This Sermon Will Make You Angry
THIS SERMON WILL MAKE YOU ANGRY
MATTHEW 5:21-26, MATTHEW 18:15-20
Don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you. The title of this sermon is your warning. Warning: this sermon will make you angry. Because I know whenever anyone suggests that I am being angry and unreasonable, that just makes me angry and unreasonable, so I would imagine that you all might have the same problem. Let’s just face it: this sermon is going to be awkward. No one likes to talk about anger and conflict. No one likes the pastor to talk about anger and conflict, because we don’t want the pastor to get into our business. We don’t want the pastor to tell us how to run our lives, how to run our families, our churches, our state, our country. We want the pastor to tell us how Jesus loves us and will never leave us, how he is meek and mild, which means you and me, well, we get to live our lives as we want to live them, because frankly, what is Jesus going to do about it?
You might be thinking right now, “Pastor, you can’t tell me that my anger against Mr. or Ms. Clearly Wrong isn’t justified. You don’t know what he or she put me through. You don’t know how crazy my family is, you were not here when stuff went down in this church, so who are you to judge? You don’t know what it is like coming here Sunday after Sunday and listening to you say what God says about this or that. You talk like God is on your side! Who do you think you are, Pastor? Where do you get off? You just make me angry. And I am going to have to let someone else give you a piece of my mind without mentioning my name, of course.”
I told you this sermon was going to make you angry. Probably as angry as I was driving to Chicago for my seminar on conflict resolution last week. I mean, have any of you tried to drive in Chicago? I know Ron does on a regular basis, because he takes sick kids to the Shriner’s hospital in Chicago, which by the way is super awesome thing to do. I don’t know about you, Ron, but when I am driving in Chicago… well, let’s just say my words are unbecoming of a reverend. Yes, yes, I know it comes as a surprise, but even your pastor is vulnerable to road rage, especially when he misses his exit, loops back three times, but continues to miss his exit because of crazy Chicago drivers.
Let’s face it, people get angry when they are driving. Your pastor included. I actually took the liberty of Googling “the funniest road rage stories” and here is one that I found particularly amusing. And I quote, “Six years ago in Little Rock, 26-year-old Wayne Allen Dierks, Jr. was arrested for committing a terrorist act, possessing an instrument of crime, driving while intoxicated and driving with a suspended driver’s license. What did he actually do? Dierks was cut off, so he chased down the offending car and shot a crossbow normally used for deer hunting through its rear window. The moral of the story is to never cut somebody else off; you never know who’s a drunk-driving, crossbow-wielding nutbar.”
Now, you know I am a responsible Presbyterian minister. We don’t even serve wine for communion, so there isn’t much chance of me getting drunk off of the left over communion grape juice. But if you don’t know already, Barb makes some pretty spectacular wine, which as part of her service to the Lord, she provides a good supply of for her minister. But I always drink responsibly. I don’t drink and drive. I think you all know my character. You know that is true. However, even though I don’t drink and drive, that doesn’t mean some of those drivers in Chicago might not deserve a good crossbow bolt, and that’s the God honest truth.
Now as much as we may want it to be true, the Bible, in fact, does not say if you are angry with your brother in Chicago to go and shoot him with a crossbow. Instead, the scriptures say if your brother has something against you, whether or not that concern is valid, to leave your gift at the altar and go and be reconciled. And as we have learned in our sermon series, picking up the mantle of peacemaking is far harder than picking up a crossbow. This sermon will certainly make you angry, but I hope we all can look past our anger today and learn three important lessons:
- What is the nature of anger
- What is the process for us to be reconciled with our brother
- What is the consequence if we are not reconciled.
First, we must ask, what is anger? The Greek word for anger is the word orgé which is where we perhaps get our modern word ogre. The word literally means, “to teem or swell”. The Greek word for anger has the idea of a growing or swelling inward opposition to something viewed as unjust. The word implies that anger is not a spontaneous reaction but is something that boils up over time. One of my favorite movies this summer was Inside Out, a Pixar animated film about a pre-teen girl named Riley, whose life is uprooted when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie depicts the inside of Riley’s mind as a control room manned by five primary emotions depicted as colorful little people: joy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. I have been told by my girlfriend who has a keen interest in childhood development, that the movie’s depiction of the inner feelings of a pre-teen girl are well researched, except for the fact that anger and disgust are not in fact a primary emotion. Instead anger and disgust are secondary emotion.
As healthypsych.com reports, and I quote, “Everybody feels anger at different times, to varying degrees. It’s simply part of the human experience. Feelings of anger can arise in many different contexts. Experiencing unjust treatment; hearing a criticism; or simply not getting what you want are but a few of the potential triggers. The experience of anger can range from mild irritation, to frustration, all the way up to seething rage. As a matter of fact, even boredom is a mild version of anger in the form of dissatisfaction with what is happening.”
However, as the article points out, anger is a secondary emotion. In the words of the article, “What many people don’t realize is that anger is a secondary emotion. What does this mean? Typically, one of the primary emotions, like fear or sadness, can be found underneath the anger. Fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment or discouragement. Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes you feel vulnerable and oftentimes not in control. Because of this, people tend to avoid these feelings in any way they can. One way to do this is by subconsciously shifting into anger mode. In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless. Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.”
In fact, there is scientific evidence to suggest that Paul’s advice in Ephesians 4:26, to not let the sun set on your anger, is not just good advice, but a scientific fact. As TED Radio Hour speaker Hannah Fry points out in her talk The Mathematics of Love, mathematicians and scientists have been able to develop a pretty accurate formula that can predict whether or not a couple will get divorced based on particular factors. The most important of which is called “the negativity threshold”. To quote Fry, “Now, the negativity threshold, you can think of as how annoying the husband can be before the wife starts to get really pissed off, and vice versa. Now, I always thought that good marriages were about compromise and understanding and allowing the person to have the space to be themselves. So I would have thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones where there was a really high negativity threshold. Where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones with a really low negativity threshold. These are the couples that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain. These are the couples that are continually trying to repair their own relationship, that have a much more positive outlook on their marriage. Couples that don’t let things go and couples that don’t let trivial things end up being a really big deal.”
So if we actually are convinced that we should not let the sun go down upon our anger and we do want to attempt to be reconciled, we must then answer our second point, which is, what are the steps to be reconciled? Matthew 18, our first reading today, gives us the biblical model for doing so. The first step is collaboration, or direct communication. In this day and age, our media portrays conflicts in our society as a clash of culture, a clash of values, and since ultimate truth claims are hard to prove or disprove, this makes many conflicts seem intractable. But the basic premise of mediation and conflict resolution is that most conflicts are actually relationship conflicts, characterized by strong emotions, misperceptions or stereotypes, poor communication, and repetitive negative behavior, and these things can be resolved if we choose to engage directly with the one we have conflict with. Key strategies for dealing with interpersonal conflict include using I statements (like “I feel” as opposed to “you did this to me”), finding out the other person’s needs instead of staking out a position, paraphrasing in your own words the other person’s needs, being specific instead of speaking in broad generalization (for example, saying you always do x, y, or z ), finding points of agreement and common interests, and turning concerns into proposals (like “my concern would be met if…”). Basically, it boils down to listening to what the other person has to say and having enough self awareness to realize that often the battle lines between who is right and who is wrong are mixed at best.
If direct communication and collaboration fails, then one might need to call in outside intervention, as Matthew 18 suggests. This is mediation. The purpose of mediation is not to see who is right or who is wrong, but to create space for the Holy Spirit to create healing within relationships. As part of our training in mediation, we were asked to participate in role playing scenarios throughout the week. All of the scenarios are based off of actual events. I found one scenario to be particularly enlightening.
In the role play entitled, “The Youth and The Deacons at Odds,” we were told that the youth group at Crossroads Church had raised funds to purchase a contemporary song book. Over a year after the song book had been in use, some older member protested that the song “The Lord of the Dance” was inappropriate for worship. Apparently, deacons in this church had the power to act independently of the Elder board, though a majority vote of the congregation could overturn their decision, which I readily pointed out as a Presbyterian that this was simply a bad idea and not done decently and in order. The deacons gave the youth three options. 1. Tear the pages out of the hymnal. 2 Paste the pages together so the hymn couldn’t be seen. 3 Withdraw the hymn from use. Strangely, the youth group did not respond to any of these requests. So the deacons got a big stamp and stamped the hymn with the message, “We consider this song to be unworthy of our Lord. The board of Deacons.” And, of course, to make it worse, the pastor just had to preach a sermon on why dancing was okay based on the biblical passages. Because pastors know that if anyone disagrees with them, they also must be disagreeing with God, so why not preach a sermon calling them out in public? That is always a great idea!!!
My role, in this church drama, was, and I kid you not, the head of the board of Deacons. That’s right, I played an individual who thought even the mention of dancing in a hymn was unbiblical. For those of you who might not know me, I sort of love to dance, and this is a recorded fact, I can set the floor on fire. So the irony was not lost on me.
Irony aside, I have to admit I got into the role. And I have to admit, it is really fun to complain. I probably played it up a little more than I had to. I made it more difficult for the mediators than it needed to be, but I was having fun. Of course, I had to get my pun in, by pointing out that the mediators were “dancing around the subject.” I was like, “Why are you blaming the deacons, we were just doing what the Elder board commanded us to do, that is to protect the spiritual health of the congregation. If you don’t want us to make decisions without asking people then don’t give us the power to do so. Don’t blame us for doing our job. It’s not our fault that the congregation is split over what is and is not acceptable! And besides, isn’t this hymn the Lord of the Dance a slippery slope? What next? Are we going to play rap music?”
After about an hour of mediation and negotiating, the mediators stopped the role play and announced, “This is a train wreck.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was having a great time. Then we decided to refocus the conversation not around these huge issues that I claimed I was concerned about, but around the issue at hand, the stamp. The mediators noted that putting a stamp on the hymnal was not one of the original options the deacons had given the youth and asked me to explain more about that. And then, I realized, the deacons probably stamped the hymn because the youth hadn’t responded to them so they felt disrespected, and thus the deacons escalated the situation. The mediator had the youth representative voice in his own words my feelings of disrespect and offer an apology. And suddenly, all my made up anger, which by this point had become very real, just vanished. And I couldn’t really find a reason why the stamp should still be in the hymnal. And I apologized, as well. All my arguing about structure and power was just a decoy for my hurt. And I felt a Spirit of Love and reconciliation pouring out of me. And that’s what happened in the real situation, too.
Oh, I warned you. I warned you, didn’t I? That this sermon would make you angry? And I haven’t even gotten to the last point which is, what are the consequences to not seeking reconciliation, both with God and with our brother, because the two are connected? Scholars have debated what these insults “Raca” and “fool” actually meant, because Jesus ends this teaching pretty harshly, so we can be sure that we don’t want to say these words. Whatever these words meant, we can be sure that they were harsh, they would be words we wouldn’t dare say in church or polite company, though we might let them slip if we are trying to survive traffic in Chicago.
John Stott, in his book Christian Counter Culture, sums of the intent of Jesus’ message as thus: “The man who tells his brother that he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself” (Stott, pg 84). Now some of you may be asking, “Now what does that mean preacher? Are you saying that if I am angry with my brother that I can lose my salvation? You know that makes me angry and since I can’t lose my salvation by being unjustly angry, I will just keep being angry at you for saying that!” You know, I really don’t know how to reconcile this particular verse with the doctrine of assurance, which I do believe in. However, I would say that the doctrine of assurance is that nothing in this world can keep us from the love God in Christ Jesus. The assurance is directed towards the world; it is not meant to protect us from facing God as we truly are in our hearts. As Hebrews 4:12-13 says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” Maybe that makes you feel vulnerable. And maybe you want to cover that vulnerability up with anger. Just don’t tell me I didn’t warn you that this sermon was going to make you angry.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.