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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Anger Management

Matthew 18:15-20
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
September 4, 2005

We lived in the deep – DEEP – south for three years. There’s a church almost every 100 yards. And believe me, down there, the figure of 100 yards has religious meaning. But this weekend, when the deep south is usually deep in discussion about the starting quarterbacks of Tulane and Miss’sippi State, this weekend the discussion is literally and figuratively much deeper. In a lot of the US Gulf Coast, there USED to be a church every 100 yards. Hurricane Katrina has changed the landscape. This morning, in tents, and in shelters – in open fields littered with debris – churches are gathering and standing together. And if they aren’t reading Psalm 69, even if they don’t say the words out loud, their hearts are speaking the verses with “sighs too deep for words.”

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69

You get the idea that the people in the Psalm are sad. Very sad. But more than that, there’s a little “gotcha” in the last verse there. These people aren’t just sad. They’re tired of waiting on God. They’re getting angry.

The Psalm we read earlier today is a different psalm about waiting for God. But instead of nature flooding up to their necks, the people of God are crying out because another nation has their foot on Israel’s neck. They praise God while they wait for God to pass the ammunition.

Praise the Lord!
Let the faithful exult in glory….
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples. – Psalm 149

Here, the people of God are sick and tired of being oppressed and they’re ready to rise up and break the chains of their oppressors, take back their land, and execute vengeance with blood and chains. THIS will be glory for all the faithful ones, praise the Lord.

Insurance companies are theologians. Did you know that? They have a term for events like Hurricane Katrina. They call them: “Acts of God.” Insurance companies are bad theologians. But we know what they mean. What I’m wondering is, if the Bible gives us permission to get mad – really mad – at human oppressors, does it also give us permission to get really mad at “Acts of God”? Whether the WATERS are strangling your neck or some MAN (or woman) has his foot on your neck, are you not equally justified in your anger?

Does anger, justified or not, have a place in the hearts of Christian men and women, like you and me? Does anger, anger at God have a place in the hearts of faithful people? If the answer to these questions is Yes – and the Bible seems to think it is – what do we do with our anger? Do we indulge anger or manage it?

Everybody gets angry. Well, pretty much everybody. If you believe bumper stickers (and I do) a lot of people don’t get angry. Right across from the sticker that says, “Protected by Smith and Wesson” is the one that says, “I don’t get angry; I just get even.” In one of his movies, Woody Allen says, “I don’t get angry; I just grow a tumor.” These people are special. In a good way, I mean. The rest of us get angry.

Doctors tell us anger is a kissing cousin of fear and both of them grew up in the reptilian backwoods of our brains. Buried down around the holler from the spinal cord is the little knot of brain that tells us, “Get even.” In some brains, that little knot gets a lot of mileage.

We get angry because when God invented humans God built us that way. God put that little knot of brain in there so our ancestors would be smart enough to run from the ancestors of tigers. Their stickers said, “Og no get angry; Og just RUN!!!” And no matter how much medication we take, that little knot of brain is still with us. So the same species that sent a man to the moon is the same species that invented professional wrestling. I’m serious. I’ve been to wrestling matches. Without fear and anger, especially from the grandmothers on the front row, they’d be out of business.

But we digress.

Anger is a part of us. We may not always stop to think about it, but it’s there. God planted it in us. But God also surrounded that little knot of anger with the brains to choose. We can choose whether we’re going to indulge anger or manage it.

Indulging anger. Anger over-indulged is rage. Rage reduces us to animals. God created us to have dominion over the animals, not to turn into them. Rage is anger turned godless. Rage makes suicide bombers walk onto subways. Rage makes men hit their wives. Rage twists itself into acts of unspeakable evil. The Bible never condones the over-indulgence of anger. God hates – and that is the biblical word – God hates those whose rage is a terror to those it oppresses.

But can anger be appropriately indulged? At least, is it OK to express anger without fear that somehow God’s going to smite us?

I watch a lot of children’s videos. Not always out of choice. I have children. In one of the videos, Huckle Cat and his friends, Lowly the Worm and Hilda the Hippo (I’ve seen these a few times), put on a show for the neighborhood parents. In their show, Huckle sings one of the songs we teach kids here at church, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Apparently, Huckle Cat is Presbyterian. But Huckle adds a verse that I’d never heard before: “If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet.” Fourty-four years of singing this song and I’d never heard that verse. Did any of you sing it that way at your church? Not many. Because at church we teach children to, “Be nice.” Be nice because… God is nice. If the original “Happy and You Know It” people wrote the verse about being angry, the church has edited it out.

Nice Christian people have trouble getting angry. Actually, they don’t have any trouble getting angry at all. They have trouble ADMITTING they’re angry. Why? Because Jesus didn’t get angry, they say. He subjected himself to beatings and crucifixion for our salvation. Therefore, logic says, never admit you’re angry and you know it. Not exactly the best logic.

A lot of people remember “the one example” when Jesus got angry – when he overturned the moneychanger’s tables. Truth be told, Jesus got angry way more times than that. We just don’t talk about it very much. Jesus got angry at his disciples, got angry at religious leaders, angry at people who didn’t share their money with the poor. Oddly enough, he didn’t get angry at the people possessed by devils; he healed them. Jesus got angry at the people who tried to possess God. And those people, not even Jesus could heal.

Is it OK to be angry at God when the waters over which you have no control put their foot on your neck? Is it OK to be angry at the people and powers that leave you helpless? Is it OK to indulge your anger just enough for your face to really show it? Today’s Psalms say… Yeah. But here’s the difference: If the psalmists wrote the song, it would go, “If you’re angry and you know it, tell God.” Tell God about it. Your anger isn’t going to hurt God.

Managing anger. Anger management. There was a movie a couple of years ago by that name, the moral of which was, if your new therapist looks like Jack Nicholson, keep shopping. The New Testament today gives a lesson in one method of anger management, straight from Jesus himself.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

It’s not the only biblical method of managing anger, and it might not work in all situations. But it tells us a couple of things. First, people – good, church-going Christian people – are going to get angry at each other. And that’s OK. Second, the good, church-going Christian thing to do is to go and talk to the offending party. Preferably without bringing an attorney. Third, the point of going to resolve the anger isn’t to win the point, and isn’t to exact vengeance. The point of going to the person is to “regain” them. To restore the church – and the person, and you – restore the church to wholeness. Even people who aren’t “nice” have a place at Christ’s table. Who better? Who did Jesus love to eat dinner with? Preachers? Pffew. Gentiles and tax collectors. In other words, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let the church show up at their house for supper.

Jesus ends his lesson in church anger management with a promise: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Normally, when we hear this verse, it’s meant as consolation when only a few show up on Sunday morning. “Don’t fret, preacher. You know what Jesus said.” But oddly enough, the two or three Jesus is talking about aren’t gathered for worship. They’re gathered to fight out their problems. THAT’S where Jesus is when two or three are gathered – right in the thick of it. Maybe he’s got a whistle and a black and white striped shirt. Jesus the referee. But maybe – just maybe -- he’s on the side of the one everybody else thinks is wrong.

Or on the side of the woman who, by a so-called act of God, has lost her home and who won’t go to church and who shakes her fist at heaven in anger.

Or the man who won’t speak to his grown son.

On their side not because they’re right. But because they need someone to stand by them. And who better… than Jesus?