July 5, 2020 – Vices and Virtues | Anger and Patience

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Vices and Virtues: Anger and Patience
by Rev. Victor Kim
Matthew 5:21-26

Author, theologian and Presbyterian minister Fredrick Buechner said that of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.  To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.  The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.  The skeleton at the feast is you.[1]

Anger is the third of the deadly sins or vices that we’re exploring in this series of sermons called Vices and Virtues, and the corresponding virtue we’ll explore is that of patience.  Anger isn’t simply a vice; it can also be a virtue.  Anger can be an instrument of justice, recognizing injustices done and working to set things right.  Good anger is motivated by love for others, a passion for justice.  We know what good anger is, we’ve all experienced it at times.  When someone we love is threatened or hurt, we’ve experienced good anger.  When a child is endangered, there is nothing like the righteous anger of a parent.  Great love is at the root of great anger; you don’t get angry unless you care, and according to Thomas Aquinas, anger is rooted ultimately in love.  At its best, and rightly expressed, anger is the power of resistance in the soul, a passionate protector and defender of good.[2]  And of course, we have the examples of God’s righteous anger, expressed both in the God of the Old Testament and through the New Testament witness of Jesus Christ.  Time and time again, when God gets angry, that anger is rooted in God’s love for God’s people and God’s creation.  God gets angry when the people God loves abandon the relationship God intends for them for the worship of worthless idols.  God gets angry when people abuse the relationships they are supposed to have with each other, to care for their neighbour, to welcome the stranger, to protect the widows and orphans, the poor, and instead they oppress, abuse and neglect those who are also created in God’s image, whom God also loves. 

Jesus gets angry when the worship of God, which is to be an expression of our love for God in response to God’s love for us, is corrupted and abused by the exploitation of the very people coming to worship.  In his anger he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple exclaiming, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” 

On another occasion, Jesus was in a synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand.  The authorities watched Jesus to see if he would heal on the Sabbath so that they could accuse him.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?  But they were silent.  He looked around at them with anger, he was grieved at the hardness of heart, then he said to the man, stretch out your hand and his hand was restored.  Jesus was angry with the Pharisees because he loved both the man but also the Pharisees.  He was grieved at the hardness of their hearts. 

There is an anger that is righteous, that is rooted in love, but if anger can be a healthy emotion, it can also be a hellish habit.  The reason why anger is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, as a vice, is that our anger rarely imitates the righteous anger of God, rooted in love for the other, in justice.  Rather, our anger is too often self-centered, focused on getting what I want, the way I want it.  The underlying message of highly angry people, according to the American Psychological Association website, is that “things oughta go my way!”  Angry people tend to feel that… any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should not have to suffer this way.  Maybe other people do, but not them! Maybe you know people like this.  Maybe it hits too close to home, it does for me. 

There’s lot of examples of when our anger moves from a healthy emotion to a hellish habit.  Sometimes we get angry at the wrong people.  You put up with a lot of stress and abuse at work and when you get home you unleash all that negative energy on the first person that gets in your way.  You take it out on other drivers on crowded streets when you’re in a hurry because you were late getting started.  We vent our anger on those who have less power than us, especially when we can’t do anything about those who have the power over us.  And we hold onto our anger as it builds into deep resentment, poisoning our relationships and our outlook.  Someone once said resentment more than anything perhaps can distort the truthfulness of our memory.  As the saying goes, “the older I get, the more vividly I remember things that never happened.”  When our anger veers from the holy emotion it was intended to be, rooted in love and justice, towards selfishness and revenge, it becomes vicious and that’s what Jesus is getting at when he warns his listeners in his sermon on the mount. It’s a bit of a strange reading if you think about it.  Jesus says what everyone knows, that you shall not murder and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.  His listeners would have known that, as do we.  But he goes further and says, but 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.  Really?  We all get the point that we are not to murder; it’s one of those big commandments.  But anger, insults, calling someone a fool?  Is Jesus serious that calling someone a fool will land you in the hell of fire?  Because if he is, I’m going to be hot for a very long time!  And so are many of you! 

But what Jesus gets is that anger is a progressive disease.  If we don’t check it quickly it moves from casual insults to simmering resentment to deep seated anger and eventually that kind of anger isn’t satisfied with only thoughts or words, it gets expressed in outward actions, in hurtful actions, in murderous actions.  Jesus is warning us in his sermon that we need to get a grip on our anger quickly, before we come to the altar to offer our gifts to God.  We need to be reconciled to our brother or sister, we need to be restored to the loving intention God has for us in our relationships with all God’s creation, and only then can we come and offer our gift to the God of love.  All of the law and commandments can be boiled down to two things, love God with all that you are and love your neighbour as you love yourself.  Without an understanding of this love, this reconciling love God intends, we are powerless to deal with our anger.  Towards the end of the Civil War in the United States, President Abraham Lincoln said to his cabinet that he intended to forgive the southerners and restore the South as best as he could.  His Secretary of State challenged him, “Mr. President, I say we oughta destroy our enemies.”  Lincoln replied, “Mr. Secretary, do we not destroy our enemies when we make them our friends?”  Or as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

There’s a lot of anger in the world today.  Much of that anger is valid.  You can’t watch the video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer without getting angry at the injustice, oppression and the sheer lack of humanity. You can understand the righteous anger of those who march against systemic racism against African Americans, but also against Indigenous Peoples, against Asians unfairly targeted and blamed for the actions of a government of a country they do not belong to.  We ought to be angry about racism.  We ought to be angry about policies that have and still systematically oppress people and certain groups of people and we should be marching for justice, for reconciliation, for the dignity that all God’s creations deserve. 

But that righteous anger is so very different from the hateful anger that is all too pervasive in our culture as well.  There’s world of difference between the angry hatred that drives a racist to hurt people who are viewed as threats to the way he or she believes things ought to be, who he or she believes is causing them suffering, and the righteous anger that speaks out and demands change against the scourge of racism. 

How do we stem the hateful anger that resides in all of us, lurking just underneath our civil veneers?  We’ve got to begin with the smaller parts of our anger, which is what Jesus is getting at in his sermon.  We’ve got to start with the name calling, with the insults, the casual denigration of others.  We all know far too well by now that the old adage that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,’ couldn’t be more misguided. 

Words hurt, words wound, words have power to crush spirits, to consign a person to a path from which escape is almost impossible.  It is far easier for children to heal from a fall that breaks their bones than from words that break their spirit. There are many antidotes for the kind of anger that is rooted in hate, viciousness and resentment.  Some people advocate for some sort of physical strategy to deal with anger. 

Take a time out, breath, count to 10 before responding, don’t hit the sent button right away.  All good advice, especially that last bit.  It’s amazing how a bit of distance changes the way we look at things.  Others tell us that humour is the antidote to anger, that we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously.  If anger is the result of a tight, narrow vision of the world, then humour allows us to laugh at ourselves and widens our perspective.  Rebecca De Young in her book, Glittering Vices, writes that if we can joke about a situation, we have to be comfortable enough with who we are to laugh at our claims on the world, rather than being consumed by them.[3]

These are all good suggestions and I’m sure that they can help address our anger, but Jesus tells us to be reconciled, to return to love, Jesus tells us to address the heart of the problem, which is the problem with our hearts.  We need to love the other person, the person who we may hate, rightly or wrongly.  And Jesus says that we need to take the time needed to get that relationship right.  Don’t bother coming to the alter to offer your gift if you aren’t right with your neighbour, says Jesus.  Scripture tells us elsewhere that if we can’t love our brother or sister who we can see, we can’t claim to love God, whom we cannot see.  That’s why the Great Commandment has two parts, love God and love your neighbour; you can’t do one without doing the other.  And what’s needed in being reconciled with our sister or brother, with our neighbour, is patience.  And that doesn’t mean what you might think it means.  Yes, we need patience; we need to be patient with those with whom we may be angry.  But real patience is turning our anger over to God.  In our anger we want to get revenge, but God tells us that he will repay, that any vengeance is God’s alone.  But our God is a God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Slow to anger, patient.  As angry as God has been with God’s people at times, that anger is tempered by God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s patience.  It’s the reason why we’re still here.  God is still seeking that we would be reconciled to him.  This is God’s way. 

In a culture where people are quick to anger, quick to blame, quick to judge, quick to condemn, we need to turn that anger and hatred over to God, to the God who is patient, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  We need to be a people who will seek to be reconciled with those with whom far too often we are just angry. I’m sure there are many times when you might feel anger at certain people or groups of people, I know I do.  But what will our anger achieve, other than making a skeleton of ourselves?  Selfish, vicious, resentful anger only deepens the darkness and our world has far too much darkness already.  What the world needs are people who will seek reconciliation in the same manner that God seeks our reconciliation with him.  What the world needs today are people who will have the patience to turn over our anger to God and follow the God who is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love. 

Will it be easy, not a chance!  How easy was it for God to provide the means of our reconciliation with him?  Just a cross upon which his beloved, his son, died for the sake of a broken world.  If we claim to follow this God, this Jesus, though it won’t be easy, it must be our way. 

Be reconciled, be patient.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on July 5, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church
without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p.2

[2] Rebecca Konyndyk De Young, Glittering Vices, p.121

[3] De Young, p.136