Year A • The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 • Psalm 119:1–8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 • Matthew 5:21–37
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be [always] acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.
— Psalm 19:14.
We Live in An Angry World And I am Something of an Expert
How many of you watch the news or read the newspaper? How many of you drive in traffic, stand in long lines at the checkout, or follow Twitter? Watch what people do; listen to how they talk to their children; read what they post on Facebook. If you do any of these things, for any length of time, you would be hard-pressed to draw any other conclusion than that our world is filled with angry people, with fearful, frustrated, angry people.
We live in an angry world, and I consider myself to be something of an expert. After all, I am a father of four, and I spend my days with middle schoolers as a substitute teacher in the public school system. Need I say more?
I deal with anger on a daily basis, my own anger, that is. There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel anger. But that’s not the half of it. I find that I use anger; I rely upon it. I find that I have come to trust anger in an effort to control my world. By way of illustration, let me tell you a little story.
I am a building substitute for Pleasant Valley Middle School. So every day I go to Pleasant Valley, and they plug me into whatever classroom I am needed. I teach all grades and all subjects; sometimes more than one in a given day. Before Christmas, I was assigned to sub-teach a 7th Grade Social Studies class. It was a Friday, and the day had gone fairly well until 7th hour, the last hour of the day. For the life of me, I couldn’t get these kids to pay attention or stay on task. I got increasingly frustrated, because I am there to teach, not to babysit. There was lots of talking, lots of moving around, lots of distractions; all the things I hate. One girl comes in ten minutes late from the nurse. As soon as she enters the room, she begins chatting with a couple of students. She does this as she finds her seat and as if I were not in the middle of teaching a lesson. I am not impressed, and my agitation and anger rises. I tell her to sit down and be quiet; and she is offended.
This sort of thing continues, and I finally announce that if there is any more talking or disruptions, I will keep people after class. I then spend the rest of the hour with those who are working. When the bell rings, I dismiss two-thirds of the class, and I keep the rest. They are shocked, and express outrage at being treated this way. I am equally shocked and outraged, telling them that they need to pick up any paper on the floor and straighten the desks before they go. At this point, there is more shock, more outrage, and a bit of swearing (not by me).
One girl says that it isn’t her mess, and so she isn’t picking anything up. Another girl calls her mother and says that she will be late because her teacher is being retarded. A boy insists that he has to get to basketball practice, but he refuses to do any work. The first girl says, “Mister, you may not have anywhere to go, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” A few students do what I ask, and I let them go. But in the end, I march four very angry students to the office, and then I head home very shaken.
Did I act appropriately,… as a teacher,… as an employee of USD 259? I think I did; and the administration thinks I did. Yet, two months later, I am still bothered by the incident. There was so much anger over something that was fairly routine. Where did it all come from? What could I have done that might have helped myself and my students?
Our Anger Doesn’t Produce God’s Righteousness
I don’t enjoy getting angry or expressing anger. I hate the way it makes me feel. Moreover, most of the time, my anger doesn’t actually achieve what I intend. Yet, I find myself turning to it again and again. Is this not the very definition of insanity, according to Einstein, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Anger just doesn’t seem to work very well, and I am reminded of what James—the brother of our Lord—had to say on the subject of anger.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20, nrsv).
Let me read that again:
Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20, nrsv).
Well, I wish somebody would have told me that a long time ago; it would’ve saved me a whole lot of trouble. Oh, I’ve heard that stuff about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. But that last bit, that last bit is what really gets me. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Really? Is that really true? Are you telling me, James, that yelling at my kids—with flared nostrils and eyes aflame—isn’t producing the faith, hope, and love that God is looking for? …that all of my threats are for naught?
Let’s say that James is right, that human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. What do we do? Well, the answer seems fairly obvious? Don’t get angry. Don’t ever get angry. After all, isn’t that what Jesus teaches us. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you, don’t even get angry?” Well, how do we do that? How do we not get angry?
Well, before we try to tackle that question, it should be noted that Jesus never actually says, “Don’t get angry.” What I just quoted a second ago is not what Jesus teaches; it is, however, what we have been taught to hear when we read or listen to the Sermon on the Mount. But, Jesus never says not to become angry. In fact, we have stories of Jesus expressing his anger. But that does not get us off the hook. We’ve still got a lot of work to do where anger is concerned.
We Are Possessed by Anger
Back in 2006, in his State of the Union Address, President George Bush declared, “America is addicted to oil.” That’s true. But the fact is, America is addicted to lots of things: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, caffeine, Starbucks, partisan politics, Downton Abby… You name it; we’re addicted to it. And somewhere up there, up near the top of the list is anger. And do you know what you get when you add a D to ANGER? You get DANGER. Listen to this quote I ran across this past week:
Anger is dangerous because it is addictive. When we feel angry, we feel a sense of power, and that can grip us. Angry people often feed on their own anger and get angrier and more aggressive in their behaviour.
This sense of power is often false. Anger gives a person the illusion of being ‘right’. When we are angry, we feel self-righteous about it, we feel we are right to express our anger as anger, and humiliate other people. That in-turn only creates more anger.
As a society, we are addicted to anger; in fact, we are possessed by anger, and it is from this demon that Jesus seeks to deliver us in today’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes what life looks like in the kingdom of God and how we can participate in it. Unfortunately, Christians have been taught to read the Sermon on the Mount as a series of high ideals and impossible demands. So instead of feeling empowered, we simply feel guilty and judged. But the “Sermon on the Mount is not about human striving toward high ideals but about God’s transforming initiatives to deliver us from the vicious cycles in which we get stuck.” So, Jesus is not teaching us how to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; rather, he is showing us how to actively and obediently participate in God’s gracious deliverance. Recall the Exodus. Only the power of God could free the Israelites from their Egyptian taskmasters, yet the people still had to make the journey. Only the power of God could have parted the waters of the Red Sea, but the people still had to participate by putting one foot in front of the other. That’s what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount.
In today’s reading, Jesus covers a variety of topics. He talks about anger, lust, divorce, and swearing oaths. Next week he will talk about non-retaliation and loving our enemies. If you read these carefully, you will notice that they follow the same pattern, they all exhibit the same three-part structure.
First, they each begin with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said….” Here he introduces the traditional Jewish teaching on a given subject. Second, Jesus follows this traditional teaching with a diagnosis of the human condition, one that describes a cycle of sin that enslaves human beings. This part begins, “But I say to you….” And this is where we must be very careful. So on the topic of anger, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Those are strong words, but notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Don’t get angry.” In fact, he doesn’t tell us to do anything. He is not prescribing any course of action yet. Why? Because at this point, he is simply describing the vicious cycle of anger, resentment, and hatred that can kill relationships and people. You see, when we harbor anger for another human being, we are disconnected from them. So often, that disconnection is maintained and reinforced through insults, name calling, and labeling, either aloud or internally in our thoughts. Insulting another person, calling them a idiot, keeps us in our anger. It stokes our anger, it serves to justify our anger in our own minds, and therefore disconnection grows and so does our anger. It truly is a vicious cycle.
So how do we break free from these vicious cycles, according to Jesus? Well, it’s not a simple matter of just not doing these things. The solution comes in the climactic third part of Jesus’ teaching. Listen.
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Here Jesus offers us, not a general principle, but concrete actions designed to set us free from the anger and resentment we find ourselves trapped in. Anger is about disconnection, so Jesus prescribes a course of action that seeks to establish or re-establish connection with another human being. Thus, the solution to our problem with anger is not, “Don’t be angry. Don’t insult people.,” but “Be reconciled.” Because it is only in establishing and maintaining connection with others that we have the resources to work through and resolve our anger.
So again, Jesus’ solution to our being possessed by anger is not prohibitions: Don’t do this; or, Don’t do that. The solution is to engage in what ethicist Glen Stassen calls, transforming initiatives: specific, concrete, positive actions that are designed to deliver us from the vicious cycles and internal programs that so often dictate our actions and reactions. Transforming initiatives are how we participate in God’s grace, in God’s way of deliverance. Let me illustrate the practice and power of transforming initiatives with one final story.
Thaddaeus and Me
When Thaddaeus was five or six years old, he was outside, and I was doing something in the house. Suddenly, Thaddaeus burst through the front door, slammed it shut behind him, and said to me, “You should be outside.” Well, I grew up in a home where children didn’t talk to their parents that way. I became incensed immediately, and I was just about to go down that old familiar road of, “You shouldn’t talk to me that way,” when something inside told me to just stop and think. I did, and it occurred to me that I had just come in from outside. So I said to Thaddaeus, “Were you scared because you suddenly realized you were alone?” His whole demeanor changed. His anger disappeared; he nodded yes; and then he came into my arms. I apologized, and said I was sorry for coming inside without telling him because I know he doesn’t like to be outside alone.
I like to tell this story because, for me, it is a perfect illustration of how a transforming initiative has the power to transform anger into compassion and connection. When I stopped and listened, not to what Thaddaeus was saying, but to what lay behind his words, my anger disappeared and was replaced by a wellspring of compassion. In turn, this compassion freed me from my need to insist on my own way, and it allowed me to connect with Thaddaeus at a deeper level, at the level of his feeling of fear and his need for safety. In other words, when I was quick to listen and slow to speak, I found that I was slow to anger. And more to the point, I was granted the grace to perform a transforming initiative that resulted in our reconciliation.
Had I responded out of my original anger, I know that Thaddaeus and I would have carried on shouting at each other, each insisting that the other person listen. And had I simply told myself not to be angry, that would not have worked either because I would not have had the awareness to recognize what was going on for Thaddaeus. What I needed was a specific, concrete, positive action designed to connect with him; I needed a transforming initiative.
In the end, one small initiative on my part transformed my anger and Thaddaeus’. In one simple act, we were both set free from the vicious cycle of anger, and we received the gift of reconciliation. That’s what I would like to leave you this morning, a vision for transforming our anger into compassion and reconciliation, a course of action that has the power to break the internal programs of anger and resentment that so often dictate our actions and reactions.
So, as ambassadors of Christ, as ambassadors of reconciliation, let’s get out there and transform our world. Let’s begin by transforming our relationships and our daily interactions with others one transforming initiative at a time.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Vandana Kohli, “World Anger Day: What’s Driving Our Rage?,” http://ibnlive.in.com/news/world-anger-day-whats-driving-our-rage/286174-2.html.
 Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1992), 37. “The Sermon on the Mount describes specific ways we can participate in the new initiatives God is taking. They are not harsh demands but methods of practical participation in God’s gracious deliverance” (38).
 Notice who Jesus directs his words to. Not to the one who is angry, but to the one who is the object of someone else’s anger. “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Delivered on Sunday, February 16th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)