What the World Needs Now
Sermon for Epiphany 6, Feb. 12, 2017
Based on Matthew 5: 21-26
The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Pastor George Martin
The title of my sermon is “What the World Needs Now” — what I’m going to talk about isn’t love. If you can please turn off the song in your heads.
I like to tell you that the sermon was one where all the pieces just flowed together, but that wasn’t the case. I would personally mistrust the preacher who said oh it’s easy to preach on Jesus’s message. I certainly wouldn’t trust a pastor and I hope you wouldn’t either, one who said “We should never get angry.” I can’t say that. I do get angry.
Jesus does say that anger that continues can make one liable to a hell of fire. I do have trouble with part of this gospel.
Actually in my office I have a copy of an old ad that I was somewhat responsible for creating back around 1979. I have in my hand and the headline says “if all you want from churches hellfire and brimstone, burn this ad.”
I don’t think I’m alone and having trouble with some of the harsh and difficult stories in the New Testament where violence is done to those who have done wrong. There actually are eight stories in Matthew, four of which are original to Matthew, and four of which are shared with the other synoptic Gospels in which we find some kind of violence — with weeds cast into a hellish wire or saying that there are those who are sent into eternal punishment. We will have to confront stories like this from Matthew’s gospel later this year.
Right now I’m teaching about the St. Paul in our Forum time and I’ll lead a Lenten bible study on Galatians. I got into this work because there was a Paul I didn’t like. That’s Paul in the first three chapters of Romans, especially where he says that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Maybe I’m not alone in being troubled by what clearly is called “the anger of God.”
So maybe what the world needs now, is really some sense of anger about all the injustice and the oppression that goes on in this world. There are some deeds that ought not to be tolerated. And as Eli Weisel said at the trial of the Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie, we must not forget what happened. He said, “Justice without memory is an incomplete justice, false and unjust.” So not only is there something called righteous anger, there is also memory of what happened.
When Jesus, compared anger to murder, and said that we should come to terms quickly with another person when there’s been a disagreement, is he saying we should simply forget what happened? Don’t we usually have a very clear memory of various wrongs done to us? Aren’t we able in a narrative form able to reconstruct the conversation or the series of deeds that caused us to feel wronged? Don’t we keep reconstructing that story over and over again? And yes, we do. And maybe it’s that’s the reality Jesus wanted us to understand.
But he compared “anger” to “murder”? That can’t be right. But isn’t that what happens over and over again? Story after story of someone who loses their critical ability to think and all the emotions in the frontal cortex of their brains take over and they lash out in violence. We’ve all been prone to do that. Later we look back, and we may ask, “What was I thinking.” And the answer is obvious. We weren’t thinking.
Let’s go back to the story of anger. The repetition of what went wrong is what one philosopher described as “Resentment is a storytelling passion.” We all know people who do this. I do it too. And, truth be told, it’s very easy to reconstruct the wrongs of life into good stories—but not necessarily healthy stories. And sometimes we tell those stories over and over.
The author Rebecca Solnit said that we tend to “grant immortality to an old injury.” Ah that’s the danger. They live on. They aren’t forgotten. They are enhanced, even embellished in memory, still stirring even in the night when they even appear in our dreams. Indeed they may become a malignancy. The geography of our emotions leads us on the positive side of things to make new friends. That same geography, though, in the context of anger, especially the anger nurtured in constant repetition, may end up preserving and strengthening the walls we created at first with the anger. Nurtured it can become resentment and the story that drives us away from each other. We know those who once were friends and are no longer, by what they did to us.
Notice by the way, the progression in what Jesus understands about human nature when we are angry. He said, If you get angry with a brother or sister, your liable to judgment.
Then: If you insult a brother or sister, your liable to the council.
Then: If you say. “You fool” which in Greek is “Moria” or our word for Moron. So “If you say You Moron, you’re liable to the hell of fire.” There it is again. I don’t like it, but it’s there.
I think there’s a three fold progression meant here. “Liable to judgment.” First, from the one with whom you are angry.
Second: There is the council. That means the community matters. And that is a critical theme throughout Matthew’s gospel. We are the ekkesia, Cburch, those called to be in Christ, and we are always affected when someone in community isn’t living the Christ story. Especially is they are continually angry.
Third, the hell of fire. The part I don’t like. God in the wings, so to speak. I think we can find some redemption though here…just not yet.
Then we have this curious example of Jesus. It’s a little parable he told. “When you’re at the altar, in worship, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; be reconciled to you brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Notice the amazing 180 degree shift in the anger story. It begins with me. My anger, my insult, my name calling. And how does it end? This is actually where it starts to hurt, but hurt in a good way.
For the first time, maybe in a long time, and this is what Jesus said, “You remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” How could this be? You mean there are always two sides to this story? Do you mean that my story of what happened, my story of the wrong, isn’t the only story?
And finally, as far as God is concerned, is there just one story we should be able to tell? And the answer is “Yes.” Just one story.
So in 1986 I took my nineteen years of being a pastor and offered to start a new church in Eagan for the Episcopal church. Many new churches were planted then and I became really good friends with Pastor Larry Smith starting All Saints Lutheran church. I think you know I came here with lots of Lutheran connections.
One of the gifts of God to our new church was Sarah who played a marvelous guitar, and she knew lots of good contemporary church music. [Sarah isn’t her real name, by the way.] For years our new church community grew and grew and her music was a major part of that story. She really loved the Lord, appreciated liturgy, and sang like an angel.
And then we had a difference of opinion. It’s part of life. You can think back to the past week when you had a difference of opinion, and you’re still in touch with the one who differed with you. I can’t tell you what it was that caused Sarah and I to see our relationship rip apart as it did. I know that I had my narrative of wrong, and I knew she had hers. It turned out we both carried with those memories a sense of deep regret and loss. Sarah and her family left our new church, and we did not speak to one another for years.
My friend Mark is part of this story. (Mark isn’t his real name.) Mark was a former Lutheran pastor. He was in secular work when I met him. We discovered that we both loved White Castle hamburgers. We usually went to the White Castle at the corner of University and Lexington in St. Paul. Then Mark was discovered to have what turned out to be un-curable cancer. His funeral was at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, and it was a large turnout for a great man. After the funeral service I hesitated about going to the reception, but decided to go. As I stood in line for some coffee and the luncheon sandwich, I saw Sarah across that crowded dining room. She waved, and without hesitation, almost like, she was leaving her gift at the altar, she came and said, “I have to talk with you. Will you join me?”
“Of course,” I said. Breathing something like relief. Starting to let go of a burden.
And there we sat, hands reaching out across the table. Two people, alone in a very crowded noisy room, with the years we had traveled together and then for years had gone our separate ways. We now met again. We sat across from each other with tears in our eyes, saying “I’m sorry.” Echoing one another. Asking “Can we be friends again?” And nodding our heads as you do when say “Amen” and say “God be in this moment.” It wasn’t a prayer that God might be, it was a prayer of blessing that God was in that moment. It was Eucharist with coffee, sandwiches, and tears.
We talked just the other day. And I’m sending Sarah a copy of this sermon. It feels so good to do so.
It is our anger, not God’s, that creates the hell into which, I believe, we condemn ourselves. My image of God waiting in the wings, is simply that. The Holy One waiting until we discover that what the world needs now, and always has, and always will need is reconciliation. And with reconciliation comes forgiveness. But one more thing can come and that is “forgetfulness.”
The anger harbored in memory keeps the hurt, the moment, and the self-righteousness alive —even for years. But when there’s true reconciliation and forgiveness, we may enter a time when the forgiven sin is forgotten.
It was Isaiah, the prophet who declared
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)
God forgets the former things.
And Jesus who said that what we all need is to be reconciled to one another.
 Miroslav, Volf, Embrace and Exclusion
 Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby