FEBRUARY 12, 2023
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR ANGER
REVEREND DAVID GERMER
Since Epiphany, we’ve been in Matthew’s gospel, thinking together about what it means to walk in the light of Jesus.
The last two Sundays we’ve been in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ vision for life in the upside down kingdom of God, and his most direct and explicit words to his disciples about what it looks like to live in this kingdom.
In the beatitudes, those 10 blessings that introduce the Sermon on the Mount, we see that Jesus pronounces blessing in unexpected directions to unexpected people – the spiritually empty, the hungry, those in mourning – ultimately it is those who are vulnerable and embrace their vulnerability who are blessed, as Patrick helped us see.
Last week Patrick invited us to the see the familiar call to let your light shine in a new way. We don’t have to become something we are not – the light is called to shine out of us.
It’s so important that Jesus leads off the sermon in that way – with good news – telling us this is not something you have to do, but simply how it is. That should frame how we read the rest of the Sermon on the Mount… which gets considerably more challenging to read and live. Jesus asks us to reexamine virtually every aspect of life, as he envisions for us what life looks like for his disciples in the presently available kingdom of God.
Our scope this morning is not all of life, but it is challenging.
Let’s listen for God’s word to us today, in Matthew 5: 21-26
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
The Word of the Lord – Thanks be to God.
Is there good news in this text? Several of us read this text together a couple weeks ago and sat in silence for a long time, looking for a positive answer to that question. I think there is, but we’ve got to dig a little to uncover it.
Almost every line in that passage has multiple detours and rabbit trails that we could take, so I’d like to reframe and simplify and refocus it, and ask you to trust that this is at least a relatively faithful summary, following a lot of studying. (And we can save the rabbit trails for another rainy day).
Here’s the summary. Jesus says: it’s not enough to not murder someone, (as we know one of the Ten Commandments says). God’s judgement, and consequences from human community and society, and your own misery will be the result of anger, the demeaning or harsh words that anger births, and a failure to do all you can to reconcile with friends and enemies, whom anger has removed from you.
Now even that concise summary raises some questions and leaves us plenty to chew on. There are three questions I want to address, one at a time.
First: Is anger off limits for disciples?
Well here’s some good news, right off the bat. We know Jesus can’t be saying, “never, under any circumstance, be angry.” How do we know that?
- Well for one, it’s a human emotion. God made us with emotions. Who’s seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? I’m not sure that it’s divinely inspired, and at least so far it’s non-canonical, but I think it’s a perfect depiction of how each of our emotions (distilled in the movie to joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger) serves us well, when it’s in its proper place and working in balance with the others. Anger is not categorically bad or wrong.
- Secondly, other parts of the Bible tell us it’s ok to be angry. “Be angry but do not sin.” “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” James tells us to “be quick to listen and slow to anger.” So a distinction is being made between good anger and bad anger, or appropriate anger and inappropriate anger.
- And, of course Jesus himself gets angry. Most famously when he turns over the tables in the temple, when people take advantage of the poor. He’s angry! But also, we hear of Jesus being angry in the face of the brokenness of the world – people living under the weight of devastating sickness or disease. Hard-heartedness, hypocrisy, bad treatment of children – those make Jesus angry.
In all of those examples, we would call Jesus’ anger… what kind of anger? [“righteous anger”]. Yes! He is right to be upset. And there are times when it is right for us to be angry. The appropriate response to injustice is anger. Here’s how one writer puts it: “Anger is love in motion against what threatens the object of love.” C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it.”
If someone hurts one of my kids, I’m angry. Because I love my kids.
Racism makes us angry, because we love people made in God’s image; we love justice.
Someone driving two miles an hour below the speed limit on the highway, refusing to get over right lane no matter how closely we get behind them… that makes me angry, because I love…. Well, why does that make me so angry? Is it because of my deep love for the rules of highway driving?
It would feel great to think that my anger – all of my anger – is righteous anger… but the truth of course is that we are angered far too often, far too easily, at the wrong things, at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons.
And that’s what Jesus is addressing in this passage – not anger at injustice or evil, but anger that sloshes around and splashes out of us and makes a mess over our relationships, and can keep us from embracing life in the upside down kingdom of God.
And we all experience this.
Second: What does this kind of anger look like? (aside from mild road rage?)
This is the second question. When Jesus says in this passage, you’ll get what’s coming to you if you are angry with another, what is he talking about?
Last week Patrick taught us some Greek – here’s a little more. The verb here for anger is a present participle – ‘you’ve heard do not murder, but I say to you everyone being angry with a brother or sister’…
Do you hear that? It is active and continuous. It means carrying or harboring anger. Allowing it to fester, or take root. Cultivating it. Becoming hardened or bitter by holding onto it. Making a decision to remain angry. Nursing it. See, Jesus isn’t saying: cut this emotion out your lives. He’s saying: disciples cut this behavior out of your practices.
It’s easy to see that at its worst, this kind of anger truly does lead to disastrous, horrific consequences.
It could lead to a worker on a mushroom farm in rural California taking out his pent-up bitterness and rage at long hours, and mistreatment from coworkers, and not being listened to by his superiors… by walking onto his job site with a gun, and shooting. His anger literally becomes murder.
It could lead to police officers empowered by their uniforms and numbers, lashing out against a defenseless Tyre Nichols – just trying to get home – when confronted with their own inability to do their jobs properly when faced with something, in this case a human being, who didn’t bend to their unprofessional will and called into question just how much authority they actually have.
Those are examples of people not dealing properly with anger, nursing it over time, or keeping it at a constant simmer so that it is readily and easily accessible – instantly – and even violently. And we keep seeing this again and again, to the point that we have to ask and wonder: do we not only have a gun crisis, but an anger crisis in our country (not that we have a monopoly on it… we just may be leading the way)?
Both of those examples are so clearly wrong, but are probably a little hard for us to relate to, personally.
What about the anger that stirs up in us, in some ways not unlike those police officers, when respect is not shown to us, when our authority is not recognized, by our own kids? In very different ways, this happens – in 13 year olds, 9 year olds, 2 year olds… (just take 3 random ages of children as an example.)
Our own children have a unique way of making us angry. And the emotion is one thing… but when it comes out as threats or nonsensical punishments or yelling, or, God forbid, through physical force, in adults… is it because we’ve allowed that anger to take root? Or allowed it to simmer? We might justify or dismiss it as having a temper, or being under stress… but there is something more going on there.
Let me speak to the kids though; maybe you can relate to this: your brother or sister at home, or maybe a particularly annoying kid in your class, seems like they’ve made it their purpose in life to push your buttons. Maybe it’s even beyond that, into bullying, and name-calling. And so what you’ve done, maybe because you didn’t know what else to do, is just get worked up, every week, or every day, into intense anger. Maybe you even call them names, right back.
I’d bet a number of us in the room cultivated anger, chose to hold onto it, by scanning the news every day for four years looking for the next thing that you could gleefully hate that the president did. (I’m not saying there weren’t or aren’t legitimate reasons for anger at politicians… I’m saying there was a lot of actively holding onto anger going on). Or maybe you nurse anger by ‘hate-watching’ or listening to a particular channel or program that exemplifies the absolute worst of the other political party, because it makes your blood boil in an almost addicting way, like the feeling of scratching a serious case of poison ivy; it only makes it worse, but there’s a satisfying relief and release, for a brief moment. There’s a pleasure in anger when we are convinced that it is righteous… and while there IS righteous anger… we are really good at convincing ourselves that ALL of OUR anger – even this exact kind of harboring, clinging, active, resentful and bitter anger that Jesus is speaking about – is righteous. The truth is that it isn’t holy, righteous anger; it’s self-righteous anger.
Whether it comes out as a less than kind tone with our spouse, or a short fuse with our kids, or an outburst at an unknown and unaware driver in traffic, or a bone-headed play that causes our team to lose… Are we honest about just how deep our anger goes?
I’ll give you one more example, directly from my life. (Because Patrick told us a couple weeks ago to be vulnerable).
An action that I took in another community, representing the church, was perceived in a particular way, and it was upsetting to someone I knew. I hoped that we could talk about it, but it never happened, and I only learned, after we’d moved away, just how angry this person was with me when they sent me a scathing, accusatory email. It was really upsetting. It made me so angry, because I thought this person knew who I was and what I was about, and it became clear that they didn’t, at all, and it made me question so much of my ministry and presence in that community over years. And so, I took just a little time, but within days, I sent a defensive, correcting, angry email in response. And didn’t expect to hear back, and didn’t hear back.
BUT… do you know what I sometimes do? I sometimes go back and reread that person’s email to me, and reread my email to them – just to dig that anger back up, live in it a little more, feel that self-righteous anger and satisfaction some more. I can tell that some of you can relate to at least some of that.
So the last question is: What do we do about that?
What do we do with our anger, and, let’s add in, because Jesus links these as well: what do we do when others are angry at us?
Instead of stewing on it, letting it fester, digging it back up, feeding it, massaging it, justifying it, explaining or dismissing it, or ignoring it…
We acknowledge it. Address it. Express it appropriately, and then ultimately let it go, or root it out, or give it to God. But not before getting curious about it. That may be the most important part. We have to ask: “why is this making me so angry?” If anger is “love in motion against what threatens the object of love” then what does my anger here tell me about what I love?
As I’ve sat and wrestled with this this week, do you know what is more clear to me than anything else about what I love? Me. I love my time, my self-image, my control. Threats to those make me angry.
There are things we can control, and things we can’t. And Jesus links our misplaced or overexpressed anger with others, to the call for us to do something about someone else being angry with us – regardless of how major or minor it is, regardless even of whether or not they are right. I think he does this, to say to us, loudly and clearly: you have control of only one person – you. Letting anger stew – in yourself, or in another who is angry with you, is not an option.
Kingdom of God living – righteous living – is a tall order. A monumental calling. Jesus says: I’ve fulfilled the law, but not so that you have a free pass to live any way you want. I want you to see just how beautiful and life-giving and exhilarating it is to live in this way that is so radically different than the way most people live. Jesus knew what all kinds of scientific and medical studies now emphatically confirm: being angry is physically bad for you!
And so this is where some of the good news of this passage comes in: the life Jesus is calling us to is a freeing life that opens us to love and delight and joy, through vulnerability and reconciliation. We are invited to get really honest with ourselves, about ourselves, and about our anger, and to allow others to get honest with us, without fear. Because while the object of our love is so often ourselves – that’s something that we have in common with Jesus – he loves us, too. He loves me even more than I do. He loves you even more than you do. We are the objects of his love. May his mercy reach to the depths of our self-righteous anger and pull us into a new and better way to live. It can. Thanks be to God.
[Benediction] As you go, go knowing that it is okay to be angry… and that disciples of Jesus in the kingdom of God do not live in anger. Get curious about your anger. Ask what it is revealing to you about what you love. Live with vulnerability and with joy, seeking reconciliation, knowing that in Jesus, God loves you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, go in peace.