Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Wisdom to know the difference"

Message preached March 19, 2006
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Ephesians 4:26-32 and John 2:13-16

Order of Worship

          This third in a series of sermons on the "seven deadly sins" focuses upon "Anger," and the virtue of "Faith" that leads us beyond it. This "amble and ramble" (i.e. there is no manuscript) message begins immediately after the reading of John 2:13-16 with the drumbeat of  "Mars, the Bringer of War," from "The Planets," by Gustav Holst. While it is playing, I will encourage everyone to take out the bulletin insert which has printed on it only:

My Anger! List





        The instructions are to think about the things which make you angry and write them down. Do not show the list to anyone, nor try to see what others write. Spelling is not an issue, nor is proper grammar. No one else but you and God will see this list. Write in code or pictures if need be. It doesn't matter if it the anger you have over things are "righteous" or petty. Just create your own anger list as the music plays. [Play only the first 3½  minutes of the piece - depending on the version - immediately after it reaches a crescendo, with the incessant drumbeat pausing briefly, ending with a harsh downbeat. Stop it before the drumbeat then softly picks up again.]

            When this is done, we'll pick up the gospel story of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple. This is among those episodes in the life of our Lord which may make us uncomfortable, a story told by all four gospels. Whereas the other three remember it as happening in the last days of Jesus' earthly life, the gospel of John places it toward the beginning of his ministry. The Jesus portrayed in John is more confrontive. In John's telling of this episode Jesus uses a "whip of cords," which some commentators down through the centuries have pointed to as evidence that Jesus was no passive-ist or pacifist. The fact that this whip was used solely upon the livestock and not upon the money-changers themselves is sometimes overlooked.

            Regardless, here is a picture of an angry Jesus. The good news of that for those of us who struggle with anger is that he has walked in our shoes. Yes, there is a difference between righteous indignation (as in this episode) and destructive anger, but the boundary between them is often difficult to perceive. Recently, many of the "children of Ishmael," who also claim Abraham as their "father," were filled with rage over some Danish cartoons which portrayed images of Mohammed. This violated some of their teachings. In their eyes this anger was righteous, even though from our perspective it hardly seems a reason to riot and - in some cases - kill. Not only that, but their reaction violated a tenant of Western democracy - freedom of speech. Are we then justified in expressing anger over Islamic rage? Especially when it destroyed or damaged Brethren meetinghouses in northern Nigeria?

            Even within our own culture, we struggle with conflicting senses of outrage.  The desire to overturn the tables is real when we encounter different points of view and feel like our God is being mocked. Again, where is the boundary between righteous indignation and destructive anger? Do we know where one ends and the other begins? We don't, however, need to look far off on the horizon of larger social issues to get in touch with this question. It exists in our very homes. Indeed, it is even more difficult to discern the difference between good and bad expressions of anger when they come close to home.

            Notice, I said "expressions of anger," not "anger" itself. Anger is an emotion, one of many. In itself, it is not a sin. We don't say to someone that it is wrong to get angry over something, just as surely we can't tell them that is is bad to feel sad. The apostle Paul wrote, go ahead and "be angry." It's okay to experience anger. The truth is, you can't avoid it, even if you try. Long ago I had an argument with a co-worker on our way to church one Sunday. The car he was driving got pretty steamy with our anger. When we arrived, our talk had shifted to silence - which on the surface may have seemed okay, for it was a Quaker meeting. I recall quietly sitting there in that peaceful place, amid the unprogrammed silence of worship, growing angrier and angrier. It was eating me alive.

            This is were we shift from emotion to sin. It's what we do with our anger that matters. Paul didn't just say, "be angry." He went on to say "be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil" (Ephesians 4:26-27). Of course, that's easy to say, not so easy to do. There are many ways of expressing our anger, of letting out the emotional steam that builds up within us. Some of these ways are healthy, others are not. Some of us are quick to heat up and quick to cool down. Others have a slow build-up and allow the heat to simmer (and simmer, and simmer...). Anger often demands a target. We can make the target a person, and focus blame upon them - "you are what makes me angry." Did anyone write down a specific person on your anger list?

            Anyone remember "Transactional Analysis," which was all the rage 30 years ago? This pop-psychology method identified many of the unhealthy games we play with one another. Like "Nigy," an acronym which stands for "now I got you," a game where we wait for the target of our anger to do something that gives us an excuse to vent our rage upon them. If we are really ticked off at them, the game escalates to "NigySOB." I'll leave it to you to figure that one out... "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil."

     Others of us hold our anger in, which is also not very healthy in the long run. Some say that depression is sometimes anger turned inward. We beat up on ourselves instead of beating up on someone else. It's what we do with our anger that matters, whether we vent it on others or turn it upon ourselves. Does it destroy or does it work toward healing? That's the question. When Jesus expressed his anger by overturning those tables he was, as we often say when considering this episode, "cleansing the Temple." There was a disease here. His task was to expose the wound to air, and that he did.

            Of course, knowing what is righteous indignation on the one hand and what is destructive rage on the other is a hard one. Likewise, there are things we can change and things we cannot change, no matter how hard we try. No one, for instance, can make someone else change. Much of our anger at other people has to do with their inability or unwillingness to change to meet our expectations of them. Anger over things we cannot change, whether vented in outward ways, or inward, is not only self-defeating, it can become destructive. Anger can eat us alive ... if we let it

            We need the wisdom to know the difference ... the difference between righteous anger and destructive rage, the difference between what we can change and what we cannot. Along the way of this sermon, each person will be invited to look over their anger list. What on that list, when it comes to our response to it - what we do with our anger, how we express it and deal with it, fits into the category of righteous indignation and which does not? What on the list can we do anything about, and what is not in our power to change? Then fold the page in half.

            Invite someone who knows the serenity prayer to come forward and lead everyone in writing the serenity prayer on the back of their anger lists. The message ends as the congregation prays this prayer in unison.

God grant me the SERENITY to
accept the things I cannot change;
COURAGE to change the things I can;
and WISDOM to know the difference.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Ephesians and John.

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2006 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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