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Sermon for Proper 14/Ordinary 19 Anger

June 30, 2015

angerBe angry but do not sin. Words from our second reading.

In the name….

A young girl was doing her homework. “Dad, what is the difference between anger and exasperation?”

“It is mostly a matter of degree. Let me show you what I mean.”
He went to the ‘phone and dialled a number at random. “Hello, is Melvin there?”

“There is no one living here named Melvin. Why don’t you learn to look up the numbers before you dial”

“See that man was not a bit happy with our call. He was probably very busy with something and we annoyed him. “Now,” he pressed redial

“Hello, is Melvin there?”

“Now look here! You just called this number and I told you that there is no Melvin here!”

The receiver slammed down hard. “You see, that was anger. Now I’ll show you what exasperation means.”

He redialled and when a violent voice roared, “Hello!”

The father calmly said, “Hello, this is Melvin. Have there been any calls for me?”

As part of my training for ministry, I did a month’s placement at Manchester’s Withington Hospital. During some debriefing session, the chaplain asked me, ‘What do you do with your anger?’ I hadn’t a clue what he was on about.

When I was about fifteen, my mother’s radio bust. I saved up my wages from my paper round to buy her a new one for Christmas. On Christmas morning she unwrapped it, plugged it in. Nothing happened. I had to wait until the shops were open again to take it back. The girls behind the counter were talking to each other and ignored me. Finally, I said something like, ‘I am sorry to bother you, but…..’

They call that passive anger. I thought it was Christian behaviour. Be like Jesus. Don’t get angry. Years later, after much stress, I was more likely to say: ‘How dare you ignore me. This f…ing radio doesn’t work.’

They call that aggressive anger.

We had some sort of assertiveness training for teachers once. Being assertive meant you made a cold statement of fact. Not, ‘You are making me cross.’ But, ‘I feel annoyed because…..’

I thought Christians shouldn’t be angry. It’s commonly said that Christians have a problem dealing with sex. I suspect that dealing with anger is even harder for many of us.

Anger is a gift from God. It’s a technique for self-preservation. We learned it in childhood. The screaming infant who wants more milk; the small child’s bawling battle for survival against brothers and sisters; adolescent anger to establish identity over against parents and defend loyalties to friends. By the time we are adults, our anger is ready to erupt whenever we are seriously threatened. For some people, this anger is learnt far too well: children who have never known the security of home, have had their trust betrayed over and over again or have been damaged by the education system often develop anger, almost as a way of life, as a desperate attempt to hold on to their identity.

In our big cities the hectic life around us produces stress; it feels like a fight for survival. Our anger is a necessity. It may be the only way to defend ourselves. And if we try to suppress it, it often squeezes out as sly nastiness or it goes inside and makes us depressed.

Later we may take it out on ourselves. If you have ever listened to someone who self-harms, you’ll know how that happens. The child or adult who gets totally beaten down by other people may end up as a doormat or disturbed. Or people hold the anger in till they explode. Then they yell at their partner when they’re really displacing anger at someone at work. Or they get stomach ulcers.

Be angry but do not sin. Be angry – it’s a command. People need to hear that it isn’t wrong to feel anger any more than it is wrong to feel appetite, whether for food or sex.

But what about being like Jesus? How did he handle anger? Once, he told his disciples He was going to suffer “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:32). In response, “Jesus turned and looked at his disciples.” Then “he rebuked Peter.’Get behind me, Satan!’ “ (Mark 8:33).

Jesus clearly confronted him

On another occasion, Jesus rebuked James and John for their hostile attitude toward the unbelieving Samaritans. “‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’

But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).

Jesus brought the matter to their attention.

The biggie is in the temple, when Jesus confronts the merchants with a whip and overturns the tables of the money-changers. Non-violent direct action?

Anger against injustice done to others is good. When his life was threatened he did not retaliate; quietly taking the injustice; his own identity and security in God were so great that even the people putting him to death could not threaten him. It’s only when our identity is secure and our faith in God is strong that the commandment to love our enemies and to pray for those who spitefully use us seems even remotely possible. You don’t need anger when you have a secure sense of self. Stepney Calling – Jim Thompson (Mowbray 1991) pp. 36-37Thought for the Day, 21 September 1983

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to him” 5:23 The altar is the place of sacrifice, where we go to establish reconciliation. It introduces a third person into the situation. Not just how you feel. Now God has a say in it. The altar permits us to see objectively what’s needed and to be reconciled with it. It’s also a place of refuge, where it’s safe for unconscious contents to “come up” and be dealt with.

At the end of every day I sit down. I bring to God all the things in my life, including the disagreeable sides of myself. God wants my anger. Anger is good, but it’s just a start, like the initial explosion that fires an engine. Unless we bring it to the altar, it can’t become transmuted into social passion, or a more finely tuned, long-term, patient energy. If we don’t bring it to the altar, it becomes a huge drain on our energy that goes nowhere and produces nothing creative and may in fact become destructive. Sometimes in taking it to the altar we are slowed down in our self-pity and the flow of energy out against the other and are forced to ask ourselves what our part in the matter was. If I’ve already worked through it internally, then I am different when I confront the other person. Transforming Bible Study – Walter Wink (Abingdon 1980) p. 61

Some of you may remember Bernard Silverman. He once preached a sermon on anger at the now closed St. Michael’s. His phone hardly stopped ringing afterwards. People started settling old scores. But I bet they hadn’t taken them to the altar first.

Confrontation is not verbal abuse. It’s laying a matter before someone whom you perceive to have wronged you. It needs to be done kindly and firmly, recognizing that there is always a possibility that we have misunderstood their words or actions as Peter misunderstood the words of Jesus regarding his approaching death. Maybe we should write things down before speaking. It may go something like this: “I’ve got something that has been bothering me. In fact, I have to say I’m feeling angry. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the situation, but when you have an opportunity, I’d like to talk with you about it.”

So let us go to the altar of God.

Be angry but do not sin.

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