Sermon on the Mount Series, Sermon #3 - Murder and Anger
Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb - Given on Sunday, August 11, 2013
Our scripture today is more about an experience than it is a rule.
It is about what happens when we become angry.
And Jesus, a man of parables, is creative with his language. He takes familiar laws, scriptures people have heard before “like you shall not murder” to illustrate his point. Using images people already knew, helped them find their way into that experience he is teaching about.
This section is the first of several in which Jesus starts his teaching by saying “You have heard that it was said…”
Each of these sections begins with that phrase, and after he names the law, in this case “you shall not murder”, he then says, “But I say to you…”
The effect that it has is to make people think about a law that they already live by, he takes a well known scripture, and opens it up. He is referring to the laws and the teachings of the scribes and the Pharisees, but he is pushing each time and saying this is not quite enough. And he uses extreme language and images to grab people’s attention and make things more clear.
It is not the law itself that is extreme, it is not “you shall not murder” that is the image that will grab people. Because when we hear him remind us that if we murder we are liable to judgment, it’s easy to say, yeah yeah, we know. That’s one of the 10 commandments. I got that rule down.
It is what follows that challenges people. In each instance, when he says, “But I say to you…” Jesus takes that commandment and breaks it open. He makes it bigger. Now many people think he is challenging the law, or undoing it with those laws. But remember he says, in the portion we studied last week, that he has not come to abolish the law but to…(fulfill it). No, he makes it bigger. He’s broadening our understanding of what it means to murder. And what will happen to us if we do. He breaks open that definition of murder itself, to see what it can mean if not a physical one.
So he enters into the experience that leads us to murder. He talks about anger.
Some say anger is like fire. The more you feed it the larger it gets. The hotter is feels. The more intense it becomes.
But like any good fire, it starts small. More often than not our anger doesn’t begin with a large offense, but rather the tinder of the fire.
You know when somebody does that little thing that just drives you nuts? It’s just an annoyance. A minor slight. Perhaps they chew really loudly. Or they leave the toilet seat up. We usually deal with it by ignoring it or we make it about the other person.
“Ugh, they don’t think about anyone else but themselves…How rude. You know other people use this bathroom.”
And even though it’s small, those explanations do begin to cast of blame on the other person, rather than examining our own emotion. It begins a process where we start see that other person less as human, and more as objects.
Eventually, something will be said. Something that is offensive. Something that actually hurts. It’s no longer just a annoying, but now it’s personal. They said sometimes you can be too chatty. Or maybe they ignored you altogether demonstrating their disinterest in your life. Or when you were offering the best idea you had, they made at face of disgust.
And so you respond again. This time getting more personal too. “Well, they don’t understand, he’s just simple minded,” “They’ve never had the right upbringing to be taught otherwise”, “She’s just absent minded, bless her little heart.”
Until finally, one day. Conflict gets real. Feelings are hurt, and they’ve been hurt badly enough that there’s no way to keep your emotions hidden any longer. Everything is put out on the table. Words are said, maybe there are tears, sometimes even a punch is thrown. Either way, we have long carried it in our bodies now. We began tense and tight, stiff from annoyance, then our jaw began to lock and our teeth stayed clenched. And if it’s bad enough we lose sleep, or wad up our fist and use it.
At this point, we’ve given up. “There’s no way I’ll ever be friends with him again. She’s just too far gone to even love anymore. He never understands me, why do I even try? I am not putting any more energy into that person. She just it’s worth my time.”
That is when we murder. The human in front of us, the blessed child of god, is now dead in our eyes. We have literally assassinated their character. We are done trying. And we have walked the path enough. We have tried enough. We have been angry enough. We call them an idiot, we call them a fool. And now we find ourselves at a dead end. We have walked into a maze of our own emotion and we find ourselves left with no where to go. We have run out of places in the maze to run.
And where is it that we end up? The scripture says the hell of fire. Anger. Red hot fire. Gahenna is the Greek word used here. (Not to be mistaken for Gahanna, though one native of the town tells me there is not much distinction for her). And Jesus like he does in his storytelling uses a word that is familiar to people. This word was used all throughout the New Testament, and it actually points to a place that people knew. This word was used because when it was said it brought up images for people, it brought up smells even, this word was visceral for people. It’s like when you like of the Ohio Fair, you see the prize pig and the butter cow, you hear the fireworks, and of course, you small the funnel cakes.
Gahenna was that kind of word. Only it meant the trash dump. The part of town where unwanted things went. It smelled, much like our trash today smells, and people may have even been burning the bodies of the unwanted, and so the fire image would be quite real.
So the price to be paid for walking into this maze of anger, the cost of walking further into the pit of your mind, of letting our bodies tense, and letting ourselves lose sleep over this rage, we walk ourselves right into a dead end and find that we have no where else to go. We have damaged our own spirit, even our body hurts, we are confused and looking for any other way out of the mess, other than dealing with the actual problem, or the anger, and we find ourselves trapped at a dead end. There is no emergency exit. There is only the trash heap. In Gahenna.
And often. When we get there. When we’re stuck. When we don’t know the way out. When we are in the pit of the hell of fire. Of Gahenna. And it smells, and it’s hot, and there is fire. Often the only thing we know how to do is pray.
[Performance: Prayer in Open D by: Emmylou Harris - Played by Lori Schiefer and Daniel Waechter Webb] Listen to the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAn0_K7bvCU
There's a valley of sorrow in my soul Where every night I hear the thunder roll Like the sound of a distant gun Over all the damage I have done And the shadows filling up this land Are the ones I built with my own hand There is no comfort from the cold Of this valley of sorrow in my soul
There's a river of darkness in my blood And through every vein I feel the flood I can find no bridge for me to cross No way to bring back what is lost Into the night it soon will sweep Down where all my grievances I keep But it won't wash away the years Or one single hard and bitter tear
And the rock of ages I have known Is a weariness down in the bone I use to ride it like a rolling stone Now just carry it alone
There's a highway risin' from my dreams Deep in the heart I know it gleams For I have seen it stretching wide Clear across to the other side Beyond the river and the flood And the valley where for so long I've stood With the rock of ages in my bones Someday I know it will lead me home
Emmylou sings: “There is a highway risin’ in my dreams, Deep in the heart I know it gleams, For I have seen it stretching wide, clear across to the other side.”
Trapped, we look for a way out. We are sick of the smell of the trash heap. Wondering why we let our anger take us so far. And understanding a little better perhaps, why sometimes people do make it all the way to physically murdering someone.
And so I look to the Sermon on the Mount for answers. Jesus says be careful along the way. As you work your way into that maze, tread lightly, be mindful. Don’t go to far. On your way to the altar, lay down your offering and be reconciled first.
Remember that before your anger began, this person was human. The task is to remember they still are! When we forget that we end up at the trash heap. When we turn our attention to their person, see them, know them so that we can understand them better. Then we walk a different path.
Jesus says come to terms with your accuser. Now, this is the hardest part of this passage because I cannot read this scripture without thinking of those who find themselves driven to extreme anger and even violence because of their own victimization. Those who are battered and abused and raped. How do you tell them to come to terms with their abuser?
So I turned to someone in our community this week who can speak with authority about this. There is a woman in our church who was the victim of domestic violence for years. She suffered physical abuse at the hand of her partner. She survived four beatings in one day, and finally when she couldn’t take it any more she raised her hand against him, and she killed him.
She was afraid for her life. And she was angry. She was very angry. And who can say she shouldn’t be? The scripture doesn’t tell us you cannot be angry, it says here is what happens to you when you carry it with you. Here is the experience of what it does to you.
She went to prison where she wrestled with what she had done. She had not grown up in the church, and yet she couldn’t escape the question about whether she would be able to go to heaven even after what she had done. She began to seek spiritual counsel, meeting with chaplains and ministers who visited her in segregation. Segregation means, she was separated from the general population for her own safety because even in prison, he had family who had threatened to hurt her further.
Eventually, as she read scripture, and talked with her mentors she began to understand her own faith and experience the grace of God extended even to her. But her journey was not finished. She had retraced the steps of some of the hurt and pain that carried her to the point of violence. But she had not yet walked all the way out. You see, she was still wrestling. Wrestling with her anger, her pain. Finally she realized, that if she stayed bitter and angry the rest of her life, she would stay in prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out [Of Gahenna] until you have paid the last penny.
It is what every pastor and counselor is taught not to do. Don’t tell the abused they must forgive the abuser. But her life testifies to the power of what happens when she did. And the power of what happened when she made that her own choice, rather than being told to do it. She began to realize that it was forgiveness that was going to carry her out of Gahenna.
She didn’t know how to do it at first, it wasn’t easy. So she began to pray, at the trash heap, she prayed out loud. She said, “I had to say it aloud in my prayers before I could believe it.” And it took about two years. Two years for her own words to begin to seep into her bones. Our behavior, our own words, can shape our belief. Can shape us from the outside in.
And do you know what the turning point was? She began with prayer. But the revelation that came was the lesson of the Beatitudes. He was blessed to. She didn’t use those words at the time, but she began to look at him as a person again. She stopped objectifying him, and when she understood his upbringing, his socialization, his family, his history, she began to understand him as a person again, and was able to find forgiveness.
Brothers or sisters, Whether we are part way down the maze of our anger or whether we are stuck at the end in the trash heap…Jesus says this is what carrying our anger will do to us. He doesn’t yet give a lot of strategy for getting out of this place. Some of those things will come, later in the sermon on the mount. But for now, let us learn from our sister. Prayer and forgiveness were what carried her to healing. They were the Good News that lead her away from Gahenna. May her life testify to us today, about the power of that Gospel. Amen.