September 30, 2007

"Coming To Terms"
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-26
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

   When he was younger the gifted black tenor, Roland Hayes, heard a minister preach a sermon on Christ standing before Pilate before he was crucified. The preacher contrasted the two kinds of power confronting each other. Pilate, wielding his usual authority and irked by the silence of Jesus, cried, “Why don’t you answer me? Don’t you know I have power?” The old preacher pointed out, “No matter how angry the crowd got, Jesus never said a word, not one word.” Years later, at the peak of fame with his golden voice, Roland Hayes stood before a Nazi audience in Berlin’s Beethoven Hall. The audience was hostile, ugly, scornful of a black person daring to sing at the center of Aryan culture. Roland was greeted with a chorus of Nazi hisses, growing louder and more threatening. For ten minutes Roland stood there in silence at the piano, anger welling up in him like an irresistible tide. And then he remembered the sermon of long ago—“He never said a word,” echoed in his mind. Roland kept his head, for he knew that the ultimate power was on his side. He stood there and prayed, silently, and the quiet dignity of his courage conquered the savage spirits in his audience, and in hushed pianissimo he began to sing a song of Schubert’s. He won, without so much as a word, he won them over.   In one very real sense Roland, with his gift of music, caused the Nazi’s to reconcile the anger and hatred they felt toward those different than themselves, for that moment anyways. Roland himself did not respond with what we might have termed justified anger. It was not just the outward bound anger that Roland subdued, but the inward desire to retaliate. He responded from a deeper source than the anger that began to rage within him. He responded out of his faith in Jesus who had himself banished all anger from his presence before Pilate.

  Jesus is the one who became angry in the Temple, but that was a righteous anger against those who were exploiting the people going to the Temple. But Jesus knew to control his anger in front of Pilate. In his teaching he tells the people not to get angry at your fellow human beings. It doesn’t have to be murderous anger that results in judgment. Jesus knows the damage that lesser forms of anger can cause.

  Most of us have the kind of anger that begins when we feel hurt by someone else’s actions or words. It begins with a simple comment or argument and we feel anger and resentment. Unfortunately reconciliation is the farthest thing from our minds. Instead we tend to want to harbor our anger, nurse it along, feed it with further resentments and leave the anger at a smoldering level for awhile. But Jesus is saying, “Don’t do that!” He says that before one offers worship, in those days, sacrificial worship, he or she must first reconcile with the one their anger is directed toward. In Jesus’ time Romans insulted Jews, Jews insulted Romans and Samaritans, Samaritans attacked Jews, Jews fought back, even different Jewish parties fought and insulted other Jewish parties, (Sounds like Republicans and Democrats) Division arose between parties, families, friends; anger being the primary force that motivated rival factions within that society.

  Well it isn’t much different today. The hostilities in the Middle East have their roots in ancient times. Angers have smoldered for centuries only to erupt in the right circumstances. Many of the terrorists act out of deep seated angers stemming from abusive childhoods and lessons of hatred learned from parents and significant adults. Jesus says “enough!” Unreconciled anger is a destructive force! Even anger that seems legitimate can be vented in illegitimate ways. Just look at the abortion clinic bombings. And one of the worst expressions of anger we experienced in this country recently was the 9/11 attacks of the world trade center.

  Jesus knew that God did not intend for anger to be a controlling force in this world. God intended for humans especially to live in peace with one another. But we don’t do that very well. We often want to get mad and stay mad, and even when we seem to try to make amends to others, we still harbor anger deep down inside us. Jesus’ teaching seems to be impossible for us. Of course we’re going to get angry! And a lot of the times we will carry anger and resentment with us into all our activities. Whole families have been broken apart by anger that has been carried sometimes for generations. Destructive acts, alienating us even further from the one or ones we are angry at, only add fuel to the fire.

  But Jesus knows there is a different way of being. He knows the power of God’s love to overcome anger and hatred based on anger. This “new way” of responding that Jesus talks about goes deep down into the roots of personality and produces a different pattern of behavior in us altogether. Jesus says that in this new pattern of behavior one should not even get near the thought that they wish the person they are angry at was dead. The judgment that happens begins as soon as we are angry. Every time we let anger smolder in us we are becoming less than fully human. We are belittling ourselves. We know that if we let anger go far enough to turn into abusive language or destructive acts we may find ourselves in trouble. If anger takes over our personalities we may be little else than the smoldering people we become, the smoldering garbage dump of Gehenna.

  So what do we do when we become angry at another person? Jesus says to reconcile and make friends. It’s as easy as that! But in reality it is difficult and sometimes costly. We have to climb down from our egotistical pedestals, abandon our position of superiority over the person we are angry with. This is so important says Jesus, even more important than worship. Jesus seems to be exaggerating the point. But the point is that we must live each day in such a way that when we come to worship Sunday morning there is no anger between brother and sister, parent and child, ourselves and our neighbors. How many times have we come to worship carrying our angers with us? It seems impossible to reconcile at times, but Jesus is saying that it isn’t. He is here to show us how. Jesus himself refused to go the way of anger. Instead he took on the anger of his enemies and died under the load of anger prevalent in his time. Reconciliation is not an ideal, but an achievement, an accomplishment we must embody now as we walk further and further in faith. Reconciliation is part of the transformation that takes place when we follow Jesus. In today’s lesson, Jesus not only is the teacher, but is the example of what it means to be reconciled. He is the most important reconciliation that took place between humans and God.

  One of the hardest things for me has been to conquer my anger toward someone who has said an unkind or hurtful thing. In the process of working out my faith and the transformation that happens in following Jesus, I began to see people in a different light. Many times I’ve had to begrudgingly say “I’m sorry!”, or “Let’s start that conversation over,” or “I felt kind of hurt when you said that!” After my initial negative feelings about being the one that seems to have to reconcile, because I was stubborn and prideful, it began to get easier. Prayers were no longer for God to change that person’s attitude, but that God change my attitude. And that’s what God began to do. As I came deeper into God’s love, my love for others began to change, a little at a time. Those persons who caused deep hurt in me are now the ones I can love and have better relationships with. Years of carrying anger and hurt have given way to times of building better relationships with those people. I’m still working on the anger issue but it no longer dominates my life. What Jesus says is very possible and leads to greater peace within and around us.

I wonder what would happen if more people could see another way for us to be in relationship with our brothers and sisters. Jesus saw a different way of responding to Pilate, not one based on ego or desire to win the argument, but one based purely on God’s love for us and through us. I wonder what grudges and angers we carried with us into this place this morning. Jesus says to let it go and reconcile. It may be difficult for us, but it is possible and very much a part of following Jesus.