Anger (sermon from September 13, 2015)

You maybe heard the story about the little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail into the fence. The first day the boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day he was able to hold his temper.

The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say “I’m sorry”, the wound is still there.”

Our scripture from the letter of James this morning reminds us how much our words matter. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

These are words we can understand. There is no one here who has not been the recipient of pain through something someone has said to us or about us. Words that are spoken in anger are the ones that cut particularly deep.

I learned this young. My father was a good man, but he had a temper. It was rarely directed at mom or us kids but it’s sad that when I remember him, I cannot remember him apart from his anger. He was so angry about many things – mostly the things he felt powerless to control in his life. His health was so bad that he wasn’t able to work and this truth cut at him. He was in chronic pain most of his life and suffered from a head injury as a child that contributed to his anger also in many ways. Sometimes he would be sullen and stew for days and weeks at a time – that was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as when he would explode. He would start yelling – raging at the air seemingly. Because it wouldn’t matter if we were in the house to listen to him or not, he would just keep yelling. He would rage about the injustices he felt the world had given him. He would turn on the television and then rage about something happening there. Our house was very small and there was nowhere to go in it where we could escape listening to him. So I would walk up our country road, even on bitter cold winter days to breathe and see how far I could get away from the house so that I would not hear the yelling anymore.

This was a long time ago, of course and even though all this was hard for me to understand as a kid – I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward my dad because of this – I believe he hated his temper. I really think his temper was something he never learned how to control. It was like a beast that came to visit and it was too big for him to easily keep out. The problem was, his rage didn’t just torment him. It tormented all of us. It damaged our family. Children cannot help but be hurt by harsh words that are flung through the air. Spouses, no matter how understanding, cannot help but receive scars from living with someone with uncontrolled anger.

Anger hurts. We know it. But what can we do about it?

I’ve been reading about this lately and I have found some helpful wisdom here and there. I thought it would be especially helpful for us to look at what the Bible says about anger as we consider how to give it as small a place in our lives as possible.

First, it is important to remember that the emotion of anger is normal. Even Jesus himself acknowledged it. He felt it – I remember Jesus in the temple when he threw over the tables because he was angry that people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. In Ephesians 4:26 it reads, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” As long as we are human beings we are subject to feeling anger. We can’t be free of that and we don’t need to feel guilty for experiencing anger if someone hurts us or someone we love or shows us an injustice.

The sin comes in letting the anger have power over us and have a say in our thoughts and our words. The emotion of anger can be so sneaky – because after the initial shock or pain wears off, sometimes we can almost come to enjoy our anger – but that anger is no less harmful to us or to others. Taking a bit of pleasure in your enemy going through a difficulty of some sort, the bit of gossip about them that does not shine a good light on them and you get to pass it on. We’ve all been guilty of relishing and rolling around a bit in our anger sometimes. You know what I’m talking about. The conversations that usually start with something like, “I know I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know it’s not very Christian but…” or does this sound familiar, “Oh, I just hate to say this about so and so…but it’s true!” – we all do this – and we put that disclaimer at the front or at the end because we know – even if what we are spreading is true – we shouldn’t be saying anything to hurt the reputation of another person. That simply isn’t the kind of behavior our God calls us to. That behavior doesn’t speak well of us or the One in whom we believe. I like how Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He writes, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encourages us to not speak badly about those who have hurt us, but tells us to take one step farther – and search for ways to speak kindly about them.

Oh man, that is so hard!

But Christ calls us to not let our emotions rule us. Anger can come so quickly and no matter how faithful we like to think we are, we are never beyond the temptation to get angry or to hold on to grudges. But God is slow to anger and we need to work to be the same way. Psalm 78:38 says “God turned his anger away and did not stir up wrath.” “Turned away” means God controlled it. Remember, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. It is an aspect of God’s character that God has shared with us.

One of the best ways to learn to control the flare-up of anger is the tried but true – counting to ten. Or counting to 100. Count to 1000 if you need to count that high to calm down. Let emotions subside and then decide.

Breathe deeply. Pause and focus on your breathing. It can be helpful to remember that the word in Hebrew for the Holy Spirit , Ruah, can also be translated as “breath” – picture the Holy Spirit’s presence filling you and granting you peace in that moment.

If your anger is about something big – write about it and get your feelings out, talk about it with someone you trust, if it is a long-term anger, pour energy into something constructive – train for a marathon, spend time doing an activity where you find real joy and with people who energize you.

If your anger is about something small – try to let go of who is right and who is wrong. I Corinthians teaches us that love doesn’t keep track of things like that anyway.

And remember that as Christians we cannot talk about anger without also talking about forgiveness. We are commanded by Christ to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.

How do we do this? First, we desire to do it. We know that desire motivates us to go through whatever we need to go through to reach our goal – but the desire will probably not come immediately. Our gut reaction after being hurt is not to forgive – but that’s when we must dig deep into God’s word which reminds us over and over of the importance of forgiveness – and the desire to be free of the poison of anger comes. When we are fed by God’s word it becomes easier to remember that we are to be people of forgiveness – it doesn’t mean we will change the way we feel right away every time we are hurt – but if we have decided to be people of forgiveness and gentleness and not people of anger, we slowly are shaped and molded into a more Christ-like form.

Another step in forgiveness is to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you do what you have decided to do. Deciding is important, but then we also need God’s help to do something as big as forgiving.

And finally – what do you think the final step in true forgiveness is? It’s this: Matthew 5:44-45 reads, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Scripture is clear that we pray for blessing on our enemies. Oh, this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It demands so much of us! Keep in mind, it does not ask us to stay in relationship with those who have hurt us deeply or continuously – but it does ask us to pray for them. And in doing so, the damage that our anger has done to us begins to mend. As we learn how to lift all of it – that person, that relationship, that pain into God’s care – the poison seeps out of us and we are free.

Anger is something it is hard to talk about and even more difficult to feel. But we must choose to let go of it. And the good news is that we can do that. God will help us to do that if we keep turning to God’s word and turning to God in prayers for the well-being of our enemies, and the healing of our brokenness.

In the Harry Potter books, one of my favorite moments comes when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all the time and he had dark feelings. Sirius Black tells Harry to listen to him very carefully and said, “You’re not a bad person. You are a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”
May we choose the Light today and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

This Is The Gospel of the Lord? (a sermon from 7/12/15)

Our gospel for today from Saint Mark is actually a flashback that Herod has when he hears of all the work that the disciples are doing in Jesus’ name.  Some were saying the John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and Herod was thinking they might be right – and this is when we have this flashback where we get to hear what happened to John the Baptist.

It’s not a happy story and it’s kind of a big wet blanket text right here in the middle of the summer.  It’s one of those gospel texts that when I read it, instead of proclaiming afterward, like I always do, that this is the gospel of the Lord, I want to put a question mark after it.  This is the gospel of the Lord?

King Herod in this gospel is a descendent of Herod the Great, who was infamous for having all the toddler boys killed after the Magi announced Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great had a few sons – two of which he had killed, along with his favorite wife, because he heard a rumor they were plotting his death. 

Two surviving sons were Herod Philip and Herod Antipas.  It’s like that show, Newhart – do you remember that show? This is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl.  Anyway, here it is Herod and his other brother Herod. Herod the Great’s grandniece Herodias came along and married Herod Philip, her uncle.  I read there was a lot of inter-marriage within this family because they believed that their bloodline was superior and they didn’t want to sully it by marrying outside the family.  Herod Philip and Herodias had one daughter.  The story that we read about in our gospel begins when Herodias leaves Herod Philip for Herod Antipas – her other uncle.  Unlike Herod Philip, Herod Antipas was the greatest Prince in the family – he held rank and wealth.  It didn’t matter to Herodias that Herod Antipas was already married – she quickly left Philip and took their daughter and went to Tiberius to be with Herod Antipas.

This was not legal according to Mosaic Law.  If Philip were dead, it would have been honorable, in fact it would have been required at one point in Jewish history for a brother to marry the widow of his brother – but there was nothing good about what Herod Antipas and Herodias have done.

Now even though their marriage arrangement was illegal and distasteful, no one interfered – Herod was powerful and influential.  Only one person spoke out against what had happened – “Mark 6:18 reads, ‘for John had been telling Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

So here is John the Baptist, pointing out the sin that no one else will point out. He’s got guts. And we might say, “Good for John the Baptist!”  Until we remember that time when someone pointed out some sin or shortcoming of ours and we remember that it doesn’t feel very good.

What do you mean I could be a better giver?  I do pretty well.  Well, sure I didn’t need that new pair of heels but they were so pretty and they were on sale.

What do you mean I really need to stop gossiping?  I mean, it’s not like I said anything that wasn’t true.  Well, sure that’s not exactly an uplifting way to talk about my neighbor, but come on.

What do you mean I better think hard about the first commandment and the false gods sucking up time in my life?  I mean, sure I spent way more time on Facebook and catching up on old episodes of the X-files last week than studying scripture or in prayer, but everyone needs some down time.  Right? Come on.

None of us like being faced with our sins.  Those who call us on them become an unpopular drag really, really quickly.

This was the place in which John the Baptist found himself.  He called out Herod and Herodias on their sins and they did not like it one bit. Herodias wanted him dead immediately but Herod was afraid to do this because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man.  In fact, here in the gospel of Mark it says that Herod liked to listen to John.  Maybe he wondered if there were things he should be learning from John.  The gospel of Matthew contradicts this, however, and says that Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people.  Regardless, we do know that ultimately he had John imprisoned.

But that wasn’t enough for Herodias.  She was out for blood.  Our translation reads, “She had a grudge against him.”  Other translations read that she “nursed this grudge” – she fed it and tended to it and kept it alive.

It’s crazy how crazy anger can make us – especially if we feed that anger.  A very long time ago I remember a fellow I had been dating broke up with me and of course that was hard and sad – we had been dating for a couple years.  But then a day or two after we broke up, I found out that before he broke up with me he had started dating someone else.  This completely changed my sorrow to righteous anger.  How dare he?  My indignation knew no end.  My energy immediately turned from weepy tears to plotting how I could inflict the most pain upon this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Norwegian Lutheran jerk.

But all the angry letters I might want to write him, all the little speeches I planned in my head that I would present to him when I saw him next, all his friends that I planned to date in retaliation – I knew none of it would really be satisfying.  Oh, I definitely let him know that I found out about his sorry little cheating heart – I had to do that.  But then, I stepped back and I remembered what Jesus said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.  So I prayed hard – every day.  I prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed for myself and I prayed for that ex-boyfriend, I even prayed for his new girlfriend.  I prayed for them with bitterness for a long time, but I kept praying, until the anger started subsiding, the hatred melted, and I could start to see clearly again.  I could feel myself slowly starting to forgive them – and that felt so much better than the cold little stone of anger I was tempted to keep carrying inside. 

I wish Herodias could have understood how good it feels to forgive rather than to nurse hatred and grudges.  It sounds like she was laser-focused on her revenge, however. 

She made a plan – so she would be ready when the opportunity came.  The opportunity for her revenge came on Herod’s birthday – there was a big party for his birthday.  This would have been a party for men – women of good reputation didn’t go to these parties – not even Herodias, his wife, would have been invited.  I read that the only women usually found at these kinds of gatherings were women who danced and entertained men after the meal.  Whatever the equivalent was in those days of women who jump out of cakes.

So then it is peculiar that his daughter, who is actually Herodias and Herod Philip’s daughter, comes in to dance.  Here the daughter is simply called Herodias but in other places she is called the daughter of Herodias or Salome. Most theologians I read speculate that it was Herodias who sent her daughter in there, not caring about her daughter’s reputation as much as she is banking on that Herod has been drinking and just might be feeling generous enough to offer her what eventually does.  The King said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”

The girl leaves and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?”  Now what kid does that?  If you ask my kids what they want, they don’t come and ask me – they know very well what they want.  They probably have a list prepared right now they could hand you.  Coming up with requests isn’t hard for kids usually.  So that’s why some think that Herodias had coached her daughter beforehand, “After you dance for your stepfather, if he offers to give you something, come and tell me.”

Well, we know what Herodias told her daughter to request – the head of John the Baptist – on a platter.  I always thought that part was a bit extra nuts – that it had to be on a platter. But whatever.  The scriptures say that Herod was grieved to do it, but because he didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests and go back on this promise to the girl, he had John beheaded.  The head was placed on a platter, given to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.  This is the gospel of the Lord?  This is the good news of Jesus?

Well, thank goodness, this story doesn’t stand by itself in scripture – right before this, we are hearing the story of all that Jesus was doing and how word was spreading about his healing and the disciples were going out and casting out demons and curing the sick in Jesus’ name.  And right after this story about John’s death, the miracles continue with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water and doing more healings. 

But just as John was killed for speaking truth to power, the same thing would eventually happen to Jesus.  This gospel of Jesus Christ – this gospel that makes life worth living, that brings healing to the sick and wholeness to our hearts and amazing grace, it is not without cost.  For John the Baptist and for Jesus and for countless martyrs for the faith it cost them their earthly lives.  And we are living a very shallow, hollow, surface sort of faith if we think it does not cost us something as well.

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

What does this mean?  It means we are the children of God, given the gift of God’s grace – and a gift like this – how can we help but want to thank the Giver?  How can we do this?  How can we live lives of responding in thankfulness for God’s beautiful grace? 

Being willing to be convicted when we are wrong and try to do better is a start.  Giving not just out of our leftovers but giving our first fruits, the best we have to offer to God, that is a start.  Stepping up, being brave to use our voices and efforts to speak up for justice for those who are experiencing injustice, that’s a great start.  Forgiving, even and especially when it is hard, turning away from the temptations that make us less than the people God has called us to be, being diligent about studying the Word of God, beginning and ending our days and filling the hours in between with prayer, visiting the sick and the elderly and the homebound, writing the note of encouragement and support, teaching your children about the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the ten commandments, honoring your parents with visits and support especially as they age, being honest in word and deed, using your words to speak well of others and never cut others down, be faithful to your spouse, be thankful for what you have….all of these things are a great way to start.

Not because our salvation is dependent on us doing these things but because we are so thankful for the love that Jesus has already so freely given us, we want our lives to be transformed by him. Isn’t that what we want?  I mean when someone gives you a gift, you want to respond in turn, and I pray that we never take God’s grace so for granted that we forget to seek him daily and be shaped by Jesus daily. 

Most of us will likely never be killed because of our faith, and yet this faith we share does require something.  Namely everything.  May God help us to give this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.