Sermon: What do we do with anger? (IV Sunday through the Year, January 29th, 2022)
What is it that makes you really, really angry? Is it the car that cuts you off in traffic, the guy at the store who’s not wearing a mask, the lady who’s wearing two masks, your kid who just doesn’t get it, your parent who just doesn’t get it? Whatever it is that makes us collectively angry, people have been doing a lot more of it lately.
Each year, the Gallup polling organization does an assessment of the world’s emotional state. In the last decade they noticed a disturbing trend – people just kept getting angrier and angrier and angrier. Every year for the past six years or so has set a new record for the amount of people who say that they were angry for most of the previous day. In the US in 2020, one in every five people said that they were angry yesterday for most of the day. That doesn’t even measure those who spent part of the day angry. So just imagine – one out of five people you encounter are spending most of the day angry. So at any given time, at least that one person in five is angry, and likely some others are likely to be angry at some point, so likely up to half the people around you or more could be angry. The data for 2021 has not come out yet, but I am afraid it is not likely to buck the trend.
Today in St. Luke’s Gospel we hear about some other people who are angry. At first, things seem to be going well for Jesus. St. Luke tells us that “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” It does not take long, though, before things start to change course. They realize, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” Now you can imagine being one of those people, the ones who saw Mary and Joseph bringing Him to the synagogue on the Sabbath, whose children played with Him in the streets, and the ones who were His friends at school. And now He has some surprising things to tell them.
Christ knows what is in their hearts, and as they begin to question His authority, He ups the ante. He makes it clear that He will not be performing any spectacular deeds there in His hometown because of their lack of faith. That surely would have upset some folks, but it would not have provoked the intense reaction that we see later when they try to kill Him. That comes for another reason: Christ slights not only the people of Nazareth, but the Jewish people all together.
Christ compares Himself to the prophet Elijah. In the Jewish scriptures, Elijah is the paradigmatic prophet who works incredible miracles – even raising someone from the dead. There is one problem with Elijah, though: He is frequently found outside of the Jewish boundaries, coming into contact with people that our Lord’s contemporaries regarded as unclean and unworthy of this kind of attention.
In the Old Testament, it is clear that God is gathering the Jewish people to Himself, but that He also desires to extend the same love that He is showing to them to the rest of the world too. There are countless references to the gentiles coming to know Him. The people of Christ’s day, though, had lost sight of this. They thought of themselves as having an exclusive claim on God. Everyone else was pretty much out of luck.
St. Luke’s Gospel, more so than any of the others, was written for converts to Christianity from the world of the gentiles. He makes it clear at the very outset that Christ’s offer of salvation is universal. This is what fills the people in the synagogue here at the beginning of His public ministry with fury and leads them to attempt to murder the Lord. Having lost sight of God’s universal promise of salvation, the fact that our Lord claims to both be the Messiah and to have come for the gentiles is a contradiction in terms. He must be a blasphemer, an enemy of God, an offence meriting death.
The residents of Nazareth are not willing to accept a Messiah who isn’t just there for them. In doing so, they illustrate the mob mentality that we find so often in our own day, which so often rushes to judgment without knowing the facts of a case. The point here is not so much the innocence or guilt of any particular person, but the kind of society that trades in righteous indignation – the kind of society in which it’s normal to be angry.
You might be familiar with the term “moral relativism.” It refers to the belief that there isn’t any absolute truth – just what is true for me and true for you, the two of which may or may not ever intersect. Until recently, I thought that moral relativism – the belief that there is not anything we can all know as true – was the greatest intellectual and cultural threat to the Gospel in our world. Now I’m not so sure. We might be in danger not from moral relativism – from people who claim it’s impossible to know anything as definitively true – but from people who are far too sure that they do know the truth, and who are really angry about it.
Social media increasingly give people an outlet for their anger at any and all opportunities. Everyone now has the chance to be important and to garner attention. The angrier and obscener the post or comment, the more attention it gathers.
Instead of the angry mob that rushes to judgment because it cannot bear to be challenged, St. Paul proposes something very different today. “When I was a child,” he writes, “I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” Throwing temper tantrums is childlike, and yet we now live in a society that glorifies that response, that insists that everyone must have a dramatic and public reaction to every supposed slight and injury, that encourages those who traffic in outrage to outdo each other for our attention. This is not behaving like adults, but like children. The adult response is not righteous indignation, but love.
When St. Paul talks about love, though, he is talking about a challenging form of love. This is a love that “does not rejoice over wrongdoing,” that does not exult when one’s enemies are exposed to boisterous public refutation when they make a misstep. This is a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is a love that earnestly desires the conversion of the enemies of the Gospel, not out of a vengeful sense of vindication, but out of a genuine sadness that anyone would choose to live in the darkness of error. This is a love that is “not pompous, … inflated … rude, [nor] seek[ing] its own interests.” Yet our society glorifies precisely that: pompous, inflated, and rude commentary that seeks its own interests, that rejoices in the embarrassment of its enemies, and that belittles others. Anger and the attention it provokes (with the accompanying sense of both relief and delight in the approval of others) become a deadly cycle.
Anger only exists on a social level because it exists on a personal level. What can each one of us do, then, to make ourselves less angry and more loving? First we need to understand what anger is. Anger starts as a passion or an emotion. As a feeling, anger is not sinful because it isn’t a choice. Anger becomes sinful when we choose to cultivate that risky passion, giving ourselves more and more reasons to be angry, or giving in to inordinate outbursts and displays of anger. Anger can become a grave or mortal sin when it leads us to plot vengeance against someone, especially their death or grave harm.
So how, then, do we stop the passion or emotion of anger from turning into sins of anger? Maybe you have heard the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” When we are consuming the anger that our society has turned into a highly sellable commodity, we will find that anger coming right back out of us. In order not to be overcome with anger, you need to limit your unnecessary exposure to things that make you angry. For most people, that means limiting the time you spend consuming traditional or social media, both of which regularly traffic in precisely this sort of provocation. Anger causes a vicious cycle. We feel a temporary release from expressing what is welling up inside of us, but one display of righteous indignation is never enough, and before long it will take even greater displays of outrage to draw our attention.
There are, though, things in this world about which we ought to be angry, with which we ought to express our disagreement, evils to which we must stand up. But our Lord calls us to us to a respectful and charitable engagement with others that shows true love in the pursuit of truth. Rather than the indignation and outrage promoted by news programs and many social media feeds, we should, out of true love for others, seek to convince them of the truth through respectful and dispassionate engagement. Otherwise, we become like those people in the synagogue at Nazareth, who cannot stand even the slightest suggestion that they might not have everything figured out.
The passion of anger can also be a powerful tool for good. It can motivate us to work to right injustices that are present in the world if we harness and direct it well. (Jesus was certainly and justly filled with the passion of anger when he made a whip of cords to drive the money changers from the Temple.) Righteous anger is also the correct response to an evil that we do not have the power to fix. However, it is misused by the mob mentality from every side of the political and moral spectrum in which people set themselves up as the judges of their brothers and become consumers and producers of rage and indignation. Rather than giving into this cycle of anger, the Christian response to evil in the world is a thoughtful, careful, and respectful engagement with others that is not pompous, inflated, and rude but rather shows true charity towards the other. Otherwise, we are likely to end up like the people in the synagogue at Nazareth who were so angry that they rejected and attempted to kill the very Lord of Lords in their midst.
True charity and respect have the power to win hearts for the Gospel. We must be confident that the Truth will ultimately prevail, because the One who died and rose for our sins is Truth Himself, and He has indeed won the contest over the prince of this world. God does not need your anger or righteous indignation – He desires your love.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII
Image: Theodoor Rombouts, Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple, oil on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp