Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”, Genesis 37:2-7, 11-12, 18-28/1 Kings 19:9-18 (August 13, 2017)



As you hopefully recall from worship last week, the High School youth went to Pittsburgh, PA, for their mission trip this summer. We had a lot of incredible experiences on that trip, but one of the most unique was our opportunity to hear Hedda Sharapan speak. Hedda had worked closely with the Reverend Fred Rogers on his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and has continued the work that he began back in 1966 even after his death. Although I think the celebrity of such a person was somewhat lost on a few of our younger youth, for me, this was like meeting Beyoncé’s personal stylist. I mean, for those of us who grew up between the 60s and the early 2000s, Mister Rogers taught us everything we knew about the most important things in life: sweater vests, make-believe, friendship, and, of course, feelings. And meeting Hedda was like being one step removed from one of the greatest teachers I’d ever had. So I’ve had Mr. Rogers on the brain since July.

Hedda had a lot to share with us about this titan of children’s television. As she reminded us, Mr. Rogers was a gifted musician who wrote much of the music in his show. One song that I remember clearly, which inspired the title of this sermon, is “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” Mr. Rogers recognized that feelings—strong, powerful feelings—are a natural part of life that we all experience. But knowing what to do with those feelings doesn’t necessarily come quite as naturally. The song begins by asking, “What do you do with the mad that you feel/when you feel so mad you could bite?/When the whole wide world seems oh-so-wrong,/and nothing you do seems very right?” Whether we take the time to put it into words or not, this is a question we each need to ask ourselves every time we start to feel bad for one reason or another—which, like it or not, happens all too often.

It’s a question Joseph’s brothers had to ask themselves when they realized they had a pesky younger brother on their hands who not only seemed to think he was better than them, but was Dad’s favorite. The text says that they were jealous of Joseph; the Hebrew word is qana’. And I mean…can you blame them? How many of you have siblings? How would you feel if your sibling told you that they’d had a dream that you should be bowing down to them? And what if you went to your parents and, instead of feeding you the line that “they love all of their children equally” (which we all know is a lie but it’s nice to hear anyway), your parents kinda shrugged and bought an awesome gift for the sibling in question? No wonder Joseph’s brothers weren’t big fans. Frankly, saying that they felt “jealous” seems like a bit of an understatement. If I were in their shoes, I would have felt jealous, bitter, angry, hurt, defensive, betrayed, insulted…at any rate, I think that we can all agree that feeling jealous is an understandable response to the situation that the brothers found themselves in.

But what did they do with the mad that they felt? Did they, as Mr. Rogers suggests, “punch a bag?...Pound some clay or some dough?...Round up friends for a game of tag? Or see how fast you go?” No…no they didn’t. Joseph’s brothers decided to take their jealousy and turn it into abuse, deception, and betrayal. To them, their qana’ justified everything that they did to Joseph.

But the thing is, feelings aren’t fixed causes that lead to inevitable effects. Jealousy doesn’t always lead directly to attempted fratricide, even though it may sometimes seem like the logical progression of things. We tend to think of jealously as a “negative” feeling, but how much of that designation comes from the emotion itself, and how much of it from the reactions that it tends to inspire? Take the biblical emotion of “qana’”, for example. Qana’ is usually translated as jealous or envious in the Bible, and usually in a context similar to what we have here in Genesis 37, involving some form of coveting (which, as we know, is a big “no-no” with God). So, negative. But the same Hebrew word can be used in a different sense, too: meaning zealous or passionate. In the 1 Kings reading, Elijah justifies himself before God saying, “But God, I have been so qana’, so zealous, for you, even in the face of everyone else abandoning you.” Elijah describes himself using the EXACT SAME WORD that Genesis uses to describe Joseph’s brothers, and yet for him, jealousy is a point of pride, one that leads him to follow God even when everyone else abandons the Lord. For Elijah, jealousy is POSITIVE.

(As a side note, when the Ten Commandments talk about God being “a jealous God”,[1] this is the word they use. More recent translations like the CEB say that God is a “passionate” God, but most others use the traditional translation of “jealous”. Aren’t ancient languages fun??)

Now, to be sure, the far more common use is the first one. But I don’t think it’s because that use is more accurate or anything like that; I think it’s because that’s the direction that jealousy tends to go for us. We tend to let it overtake us and spur us to negative (and sometimes downright evil) actions. But if our God is a qana’ God, then qana’ can’t be inherently evil. It’s what we choose to do with that quality—what we do with the mad that we feel—that makes the difference between a holy emotion and a profane one.

Now here’s the most important part in all this—NOTHING THAT WE DO WITH OUR FEELINGS CAN STOP GOD’S WILL FROM BEING DONE. I’ll say that again, because it’s worth repeating: NOTHING THAT WE DO WITH OUR FEELINGS CAN STOP GOD’S WILL FROM BEING DONE. No matter what we do with the mad that we feel, whether we punch a bag or play a game of tag or try to kill our brother, has the power to derail the Lord’s plans. Someone once told me, “There’s no way that you can mess up enough that God can’t still use you for good.” That’s the best part of worshiping an omnipotent God, and more than a little bit of a relief, if you ask me. Don’t get me wrong—bad things can and WILL happen because of our bad choices. Notice that Joseph was not teleported out of the pit when his brother’s jealousy spurred them to evil, and he spent many years in slavery. We may not be able to spoil God’s plan, but we can certainly delay its realization if we’re fighting against God. Notice that Joseph’s story arc goes from chapter 37 through chapter 46, with many twists and turns along the way. The brothers’ choices make for a long journey. But in the end, God’s will is done in a spectacular fashion.

Now, when we DO respond to our emotions in obedience to God’s will, when we DO choose the holy path, God is right there with us. Not always in a bold and powerful (or even obvious) way, as we might hope—sometimes, God’s presence seems to be no more than a still, small voice, or even the sound of sheer silence. But God is there. And through God, our holy response to the things that we feel can change the world, whether with an action as small as anointing the next king or as large as forgiving one who’s tried to kill you.

Things are going to happen in your life that evoke strong negative feelings. An election doesn’t go your way. You’re passed over for a promotion that you feel you’ve earned. You don’t make the team. A friend is angry with you for a reason that doesn’t make sense. You believe that someone has taken what’s rightfully yours. A beloved member of your community leaves before you’re ready for them to. This is a part of life, a part of being human; try as we might, we CANNOT avoid it. But as Mr. Rogers reminds us, this is entirely normal, expected, and okay. NO ONE can tell you not to feel the way you feel or that your feelings are wrong. Jesus felt fear in the garden of Gethsemane. Job felt hopelessness as everything was taken from him. Peter felt panic as he denied Jesus. All three of these men trusted God, but that didn’t keep them from feeling these things. Emotions are normal, they’re natural, they’re Biblical. No one can deny them from you.

But we also have a responsibility to these emotions. As God’s children, as Christ’s disciples, we’re obligated to use them as tools for building God’s kingdom, not tearing it down, and God forbid we use them as an EXCUSE to do what we know in our hearts is wrong. This weekend, two different groups of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA. Both groups gathered because they felt that something is very wrong in the world, and they wanted to change it. Both groups probably felt frustration, fear, and outrage. Both groups were qana’, zealous, for their cause. But one group expressed their passion through prayer and presence, and the other through angry shouts and violence, brandishing weapons and torches and words intended to wound. At least one person is dead because someone chose to express their qana’ by driving a truck through a group of people.

I can’t rightfully say that either of these groups were wrong in feeling these emotions—their feelings belong to them. But the conclusions that they extrapolated from what they were feeling and the choices that they made in how to act on them were what makes the difference, quite literally, between life and death. Words meant to wound are wrong. Violence is wrong. Prejudice is wrong. No matter who you are or what side you’re on, they are WRONG.

God weeps when we use our emotions, our pain, our jealousy, as an excuse to hurt others. Passion is a gift that can inspire incredible deeds and innovation, but we abuse it when we use it for our own ends instead of God’s. God doesn’t want this for the world. God doesn’t want a planet full of fratricide and murder, of hate and abuse and violence. God wants justice that rolls like a river[2] and love for our neighbors and enemies alike.[3] God desires for the wolf to lie down with the lamb and for no harm to come to any in God’s holy place.[4] But we resist God’s vision again and again, choosing instead to take the long path and hurting one another deeply along the way.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to be like Joseph’s brothers, slaves to our jealousy and our anger and our sorrow. That’s the beauty of this gospel thing that we talk about all the time, that’s the good news of Jesus Christ. In the words of Mr. Rogers: “It's great to be able to stop/when you've planned a thing that's wrong,/and be able to do something else instead/and think this song…” Christ has power over sin and death, and has freed us from their grasp. So we CAN choose to use our passions in service to God. We CAN. But we must CHOOSE to.

What do YOU do with the mad that you feel? What do YOU do with the anger that you feel? What do YOU do with the grief that you feel? What do YOU do with the fear that you feel? Don’t let it consume you. Don’t let it control you. Let it inspire and transform you. Let it shape and mold you into Christ’s image. Let it be for you a blessing that you can pass along to all that you encounter—not just those who think like you or look like you or understand you, but the whole entire world. That’s the good news. That’s God’s kingdom, here and now. May it be so. Amen.


[1] Exodus 34:14.
[2] Amos 5:24.
[3] Matthew 5:44.
[4] Isaiah 11:9.

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