James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I had hoped—honestly—that now, in our Gospel readings, we had moved away from all that bread imagery we’ve been hearing over the last several weeks, that we would get a break this morning. Maybe some nice, sweet Gospel reading about lambs or miracles. But…no.
Instead, we get this reading from the Gospel of Mark. One of those finger-shaking scriptures. That list Jesus lays out at the end of the reading for today is a pretty strong and straightforward one. And most of us can feel pretty confident we’re free and clear for the most part.
After all, most of don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, aren’t purposely wicked, are deceitful, don’t slander A few we might not really understand:
avarice (which is just another word for greed)?
licentiousness (which just means immorality, being immoral)?
And folly? What’s so horrible about folly? I’m guilty of that all the time.
But then, there are a few we find might actually hit home a bit, such as Envy and Pride. All right. Yup. I stumble with those. I do.
What it is especially apt about this morning’s Gospel reading is that Jesus takes these ugly things we are capable of doing and uses them to engage fully the Pharisees and the scribes. He takes their condemnation of him about cleanliness and keeps the conversation going regarding cleanliness. He simply takes the conversation up a notch.
You are worried about what defiles the hands. I am concerned with what defiles the heart.
The heart, for Jewish people of Jesus’ day, was truly the center of one’s being. From the heart everything emanated. The heart directed the mind. It directed our thoughts. If your heart was pure, then you were pure. If your heart was evil, then you did evil. If your heart is full of darkness, you live in darkness. Because where your heart leads, your actions follow.
But one we could easily add to this list is one we might not want to admit to. And the only reason I even consider it in this context is because of our reading from the Epistle of James today.
Now, if we did add this to the list, then this would win the prize with me. Now most of you know me as a pretty laid-back kind of person for the most part. I don’t seem to fly off the handle very often. Except when I drive. Luckily, few of you have ever driven with me. And those few of you who have, you don’t anymore.
I am an impatient and grouchy driver. And the things I say—well, let’s just say, it’s best left between me and Jesus.
But I don’t think there have been too many people who have actually seen me completely lose it with anger. Once or twice. But we all live with anger and every so often I am forced to confront my own.
When I do, I find myself experiencing anger in all its force. Anger can be all consuming. When it boils up from within, all other senses seem to shut off. I see red. Like, glaring red. It rages and roils and knocks me—and anyone else around me—around, and in the midst of it, I find I am not only angry, but almost scared by my own anger. Because it can be powerful.
Now, there is such thing as a kind of righteous anger. By righteous here, I’m not talking about self-righteous. I’m not talking about superior kind of anger. I’m talking about “right anger.” And there really is such a thing.
Anger at injustice. Anger at oppression and racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other ugly things out there. Such anger can motivate us and move us forward toward seeing justice and equality.
But…in such cases, we need to be very, very careful with our anger. I need to be careful with my anger Because anger can be a powder keg. It can become something more—and something uncontrollable.
Which only, of course, leads me back to our reading from St. James for this morning. This past week, our reading from James been a special scripture that I have lived with:
“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
He’s not saying you can’t be angry. Just be careful with your anger. By being slow with our anger, we kind of control it. Anger is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with.
But uncontrolled anger needs to be systematically slowed, because it is like poison in our systems. Anger can destroy us and those around us. And, as St. James says, “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we think that by acting out in anger we will gain something, we won’t. The anger may motivate it, but it cannot guide us or sustain us. If we think about our heart as the center of our being—as the center of ourselves, we find that anger truly can poison the heart and therefore the whole system.
When we continue to harbor anger in our hearts, we become a slave to anger. And if we are slave to anger, we can let love flourish. And if we cannot let love flourish, God cannot come and dwell within us. We block out God and we block out the Kingdom of God.
Anger does not help the Kingdom break through into our midst. We are not helping build up the Kingdom when anger rules us. So, these words of James speak strongly to us this morning.
“Be quick to listen, be slow to speak”
We know how speaking sows the seeds of anger. And if we’re speaking, we are not listening. And sometimes, when we listen—truly listen—we find that anger can be defused.
“Be slow to anger”.
I have come to conclusion that it is simply impossible to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we allow anger to rule and flourish, when the storms of anger are raging within us. Anger prevents love. It stifles love. It kills love.
Yes, we can be angry at injustice, but we can’t let it kill love. We can angry at wrongness, but we can’t let it dominate our lives and come between us and our relationship with God and one another.
One of the best books I’ve ever read about anger was a book called Anger by the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. There are so many incredible nuggets of his wisdom in his book, but one of the best is one in which explains that we do allow, at times, the seeds of anger to be watered within us and that when we do that, our anger will grow into unruly weeds.
He also goes on to say that essentially each of us have a wounded child within us. And it is this wounded child, with her or his unhealed wounds, that often feed our adult anger. Because when we’re angry, and we’ve seen this happen, we do often act like wounded children. We cross our arms We get grumpy. We stomp our feet. We throw a tantrum. I love that image!
Another wonderful image he uses is that when we allow anger to fester and grow, our very selves become battlefields between good and evil.
Thay’s advice to us is that we must work hard at now allowing the seeds of our anger to be watered. We must strive, he says, to cultivate the seeds of peacefulness and love within ourselves. We must nurture our wounded child and help her or him to grow up. And we most definitely must not let war rage within us. Because when it does, we are the ones who continue to be hurt the most by our own anger. We are the ones who are most hurt by our anger.
So, in addition to Thich Nhat Hanh, let us listen to St. James from our epistle reading today. Let us use his words as our own personal motto. Let his words speak in us. Let love squeeze out those festering seeds of anger within us. And let us banish from our hearts—the center of our very beings—anything that prevents love from reigning there. Let us banish from it those vices—both easy to banish and difficult to banish—so that the pureness and holiness and wholeness of Christ can reign within us. And if we do, God’s love will settle upon the very center of our being and give us a peace that no anger can destroy.