Over the last several weeks, really since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ve been more aware, I think of the continual violence that seems to rock our nation. It might be hard to judge whether the stream of senseless murders, assaults and other acts of violence have increased or I’m simply more aware, especially when the weapon of choice is a gun. I’ll be the first to admit that I have little affection for the arguments that begin with “Guns don’t kill; people kill.” Of course people are the ones that wield the weapon and act without thought or worse yet, with thought. Anger, greed, despair can lead to the violence Christ speaks of in this long soliloquy as reported in Matthew’s version of The Beatitudes. “You shall not murder…but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment….” There is no doubt that Christ is equating anger with murder when directed toward a “brother or sister”. Those are harsh words.
But, why? We all get angry. It’s a human fault, something we can’t totally escape…anger, resentment, envy. Even our scriptures, the words we hold sacred, describes one brother, who in anger and because of resentment and envy, willfully killing his sibling and then lying about it or at least, trying to. Does that mean we are all doomed to perish in some version of eternal hell-fire?
As we begin this season of Lent, my hope is that we will look more closely at some of the more difficult scriptures in the gospels, the ones that tend to make us squirm a bit. For me, this is a time to wrestle with some scriptural lessons I’d rather lay aside and ignore but, I keep coming back to the essential fact that there is something I can learn from these harsh words, something perhaps I can learn and share with you. And, because we will be looking at these same scripture readings in our Lenten Study as we explore James Moore’s book “Give Up Something Bad for Lent” no doubt I will also be one who receives some new knowledge from those attending one or both of the two classes who will be exploring these themes too.
I’m fairly certain that even a brief reading today through Matthew’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus condemning his listeners to the eternal flames of hell. There is another purpose here. Christ shared our humanity; he knew what it meant to get angry, to be a bit petty, to get caught up in some version of righteousness to the extent that law, even briefly, overshadowed grace. He knew because the scriptures also reveal his humanity to us. We see his goodness, but we also get a glimpse of him as a person like us. He shared our nature and that’s got to count for something.
Getting angry, on occasion may be inevitable; staying angry forever, isn’t. The point of Christ’s words is to remind us of the harm we do to ourselves when we hold grudges, when we are envious or resent others, when we want more than our due, act aggressively, judgmentally, or thoughtlessly. The pain for the other may be very real but the pain to ourselves, the inevitable distance we put between God and our relationship with God can be fatal. In Matthew’s gospel, Christ equates this with the loss of hand or eye. Christ suggests that it would be better to lose these than to lose our souls, to lose the relationship we have with God.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I am far from perfect. Many years ago, I was asked by a friend, another woman clergy to officiate at her wedding. I was thrilled to be asked but I knew full well that my friend had agonized over this occasion. She felt she should have a formal gathering and hold the service in the church she was then serving. She knew she would need to open it to the congregation and invite everyone yet her preference was to have a simple service away from the place where she served among members of her family and her closest friends. On that day, she just wanted to be a bride and not a pastor. Perhaps, against, her better judgment she agreed to the huge affair to be held in her church and before a proper minister, me.
I wished then that I had appreciated the stress she was under but all I could think of was my role…what I would do and say, how I could make the service very personal and specific to the two people whose lives I would be joining together in holy matrimony in front their families and her church congregation. I didn’t read the signs of her distress well at all and instead of being sympathetic to how vulnerable my friend was feeling, I stubbornly wanted to do it my way. Though I eventually gave in and did it her way, I didn’t capitulate graciously. I became resentful and angry and it was pretty obvious even to the most casual observer.
Since then, I have tried to repair the damage. I’ve apologized by letter – all that I really could do I guess – but my apology though received, was not enough to mend the friendship. We haven’t talked since the day of my friend’s wedding reception. That was the last time I saw her…it was the end of an 18 yearlong relationship. I know God forgives me for my stupidity first, because I regretted my actions and my attitude and but most importantly because I offered my sincere apology to my friend and accepted full blame. But it saddens me that my friend never did forgive me. If she had we might have continued sharing a relationship working together to repair the broken trust between us. Because she didn’t forgive me, more than just our broken relationship is at sake and for that, I continue to grieve for her.
We begin this Lent with a different approach to our sacrifices. Giving up something we like…coffee, chocolate, fast foods, whatever those things we love might be but up against the more difficult sacrifices we might label as “something bad” those attitudes and behaviors that hardly due us or God justice and ultimately keep us from God, well, how do you compare the two? Frankly, it is a whole lot easier to let chocolate go for 40 days knowing I’m going to be able to soon eat it again then to accept the indisputable reality of the harm we do to our selves, to those we care about and most importantly, to the relationship we hold with God when we let anger, pettiness, apathy, discouragement, or any number of negative responses rule our lives. Hard as it is to admit our faults and to ask forgiveness for them, hard as it is to intentionally embrace a new way of interacting with others and with God, it does seem less dire than giving up what God is doing in us and for us. There is too much anger in this world. We can only begin with ourselves to make something new and different happen but that’s a good place to begin. It is where Christ is leading us…a place to begin. Speaking of the work of a disciple, a follower of Christ, Christ says, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life. Or what will they give in return for their life?” What will we give in return for our lives? And what will we give up in order to gain Christ. Amen.