Over the past several weeks, there has been a commercial on television for Activia yogurt, featuring Sarah Thomas, the first female referee in the NFL. In the commercial, Thomas asks a series of questions beginning with the question, “Where does it come from?” Then she asks, “Was if my refusal to accept that an NFL official was a man’s job? Was it to show my daughter that she can be anything that she wants to be?” At the end of the commercial, in answer to the question “Where does it come from,” Thomas says, “It starts on the inside.” It starts on the inside. That idea, the idea that everything starts from in here, captures the meaning of what Jesus is teaching the people in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Jesus knew that outward actions begin with the inward state of the heart. So, when outward actions are loving and gracious, merciful and filled with compassion, then it means that in the heart there is love, grace, mercy and compassion. On the other hand, when outward actions are hurtful, underhanded, vengeful, and violent, then it means that in the heart there is anger, deceit, vengeance, and violence. As Jesus was talking to people, he knew that were carrying anger in their hearts. The people were angry at the presence of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets as a reminder that the people of Israel were not free. The common folk were angry at the religious leaders for imposing the law of God in such a way that it had become an impossible burden to carry. On the other hand, the religious leaders were angry at having to put up with people who were so inferior with respect to following the law. On top of that, everyone was angry at being ruled by a false, puppet king named Herod, who served Rome more than the people of Israel. Because of this anger in their hearts, the people wanted to unleash their anger on anyone who got in their way, even if unleashing their anger led to violence and murder. That is why Jesus says, “It all starts in here.” Take care of this and the rest will follow. As a matter of fact, taking care of this is so important to Jesus that worship itself is allowed to be put on hold until this is taken care of. Jesus told the people, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Though times have changed, the possibility of carrying anger in our hearts towards others hasn’t changed. It is just as easy to do today as it was back then, though for different reasons. We carry anger in our hearts towards others when they have hurt us, and sometimes that anger is very hard to let go. We carry anger in our hearts towards others when we think we have been slighted even though the actions of others may have had nothing to do with us. We carry anger in our hearts towards others when we see people taking advantage of others, or cheating the system to get their own way without being caught. Sometimes, carrying anger in our hearts is as simple as watching the wrong team win the Super Bowl. Whatever the reason, we find it easy to carry anger in our hearts towards others.
The problem, of course, is that the human heart cannot carry both anger towards others and the love and light of God. They are incompatible. The heart only has room for one of them, and Jesus would tell us that it is our outwards actions which bear witness to what we are carrying in our hearts. A theologian, named Tom Wright, in reference to this passage asks the question, “How can anger be diffused, and prevented from spilling out into violence?” As I thought about his questions, I found myself wanting to restate it in a slightly different way. The question I ask is this, “How can we dislodge the anger from our hearts so that in its place the love and light of God can find a home?” The answer, of course, is Jesus, and our ability to focus upon him more than upon our anger.
There is a hymn that we are going to sing a little later during communion. It is called, Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. This song reminds me of the spiritual exercise of contemplation which is when one focuses attention on something very specific and as a way of focusing one’s mind on Jesus. So, for example, one might look at the cross, or a stained glass window. One might contemplate a Scripture verse, or the elements of communion. For example, in our book club, we are reading about Mother Teresa. We read that in the last months of her life when she was in the hospital, when she couldn’t get out of bed or really do anything else, all Mother Teresa wanted to do was stare at the Monstrance. The Monstrance was what the Catholic Priest would use to hold the communion bread. Part of it was made of glass so one could see the communion bread inside of it. A monstrance was brought to Mother Teresa’s bedside at the hospital so that she could look at it as a constant reminder of Jesus’ love and what he had done for her, and for the world, through his sacrifice.
This idea of turning our eyes upon Jesus provides a means for us to dislodge the anger in our hearts so that the love and light of God can find a home. Turning one’s eyes upon Jesus is the means by which we can carry in our hearts love instead of anger. This is something that I learned the hard way several years ago. Truth be told, I am still learning this lesson.
But, back in 2007, I was asked by Pittsburgh Presbytery to be part of an investigative committee. The purpose of an investigative committee is to investigate allegations of wrong doing on the part of ministers and elders in the church. If the committee finds that there is enough evidence to support the allegations, then the committee will file charges against the person, and that is what we did. We charged a minister in our presbytery with violating the Book of Order. Filing charges was not the end of the process, though, because the investigative committee then became the prosecuting committee; it was our job to try the case. Well, the case did not go our way and when it was all over, I found myself carrying around a lot of anger in my heart because of the verdict and because of some other things that had happened during the trial. The anger that I was carrying around in my heart was directed towards some of the people who were involved with the trial, including the defendant. The anger was so bad that I didn’t even want to be in the same room with these people. Which mean that, I stopped going to Presbytery Meetings, for several years. In addition, the anger that I was carrying around in my heart kept me from worshiping with my colleagues, which is something that we do at every Presbytery Meeting.
One day, I decided that I had been away long enough, so I went to a Presbytery Meeting. I don’t know what made me decide to go. Perhaps, it was guilt that I had missed so many. Nevertheless, I went and during worship, we were celebrating communion and we were doing it the same way we normally do it here at Montours. We were going forward and taking communion by intinction. So, I got into one of the lines to go forward and I looked over at another line and saw someone with whom I had been angry, and for a second the anger flared up in my heart until I turned back and looked at the communion table. That is when it hit me. I didn’t deserve to come to that table, yet, Jesus was inviting me anyway. I looked over at the person with whom I was angry and I thought, she doesn’t deserve to come to the table, yet, Jesus had invited her also. Then I started looking at everyone who was walking towards the communion table and I thought there is not one person in this sanctuary who deserves to come to the table, yet, Jesus has invited them as well. I was learning something that day. Every person who comes to the Lord’s Table is hurt, and broken, and a sinner. At the same time, every person who comes to the Lord’s Table is loved unconditionally, has been forgiven, and is being made whole. In that moment, I learned a truth. When I turn my eyes upon Jesus, the anger falls away. When I turn my eyes upon Jesus my feeling of self-righteous superiority vaporizes. When I turn my eyes upon Jesus, the darkness begins to give way to the light. And, in case you are wondering, this isn’t a lesson to be learned just once. This is a lesson to be learned every day.
Jesus made it clear that everything we do outwardly has its starting point here in our heart. If our outward actions are hurtful then it means that we are carrying anger or some other form of darkness in our hearts. If our outward actions are loving, then it means that we are carrying love or some other form of light in our hearts. Our hearts cannot carry both darkness and light. It is for that reason that Jesus invites us to focus upon him so that in our hearts the darkness can be dislodged and the light and love of God can find a home.