This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Christ Church Austin on Feb. 15. Here is the audio.
As you all know if you’ve been with us, we’ve been talking about vocation again in the new year– specifically our common vocation as Christians, and how we are all called to not only particular areas of work in our lives as part of God’s mission in the world – but also in general to wholeness and holiness as disciples of Jesus Christ, loving God and loving others in all that we do.
And we’ve been looking at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, primarily chapter 5. As Father Matt talked about last week, we see that Jesus is telling his disciples – telling us – that we’re salt and light, that we’re a city on a hill! This is what we’re supposed to be. This is who we are. Not abolishing but fulfilling the original intent of the Law. Reflecting God’s character!
And holiness is attractive, it’s evangelistic, it’s compelling. It’s good for us.
I’ve had the chance recently to be part of two different Fuller Cohort retreats with folks from Christ Church. Many of you have heard us talking about this. Fuller Cohorts are one of the main ways that we’re inviting everyone in our church into a dedicated season of vocational and spiritual formation – for one year in a group of about 20 other people and in several small groups, learning new faith practices together and discerning vocation in a community and retreat setting. We’re doing this both with people in our church and with others in the city who are part of other churches as part of our desire to serve and invite others into this beyond just our congregation.
And something we talk about in the Fuller Cohorts is that the most common setback in the journey of discipleship isn’t actually knowing whatto do – it isn’t knowingour calling or vocation exactly– this is often what we are tempted to focus on the most – but rather, the more common setback is actually just being able todowhat God is already calling us to do! Indeed, though sometimes we might lack clarity, we even more often lack the conviction, the courage, or the commitment we need to do what God has asked.
Now, of course we care a lot about vocational discernment and discovering what God is calling us to do in our lives – how we’re gifted, equipped, unique…. And especially as it relates to understanding and appreciating that God cares about all areas, every arena of our lives, and that our daily work is the primary place we’re called to live on mission for God!
But even more important than this, even more primary in our lives as disciples, I think we should say – and even more difficult— is the call to wholeness and holiness, and actually living that out. Doing what God has commanded us to do in loving God and others. It’s easier to know than it is to do. At least, it is for many of us – certainly for me it is!
Because if we ask, for instance, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why is there unhappiness? Why is there so much anger? Why is there so much infidelity? Why is there so much dishonesty/deception? These problems that Jesus talks about in the gospel reading today…
Is there anger, lust/greed or deceit in the world because we don’t know our true vocations? Or because we don’t have our dream jobs or ideal life circumstances? Well, I think that plays a role, and is perhaps partly to blame….
But no, ultimately, that’s not the main reason!No, it isn’t for lack of information about what to do or even how to do it. Rather,we simply are not able to do what God has commanded and called us to because it’s very hard! And we’re prone, we’re predisposed, we’re just incapable of fulfilling God’s law.
In fact one of the most common way we seek to be fulfilled in America, at least for a certain segment of the population, is by pursuing a dream job, career or image of yourself. You know that saying, “Do what you love!” Pursue your passions! If it were only that simple! If it were only that easy…
A friend in the church sent me a quote this week from Eugene Peterson that touched on this very point:
“Having a good job doesn’t mean that we’ll do it well. Having the right role doesn’t guarantee righteousness. Saul, for example, had good work to do, yet he — as Israel’s first king — failed at his job. We can’t look to our job, our positions, for righteousness… Jobs are important. Things need to be done. But no job is perfectly suited for carrying out God’s purposes. The key to living vocationally — that is, being “God-called,” Spirit-annointed — isn’t getting the right job or career but doing kingdom work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.” — Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Peterson is talking about the call to wholeness here– to an integrated life. One in which the chief goal isn’t the right outward appearance, title, job or image, but rather the same character of holiness in every area of our lives, whether at work, at home, or in the community or church.
And in Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus is talking about three big things that get in the way of our wholeness, our wholeness, our integratedness – our love of God and our love of neighbor: Specifically, 1) anger, 2) lust and 3) dishonesty. And I want to spend time primarily on anger today.
“Anger and contempt are twin scourges of the earth. Mingled with greed and sexual lust, these bitter emotions form the poisonous brew in which human existence stands suspended. Few people ever get free of them in this life, and for most of us even old age does not bring relief.” Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 150
If you think about it, is there is anything more human and more pervasive than sex and violence? There’s little wonder that these are the two things that are repeatedly cited as the areas of our greatest problems in life by the media.
Every age, and every era, has its own set of problems and sins. We are not any more sinful today as a human race than we were fifty or a hundred years ago, believe it or not. No, we were just as sinful then as we are now.
However, there are still particular ways that our sin tends to manifest itself that are perhaps more noticeable now than in previous time periods.And it seems to me that there are a few key ways we could characterize our current cultural climate if we’re just looking at our society here in North America: We are angry. We are lustful. We are dishonest.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Now, Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to get mad about some things! In fact, Jesus himself elsewhere models an appropriate righteous indignation toward injustice and hypocrisy.
Indeed, even in this very passage, it seems, Jesus is surely expressing anger particularly at those in the next section who were divorcing their wives for illegitimate reason and because of the lust in their hearts that they had toward other women. Women could almost never divorce men. It was always the other way around, and there were many cases of men taking advantage of this and leaving their wives tremendously vulnerable, disgraced and consigning them to lives of shame or even prostitution. And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus was justifiably mad about this.
But the kind of anger that Jesus is calling sinful here is different. These words, “Raca,” and “You fool,” are expressions that belittles someone and calls for their elimination. To say a person is dead to you, essentially. That you judge them to be worthless. It’s a demeaning, dismissing and dehumanizing statement. It comes from place of contempt and is similar to a feeling of hatred that we might have toward someone.
And it’s a big deal if anger gets a foothold. So much so that Jesus goes on to say, first go and be reconciled! Before you worship. You can’t have right relationship with God when you haven’t done everything you can to have right relationship with your neighbor, your brother or sister. These teachings are not just for individual behavior or relationship with God. These are the social standards of the Kingdom of God. On earth as it is in heaven.
So yes, some of us might really struggle with anger and hatred toward someone, and if so, this calls for repentance and reconciliation. But I also want to suggest that one of the ways anger manifests itself in our time,while it can be like I’ve just described it, more often is in a subtler fashion that’s not always easy to trace. So while we may not necessarily harbor hatred toward one individual or another, but may nonetheless be holding on to anger and letting it fester in other ways that are potentially just as destructive.
Many of us carry a supply of anger around with them.Henry David Thoreau called this a “quiet desperation” that many people just live with. In our time, it might show itself in something as minor as road rage, or maybe just in response to Austin Marathon detours and traffic!
But it could also be something as serious as a mass shooting, of which our country has the highest rate of any other in the world by far…
“Angry people live in angry bodies.” Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Oliver Burkeman, Age of Rage (The Guardian, May 11, 2019):
We’ve built a world that’s very good at generating causes for anger, but not very good at giving us anything constructive to do with it. We live in denser settlements, and thus more frequently have gripes with people who are complete strangers, which means there’s no pre-existing relationship to discuss and process. [I can’t talk to you after you cut me off in traffic!]
We face big, systemic forces that feel very threatening– automation, globalization, etc.– but that offer few ways for individual people or communities to turn their anger into change.
Social media is unsurprisingly one of the best example of this.
The algorithms of the attention economy relentlessly expose us to enraging stories and opinions, for the [simple] reason that anger spreads more virally than other emotions– so you’re more likely to click, like, share and stay glued to Twitter or Facebook when you’re furious…online, the diet of outrage can be customized precisely to include whatever drives you, personally, up the wall. It’s not so much that social media platforms are full of bigoted trolls and [extremists] with [ignorant] opinions, but rather that, however many there really are, the platforms are designed to ensure you can’t avoid the ones who infuriate you the most…
At the same time, however, the targets of online anger are much more likely to be beyond the reach of productive conversation,either because they’re large and vaguely defined constituencies[, or because it’s someone we know but only maintain a virtual relationship with..]
And the ego, our sinful nature, seems to find its energy precisely by having something to oppose!
So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Well, there are all kinds of self-help, anger management and I’m sure techniques and tactics that you’ve heard or could read about, and some of them are probably quite useful. But as Christians whose common identity and calling is based on Christ’s adoption of us and loving sacrifice for our sake, I think the first thing is to remember what God has already done about all of this.
One of the things that’s helpful to remember when it comes to anger is how much Jesus took on not merely the sin of the world on the cross in general, but also anger, lust, and deceit in particular.
When we look at the cross, one of the things that we’re seeing is, yes — God’s extravagant love of us, and yes we see God’s judgment on our sin –but we also see the tragic and horrific outcome of the human cycle of anger, and rivaly, and blame itself, that leads to the murder of an innocent and righteous man. Jesus’s death shows the bankruptcy of all human justice systems, all failed attempts on our part to be righteous judges of each other. Yes, the Roman system was particularly cruel, but our modern systems have brokenness and darkness in them as well.
The Romans, like many empires and civilizations before them, devised a mechanism that they thought would periodically diffuse rebellion and uprising by publicly shaming, blaming, torturing and killing someone for whatever problem their society happened to be facing– whatever was threatening their sense of security in the world at the time. t’s really a distraction tactic, and it only works for a little while before you have to get angry, blame and execute somebody else. Violence only temporarily suppresses the mob.
But what God does is expose us all for what we truly are. A human race universally infected with the virus of anger and violence, and none of us is innocent. No merehuman sacrifice can take away the sins of the world, no scapegoat can possibly carry the weight of all of humanity’s anger and suffering. But God can. And Christ does – in his human and divine nature. Only he can represent all of us. Only he can stand in our place and remove the stain of our self-righteous anger.
The one true victim who really is innocent is also the one who has the power to forgive us for our sins and our anger. And this same Savior tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven. The source of our patience, our long suffering and our own ability to extend mercy to those who anger us is not found within ourselves but is Christ himself. He enables us to resist anger, to resist bitterness and resist resentfulness. His Spirit softens our hearts towards even our enemies.
That God does not condemn us for our violence against Christ which we ourselves commit – that’s the all-sufficient cooling agent we need to put anger aside.
Living into our common vocation to holiness and wholeness draws entirely on this deep well that puts out any and every fire. It reminds us that none of us is important enough to hold a grudge, to remain unforgiving toward someone, or to feel scandalized or offended for too long.
Now it’s important to recognize that there are situations that some of you are in that probably that feel like the exception to this. You’ve been truly hurt and harmed in a way that you never should have been. Forgiveness perhaps feels impossible, and anger never seems to go away. If that’s where you find yourself, know that God is patience with you as well. And that Christ was and is present to your sufferings. Your sufferings were also his sufferings on the cross.
So what I’d like to do to close is to invite you all to take a minute in prayer to simply make room for the Spirit to speak and reveal anything to you– especially concerning whether there’s any anger – or lust, or deceit – in your heart. So I’ll leave a moment of silence now before praying.
Oh God of peace, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love! We rest in our identity in you as your beloved. We long to simply enter into our blessedness and enjoy your presence.
But indeed, we confess that we have anger against our neighbors. We have lust and deceit in our heart, and we want to be rid of these things. Oh God will you sooth our hearts with your comforting and gentle words. Take away our frustration. Release us from contempt, resentment, bitterness and even irritation.
Chase out any anger that resides in us. Lord we know that your perfect sacrifice for our sake takes away the sin and anger and lust and lies of the world.
When we feel angry due to unmet expectations. When pressure and conflict make us feel surrounded, remind us that I am surrounded by your presence. When you are with us, there is no need to win or prove ourselves or be right. Please remove our anger towards others and replace it with trust in your provision and care.
We know that satisfaction can only be found in you. Melt any judgment or unforgiveness that might have a place in us, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.