13th February 2022
A sermon preached by Revd Maggie Guillebaud
Choral Evensong, Sunday 13 February, the Third Sunday before Lent.
(Galatians 4: 8-20, Matthew 5: 21-37)
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon
As a young woman, one of my first jobs was to sell books, newspapers and magazines at the very swanky Dorchester Hotel in London. In the lobby you would find me manning, or should that be womanning?, the bookstall and going weak at the knees as I sold newspapers to the likes of Charlton Heston and Ella Fitzgerald, or watched the arrival of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was all very glamorous. And great fun.
But one morning it was not such fun. Apparently, the newspaper ordered by a French guest had not been delivered, not that I actually delivered the papers: that was the job of the bell boys. But he went for me with both barrels. He shouted, gesticulated, almost out of control. I was deeply shaken. I had never experienced such vitriol before, and I was very young. As he stumped off his friend apologised profusely, which made me feel a bit better. But only a bit. We were talking about the non-delivery of a newspaper, irritating yes, hardly a capital crime. Where had such anger come from?
We are, I think, living through a period of underlying anger: anger at our politicians, anger at having to adapt our lives, perhaps permanently, to living with a destructive virus. This has spawned anger in Ottawa, Wellington, and other cities wait their turn.
We seem to be angry about an awful lot of things. And anger’s ugly cousin, the taking of offence, has all but silenced the uttering of unpopular opinions at our universities. There you put your head above the accepted parapet with an unfashionable view at your peril. How did it get to this, we ask ourselves. When did we lose all sense of proportion?
The pandemic has of course a lot to do with it. But as Christians I think we are ambivalent about anger. Certainly my generation was brought up on the myth of Little Jesus, meek and mild, with the saccharine verse in Once in Royal David’s City about ‘Christian children all must be, mild, obedient good as He.’ Really?
The result can be that we sometimes feel guilty about our anger, and indeed uncomfortable about judging others. Judge not lest ye be judged.
And yet we know that Jesus was capable of towering rages. He literally threw out the money changers and traders from the Temple, accusing them of defiling God’s holy place by their commercial transactions. He was not shy of likening one of his closest friends, Peter, to Satan, – get thee behind me Satan. Hardly little Jesus meek and mild. And yet Jesus goes silently to the cross, he does not condemn his accusers, he does not get angry about his treatment at the hands of the mob, the Romans, the Pharisees. Surely this is the moment when his anger should have justifiably flared?
So what are we to make of what appear to be such contradictory messages? A question which eventually leads us on to another question: when is anger actually justified?
Our reading from Matthew today is at first sight puzzling because it appears to make Jesus look like a mildly angry, finger-wagging zealot who wishes to enforce the ancient Mosaic traditions, forged from the earliest times in the desert wanderings of Israel, even more harshly than his forebears.
But we know from all the other things that Jesus taught that finger-wagging was not his way. Explosions of justifiable rage, but not finger-wagging. Compassion for all kinds of sinners – go and sin no more, as he says to the woman taken in adultery -, but not finger-wagging. Disappointment with his sleepy disciples during the night of agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, but not finger-wagging. Finger-wagging could safely be left to the Pharisees.
What Jesus is exploring in this passage is a moral vision of how, now that the Messiah is come, his disciples are to go beyond the Torah, beyond the old vision, not repudiating it but building on it. But it is a vision, not a series of prescriptions, one based on Jesus’ authority rather than on an interpretation of the Law of Moses. This is a slippery point, but we need to see the passage in context.
Just before this passage in Matthew Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, where he calls blessed those who are poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers. This is a vision completely at odds with that which follows, but it gives us the context in which his message is to be seen as a whole.
Take anger, for example. Jesus rightly pinpoints the corrosive nature of anger. Anger eats into the soul, and it is better to be reconciled than to allow that anger to eat you up and send you down paths which could lead to disaster. Desmond Tutu in his Truth and Reconciliation Commission understood this. Better to reconcile, to change hearts, than to seek revenge.
This is a message which the world needs to hear. An angry world becomes an increasingly unsafe world. An angry world is not filled with joy, or love, or any of the things which make life worth living. Angry people are not only tedious to be with, but the venom they spout has a corrosive effect on everything they touch. Think of the invasion of The Capitol in Washington last year. Anger can even de-stabilise and threaten democracy itself.
I posed the question earlier, when then is anger justified?
If I were to give you my list of things which I think make me justifiably angry I would talk about modern-day slavery, people trafficking, particularly of under-age girls from the third world to brothels all over the world, in fact any harm done to children.
I would talk about racial injustice, health inequality, poverty, the treatment of the Uighur people in China, and the Muslims in Myanmar. And that’s just for starters. You probably have your own list.
But just being angry is not enough. It is to what purpose that we put our anger which matters. In some cases, such as genocide or war crimes, international law is probably the only solution. Here we are entitled to sit in judgement, both individually and collectively, through our international courts.
But what about all the other things which make us so angry? How do we deal with them?
Here Paul’s letter to the troublesome Galatians gives us one insight into how anger can be best directed.
Because Paul’s justifiable anger at those who have stirred up the community against Paul leads Paul to ask them outright: ‘Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?’ He has every right to be angry, as these people are leading the church in a wrong direction. But he is not.
Rather he seeks to understand why they have turned against him and his teaching. He knows that the problems between Jewish and Gentile Christians have again given rise to conflict. He owns to being ‘perplexed’ and wishes he could be with them so that they could talk things through. A microcosm Truth and Reconciliation moment if you like.
If we are to show God’s love in our lives, if we are to live in a close and loving relationship with Him and keep the peace within our communities, we need to check the reasons for our anger. We need to sort out justifiable anger from merely trivial anger. On this Sunday when we focus on racial inequality, its roots and its manifestation in our own society, we have surely a case for justifiable anger and need to heed the call to action to root it out.
But lower down the scale we need always to check to see if our anger really is justified. Because unjustifiable anger not only poisons society, but it can poison relationships within our own communities, families, and even friendships. And the old prescription not to allow the sun to go down on our anger is as sound today as ever it was in the past. We need to talk.
But perhaps most importantly anger puts a barrier between us and God. If we allow unjustifiable angers, and I use the plural advisedly, to possess our souls, how can God find space be there too? Because allowing God to find a space in our lives is far more important than missing newspapers, or differences of opinion about how or when Coronavirus restrictions should be lifted. God longs for us to be close to Him, and we long for that closeness too. We must not put any barrier between Him and us. Because to do so will eventually cut us off from the very source of our being, he who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.