A Sermon on Matthew 5:21-26
When you walk down the hallway toward my office, you can see portraits of about half of the former rectors of this parish. There are 15 pictures of rectors serving tenures ranging from 2 to 43 years. You might also notice a place that seems to be waiting for a portrait of me. It's where the fire extinguisher hangs. I'll leave it up to you as to the meaning that can be made about what a fire extinguisher and I might have in common.
Those pictures might make you curious enough to read the History of All Saints' Parish. If so, you will find, in chapter four, the story of the Rev. Bennett Allen, rector here from 1768 to 1776. An Englishman, Allen followed the Rev. Thomas Bacon, a priest who played the flute for parishioners when he visited them. To borrow a phrase, Bennett Allen was no Thomas Bacon. According to this history's second edition, revised and expanded by members of this parish twenty years ago, Allen "eagerly awaited" Bacon's death, so that he could leave St. Anne's, Annapolis, "the largest and wealthiest parish in the province," for All Saints', Frederick. St. Anne's had "furnished a fitting object for the greedy ambitions" of Mr. Allen, who, ordained in 1759, arrived in Maryland in 1766 from Cambridge, England, with Lord Baltimore as his patron. The history is unclear as to why, exactly, Allen left England. He wanted to leave wealthy St. Anne's, where he served as their "unworthy" rector, because "his income" there, he said, "was not sufficient to supply him with liquor."
"Allen is reported," All Saints' parish history continues, "to have been of handsome personal appearance, aristocratic in his tastes and unusually well-educated. These qualities were, unfortunately and completely, overshadowed by the traits and habits of his life in Maryland, and his picturesque, if not edifying, career earned for him the undoubtedly well-deserved description of 'controversialist, brawler, duelist and sot . . . .'" Then-governor Sharpe considered Lord Baltimore's "wishes a command," and Allen was presented three days after Bacon's death by Governor Sharpe's letter, inducting him, which could never happen in these post-Revolutionary times, as the fifth rector of All Saints'.
As you might imagine, the Vestry was not pleased with the news of their new rector's arrival. "With the same spirit and courage that was to appear a few years later in the protection of American rights and liberties, (they) vigorously opposed his coming and refused to surrender to him the keys of the church." Eight years later, Allen left. Back in England, he finally shot and killed the man whom, during a previous encounter on the streets of Annapolis, he had attempted to beat with his cane. Allen died "a street beggar in London . . . ."
Allen was not the only rector of All Saints' with a controversial, if not dangerous, tenure. William Pendleton, eighteenth rector during six Civil War years, was fifth in his class at West Point and an intimate of General Robert E. Lee. The organizer and founder of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Pendleton was, "by birth, education, personal piety and diligence . . . fully qualified to meet the demands of his position as rector . . . ."
Well, maybe . . . and maybe not. When Pendleton arrived, All Saints' was still worshipping in All Saints' first building, on All Saints' Street. That building was "in every way . . . inappropriate to the financial ability of the congregation and its' members style of private living." He decided it was time for what we now would call a capital campaign. Pendleton's extremely "aggressive" approach to building a new church was "due to . . . military training . . . and . . . was lacking in diplomacy."
His words and deeds were resented by the vestry. He didn't much like them, either. The end result: they severed parochial relations. It was hastened by a sermon . . . in which (Pendleton) "severely and . . . offensively criticized the congregation and the building." He resigned on April 30, 1853, giving six months notice, but the controversy was so bitter that on July 3, he preached his final sermon and left behind "his grievances . . . for the perpetual record," which were removed by the Vestry and replaced with a Vestry statement. After Pendleton left All Saints', he became a general in the Northern Virginia Army.
Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool', you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22).
Those two verses from chapter five of Matthew's gospel account, two verses we just heard, deal with a subject as relevant as the 11 o'clock news: anger. Anger can kill relationships, Jesus tells us, in a way similar to murder. These verses are also a small part of more than a hundred verses from Jesus' longest sermon ever, the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of chapter five, just before he tells them to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Jesus also exhorts them to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Actually, the Greek word means something more like "be complete, be whole, be fully grown." Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, "Grow Up!"
For Christians, growing up in God, growing into what the writer to the Ephesians calls the "full stature of Christ," - spiritual growth is often about learning how to deal with and live into difficult, even life-threatening situations, trusting that God will help us through them. The challenge, sometimes, is that we need to ask for God's help . . . and we do not. Whether it is a cancer diagnosis, a job termination, or the premature death of a loved one; whether it is a major disappointment with a leader - at church or at work or in Washington; whether it is an inability to deal successfully with conflicts that arise in a marriage or in a parish, in a boardroom or in a classroom - at some level, it's about anger management. Regardless of what makes us angry, how are we managing it? With God or without God? Are we becoming more like Jesus, trying to love the people who feel like our enemies and actually praying for them? Are we becoming more like Jesus, more fully grown, more fully grown-up? Are we asking for God's help to deal with anger in "grown up" ways?
During my seminary days I learned that I didn't have a very grown-up understanding of how to feel and deal with my emotions. I have been blessed over my years as priest to work with good psychological and spiritual counselors on my therapeutic "issues." As priest, as person, as follower of Jesus, I need to be as grown up as possible when it comes to managing anger - someone else's or my own. If you don't work it out, the old wisdom goes, you'll act it out.
Has the church "grown up" around issues of anger since Jesus' time? Has our nation made any progress toward dealing with anger since Revolutionary War or Civil War or World War times? Have we "grown up," in dealing with our anger, as a society or nation or world? Or are we still acting out our anger? These days Egypt may have a lesson for us Americans, a lesson about anger. It's hard to believe that the largest Arab nation in the world could undergo that kind of relatively and comparatively non-violent revolution, without the people there having some pretty good anger management skills.
Richard Rohr says his about anger: "The New Testament wisely advises: 'Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger . . . (Ephesians 4:26-27).' . . . That inspired author," Rohr says, "sums it up well: Feel anger, learn what it has to tell you. But do not identify with it, or it will kill you" (On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men, p.148). Let us pray. God, help us in dealing with and managing our anger. Help us to be more like Jesus. AMEN.