally in the unnamed and unknown man. But Jesus did.

At this point, Jesus turns our attention back to the children he has with him. Remember, he took a child into his arms before this conversation with John. Now he talks about the importance of not becoming a stumbling block to the little ones who trust in him.

If any part of us is going to get in the way of faith for the most vulnerable, then we should get rid of that part, Jesus says. It’s a gruesome metaphor that creates such a strong image we might flinch when we hear it: cut off your hand, pluck out your eye. Gruesome!

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that the references to the hand or foot or eye that might be a stumbling block “refer to precious parts of one’s personality—to aspects of one’s full humanness—which may from time to time cause one to stumble, which may, that is, bring about one’s ruin as a follower of Jesus.”

This is so intense, N. T. Wright says, because there is a war going on between God and forces of evil. N. T. Wright goes on to say,

This passage, for the first time in Mark, introduces us to the stern warning that those who drift down the wrong road are heading for the rubbish heap. “Gehenna” is the valley that runs past the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem. . . . In ancient times it was used as Jerusalem’s rubbish tip [heap], smouldering perpetually; by Jesus’ day it had already become a metaphor for the fate, after death, of those who reject God’s way.

Gehenna is the word in Greek. It gets translated to the word “hell” in English.

This idea of giving up parts of ourselves, giving up a hand or foot or eye, also reminds us of the scripture from a few weeks ago about losing our life to save our life. I spoke that week about the idea of true self and false self. If we give up our false self, we are able to let the true self emerge and we live an undivided life.

Could this be a related metaphor? Perhaps giving up a hand or a foot or an eye means giving up certain ways of using our hands, our feet, our eyes. Can our actions be purified and our identities be clarified, as though by salt and fire?

Here I turn to St. Augustine again, and this time I know this is an authentic quote, because I found where it was written in one of his sermons. He said that if we want to look at the sun, we look with our physical eyes. But if we want to see God, we have to look with a different eye. “Where is that eye?” he writes. “Listen to the gospel: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).”

So, don’t look for God in physical things, he suggested, and don’t imagine that God is a “venerable” “old man.” Augustine preached:

This is what you should think of if you want to see God: God is love What sort of countenance [what sort of face] does love have? What sort of shape does it have? What sort of height does it have? What sort of feet does it have? What sort of hands does it have? No one can say. Yet it has feet, for they lead to the church. It has hands, for they stretch out to the poor person. It has eyes, for that is how he who is in need is understood.” (Augustine, Seventh Homily, p. 111)

So perhaps we can give up the sort of feet, hands, and eyes that carry us down wrong paths and lead us to the rubbish heap and that prevent us from seeing those who suffer and that cause us to withhold what we grasp for ourselves. Perhaps we can give up those sorts of hands, feet, and eyes.

Instead perhaps we can live from the center of our true self and walk with our feet into community, finding allies and friends, opening our hands generously, and opening our eyes to see the needs of those around us.

That metaphor does have some power.

But how do we keep going on? How do we not lose hope? How do we harness anger and courage and continue to work for the reign of God, the kingdom of God, the commonwealth of God, for which we long?

I have been wrestling with a feeling of being pushed back as a society, losing ground on social justice issues that have been so hard won. There are days when I think I have been time-warped back into the 1960s or 1970s.

And I’m realizing that this cycle of justice and injustice is not a new thing. The Bible tells story after story of societies falling into greed and mistreating the poor and the vulnerable, the widows, the foreigners. And prophets rising up and calling the people to repent and return to righteous ways.

I do not like that this seems to be a human pattern. But it’s giving me a new perspective on how I might stand in the world and how I might sustain my faith, my hope, my anger, my courage, and my compassion. Maybe this perspective can help you, too. I offer it for consideration.

It has to do with focus and expectations. I have been living with the expectation that history progresses in a linear way and we will continue moving ever onward toward the kingdom, the commonwealth of God.

I have been focused on that progress. I expect perpetual progress. Expectation and focus on progress.

But what if the focus is on the present moment and the expectation is that I will stand for justice here and now? What if the expectation is that, as long as there are humans and until the second coming, there will be a need to stand for justice and struggle against evil?

I know that it can feel exhausting if the focus is just on us and our sense of struggle. But what if it’s not just us, if it’s us plus those allies who are also working for justice? And what if there is something holy in the very struggle we enact, in the way we live our lives? What if there is something holy in offering our feet, hands, and eyes to protect and respect all God’s children?

Our ancestor Jacob, on his journey to a new life in a new land, struggled all night one night with a mysterious man. As the dawn came, Jacob would not let go of the man until the man blessed him. Jacob received the blessing and was given a new name: Israel, which means “One who struggles with God.” Jacob became Israel—one who struggles and won’t let go until he receives a blessing.

The mysterious man turned out to be God, and Jacob named that place Peniel, which means “Face of God,” because there he had seen God face-to-face and lived. Jacob limped away from that struggle, injured, and crossed the river the next day, going on into his unknown and complicated future (Genesis 32:22–32). He struggled faithfully, and he was changed.

What if we saw the act of faithful struggle as “an inherently sacred act,” as one local rabbi has recently suggested? (Rabbi Brant Rosen, in a reflection offered for Rosh Hashanah on 13 September 2018. Rabbi Rosen suggested that “redemption is experienced in the act of struggle itself,” that “God is in the struggle,” and “We might even say, God is the struggle.”) What if we look for the face of God in the faces of all those who struggle faithfully alongside of us?

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is among us. What if our very identity as followers of Jesus is wrapped up in this: using our feet, hands, and eyes to uplift, to persist, to resist, and to insist?

Jesus stood for the kingdom, the commonwealth of God. He confronted evil for the good of that kingdom and gave his life for it. He rose from the dead to show us that evil will not ultimately have the last word.

And because of that, because we have the resurrected Christ, we are invited to stand in the struggle of this moment: to look for the face of God in the eyes of children, in the gathered community, in the testimony of brave women and men, in the phone calls and the meetings, and even the voting booths.

We stand for the commonwealth of God because it’s what Jesus did and it is who we are in Christ. May God’s light and power and healing pour into each one of us. Amen.