When he was ten years old, Dwight Eisenhower wanted to go trick-or-treating with his older brothers. His parents said he was too young. As he watched his brothers head out, he pleaded with his parents. They remained firm, he was too young. At that, he was engulfed by uncontrolled rage. He turned red. His hair bristled. Weeping and screaming he rushed into the front yard and began pounding his fists into the trunk of an apple tree. He pounded so hard he scraped the skin off, leaving his hands bloody and torn.
His father, in the way of countless other fathers, gave him something to cry about, lashing him with a hickory stick and sending him to bed. An hour later, still sobbing into his pillow, his mother came to him. She sat silently next to him. After a time, she quoted Proverbs 16, “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.” Then, as she put salve and bandages on his torn hands, she gently told him to beware of anger and hatred burning inside. Hatred is futile, she said, and only harms the person who harbors it. Eisenhower would fight a life-long battle to control anger and rage.
Especially during his presidency, Eisenhower presented himself as a genial country boy with an easy smile. The truth was, it was a façade. In fact, his temper was legendary. Subordinates looked for signs of looming fury, White House staffers noticed he always wore brown suits when in a foul temper. Aides would watch for his West Wing approach and shout “Brown suit today!” as a warning.
Late in life, reflecting on that long ago Halloween night conversation with his mother, Eisenhower wrote: “I have always looked back on that conversation as one of the most valuable moments of my life. To my youthful mind, it seemed to me that she talked for hours, but I suppose the affair was ended in fifteen or twenty minutes. At least she got me to acknowledge that I was wrong and I felt enough ease in my mind to fall off to sleep.”
Jesus offers us tough words as part of the Sermon on the Mount; three chapters of ethical teaching that form the core of Matthew’s Gospel. Last week, in the previous text, Jesus told the crowd that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. That does not mean that he is replacing or belittling or watering down the law. Instead Jesus is embodying the law, putting flesh on the law, and digging underneath the law in order to find God’s deeper values and vision which the law points to.
And then Jesus takes this abstract idea and makes it concrete, giving six examples of how the word becomes flesh in the realities of our everyday lives. And as usual, Jesus is neither polite nor diplomatic. He takes on murder, adultery, divorce, lust, legal game playing and political revenge. And he tells us that if we cannot embody love and reconciliation in our personal lives, reconciliation in the world is doomed.
Today’s particular words focus on anger and they are addressed to the bickering, resentful bitter parts inside us. As a good Jew, Jesus starts with the Ten Commandments –Thou shalt not kill—but then he digs even deeper. He suggests that each one of us is a murderer. Each one of us is a killer of life and love when we harbor anger and contempt toward anyone. Jesus makes it clear that the hard part of reconciliation must start with us –with our decision to be reconciled to God and to neighbor. And we are to do this no matter who is at fault. Like Eisenhower, we are tasked with controlling the unchecked rage that can burn inside.
Plato once imagined the spiritual journey as a chariot moving through the wilderness of life, with the soul as the charioteer trying to rein two powerful horses: the horse of anger or passion and the horse of reason and order. Plato understood that both passion and reason can be life-giving, but only when they are held in dynamic tension, only when each power neutralizes the potential destruction of the other. This morning Jesus tells us that we must balance the passion of anger with the discipline and reason of love. And he tells us that the law of love can best be fulfilled, not through rules, but through relationships.
The word Jesus uses means a particular kind of anger. He is not talking about short bursts of annoyance or frustration. Rather he is talking about the brooding, pervasive kind of animosity that can eat away at us – a kind of leprosy of the soul. This toxic poison destroys relationships and leads to malicious gossip, to character assassination and to destruction of lives and reputations.
And lest we be tempted to excuse ourselves from such ugly behavior, I invite you to reflect on your own lives for a minute. Do you remember the last person you gossiped about or maligned? How frequently do you label or stereotype others who may disagree with you? How willing are you to savor animosity and bitterness toward a friend or family member in order to hold onto your own hurt, your own self-righteousness, your own brokenness and pain?
Every time I open Facebook, or pay attention to other social media, righteous indignation wells up within me as I note the viscous names hurled at people who think as I do. My indignation quickly leads me to yearn for retaliation, to label them, to put them in a box…. How easy is it to turn other people into a category, rather than seeing them each as a beloved child of God who just happens to see things differently than I do.
What Jesus is suggesting this morning is that all our political convictions and theological pontifications about reconciliation mean absolutely nothing if we are not committed to healing and forgiveness in our family, in our community, in our nation. Several years ago, Aaron Miller changed his career. For 25 years he had been an analyst in the State dept. He rose to be one of the chief negotiators for peace in the Middle East. Then he changed the venue of his work. Rather than operating at the global, political level, he decided to work at the local, personal level. He became President of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization that tries to enable reconciliation between Arab and Israeli teenagers through one-on-one encounters. Mr. Miller was convinced that the only hope left was at the grassroots level.
Miller quoted a young participant in the Seeds for Peace program, who said, “In order to make peace with your enemy, you have to make war with yourself.” In other words, we must battle our own hateful instincts. Or, to paraphrase Jesus, before you offer your peace plans on the altar of world opinion, first go and be reconciled to your brother or your sister. For love, according to scripture, is not irritable, or arrogant or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There is a true story of two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbor, and the two men lived in cold, defiant enmity for years. Then one day a fire destroyed the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his future appeared doomed. Except that the next morning he woke up and found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields – and if so, why. The answer was clear: “Aye,” the former enemy said. “I plowed your fields so that God can live.”
Friends, hard-core Christian love is not about affection and friendship. It is not about aligning your Facebook posts or your Twitter tweets with the like-minded. It is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is about a law deeper than litigation. It is about the law of grace and the power of resurrection.
This day, if any of us feel estranged from God, it is not because God has moved away from us. It is because we have moved away from God. We have become distanced by all the anger and brokenness and disappointment in the relationships of this world.
A passage from “Little Gidding,” by T.S. Eliot is this:
“And all shall be well and/
All manner of thing shall be well/
When…the fire and the rose are one.”
In the words of A Brief Statement of Faith:
“In everlasting love,,,God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.”
Like a father who welcomes prodigals…
To God be the glory, the good news of the gospel.
© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved