[Transcript of a sermon delivered July 17, 2016, at Plantation United Methodist Church]
Matthew 18:23-30 (New Revised Standard Version)
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”
Chuck and I sometimes babysat for our niece Tatiana when she was little. Wonderful, adorable, brilliant, funny child whom we both adore. She is also a redhead with an Irish temper, even at the age of three. I don’t remember what it was that set her off that night, but I have a very vivid picture in my mind of this sweet, lovely little girl standing on top of the toilet seat in the bathroom, screaming at the top of her lungs, completely unintelligible in her rage, her muscles tensed, fingers balled up into fists, eyebrows almost touching, her skin bright red with the effort.
It was amazing!
And completely terrifying.
Children’s emotions tend to lay much closer to the surface than adults’. If they’re feeling really happy, you know it. They bounce around the room, laughing, smiling, throwing their arms up in the air in joy. And when they’re mad, oh boy, you know it, too.
Most tantrums have some common characteristics. It’s an emotional outburst — not an intellectual one. You can’t reason a kid out of a tantrum. They cry, yell, shriek. Their little voices scale past octaves we can’t even touch. They lose control of themselves physically, sometimes falling to the floor, flailing their limbs, and even striking out, as the child’s little system is overwhelmed with angry energy. The child might not be able to express with words what is wrong. They are just angry. And they don’t know how to do something with that anger.
Kids aren’t the only ones who throw temper tantrums, though, are they? We adults may not throw ourselves to the ground, kicking and screaming, but we do experience severe anger. It just comes out of us a bit differently as we get older.
There tend to be two extremes of dealing with anger for us. On one extreme is an anger that has a lot of similarities with kids’ tantrums. The tightening of muscles, face turning red as our blood pressure rises, our posture overtly angry. We may strike out verbally, or even physically. That’s one extreme.
The other extreme is internalized. We experience the anger, but we deny it, press it down, repudiate it, try to control it. We pretend it’s not there and just get on with life.
Both extremes are destructive and damaging. The first is damaging to those around us, as we lash out. Our words and actions can harm people. Sometimes quite deeply. But the other extreme is also dangerous. The anger doesn’t actually go away. It’s just delayed, festering inside. Eventually it will come out — perhaps at another time when something makes us angry. Or, if denied long-term, holding on to that kind of anger can make us sick.
Both extremes are exhausting. But anger is a reality. How many of you have felt anger at least one time during this past week? (Me too!)
We tend to think that if we’re Christian, we should only have “positive” emotions, like those listed in the fifth chapter of Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But by pulling a child center stage, and telling his disciples that we must be like little children to get into the kingdom of God, by holding children up as an example for us of how we are to live, Jesus reminds us that “negative” emotions have a place, too.
Pain serves a purpose. There is a disease called leprosy that terrified the people of Jesus’ day. If someone had leprosy, they were cast out of the community, banned from ever coming into contact with even their closest friends and relatives. In leprosy, the nerves degrade, causing a loss of sensation. A person with leprosy doesn’t feel physical pain. And because of that, when they get injured, they don’t know. Small injuries left untreated cause infection, disfigurement, loss of limb. It’s an awful disease.
When we injure ourselves, we feel the pain. We know that something is wrong, and we’re motivated to do something about it to make the pain stop. Pain has a purpose. It tells us that something is wrong. It tells us that something needs to be done to fix it.
But it is often difficult for Christians to acknowledge pain and anger. Because we don’t think it is particularly Christ-like.
Or… is it?
Matthew 21:12-13 : Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
When I was just starting to read the Bible, I remember wondering about this scripture from Matthew 21. It seems so out of character from the Jesus in the rest of Matthew — indeed, from the Jesus we see in the rest of the gospels. I mean, just a few chapters before this, in Matthew 5, Jesus tells the people that the merciful, the peacemakers will be blessed. Now we see him angrily overturning tables in the Jerusalem Temple, driving the people out. And it’s important to recognize that this is Jesus’ first act after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus doesn’t do anything without reason. This first public action — it was important. It was deliberate.
Scholars believe that it was Jesus’ actions that day that sealed his fate in Jerusalem. This was what finally pushed the religious rulers over the edge. So, why? Why would Jesus do this?
This is what I believe Jesus was doing: Giving us a gift.
Through this powerful, symbolic action, Jesus shows us that experiencing anger is okay. Even the perfect Son of God was angry! And then… and this is so beautiful… Jesus shows us how our anger, our frustration, our rage can be used in a powerfully transformative way.
Because look at what happens in the next verse!
Matthew 21:14 : The blind and the lame came to him in the Temple, and he healed them.
Jesus turns immediately around from his dramatic pronouncement of guilt, and he demonstrates how to live out the faith: with grace and kindness and healing.
When we become angry — really good and solidly angry — there’s usually a reason. Unlike kids, we don’t fly into a rage because someone did, or did not, cut the crusts off our sandwiches. We don’t become livid, seriously eye-poppingly angry because we wanted the purple popsicle and not the blue one.
We get angry when we are mistreated, ignored, hurt. We get angry when people we love are injured, are abused, are rejected. We get angry when we see senseless violence in the news, when issues we care deeply about are dismissed as unimportant, when we witness injustice and cruelty. As many of you as are reading this today, there are as many entirely legitimate reasons to get angry.
But what do we do with that anger?
Jesus turns around from the demonstration of divine anger to a demonstration of divine grace. That is how we turn impotent rage into constructive anger.
Like the nerves in our bodies that tell us when we’ve been injured and that urge us to do something about the injury, pain in our spirits tells us that something is not in line with God’s will. When something makes you angry, makes you feel like someone ought to do something about it… listen to that!
Several years ago, my good friend Phil Roughton gave me this simple advice for dealing with anger: Stop. Yield. Go.
First: STOP! When we’re angry, we’ve got all this adrenaline pumping through our system and we’re primed for action. When we’re angry, the first thing we want is act. All this angry energy we have coursing through us, we want to use it, to do something!
But, ironically that is exactly when we need to stop. We human beings pride ourselves on being rational creatures. We believe that the ability to form coherent thoughts is what separates us from all the rest of the animals. I’m a nerd, and I’m grateful for the use of my intellect. But we’re really not all that rational when it comes to making decisions in anger.
Because there are two systems battling each other in our brains: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is the emotional core of our body, and it is the first place in the brain that tries to take control of decision-making. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and it doesn’t always make the best choices.
The prefrontal cortex takes a bit longer to kick in. This area of the brain is in charge of impulse control and long-term planning. This is where repercussions of different choices are considered and weighed.
In our anger, when we do not stop, and breathe for a moment, our prefrontal cortex doesn’t have time to put its two cents in.
There’s a reason Proverbs 14:17 tells us: “Short-tempered people do foolish things.” Stopping for a moment — not acting just yet — gives your body and mind time to cool off.
Then you’re ready for the next step: Yield. To yield means to give way, to step back. We do this to gain a bit of perspective. And this is, to put it plainly, the most difficult of the three steps. Because it requires us entertaining, even for a moment, the idea that there might be something more involved in the situation than just our perspective.
This is especially painful for us to do when the anger we’re experiencing results from an action that is just so obviously wrong. Yielding starts with something really uncomfortable. It starts with letting go.
In our scripture for today, Jesus tells the story of a servant who has an enormous, life-crushing debt forgiven, and he is grateful. But he then turns around and abusively refuses to forgive someone who is deeply in debt to him. It’s a hard story to hear.
Letting go is quite possibly the most difficult of the childlike ways. Kids do it just naturally. A child can be completely enraged with you, then ten minutes later snuggling happily with you on the couch.
But it’s harder for us adults to let go. It’s much easier to hold on to our anger. It feels powerful and righteous. It’s nice and clear-cut. We would rather not yield. We’d rather not offer forgiveness. It’s hard work. Because forgiveness means releasing our hold, consciously giving up our rightful claim on repayment or retribution.
But we yield, because the scripture reminds us that out of God’s love for us, God has forgiven us, has let go of God’s entirely appropriate anger with us. We are forgiven and loved and free.
And because of that, unlike that unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable, when we turn around we are to offer the same kind of extraordinary grace that was offered to us.
Last first part of yielding is this: pray. Ask God to give you clarity and peace, and to guide you in your next steps. If it is a small matter, this may be as simple as lifting up a quick petition to God in the midst of the situation. If it is a larger issue, you may need to step away to spend some extended time in prayer. Don’t shortchange this, please! God wants to be a part of your decision-making process. So invite God in!
To gain a deeper understanding as we yield, first, ask yourself: “Why am I feeling this way?” Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it has a root cause. Anger doesn’t just happen. Something triggered it. What has made you feel angry? Frustration? Hurt? Jealousy? Fear?
Next question: “What is going on here?” If another person is involved, why are they acting the way they are? Please know, this is not justifying the other person’s behavior, and you do not have to agree with what they’ve done. But understanding their motivation can help you to get a bigger perspective on what is happening, and gives you insight into what needs to change.
Then, finally, the last question: “What do I really want?” What is it that would make you feel better about the situation? When we’re good and proper angry, it is so easy for it to spiral out of control. Suddenly our intentions become skewed. Whatever it was that we wanted in the beginning is forgotten, and just winning becomes the goal. So what would it take a the end of the encounter to make you feel that it was resolved in a healthy way?
Stop. Yield. Then… this is important: Go!
You were angry for a reason, and now you understand more about why. Now do something about it. You can take that anger you’ve experienced, and find a way to use it.
Maybe it’s something you need to work on inside yourself. But it may also be something that necessitates active change in your environment, in the world.
I think we would all acknowledge that there is a lot in our world that needs changing. Many of you — including me — have been experiencing some profound anger at the violence we see. There is a lot of anger in our world right now. It seems that every day we hear of a new outbreak of violence and cruelty.
It is as if a virus is quickly spreading across our globe. Where I live in the City of Plantation in South Florida is not immune.
Nowhere is immune.
No one is.
And it makes us angry.
It hurts us, it pains us.
If we take time in our anger to stop, that is helpful. If we take time to yield, that is wonderful. But we can’t stop there. We have to go! We have to do something. Otherwise nothing will change.
But this “going” isn’t easy, either. Sometimes what is wrong with our world seems so huge, that we feel overwhelmed. What can we possibly do that would make a difference? Bringing healing is hard work. Walking through through the anger, seeking reconciliation and understanding and peace — it’s messy and undefined.
But it is worth it.
So… I have homework for you this week. I don’t usually give homework online, but please consider this! I’d like you to think about something that makes you mad, that boils your blood and makes you want to throw something. Then, stop. Breathe. And yield. Ask yourself those questions: (1) why do I feel this way? (2) what is going on here? and (3) what do I really want? Then consider ways that you and your community can reach out in love.
Then, please, tell someone — your friends, your pastors, your leaders — about your ideas for what actions, large or small, we can take together to bring healing to our world.
We know that full healing won’t take place because of one prayer vigil. It won’t be complete after one conversation, one worship service, one project, one invitation, one hand held out.
It will take one loving action, then another, followed by another and another and another. And another. The challenges we’re now facing in our country and world, they’ve developed over many, many years. They won’t disappear overnight.
But we need to start.
Or, perhaps, we should say: we need to stop, we need to yield, then we need to go.
One person, one community, making the commitment to stop. To yield, asking questions and sharing their perspectives with each other. And then to go, taking ideas for healing, and walking them out into the world.