Anger is Toxic

A sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 12, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Lent is in a few weeks, it begins March 1st. We are involved in a very special project for Lent this year. Most of you have heard about the project but may not have linked it to Lent. We are working a full scale quality production of the Broadway musical Godspell using talented adults and gifted youth performers forming a team, a cast.

Godspell is a play with the story of Jesus literally taken from the Gospel of Matthew and put into a very compelling script and inspiring hum-it-on-the-way-home music. It is a fascinating play any time of the year, but it is particularly apt for Lent a time originally set aside to especially include study of the Gospel story. Charlotte is working on the play with me and we were discussing how Godspell could do more to share the Gospel in a two hour play, than most any other Lenten church effort.

This is a play that you will not want to miss and will want to bring everyone you know to. And I expect that Charlotte and I will be telling you more about it and the ministry in the weeks ahead. But today I bring it up because Charlotte and I have also discussed how much of the play we are hearing in our worship services. We are in year A of the Lectionary which covers Matthew so it is not so much a surprise in that regard, but we have also had psalms and hymns that are in the play.

From beginning to end Godspell is about the gospel, in fact the name “Godspell” is an old English word for gospel. The thing about Godspell that I am going to suggest will help us understand today’s reading, is something we might not expect. The musical theatre medium and modern and different setting bring the stories in Matthew a new perspective and so put Bible verses in a new light. The parables are animated, Jesus’ sayings mused over aloud, acted out, and sung about. See the play re-imagines how to tell the gospel story, asking what it would be like if John the Baptist and Jesus showed up in modern times and taught disciples now. And instead of the landscape of Israel, the play is placed common places in the American landscape– in our case on a backyard deck. And instead of somber church liturgy and preaching, the story is done playfully, in live theatre.

I’ve been involved in theatre for years but there are only two plays that every time I work on them I discover new meanings. One is every Shakespeare play, and the other is Godspell. I know the Matthean story about Jesus pretty well, but it never ceases to amaze me how playing with it in the Godspell format helps me hear new things, discover more about Jesus. It is quite remarkable to take Jesus’ story and words and peer at them differently in the creative process in collaboration with other artists. It is a remarkable experience and gift. And it is not like I am new to Godspell either, I’ve seen it a number of times, I’ve been in it, and directed it before so I have spent many, many hours immersed in the play, its images and words and its songs and dance. But I have yet to walk away from any one of those hours not newly aware of some new perspective. It’s fascinating that the story has so much depth.

I lay that all before us as background for today’s Lectionary text, from that very same gospel the play is based on. Our lesson today is an amazing, but often unheralded teaching of Jesus and I am going to address pretty much just the first five verses, about anger. This is the part where Jesus, like Godspell, reframes and reinterprets scripture so his followers hear it anew and mine the depths for not just surface meaning, but deep relational meaning that opens up a whole new way of thinking.

That is what Jesus is doing. He’s picking up scripture and helping his followers hear it anew and take its core meaning into new places and actions in their lives, in all our lives. We heard last week how Jesus claimed he was not here to abolish the law but rather to reframe it, that is, to re-interpret it with love as the lens, the hermeneutic. Jesus’ interpretative tool is love. In our reading today Jesus holds up some of the specific texts he interprets using his love lens. The result is he gives a whole new love angle far broader than the older scripture he lifts up is usually understand to entail. In verse 21 he notes that we have been told “’You shall not murder; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” Every culture has this rule in one form or another. All around the world humans are told not to murder, that it is wrong and there is cultural accountability.

Jesus does not abolish or alter that commandment of course, but uses it to hold up and turn focus on anger, the reason for most murders. As Jesus lifts up anger for his followers’ consideration he doesn’t set up gradients to measure how it needs to be dealt with. On Jesus Way there’s no spectrum or scale to anger so that murder is on one end or heavier as the unacceptable last straw. Without diminishing the terribleness of murder or its prohibition, Jesus cleverly argues that we need to not just prohibit murder, but understand the anger underlying it – and anything else– is very unhealthy for our souls. Anger is so toxic a poison even a drop of it, needs a prescriptive antidote.

Jesus challenges ALL anger. Jesus wants his followers to see anger with a new perspective. Anger of any kind is no good, it’s not loving. It must all be counteracted. For Jesus anger is so bad that every single level of it has dire consequences. Accordingly He declares that angrily insulting others creates liability. He declares that calling someone a fool is so wrong hell fire results. The unmistakable lesson Jesus is teaching is that anger always has dangerous and dire consequences . . . And. It’s. Unhealthy. So Jesus shows his followers that, and the way to cure its poison.

Now it is a part of human nature to get angry sometimes. We may be able to control what we do with anger, but we do not necessarily always have control over when and where we get angry. We know that even Jesus got angry. We are even told in Matthew that Jesus called some religious leaders fools and hypocrites. So we know he does not literally mean that calling someone a fool results in eternal condemnation to hell. See getting angry itself does not seem to be the sin, staying angry for any length of time and any harm anger causes is the sin (sin means failing to miss the mark God aims us at).
Not dealing with the anger coming at us or coming out of us is the problem. What harm we do with the anger and not letting go of anger is the crux of the matter. Jesus’ commandment in these verses is that whenever – wherever– anger arises we must find our way out of it. We must reconcile with those we have issue with. It’s not good enough to just keep our anger from leading to murder or violence.

If we remain angry we are exposed to liabilities. If we do not resolve the issues our anger creates within and without, to us and others, basically, there will be hell to pay. Anger is toxic. Anger residue is toxic. Here is how Jesus puts it:

I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Then Jesus gives the remedy, the antidote:

when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

The antidote to anger is reconciliation. Anger separates us, it kills relationships, that its murder connection Jesus can be heard to suggest. Anger kills our connective-ness and well being. Thankfully anger rarely stops real blood from flowing, but it almost always stops, from one extent or another, love from flowing. So we are to reconcile to get the lifeblood of love flowing again.

And remember love is the desire for well being, we do not have to like what others did – or even those we have an angry exchange with. But Jesus claims we do need to work toward reconciliation, we do have to work toward love . . . desiring the well being of others even those who are our enemies.

Jesus’ trade is love mongering. The go-to-tool of his trade for reconciliation is forgiveness. Some of us may bristle at that. Because we think forgiveness means forgetting. It’s not forgetting. It’s working toward excising the poison of anger so that we can one day at least acknowledge that we no longer wish the one we are angry with harm, that we desire their well being even if we do not, or cannot see them again for safety or practical reasons.

I’ve talked about this before, as victims forgiveness means we work toward disclosing our anger and harm, and we work toward seeing the anger dissipate to the point we can abandon our interest in revenge and see the wrongdoer as worthful of a desire for well being. As wrongdoers we must confess the harm we did, show remorse, express regret to the victim, ask for forgiveness and do our best to repair the harm– for the well being of the one we hurt. Sometimes we have to do all of this work as either victims or wrongdoers one-sidedly, though it is always best if both sides work at it.

Jesus points out if we are angry with a brother or sister, we will be liable to judgment. Jesus does not say this only applies to unjustifiable anger or certain shades of it– ANY anger requires the antidote of reconciliation to end the relationship death grip, to get love flowing again.

And hear me very carefully, not only can this take a lot of time, but it does not mean victims have no right to have an anger response or for safety reasons to keep their distance from toxic and harmful people. It means that anger, however it is created, is a toxin.

And just as we may need to keep a continually threatening toxic person away from us, we also need to work to get the toxic hate out and away from us. Forgiveness is not just done for the other guy. It’s done for us, for community, for God’s creation, for the salvation from the poison of anger . . . a poison that affects us all adversely. It’s why I think another gospel, Luke, has Jesus final words include forgiveness of those who arrested, tortured and killed him. “Father forgive them . . . ,” he says. All of Jesus’ anger is let go.

May we work on letting ours go too so that we can be reconciled to any to whom we are angry, if it is too risky to do so in person then from afar. Let us let go of anger for our own sake, for the sake of others and for the sake of the community and the world — for love, for Jesus, for salvation.