Below is a draft of sermon I wrote for Expository Times. It won’t appear until February of next year. Yet, I think the topic is timely. Love to know your thoughts.
I used to get angry a lot.
To be honest, I’m not too sure how to measure levels of anger. Is a five-minute rant equal to a few hours of smoldering resentment? Isn’t the anger I feel for crooked politicians somehow more acceptable than the outrage I feel when a referee blows a call? If I stub my toe, isn’t an expletive or two understandable, if not justified?
Despite my inability to develop a proper metric for anger—which turned out to be a great excuse for not dealing with it—I finally had to admit that by any measure my anger was too much. I decided to do something about it.
I used a simple form of the Daily Examen. Across the top of a sheet of notebook paper I made seven columns, one for each day of the week. I drew single line through the columns: below the line represented the morning, above stood for the afternoon and evening. Every day, I took some time during the noon hour and in the evening to reflect on and pray about the times I got angry. For every time I got angry in the morning I put a little dot below the line, for every time I got angry in the afternoon or evening I put a little dot above the line. I tried to recall what triggered my anger: Was I afraid? Did I feel out of control? Was I morally outraged? Was I hurt? Was I hungry? And then I prayed for the grace to be released from my anger: to be healed, to let go, to forgive.
It worked. Over time, the dots on my notebook pages lessened, the shotgun blasts of my early pages giving over to the drips of occasional showers. I’m not too sure why it worked. I suspect a large part can be attributed to just having a process for reflection. I also think a better awareness of my emotional triggers helped. In retrospect, however, knowing too well the devices and desires of my own heart, even when I think I am being honest with myself, I believe any progress was due to the grace and mercy of God, whose healing comes more often despite, rather than because of my efforts.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says that one who is angry with a brother or a sister will be liable to judgment. He says this in the section of the Sermon on the Mount where he calls his followers to a higher righteousness, which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Based upon his own authority, Jesus intensifies the teachings of the law for his disciples: “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” (5:21-22). By linking anger with one’s brother to murder, Jesus calls to mind the story of Cain and Abel. Abel’s sacrificial offering was accepted by the Lord, but Cain’s was not. Cain got angry and eventually killed his brother. Anger can lead to murder. Jesus deepens the prohibition against murder. It’s not just the outward act of murder that will be judged. It’s also the inward state of anger that will be liable to judgment. Jesus takes a root and branch approach. Refraining from the outward act is not enough. Anger must also be eradicated.
It seems pretty clear that Jesus is saying that all forms of anger are liable to judgment. It’s not just the anger that leads to murder that is dangerous. Anger is in and of itself liable to condemnation. There are later manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel that add the phrase “without a cause” to Jesus’s statement about being angry with a brother or sister in an attempt to soften the full force of what appears to be a blanket prohibition of anger. I suspect they were also trying to square Jesus’s saying with the fact that Old Testament prophets often exhibited righteous anger and Jesus himself overturned tables in the temple. True enough, but as is most often the case with textual issues like this one, it’s probably best to go with the harder reading and try to deal with it as it stands. Why does Jesus seem to say that all forms of anger are liable to judgment?
I think we get some help in answering this question in the following verses. Jesus says, “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” (Matt 5:23-24). Here Jesus talks about the importance of reconciliation for Christian community. Since this verse immediately follows Jesus’s statement about anger, it strongly suggests that the remedy for anger is reconciliation.
In light of the Gospel, I think about my earlier attempt to deal with anger with some discomfort. It was pretty individualistic, even somewhat self-helpy. I was genuinely concerned that in my walk with the Lord, in my growth in holiness, that my anger was keeping me from becoming the person God wanted me to be. Turns out, the Lord is less concerned about the number of dots on my page, and more concerned about brothers and sisters being reconciled in his name. I am not saying that my previous attempts to deal with anger were unholy or totally unrelated to what Jesus says in the Gospel, but the difference in emphasis is striking. For Jesus, anger is not just a matter of the heart, but also a matter of Christian community. The problem with anger is not just that it tears me up inside, but that it tears us apart as followers of Christ.
There are a lot of angry people these days. Some researchers say that we are living in an age of anger. It almost seems infectious. Bombastic politicians vie to outdo one another in ginning up outrage, church leaders hurl invective at one another, business school leaders teach students to use anger strategically, drivers flip each other off, and thousands of people log onto Twitter and Facebook to find friendships in fury towards parents who leave children unattended or people who leave pets in hot cars.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus helps us to see anger not simply in terms of the dynamics of suppression or expression. By offering reconciliation as the remedy to anger, Jesus moves beyond a focus on isolated individuals seeking to subdue, sublimate, or harness their anger. Rather, Jesus reframes the problem of anger within his vision of a higher righteousness and calls us to attend to the costly practices of righting wrongs, forgiving sins, and reconciling with one’s enemies. Anger with a brother or sister, with or without cause, is always a breach in our relationships. If I am justifiably angry with a brother who has done me some moral harm, venting my outrage is not enough. I need to go to him, tell him how he wronged me, and begin the often messy and painful process of forgiveness and reconciliation. If I am unjustifiably angry with a sister because my lack of sleep caused me to take offense at an innocent remark, I need to admit that I was wrong and ask her forgiveness. Jesus helps us to see, whether justified or not, anger always tears at our communities. The question is not whether I am going to subdue or vent my anger in a quest for self-actualization or personal holiness. The question is whether we are going to allow our anger to tear our communities apart or not.
Perhaps we can come up with a Daily Examen for communities called to a higher righteousness. We can still use dots on a page to represent instances of anger. We can still reflect upon and pray about what triggered our angry responses: Were we afraid of strangers? Were we anxious about our limited resources? Were we justifiably angry about a moral wrong? And we can pray for the grace to be released from the anger that is tearing apart our communities: to be healed, to forgive, and to be reconciled with one another. Instead of going to Twitter or Facebook to vent our fury we can go to the brother or sister with whom we are angry and say that the anger between us is tearing us apart and we want to move beyond it. The higher righteousness Jesus calls us to is not about forming self-righteous communities of outrage towards a common enemy. Rather, it is about being a community of people who are poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are humble and grieve, and who try to make peace with neighbors near and far. In these angry times, I don’t think this will be easy. I suppose there is a reason Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt 5:11). Trying to be a community of reconciliation in an age of anger may feel like we are mixing a miniscule amount of yeast in 60 pounds of dough. Fair enough. But the miracle is we really do have bread to offer. It’s available Sunday and every day we celebrate the Eucharist. To the whole world we make this invitation in the Name of the Lord. Come be reconciled with one another. Come to the table. Come and taste the true and everlasting peace.