Sermon 9/22/19: Anger Doesn’t Work. Text: James 1:19-22

Sermon at Kinmundy and Wesley United Methodist Church on 9/8/19. Title: Anger Doesn’t Work. Text: James 1:19-22, Matthew 5:21-26. Audio link – Right-click, open in new tab to play: Kinmundy; Wesley. Right-click, open in new tab to view slides as a PDF: Slides.


From that time, it says in Matthew 4:17, Jesus began to preach saying: “Repent!”

And the implication of that is that Jesus wanted this world to change. Jesus wanted us to change. Jesus wanted things to be different.

And the kingdom of God is here – So, it’s time. Things are possible now that were not possible a year ago. Might not be possible a year from now, but right now, there is the opportunity for change.

I want to tell you a story that comes from Zen Buddhism. It’s called Even Hell. And here’s how the story goes.

A man came upon a priest sitting in mediation and asked, “Is there a heaven and a hell?”

The priest paused for a moment and then looked up and said, “Who is asking?”

The man declared with great pride and a haughtiness of voice, “I, a samurai warrior, am asking.” The priest looked upon the man and began deriding him saying, “A samurai? You, a samurai? Why look at you. Your clothes are in tatters. Your hair is a mess and you stink. Why you are no samurai. You’re a beggar. Look at yourself. You are nothing but skin and bones. Not only are you not a samurai, but you are not even a very good beggar. I doubt if you have eaten in days. Why I bet you’re so weak that you can not even raise your sword.”

At the torrent of abuse, the samurai became filled with rage, and he reached over his shoulder to pull his sword out and cut the head off of the holy man. And as the sword was raised up high for the killing stroke, the holy man said calmly, “Behold the gates of hell.”

The samurai immediately understood. And he fell to his knees and he cried out how sorry he was. And very quietly, the Zen master said, “Behold the gates of heaven.”

In our society today, in our culture today, look at the news, read the newspaper, look through what’s online, look through what’s on Facebook. We are a society that is filled with anger, and it’s a free-floating anger. We come filled with it even if we cannot remember a reason for it. You see, there’s anger leftover from everything that happens to us, and it sort of piles up inside of us, and it’s ready to explode.

And the culture makes it worse. Watch a television show, watch a movie, and you will see again, and again, and again the message: the reason you lost is because you don’t want it. But if you’ll get angry enough, you’ll win. And people get angry, and they win. In fact, there are people who believe that all you have to do to get what you want in this world is yell loud enough and long enough, and everybody will change so that you can get what you want, just because you were angry.

Now, there are a lot of sincere people in this world, but I’m astonished in how often they want to go out and protest something. They want to carry a sign that complains about something in the world. A sign that says, “We’re better than this.” But I have not noticed that anyone is changed because of somebody waving a sign in someone else’s face. It doesn’t work. The fact that you are angry doesn’t concern someone else.

But you know why we do it? It’s easy, and it’s fun to go out there and just give somebody a piece of your mind. But guess what? It just hardens the opposition on the other side. Anger doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, we believe it does. Anger doesn’t work.

I wish I had a picture of Becky. This is not a picture of Becky. Becky was a wonderful kindergarten teacher in a church I served about 20 years ago. She was such a wonderful kindergarten teacher. She actually won Illinois Teacher of the Year. She was the sweetest, kindest, most saintly person, perhaps that I’ve ever met. And she did kindergarten with Headstart with children in poverty, with children who were struggling. And you know something, she had no problem with them because she was just that nice.

But as nice as she was, she had the boss from hell. I went to a workshop once where her boss was leading the workshop, and I could immediately see that Becky was right. This lady was the meanest elementary school principal I had ever seen in my life. And Becky came to me, and she said, “Pastor, I’m really having trouble with my emotions because when she comes in the door, I am so stressed. I am so upset that I don’t know what to do about my emotion.”

And she said, “Because I don’t know what to do about my emotions, I’m beginning to get angry. I’m beginning to get defensive, and I’m beginning to get to the point to where I’m very afraid that I’m going to say something to her that kindergarten teachers never say. And maybe that will be my last day to be a kindergarten teacher.”

I said, “I’m so sorry about this. What can I do?”

And Becky and I talked, and I finally said to her, “Becky, there’s only one thing that I can imagine that you could do, and that is to pray for your boss. So, when she says something mean to you, ask God to be kind to her. When she treats you unfairly, ask God to treat her generously. And whatever she does, pray for good to happen in her life.”

Because we both agreed the only reason her boss was like this was because she also was very unhappy in her own life, and took it out on everybody around her.

And so Becky began, with her teeth gritted, struggling as hard as she could to ask God to be kind to her boss. And after about a month, her feelings began to change, and she began to feel the feelings of kindness and generosity and forgiveness that she was praying for. Because prayer grounds us, and what we pray for becomes real.

James 1:19, Know this, James writes, my beloved brethren, my beloved brothers and sisters, let every man, let every woman, let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the anger of man does not work. It actually says more than that. It says the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. If you want God to act and for good to happen, anger is not something that’s going to work.

On the other hand, it’s becoming more and more the default response of an entire nation. It does not work. And if you have a desire to do what God wants to be done, anger does not work.

Therefore, James says, put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and received with meekness the implanted word. If you want things to change, absorb the word of God. Because the words of Jesus Christ will make their way into your mind like seeds and they will grow there. And that will change you. That will change you. Received with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, not just hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

What are we going to do with all of this negativity and all these feelings of anger and self-righteousness that we all have? And some of us have them in a such a great amount, you can’t hardly stand to be in the room with them. What are we going to do?

We like to pretend that there’s a difference between righteous indignation and simply unrighteous, unjustifiable anger. We want to believe that when someone else is angry unfairly, we can be fair and be angry. That we can be righteous and be angry.

Because we can be like Jesus Christ – He made a whip of cords and cleansed the temple. “I think I heard the pastor tell the church that I should be like Jesus, so I got my whip of cords and I’m ready to go to work. Time to clean house!”

Well, see, here’s the thing: Jesus could be righteous and angry. But when have you or I ever been righteous enough to have anger that’s righteous? I’m good but I’m not that good.
Even Hell, that’s the name of the Zen parable – “Even Hell under the upraised sword” – the idea of it is when the sword is raised up to strike, the area under the upraised sword here, that is the gate of Hell coming open for you to see Hell about to happen.
But there’s a recommendation that comes with this parable, that when you feel this consumed with anger that you’re reaching for a sword, the little proverb is this: There are rapids. There are troublesome times in this life. There are rapids whereby disregarding one’s self, you can float by that temptation, the temptation to lose your temper.
Because you see, when a person gets angrier and angrier, they’re paying attention to themselves. I don’t think this happens in a town like ours, but in large cities in the United States – because someone thinks you disrespected them, you can lose your life. That’s a person who’s focused on themselves.
But if you can learn to disregard yourself, if you can say, “I’m not as important as I think I am.” If you can be humble, if you can fall to your knees, if you can cry out to God, you’ll probably be safe.
Sometimes we have to learn to disregard ourselves and minimize who we are rather than try to magnify ourselves to be the center of attention. If you truly want to go to Heaven, you’re going to want to leave the things of Hell behind.
One of the things you may need to leave behind is the temptation to be angry as a way to feel better because it does not work. Whatever anger you feel in a moment gets put on the pile of anger that’s already inside of you, that’s waiting to explode.

The next time there’s any provocation whatsoever, what you need, friends, you need a “slap bar.” Have any of you ever seen this? This is a “slap bar” – you find them on military bases. And when you’re a serviceman, as you go into the room where you’re working, you always remember to touch the slap bar because you know what you’re working with – I don’t know why they call them this, but they call them squibs. The squib is sort of like a blasting cap. It goes off when you run an electrical current through it. And you know something? The static electricity in your finger is enough to set that little blasting cap off and blow your hand off. You won’t want to do that!

Now, I’m sure that they don’t have a whole pile of 1,000 of these squibs to where, when you touch one, it sets the whole room off. I’m sure that doesn’t happen. But you have to touch the slap bar to ground yourself and release that charge so that it does not cause an explosion.

And prayer can be our slap bar. One of the smartest things you can do, when you’re angry is to not say anything. One of the smartest things you can do when you’re angry is to turn around and walk in the other direction. One of the smartest things you can do when you’re angry is to prevent an explosion is by stepping back from a lit match because you’re full of emotional dynamite. And it’s not safe for you or others to be there in that moment.

One of the smartest things you can do is to go find a slap bar and slap it 10 times. Count to 10. Did your mother tell you that? If 10 doesn’t work, then count to 100. If 100 doesn’t work, count to 1,000.

I used to drive from Central Illinois to Dallas, Texas, at Christmas with my two youngest sons. We started doing that every Christmas, starting when they were four years old and six years old, and it would never fail. 100 miles down the highway, they’d start fighting with each other. Then one would lose his temper. Then the other one would lose his temper. They go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

And dad would just pull over to the side of the road and get his book out. And I said, “Fellows, we’ll wait till you’re not angry anymore. Then we’ll start the trip.” And, of course, you know what they would do. “Well, it’s all his fault. The serpent made me do it, or whatever.” Remember in the Garden of Eden, “It’s all his fault.”

I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re not going to go until you love each other.” At least I have a book to read. I would never do this if I didn’t have a book with me! I get to sit there and read my book for an hour. And eventually, they decide that sitting by the side of the road wasn’t very fun. And they’d begin to change their mind.

But if I needed to argue with them a bit, I would argue a little bit more, because I often said, “We have one little phrase,” I said, “When you lose your temper, you lose … because I’ll be on the side of whichever one keeps his cool.” Well, they didn’t like that at all, but they soon learned that I meant it. But we just sat there until they felt better, then we can drive on to Illinois.

Friends, prayer is our slap bar. We touch the hand of God, and we say, “Lord, take my hand and help me before I say something or do something that I’ll regret the rest of this day, perhaps the rest of my life.” When we forgive, when we know we’re wrong and we fall to our knees, that’s one way to ground yourself. When we fall to our knees and say, “Lord, even though they deserve it, help me not to behave in an unrighteous way.” Because you know something? You can be right about what you’re arguing about but be wrong in how you respond to it. If the gates of heaven open whenever a sinner kneels to repent, may they open for us

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: Let’s have a conversation! Please reflect upon the questions below as you consider the material presented above. In a comment, share your thoughts and additional questions. What would you like to know?

What grabbed your attention?
What is the human need or problem?
What questions do you have about any quotes provided?
Does the Bible say anything about this?
What solutions do you see for the problem?
What specifically could we begin to do to make a change?

Additional Resources

Kinmundy United Methodist Church is located at 308 E. Third Street, Kinmundy, IL 62854. Worship begins at 9 am Sundays. The building is handicap accessible.

Wesley United Methodist Church is located at 3381 Kinoka Raod, Patoka, IL 62875 in the country between Kinmundy and Patoka. Worship begins at 10.45 am Sundays.

VISION: We are a functional family of God, where Jesus is Lord and people grow.
MISSION: Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional. (¶126 of the 2016 Book of Discipline)

Paradigm: There are two kinds of people in this world: people who need to become disciples and disciples who need to become disciple makers.

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