Updated: Aug 2, 2021
It’s easy to get mad. It only takes a visit to social media or the evening news or sometimes even a certain sermon. Everywhere we go it’s easy to perceive insult, to see “sin” – and to react with anger and frustration. Most of us resist anger. Anger often causes destructive behavior, and feeling constantly angry can quite literally make us sick.
Sometimes, though, it feels good to get angry – to “vent” our frustration. Anger is a natural and energizing emotion, often motivating people to act. We know that Jesus himself got angry, often in reaction to hypocrisy, injustice, and marginalization. So, it’s not wrong to get angry. It’s what you do with it that matters. Jesus knew this. “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.” That’s what today’s scriptures are about.
Some of you might remember that last week I said that Christianity is countercultural. Today’s readings pretty much prove it, suggesting that the way Jesus wanted us to behave when we are angry has little to do with our current culture. In recent years, fewer and fewer people seem able or willing to engage in conversation about their differences. Many people appear to believe that once they have said what they want to say, the conversation is over – and if you try to engage in dialogue they are likely to start name calling or simply stop communicating. Further, social media allows us to avoid interacting with anyone who disagrees with us, creating communities in which what we already believe is constantly reinforced. Churches are not immune to this, often using social media platforms to promote doctrine rather than dialogue. I recently read an article in which the author notes that a church-published voting guide she received “claimed to be nonpartisan… [but] the veneer of nonpartisanship… was razor thin.” The booklet misspelled the names of opposing candidates and included threats suggesting that not voting for their recommended candidate would cause World War III. What it did not contain was any form of scriptural justification for their point of view. The pamphlet instead focused on the endorsements of well-known religious leaders, some of whom have since been implicated in criminal behavior. Apparently, voters were being asked to take their opinions on faith.
Faith in people, not faith in God –or at least not faith in God as described in the Holy Scriptures that Christians profess to share – is not true faith. Perhaps the pamphlet authors believed that there is nothing in our scriptures that is relevant to the way we express our political views. Perhaps they missed this week’s gospel. Today’s passage follows the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep, in which Jesus tells us that every, single one of us is valued and loved and deserves to be f ound. Today, he tells his followers how we are to find – and keep –each other. He outlines a very specific process that most of us are familiar with, in part because this is the practice that we attempt to adhere to at Grace. First, go to the person you think has sinned against you and talk to them. If this doesn’t work, meet with them with a couple of other thoughtful people. If this doesn’t work, then the whole community needs to work on it together. Only if that does not work should the person be “treated as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That seems quite reasonable to me – try to get along with each other and if there’s one person who won’t listen to anyone, you can ask them to leave. But here’s something to consider: “Churches usually hear this [passage] as a license to excommunicate, exile or otherwise shun the individual” because we think of tax collectors and Gentiles as being outside of Jesus’s circle. But the gospels tell us Jesus never excluded such people from his group -that he ate, drank and talked theology with them. “What else can we conclude then that, far from shunning them, Jesus commands us never to give up on them, never to stop reaching out in love to them, always to yearn for grace to restore what has been broken.” In other words, there is no place in Jesus’s formula for “unfriending.”
This may not feel hopeful to you. This may, in fact, seem irritating, exhausting, and hard. “Why,” we may wonder, “do we have to be the ones who are responsible for making peace when they’re the ones who are wrong?” Because, my friends, they are not necessarily the only ones who are wrong – and we are the ones who say we believe in love –true love, real love – the love of God.
We tend to throw the word “love” around a lot, saying that we love ice cream and “Grey’s Anatomy” and fabulous shoes – but that’s not what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans. For Paul, love isn’t about feelings; it’s about actions. We can talk about what we believe, but if our behavior doesn’t line up, then there’s something wrong. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love” – or, I might add, by our loving behavior.
Scripture helps show us the way, but not if we treat it like a collection of social media posts and read only the bits we agree with. There are recurring themes in the Bible- humanity’s need for God and our conflicting refusal to follow God; God’s willingness to save us from ourselves, and God’s clear command to love one another, especially those who are different from us. God’s laws reflect this theme. The Ten Commandments, for example, can be arranged into two groups: commands about loving God (not taking the Lord’s name in vain, no idols, taking time to praise and honor God), and directives about loving each other (no killing, no stealing, no cheating, no lying). Even the most esoteric of the ancient codes have the same purpose- encouraging God’s creation to live together in love. Christians believe that since humanity didn’t seem able to do it by following the law, Jesus came to show us how it’s done – so if you want to know what’s right, look to Jesus’s words and example – and Jesus is all about love. Love is our yardstick and our plumb line. As Eleazar Fernandez suggests, “Loving God and neighbor is the practice by which Christian communities undergo testing…when they abide in love, they have fulfilled the law.”
Love should be our voter guide. If our laws, our political structure, our judicial system, or our churches are not serving the goal of bringing God’s active, inclusive love to the world, then we must change them. That is what it means to be responsible for binding and loosing. In rabbinic language, binding means to hold on to a law. Loosing means letting it go because it doesn’t apply in your circumstances. If our current conditions, then, lead us to use our anger only to separate ourselves from others and to separate them from God, we must change them. We must instead use our anger as Jesus did- to promote justice, healing, and reconciliation. We must use that energy to love rather than hate. This is not easy, but it is the will of God. “The night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light – put on the love of Christ. AMEN.
 Jin S. Kim, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 46.
Angela Denker (September 3, 2020), “Voter guides show the power and duplicity of American evangelicalism,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/09/03/voter-guides-show-the-power-and-duplicity-of-american-evangelicalism/.
Charles Hambrick-Stowe, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 48.
Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 38.