Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for September 25, 2022:
Matthew 5:21-26: Concerning Anger
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
In a commentary on this scripture, Karoline Lewis describes Matthew 5 as not just being about what a disciple believes but how those beliefs will shape how the disciples will engage with the broader community. She puts it this way: “Who you are as a disciple is not just about you, but about you as a disciple in community.” Matthew 5, more commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, is very much about what beliefs Jesus finds to be central to faith. But, more importantly, I think, is about what kind of right action grows out of those beliefs. While many people are familiar with the first part of Matthew 5, the list of blesseds... blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek... today’s reading is less familiar. But it is no less important. It shows us how to practice what Jesus preached.
An important issue during the era in which the Gospel of Matthew was written was the relationship between following Jewish religious laws and following Jesus. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated to clarifying this issue. The 20 verses before today’s reading do a few things: clarify God’s special consideration for people in distress and on the margins of society, offer the metaphors of salt and light, ubiquitous and necessary aspects of daily life, to help disciples understand their place in the world, and affirm that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. That is a lot to do in 20 verses! That much stuff would take me at least 4 sermons. He does it in 20 verses! Maybe I’m chattier than Jesus. Anyway... All those blessings and metaphors are there to demonstrate how Jesus’ teachings are aligned with the Law. It’s like he is building up to the portions we listened to today, the portion about how to actually live out the values you say you believe.
What is most challenging about Jesus’ teaching in this portion of Matthew is that he knows he is asking for a pretty rigorous set of behaviors from his disciples. He compares the behavior he is expecting of his disciples to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees, known community leaders who led lives of strict religious adherence, were understood to be people seeking righteous lives... people who put a lot of thought into how their religious beliefs shaped their daily actions. While we Christians have often inherited an idea that the Pharisees were somehow bad examples of faith, in reality, they were respected religious interpreters in their community. They were likely what we hope to be... people understood to be devout and faithful and examples to be emulated. When Jesus said that he wanted his disciples to act even more faithfully than the Pharisees, he was intending to set a high bar. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works said that it was like he was saying, think of the most righteous people you know and do even better than them. That is quite the demand!
Dr. Works invites we who are “would-be disciples” to consider what it means to “be bearers of God’s kindom.” To bear something is to carry it forth into the world. What would it mean for us to truly pay attention to how our faith shapes our actions and how those actions help to bring this world closer to the Reign of God. We do not exist by ourselves in the world. Therefore, we must consider how our faith shapes our interactions with other people and other parts of creation. Jesus invites us into a faith that is attentive to relationships. How we are with each other says something about what we believe about God.
In some Bibles, the reading for today is given the subheading “Concerning Anger.” If our faith is to build what Charles L. Campbell calls life-giving relationships in his commentary on this text, we must tend to the things that can keep relationships from being life-giving. While we know anger can be righteous and a reasonable response to injustice, we also know that anger can cause harm and destroy connections among people. So, Jesus, tackles anger through the lens of the commandment against murder. He acknowledges, rightly I think, that murder is often rooted in intense and unmanaged feelings of anger. So, if you want to be more righteous than the most righteous person you know, you won’t just not murder people, you will also make amends with those whom you have wronged or made angry.
He asserts that reconciliation should be a foundational religious action. To do so, he starts with the commandment not to murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be subject to judgement.” Then, he goes on to set this commandment as the not the pinnacle of faith to which you are trying to send, but as the floor. This is the place where you start. You build higher expectations on top of this foundational action. From this starting point, you tend to your anger and how it impacts your relationships. Jesus notes that calling someone names out of anger as an example of bending yourself towards the force that could entice you to break your foundational commandment and not to the faith that builds life-giving relationship. If you feel this happening, you should take stock of what is going on and begin to work for reconciliation.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney notes that it is clear that it the duty of the one who has done wrong to begin the amend-making process. That’s what the part that says “if you remember that your sibling in Christ has something against you” means. If you know that you have harmed someone, it is your responsibility to go to them to make amends. In many Christian circles, and in society writ large, it often seems that the ones who have been wronged are pushed first to forgiveness, without asking the ones who have done wrong to initiate an act of reconciliation. Dr. Gafney describes this a “disruption of a power curve: it is not up to victim to demand justice, nor should it be; rather the moral imperative belongs to the one accused of wrong.”
I find Dr. Gafney’s point to be both challenging and faithful. What does it mean for Christians, and Christian institutions, to understand that acknowledging and seeking reconciliation for the ways we have participated in wrongs is an act of confession and repentance that is at the heart of our worship. Jesus says if you find yourself preparing to enter into a time and space of worship, and you know that you have wronged someone, rather than prioritize that rituals that bring you closer to God, you should prioritize the reconciliation with your neighbor and sibling. In fact, he says that you can't truly fulfill your religious obligations until you've done this work.
This week, a Jewish colleague, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, shared an article called “The Year of Better Apologies” by Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman. It is written specifically for a Jewish audience that is celebrating the current holy season of amend-making and penance before the upcoming Jewish new year. I’ll share it with this sermon, because I think there is real wisdom we can learn in it about how to offer more sincere and faithful apologies. Dr. Gafney rightly notes that Christian traditions have too often neglected the practice of apology in our rush to receive grace. And, we all know that a good apology can be hard. But, it is worth our attention, and, according to Jesus, necessary for us to help bear the reign of God’s love and justice into the world. May we make better apologies and, in so doing, find ourselves growing closer to Christ and to each other.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3157
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday After Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 21 (Closest to September 28)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
The Year of Better Apologies: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better-apologies/?fbclid=IwAR3aklAvO1TgT37sPqjke6TlpaKakny4fHRkrZnL2QlX7b5LtCTT_AbtxlQ
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
To Make the Wounded Whole: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
A mourner’s bench is a site of Christian conversion. Charles G. Finney, one of the most influential preachers of the Second Great Awakening, developed the practice of having what he called mourner’s bench, which would also become known as an anxious bench, right up front at the revival meetings, next to the pulpit. As people were spiritually and emotionally compelled by Finney’s powerful sermons and the general intensity of the services, they would physically move from their seats in the congregation up to the mourner’s bench. According to scholar Jay Mazzocchi, the physical movement to the mourner’s bench was a visible sign of the person internal conversion... a sign that they were ready “abandon their life of sin” and follow Jesus.
The ones who had been convicted by the Holy Spirit might weep or pray aloud or testify to their guilt and salvation. The preacher and others who had already had similar conversion experiences might pray with them and encourage them. It could be a raucous and moving and terrifying spectacle to witness. The practice was so powerful that it spread beyond the ministry of Charles Finney, who first utilized them in the 1820’s. There are still congregations that use them, and an adjacent practice called at altar call, to this day. I know many people who cite altar calls and mourner’s benches as vital parts of the development of their Christian faith. I also know many people who describe them as places of spiritual coercion and shame. Both things are true and we should hold both truths together when we hear about a mourner’s bench.
“Mourner’s Bench” is also the title of the central solo in a longer dance piece called Southern Landscape. Lousiana-born, Chicago-raised Talley Beatty choreographed this piece in 1947, inspired by Howard Fast’s novel Freedom Road. In a recent talk about Beatty’s work, Dr. John Perpener described Fast’s novel as a fictionalized recounting of a true story from Reconstruction- era South Carolina, where, like other parts of the defeated Confederacy, formerly enslaved people were able to build coalition communities and governments with poor white people. When the federal government abandoned the protections of Reconstruction, removing the troops who had kept former-slave owners from retaliating against the formerly enslaved, the Klan and other white supremacists were able to destroy many of these coalitions and communities, usually with violence. In Freedom Road, they siege a community, killing many of the Black inhabitants as they tried to protect their homes.
Beatty, whose own family had had to leave Louisiana due to threats from white men who were trying to coerce his father into selling them his land, was deeply moved by Freedom Road. Dr. Perpener quotes Beatty as saying “It was staggering” how cruel people could be. In an interview for the documentary Free To Dance, Beatty say that he was “compelled to do this dance.” In the talk that I watched in preparation for this sermon, Dr. Perpener said Beatty, like other Black choreographers of the same era, would craft pieces that were, at once “part socio-political commentary, part fiery protest and resistance, and part desolate commemorative.” Beatty, in an act of resistance, places his commentary and grief within the bounds of the mourner’s bench, a common part of so many of the lives touched by racialized violence.
Perpener argues that Beatty is making use of one particular idea about the mourner’s bench. In many Black churches, the mourner’s bench was a site of redemption, salvation, rebirth, and spiritual renewal. The figure in the dance, who has just buried his friends, family members, and neighbors under the cover of darkness so as to hide from the still lurking Klan, has come to the mourner’s bench to grieve was has been done to him and to the people he loved. Unlike Finney’s raucous revivals or even a typical Sunday service, the mourner is alone, with only the Spirit to pray over him and guide him through his grief. In his description of the dance, Beatty said that every movement, from the wide-open arms to the curling into his chest, is the mourner’s reflection on the horrific events of the day. Beatty described the dance as both a group expression of grief and one individual’s personal grief.
In his talk, Perpener reminds us that the mourner’s bench is a site of transformation. When we remember that fact, it become clearer why this man, who is not lamenting his own sin but the sinful actions done to him and his community, would choose to grieve on the mourner’s bench. In choreographing this tremendous grief in a physical space known to represent transformation, we witness Beatty’s creative shifting the meaning of the mourner’s bench from a place of repentance of the sinful to a space of welcome to the grief-stricken. The dancer does not need to repent. He does need to be healed. Beatty, in what Perpener calls “artistic license,” and I might call theological imagination, wants to find a measure of transformative healing for the man and community represented in the dance. That healing begins by holding space for deep grief right on the mourner’s bench, the site where many people were welcomed into Christian community for the very first time. Transformation comes through recognizing that grief is a part of faith, not something shameful to be hidden away in the midst of it.
As we watch the dancer, we see the potential for healing transformation, even as he is wracked with grief. Remember the ways he moves across and around the bench. He still reaches out and up, he still opens himself to the possibility of comfort and healing, even though, by the end, it is clear that the healing is still in the hoped-for-future, not the freshly painful present. And, the song that accompanies this grief is a hymn... a hymn that quotes the deeply grieving words of the prophet Jeremiah. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
I don’t know if Talley Beatty was thinking of all those words when he danced this grief across the mourner’s bench, but I cannot imagine a piece that could more clearly captures the emotions of this text. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. I feel like I know more about Jeremiah because I have watched this dance. In a commentary on the Jeremiah text, Dr. Steed Davidson describes today’s reading as “recognition of the consequences of disaster and destruction.” To me, the consequences of destruction are written all over the dancer’s face and body as he grieves. It should be remembered that the dance and the scripture speak of different kinds of disaster, of grief in response to different kinds of trauma.
We should note that Jeremiah often thought the people deserved the pain they got where Beatty absolutely did not. However, we can still hold this dance and this scripture together and be reminded that grief is a reasonable response to tragedy. Anyone who expects us not to show our pain after significant loss or tries to ignore the pain of trauma that affects an entire community is disregarding the lessons of both Jeremiah and “Mourner’s Bench.” Grief does not need to be hidden away. Transformation can come, but the grief must be felt, deeply, in a space made for renewal and rebirth. Beatty found that space on the mourner’s bench. We can make that space in our church and our community. We need not forget the losses that pain us. And, our grief need not be a beautiful as Beatty’s dance. But, it needs to be felt. And, God will be right there, on the bench, with us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jay Mazzocchi's definition of Mourners Bench: https://www.ncpedia.org/mourners-bench
Talley Beatty talking about Mourner's Bench: https://www.thirteen.org/freetodance/about/interviews/beatty2.html
I am grateful for John Perpener's work, which I encountered in these two forms:
Love is the Only Solution, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56342 [retrieved September 6, 2022]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5653108193 – Thomas Hawk.
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
The Victory of Mercy: James 2:8-13
Even though I was a pretty religious kid and college student, at some point, when I was in seminary, I realized that I didn’t know much about the book of James. I learned that Martin Luther, the great reformer, once called James a “right strawy epistle.” That means he had some theological issues with it. Since I grew up in one of the denominations that more strictly adheres to his interpretation of Christianity, it makes sense that I wouldn’t have learned as much about this book as others (though current Lutheran denominations have a less conflicted relationship to this book). From what I remember from my Bible courses, Luther was concerned about the part of James that I like that best, that is the clear instruction to do good works as a reflection of your faith.
Luther worried that people would think that they could buy their way into God’s good graces by working hard, which, fair. Plenty of sketchy wealthy people donate money to philanthropic causes in order to hide the ways that they take advantage of their employees and hurt the environment. I know such people would try hiding their abusive actions from Jesus the same way if they could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not share the same concerns as Martin Luther. I believe that our faith should direct our actions and, even when we don’t understand exactly who or what or how God is, the Gospel guides us on the actions that we can take as followers of Christ. I think Jesus is revealed in actions in the world as much as in whatever we think in our brains and feeling in our hearts. And, James really wants to make sure Christian faith is a holistic faith, a faith of actions, as well as beliefs.
In his commentary on James, Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder says that the goal of the entire epistle is to urge “those who call themselves Christian to adopt a courageous faith that will help them cope effectively with the trials of life, and will produce in them heightened moral integrity and loving actions.” The book of James is credited to Jesus’ brother James, who eventually became the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. In his introduction to the book of James, he shares that this whole epistle probably began as a sermon James preached shortly before he was killed for his faith. Then, maybe 15 years later, a skilled writer added to it and edited it, then shared it with other churches.
The new letter would have been passed from one church to another, particularly to churches that were part of the Diaspora of Jewish people who didn’t necessarily live in Jerusalem anymore but would still understand that a leader from Jerusalem had a measure of authority. While we have recently talked about Paul’s letters to church made up of either a mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians or that were wholly Gentile, this letter that we call James was for Jewish followers of Christ who needed help navigating what Felder calls a “tension between their allegiance to the Torah and their newfound faith in Jesus.” It can be difficult to tell when Christianity stopped simply being a part of Judaism and became a whole separate religion. Felder argues that this book is probably one of the parts of the New Testament that shows us most clearly the theological and practical concerns of those who called themselves both Jewish and followers of Christ.
Works. That’s a central theme of this text. Works are the things that you do because of your faith. Or, as Feld describes them, “the acts that spring from the love of the believer for God.” Chapter Two of James is about a particular action, that favoritism based on social class, and whether or not this kind of action is acceptable in their faith. The short answer is: No. It’s not. You could probably guess that even if you’ve never read a word of this epistle. But, it was an issue then and, frankly, is still an issue now. People who are perceived as wealthy continue to be treated with higher measures of respect and held to lower standards of accountability than people perceived as being poor. James reminds us that while that behavior is common, that doesn’t mean it’s Christian.
In the verses leading up to today’s reading, a particular discriminatory behavior is described. People wearing fine clothes and jewelry who visit the assembly of Christians may be offered a seat and be given a warm welcome while people who appear poor are told to stand or sit on the floor at someone else’s feet. Scripture here is clear: this kind of behavior is evidence of evil thoughts. In verse 5, James says “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom of heaven that God has promised to those who love God?” James assumes, and I think this is in line with Torah, that God has a particular concern for the poor and that poor people should be treated with the same kind of respect as one would treat an heir of a wealthy family. Moreover, James points out the way that wealthy people abuse their power, particularly the ways that they drag poor people to court. Then, as now, poor people were less likely to be treated well in court and had fewer resources with which to defend themselves.
For James, to show favoritism of the wealthy is to forget one of the most important parts of the Law and the Gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. The author and editor of this text go on to equate favoritism of the wealthy with other behaviors that go against the Commandments. In doing so, James is making it clear: the wealthy should have no favored place in Christian community. They should not be granted more rights or more respect or more care. To mistreat the poor is to mistreat a neighbor and that goes against the Torah. For these Christians, who very much uphold the Torah as a guide for everyday living, that would be important to hear. It would show them how to actually live out their faith... give them one specific way to clearly act in accordance to both the religious law handed down to them from their forbearers and the interpretations of that law passed along from Jesus.
Act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. That unfamiliar phrase seems to has with how one offers mercy. Liberty does not mean the freedom to do whatever you want. Liberty means the freedom to choose behaviors that reflect your faith. In this case, it means choosing mercy. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney says that the Christian is encouraged here to “deal with each other in mercy rather than judgement, assuring mercy for ourselves at our judgement.” The ones who deserve the most mercy are the ones for whom God has particular care, that is, the poor and those who struggle financially. To do right by the poor is to achieve victory through mercy. As you go through this week, especially with all these conversations about means testing and who deserves forgiveness... as you yourself have the opportunity to decide how to live out your faith, I hope you remember this text and think about what it means to choose mercy. For James, this is question of mercy is foundational to the Gospel. How will you live like it is foundational to your own faith?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 18 (Closest to September 7th)" Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Cain Hope Felder, "introduction to the book of James," The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.