Sermon: Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost 2014

"Alive they were taken from us, alive we want them back!" Source:

“They took them alive, we want them back alive!”

“Their Pain is God’s Pain, Their Rage is God’s Rage”

Text: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Well, happy “Wrath of God Sunday” everybody. No getting around it this week. For what it’s worth, I didn’t write these scriptures nor did I choose to put them in the lectionary. Come back on November 30th and I promise I’ll end my St. Luke’s-San Lucas preaching career on an uplifting note.

Is there a right time for wrath? For the wrath of God? Is there something we can learn and use from wrathful scriptures? I think so. We don’t need to agree with Zephaniah to learn from him—which is great, because he ended up being wrong about a number of things. That’s another sermon. It’s not Zephaniah’s wrath that makes him wrong.

By day, I work in the research department of a hospital. For the past couple of years we’ve been looking at the intersection of poverty, health, and trauma. My role, in this work, is to sit down with poor and working people who are experiencing a lot of health crises and ask them to tell me about their lives. Their whole lives. The good, the bad, what keeps them going. There is a lot of trauma in people’s lives. There are also a lot of tools people use to cope, to endure, to heal. Wrath is a vital tool in the tool belt of many trauma survivors. It’s an especially important one for people who find no redress for the injustices that have happened to them. With no day of reckoning in court for their abuser, no reprieve in threats of violence from the local skinheads, no time off work in order to grieve their brother’s murder—anger is often the one force propelling someone forward, preventing them from laying down and giving up. We can say “Oh, what a terrible way to live” about that but until we change the structures of our society that keep people perpetually locked into trauma, it is not only pointless but cruel to judge the poor for their rage.

This kind of rage must be expressed. Unloading abuse upon innocent bystanders and loved ones is not ok, ever, but after a traumatic event wrath does need to come out. When it gets stuck inside, we get sicker. The people I talk to at work are creative with this: some sing their wrath out, others play the blues, a few write angry rap lyrics or poems of rage. An older woman who really loved her pastor told me she goes to see him regularly to tell him how much she still hates the deceased ex-husband who abused her. Her pastor exhorts her to forgiveness every time, and every time she says “Nope”—and chuckles. When you have no access to mental health care you find some ingenious and resourceful ways to regain that sense of power over your own life. Listening to so many of those stories has shaped the way I hear Zephaniah. I hear grief beneath his fire and brimstone. Grief for a society where silver and gold determine who will be saved and who will perish. Where wealth and complacency have eclipsed God in the hearts of the people.

As Christians we are called to bear one another’s burdens.  Sometimes we find ourselves with people who are, in a given moment, hurting more than we are. In their pain they may be able to do little more than spit with wrath. We are called to stay with them.  To see them and see their pain.  Not minimize it.  Not explain it away.  Not offer platitudes or try to placate them or clean them up so they sound respectable.  If their rage comes spilling out in a way that puts us in danger, we have a right and a responsibility to protect ourselves.  But if we are merely uncomfortable—perhaps uncomfortably reminded of our own unresolved pain—that is not enough of a reason to shut anybody down.  We are each other’s keepers.  This includes keeping watch over one another in hard times, when we are least lovable and most prickly.

Being one another’s keepers doesn’t stop at the individual level, either. Zephaniah says little about one-on-one relationships. His wrath is for structures. We have a lot to learn from that. On both the personal and collective levels, venting rage to a sympathetic friend generally isn’t enough.  Usually we also have to worry about disrupting an entire cycle of traumatization.  This means changing structures. My spiritual director, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, lived in Philadelphia for several years organizing with tent cities, welfare rights groups, and other initiatives led by the poor themselves. She told me about a group she encountered there that was by and for people in recovery from addiction, who not only worked on their individual recovery but also agitated broadly for justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed. When she had the opportunity to ask one of the group’s leaders how they arrived at this approach, he told her, “We cannot heal until we change the society that has made us sick.” If you have been following the news out of Mexico (which I recommend not least of all because it is critically relevant for many of our 1pm San Lucas members), you have probably seen footage of young people collectively raging against structures. This is in light of the disappearance of forty-three rural student teachers in the state of Guerrero who, while protesting for equal access to jobs, were attacked by police and then handed over to a local cartel. The Mexican government has claimed, in terrorizing detail, that the students are dead. But it turned out that the mass grave they targeted for forensic testing belongs to other bodies. Four other mass graves have been discovered since. And still no sign of the forty-three disappeared students. The Mexican people rage in their streets for love of one another, for their beloved dead, and for the clear, organized purpose of stopping their government from committing more massacres.

Can there be hope amid wrath?  Can we find God and redemption in our rage?  I think so.  In the midst of trauma, holding onto anger until we are safe from harm is one crucial way to protect our selves and each other as part of God’s creation. God not only weeps with us in our pain as Christ wept on the cross. God also rages with us at the wrongs that have left us traumatized. God is outraged that you were abused as a child.  God’s wrath is steadfastly aimed at the way our society degrades the poor at every turn.  God is so fiercely angry over these things that God never wants them to happen again.  God needs you to make that possible. On the days when our pain leaves us incapable of considering nuance and strategy, we are going to sound like Zephaniah.  Not our best selves.  But on other days that righteous wrath—the wrath that is essentially our refusal to give up and die—will be beautiful.  It will be salvific.  If you’re unconvinced I’ll leave you with the words written on two different banners of protestors in Mexico, from among the millions refusing to be placated in the wake of the Ayotzinapa atrocity. One, from the southern state of Chiapas, reads: “Their pain is our pain. Their rage is our rage.” The other, from a surviving student: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”


About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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