The title of this sermon, ‘Why Are You Angry?’ is the first question God asked outside of the Garden of Eden, directed to Cain. If Cain was able to respond to God, the world would be a different place. Instead, Cain didn’t know how to deal with his anger, how to confess it to God, so he killed his brother Abel and lived his life in fear and isolation. Bible stories are not once and done; they are the story of life always. God’s question to Cain is a very important question he asks each of us, in times where everyone is tempted to anger and outrage. And just like Cain, whether we can respond to God’s question makes a big difference as to whether our lives become more and more isolated and anxious or turn around to exude peace and hope.
With the presidential election just two months off, I think it is timely and helpful to engage God’s question in our common political life. Politically speaking, why are we so angry? You have seen the campaign ads, and they will surely turn worse as we go. Elections are no longer stories about whose ideas, policies or track record is better. The narrative is; these guys are demons who broke or will break the country, so whoever is not for us is against us. This of course is intentional, because every politician must first be elected, and the politics of hate is the most productive fundraising technique the world has ever seen. People who are on a crusade are very motivated givers. And of course the media plays the same game. Both sides know very well that hate and outrage raise viewership, which in turn increases advertising income exponentially when compared to telling the plain-old, balanced truth.
That’s why it will never be impossible to ‘drain the swamp,’ because candidates must be elected in our political system, and getting elected cost lots of money. Money comes much easier with lots of half-truths and hate. By the way, the phrase ‘drain the swamp’ reveals the whole silliness of either the right or the left having the higher ground over the other. Everyone knows this campaign slogan from our Republican president Donald Trump, few recall that it was first the slogan of his Democrat arch-enemy Speaker Nancy Pelosi from her 2006 campaign. Birds of a feather.
But now I want to get to the crux of the matter. Politicians are selling hate, but they couldn’t sell it if we weren’t buying it. Again God’s question, ‘Why Are You Angry?’ Well let’s ponder that for a minute. I think many are angry-on both sides- because it feels like values they cherish are being violated. Understandable. The problem comes when the anger becomes hate, a sin which is like a drug. It makes us feel like we are standing on high ground and can see what others can’t. It makes a very complicated life with tough problems, seem black and white with easy answers. It seems to overcome our loneliness with a sense of belonging; we’re united in our hate of them. The problem though, as with all sins, is that anger is addictive and invasive. Soon the anger which helps us feel in control and as if we belong, leaves us isolated and depressed. It gets to be that people can’t function without anger and outrage, in fact it defines who they are, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you look long enough at everything and everyone with anger and distrust, it becomes all we can see. Somehow the swamp out there, becomes the swamp in here, full of bitterness and enmity.
I hope our society gives up its addiction to anger and outrage. I hope that I am strong enough to acknowledge my anger, and guard my heart from hatred. But I am only human, and I need help. And there has only been one person who walked this earth who can credibly help us drain the swamp, because he was the only one not born in the swamp, not poisoned by the bite of the snake which is the sin of you and I and all humankind. He is the Messiah, Jesus, and in today’s gospel reading he made the greatest and only true campaign speech to drain the swamp; ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,’ says Jesus, ‘so must the Son of man be lifted up.’ Alluding here to the infighting of the chosen people led by Moses, Jesus says, I feel and understand your anger and pain at being stuck in this swamp, but there is no way out of this through hatred, backbiting and scapegoating.
The way out of the swamp can never be looking down to the snakes of hate, it must be by looking up with love. It can only be by looking up to see the greatest love the world has known in the self-sacrifice of the son of God for his creatures, you and I, swamped under our own sins. That’s how you know Jesus wasn’t looking to be elected, he tells us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. The hard truth is that we have always lived in the swamp, and that the reptiles are us! Therefore, the only way to start emptying the swamp around us, is to empty the swamp within us.
This is a daily emptying, a daily humbling of ourselves. This is a daily private confession that animates our public confession before receiving holy communion with God. The confession is that you and I were born into this world with a latent addiction to pride, envy, anger, laziness, covetousness, gluttony and lust. That’s the bad news. But once accepted, the good news is infinitely better. The good news is that, after looking down to honestly confess and confront our sins, we are free to look up to find real belonging, real truth and real beauty in Christ and his Cross, “the Son of man lifted up.” That is the significance of today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a celebration on one day of what we do every day; lifting up Christ as the top priority in our lives and his cross as the great antidote to anger and all sin. For how can anyone stay angry who daily gazes on the cross and heeds today’s Gospel; ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,’ now and always; amen.