Preaching: Pastor Rebecca Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, March 26, 2017
Scripture Reference: Psalm 32, Luke 6:32-36
Sermon: Give Up Something Bad for Lent – Anger
We have a saying and an expectation that “things will get easier.” Only most of us know that is not always true. Things certainly did not get any easier for Jesus the closer he came to Jerusalem. Nor are things getting any easier in our Lenten journey as we continue to reflect on and work on giving up things that are hindering our relationship with God. First, it was letting go of being judgmental. Then last week it was worry. Today it is anger. Piece of cake, right? Not really.
Once again, anger is something we all struggle with at one time or another. It is true some of us have a harder time controlling our anger or even directing our anger in a constructive way, but we all struggle with anger. We have heard people express anger over the current state of politics in our country. People get angry when being cut off by a car, or because of a bad deal at a store. Some get angry over decisions being made and changes happening at church. We get angry with people at work or school for decisions they make or behaviors that make it more challenging on everyone else. We get angry at people for things they have said or done, or sometimes not done, that have hurt us. We all have moments when we get angry.
Even in the Bible there are countless examples of individuals being angry: Jesus becoming angry and overturning tables in the Temple; Peter becoming angry when Jesus is arrested and cutting off a soldier’s ear; religious leaders angry with what Jesus is saying and doing and so plotting to kill him; Cain angry with his brother Abel; Jonah angry about the Ninevites; Saul angry with the followers of Jesus. Anger is a common emotion we all feel. Only today’s reading from Psalm 32 is a powerful reminder to us of what happens when we don’t let go of our anger. The writer is looking back on a time in his life when he couldn’t let go. In verse 3 from the NRSV translation, we read, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Listening to the words and thoughts of the psalmist we are reminded it is not good for us to hold on to our anger.
Medical research certainly tells us the same thing. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tracked 1,055 medical students for 35 years. Compared with cooler heads, the hotheads were six times more likely to suffer a heart attack by the age 55 and three times more likely to develop any form of heart or blood vessel disease. Another study of 1,305 men with the average age of 62 revealed that the angriest men were three times more likely to develop heart disease than the most calm gentlemen.
The evidence shows it is not good to be angry, and yet we live in a world where there will undoubtedly be times when we can’t avoid it. As one author put it, “The world in which we live has no problem-free jobs, no problem-free marriages, no problem-free homes, no problem-free communities, no problem-free church.” Undoubtedly there will be situations and people that make us angry, but we have a choice of how we will direct that anger, that energy that has built up within us. We can either hold on to our anger, letting it fester, letting it tear us apart and our relationships with others, or we can use it to generate good, to build people up and be constructive.
In his book, Give Up Something Bad for Lent, James Moore tells the story of a doctor who was visited by a woman who had a whole list of complaints about her health. The doctor did an exam and was convinced there was nothing physically wrong with this woman. He suspected that her real problem was her negative outlook on life, all her bitterness and anger, her self-pity. Every day was a day to nurse her wounds and to become even more angry about how life was treating her. The wise doctor took her into a back room of his office where he kept some of his medicine. On one shelf there were a number of empty bottles. He said, “You see those bottles? They are all empty. They are all different, but they are basically the same and they are all empty. I can take one of those bottles and fill it would poison – enough poison to kill someone. Or, I could take that same bottle and fill it with enough medicine to bring down a fever, ease a headache, or fight bacteria in the body. I can make the choice. I can fill it with poison that will hurt or medicine that will heal.” Then the doctor went on, “Each day God gives us is like one of those bottles. We can choose to fill it with love and affirming words and actions that lift us and others up, or we can fill our day with destructive, poisonous thoughts that pull us and others down. The choice is ours.”
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus urging us to choose the positive, to let go of our poisonous anger and turn towards love. I like especially the encouragement we find in the Message: “I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never – I promise – regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.” In other words, life is too short to hold on to our grudges, our anger. Life is too short for anything less than love. Jesus is urging us to delay no more, but to choose, to choose to follow him. We are called to imitate God.
So how do we let go of our anger and love our enemies? How do we become imitators of Christ? First, Jesus reminds us that God is generous and gracious towards us, even when we’re at our worst. And, indeed, Jesus did not focus and draw attention to what people did that made him angry, or how they were lacking. He did not go around criticizing. Rather he redirected attention towards the positive to see the possibilities of what could be true of their lives. Whether it was Matthew or Zacchaeus or others, Jesus did not focus on their practices of collecting taxes and creating personal bonuses, but saw how they could contribute to the community. Rather than simply celebrate Mary’s choice to sit and listen, Jesus spoke of appreciation for all Martha was trying to do. Jesus did not dwell on Peter’s denial but instead still saw him as a leader. Jesus shows us not to dwell on what someone has said or done that makes us angry. Rather, be gracious and generous by seeing the good in a person.
Second, there are things we can learn from our enemies, particularly the criticisms they speak that make us angry. How many times have you become angry with someone because they said you are being too critical, or too short-tempered, for example, only to later, when you’re calmed down, realize there was some truth in what they said? Sometimes we can learn and grow from the criticisms that make us angry.
And finally, pray. Indeed, it is not easy to let go of our anger. As Jesus says, anyone can love those who are nice to us, but to love and be kind to our enemies, that is hard. Our psalmist says it best: when we hold on to our anger, we are tired and worn; we waste away. But then when we confess our sins, when we confess our anger, God forgives us. “So all you loyal people should pray to you in times of need; when a great flood of trouble (or anger) comes rushing in, it will reach them. You are [our] hiding place; you will save [us] from trouble. . . The Lord says, ‘I will teach you the way you should go; I will instruct you and advise.’” So remember to pray, to pray to the One who has been gracious and generous to you, even when you have been at your worst, and God will teach you how to let go of your anger.