[Given on Sunday, September 21, 2014 by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO]
And the LORD said, “is it right for you to be angry?” – Jonah 4:4 (NRSV)
In the name of great God who is Creating, Liberating, and Sustaining. Amen. +
This morning we are presented with two stories of anger that I want to highlight for our reflection – the end of the Story of Jonah and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Like a multifaceted jewel, these stories look a little different depending on the angle from which we look at them. So allow me to turn them ever so slightly for you this morning.
Valerie Bridgeman, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Homiletics and Scholar of Theology and the Arts at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says this about the book of Jonah, “That is the story in short: a great call, a great fleeing, a storm, [and I’ll add a great fish], a great fear of YHWH in the sailors and the Ninevites, a great city, and a great theological dilemma.”
Jonah is an often told story. We hear the story of the cowardly prophet who ran from God, only to be convinced (after being swallowed by a big fish) that God was right. Jonah goes to Nineveh and brings God’s mercy and salvation. Story over, right?
But, seldom do we hear of this exchange between Jonah and God, or if we do we hear about it, it is in terms of Jonah being a racist who bore some sort of irrational hatred towards to the Ninevites.
But what we have to understand is that this story was written by a people in exile after both Israel and Judah had fallen victim to “blood-thirsty, land-grabbing, people-enslaving empires.” Whoever created the “Jonah” character, knew well the cost and price of empire and so they wrote their own anger into Jonah’s mouth.
Jonah was angry because deep down Jonah knew what all Jewish people knew, that God was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” God’s grace and mercy are intrinsic and integral to the Jewish understanding of God; it’s what made YHWH different than the other gods in the Near East. Jonah was angry because he wanted vengeance but he knew how generous God was, often giving “mercy and redemption to the undeserving.”
What about our other story, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. We’ve been taught to think that whenever Jesus gives a parable, the landowner or the father in the story is God. Therefore whatever the landowner or father says is not subject to question or scrutiny. But what if the landowner in this parable wasn’t meant to be God, but meant to be the oppressive Roman noble elite? What if [I’m not sure], but what if the anger of the laborers was justified because, far from being a story of equality in the kingdom of God, this story was actually a social commentary on the exploitative labor practices in the 1st century Roman Empire? What if in the parable Jesus wasn’t reordering my need to be first, but completely reordering society “Magnificat-style?”
What both of these stories could point out to us, if we turn them ever so slightly, is that every now and then we get angry. When we look at the world around us there are things that enter our lives that interrupt of flow, and throw off our emotional balance, that violate our sense of personhood and safety. Beloved, there are just sometimes that we get angry.
So what are we to do with anger and our work of partnering with the in-breaking of the Reign of God? Put a little differently – how does our anger help create God’s Shalom? God’s peace?
Our righteous anger, if used correctly, has the ability to animate our lives in new ways. Valerie Bridgeman says “Anger provides energy so we may engage in analysis, protest, survival, and justice.” Anger at the things that happen around us is an emotional survival response that says that we refuse to be destroyed, pushed down, pushed aside, or ignored.
In order to get to that animation, we have to make sure that we are channeling our anger into positive outlets, otherwise anger, righteous or otherwise, turns to bitterness and bitterness that ferments too long becomes hatred. Audre Lourde, Civil Rights activist and womanist writer, reminds us that our “hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”
Change. When we see things that anger us, what we are really saying is that we would like to see things change. Let me give you an example. In the past few weeks, several NFL players have been suspended or benched because of allegations of domestic and child abuse. Domestic violence is a serious problem that affects one in every four women in this country. Oftentimes the stories of these women are never told and they are made to suffer in silence. But one woman, Beverly Gooden, herself a survivor of domestic violence, started a conversation on the social media platform Twitter using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. She said she started the hashtag because she was “angry” at the way the story was shaming and blaming victims of domestic violence instead of providing opportunities for healthy and healing dialogue. The stories that women all over the world were able to share about their experiences in abusive relationships has helped to make space for healthy conversations about domestic violence and to empower other women with the courage to leave emotionally or physically abusive situations.
That’s the transformative power of righteous anger. When it is used in a holy way it can create space for change in order to bring the Reign of God closer into view. When righteous anger is engaged in the holy work of God, it has the power to overturn the tables of injustice in the temples of culture. When righteous anger is engaged in the service of God, it has the power to move us beyond the confines of the status quo into the dream of what could be.
Jonah and his friends in the Vineyard challenge us to rethink the way things are and to engage the work of justice in new ways. That’s what it means to follow Jesus – to ask the difficult questions, to sit in difficult spaces, and to deal with difficult emotions. The command of Christ to love God with our heart, soul, and strength means that we are called not to run from our righteous anger, but to raise it, to sanctify it, and to bless it in the service of God.
 Valerie Bridgeman. “Jonah.” In The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 183.
 Ibid., 185.
 Miguel De la Torre. Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 24.
 Audre Lorde. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” in Sister outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Berkeley: The Crossing Feminist Press Series, 1984), 129.