by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Perhaps because of Jesus’ words today or perhaps because I simply like to be positive, I have always tried to avoid feeling angry. I clench my teeth, speak carefully, reason well, seek solutions, and understand the other person’s actions in the most charitable way possible. I want to say upfront that trying to avoid feeling angry isn’t always helpful because the holding in of anger creates bitterness and usually comes out later in unintended ways. We feel angry when we have been disrespected, when our boundaries are violated, when others intentionally hurt us. And of course, there are all the unintentional hurts as well. It is okay to be angry. AND when we are angry, Jesus encourages us to seek reconciliation with the one with whom we are angry.
This is normally the point in the sermon when I would tell a neat and tidy story about anger and reconciliation, but the truth is that, in thinking about the role anger has played in my life, I cannot speak of it lightly. And my story is neither neat nor tidy. At least for me, anger is almost always coupled with sadness, hurt, and disappointment and sometimes confusion, as in: why would this person do this?
When I was in seminary, I had a close friend with whom I spent significant time every week. Over the course of four years, we logged many hours of conversation about the most joyous and difficult parts of our lives. She is a creative, warm, loving person, and I deeply valued her friendship. I knew it was mutual because she had said so many times. Just after graduation, she moved, not so far away but far enough that I couldn’t simply walk over to her apartment. When she moved, she also moved onto a new phase in her life—as most of us were doing in that summer following graduation. As I had nearly every week for four years, I reached out to her to set up a time for us to get together, but she didn’t return my call. A week later, I called again. A week later, again. When I didn’t hear from her, I reached out to one of our good mutual friends asking if she had heard from our friend. No, my other friend said, she hasn’t returned my calls either. We looked at each other in confusion, hurt, sadness, disappointment, and honestly, anger. What was up? A few months later, after I had moved to Iowa, I picked up the phone to hear my friend’s voice on the other end of the line. I immediately started to cry. “Why didn’t you return my calls?” I asked her. “What happened?” She apologized profusely for her lack of communication, and we went on to make plans to see each other. But she didn’t have an answer for why she had never returned my calls.
Fortunately, my friend and I were able to reconcile, but I’ll be honest: our friendship could not be the same after that. I realized that I had expectations for our friendship that she could not fulfill. Anger, along with sadness, hurt, disappointment, and confusion, is real. It’s hard to reconcile when we have genuinely been wronged. And what is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is NOT ignoring the wrong and allowing our anger and bitterness to compound.
Reconciliation is NOT dealing with the wrong passive-aggressively. Being passive aggressive means saying something unkind or doing something rude to a person instead of just asking the person directly: Can we sit down and talk about this difficult thing?
Reconciliation is NOT allowing an abusive relationship to continue.
Reconciliation IS offering the chance for the relationship to heal by going to the person directly and saying: I felt angry—or hurt or confused or saddened or disappointed—when you did this or said this because of this reason. Can we talk about this?
Reconciliation IS acknowledging that we all make mistakes and being humble about that. We have all wronged someone at one time or another, each one of us. If you are sitting here saying, “I haven’t wronged anyone,” I can tell you for certain that you are lying to yourself.
In our gospel for today, Jesus is in the midst of his Sermon on the Mount, and along with other difficult teachings, he commands his listeners to seek reconciliation when they are angry with someone. He goes so far as to say that being angry is akin to murdering your neighbor in your heart.
One of the standard textual notes for this particular passage is about verse 22. The editors who translated the Greek and Hebrew of the original manuscripts note that there are some ancient authorities who add a phrase to Jesus’ teaching, meaning that there was more than one manuscript and it had a variation. Jesus says in our translation: I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. But some ancient authorities add the phrase “without cause” so that the verse reads: I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister without cause, you will be liable to judgment. And the continuation of Jesus’ command has to do with insulting a brother or sister, what is born of the anger, the inappropriate action that follows anger, not the anger itself. As we discern how to take in and really practice the teaching Jesus shares in the Sermon on the Mount, I would caution against a cut and dried reading because we know the dangers of trying to stuff anger in a way that first century people really didn’t understand. But the command to reconcile before coming to the altar, that is the reason the ancient church began sharing the peace of Christ during worship services. You might have noticed that, in our worship services here at Grace and in many congregations, the sharing of the peace happens not too long before we come to the front of the worship space to receive Holy Communion. We come to the table of Holy Communion together; no one is left out except by their own choice. But as we know from our own experiences, it is difficult to sit and eat with someone if we have an unreconciled wrong between us. So, the sharing of the peace is there as a way not to simply greet others but a venue for reconciliation.
In my wildest pastor dreams, I imagine all of us now getting up and finding someone in this room with whom we need to reconcile and actually sitting down and having the necessary conversation followed by me saying: The peace of Christ be with you always, and you all saying: And also with you. And as you shared the peace with the person with whom you spoke, as you hugged or shook the hand of that person, you would actually be reconciled. And then you would come to the table of Holy Communion together, a table where we are all one in Christ, a table that helps us understand that we are all one body serving God and God’s people, worshiping God as one community despite our differences. I know this is perhaps one of the wildest of all wild pastor dreams, but if you feel so moved, I invite you to do so, to seek reconciliation with a sister or brother who has wronged you or maybe whom you have wronged—maybe after worship today, maybe by emailing the person and setting up a time to meet.
I know it’s so scary. I actually have butterflies in my own stomach now thinking about the emails I might receive. But seeking reconciliation is not only the teaching of Jesus but the only way to really heal relationships.
And if that weren’t good news enough, here’s more. When we come to the table of Holy Communion, we are reconciled to God. For in this meal of bread and wine/fruit of the vine, God promises us forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation. We know better than anyone else all that comes between us and God, and when we come to the table of Holy Communion, with our envy and greed, with our self-centeredness and pride, in the sacrament, God assures us that nothing will come between us and God. For here is God, pouring out God’s own body and blood for our sake. In Christ, we know a God who is determined to be reconciled to us. And for that, we say: Thanks be to God! Amen.