I was surprised to read in the newsletter that I was preaching on hell and anger; not because I didn’t know I was going to preach on these subjects or because I’m not going to, but because it wasn’t my first choice of topics. I attended our former pastor, Vince Amlin’s course on sermon writing. It was my intention to write my personal manifesto, my life philosophy sprinkled with my favorite pop psychology tips for good living, to write my one and only sermon, my first and last. But instead Vince passed around a basket and I lifted out a slip of paper with Matthew 5:21-26 typed on it. When he told us that sermon writing is about expanding and interpreting a passage in the Bible I was surprised. He was surprised that I didn’t know that. I looked around the group to see if anyone else was disappointed that they wouldn’t be preaching about what they thought they would. Everybody looked pretty stoic.
After hearing in that Bible passage that you are in danger of the fire of hell if you get angry, if you are anything like me, now you’re angry and therefore already judged and in danger of the fire of hell. I get angry when I read in the Bible that Jesus says something that is so judgmental and threatening. Really? If I get angry, I’m in danger of the fire of hell? This sort of rhetoric has led me, in the past, to disregard anything from the Bible that doesn’t sit well with my beliefs. I can’t say I got very far into Christianity before I abandoned the religion altogether. It took me listening to an Indian Guru to interpret Jesus’ words in such a way that I could come to give Christianity a chance. I am so happy to have found the United Church of Christ denomination. UCG was the first church that I ever attended without walking out feeling angry. It has been my church home for 33yrs and I enjoy the interpretations of the Bible that I find here. When I was 17 my best friend told me matter of factly that I was going to hell because Jesus wasn’t my savior. I was certainly dismayed to hear this and began exploring because of this fear. Until now I have never heard about a hell that I could even imagine really exists. I managed to avoid the dilemma of hell until I picked this Bible passage out of Vince Amlin’s hat. I really needed to find out about this hell to which Jesus was referring.
In my research I found that hell, in the recorded Jewish history of the Old Testament, is an actual place, called Hinnom, located in a deep, narrow valley, lying southeast of Jerusalem. Here, worshippers of the Pagan God Moloch, burned babies alive as sacrifices. (2 Kings 23:10). Eventually, the Jewish King, Josiah, stopped the practice and to make sure that pagans wouldn’t want to go there, had the valley completely polluted with sewage and garbage from the city. Hinnom became the place where criminals were sent to meet their end with a fiery death.\
Jews don’t have an eternal version of hell in which to send sinners. Jews have no definitive declarations about the afterlife. Rabbis generally agree that it is more important to have good works done here on Earth than to worry about what will happen when you die. In the Old Testament, the finality of death is emphasized: the dead are like dust unto dust from Genesis 3:19-20. We will all die, we are like water spilled out on the ground which can’t be gathered again, from 2 Samuel 14. So if Jesus was Jewish and there was no eternal hell found in the Old Testament how the hell did the Christians get stuck with eternal damnation?
The New Testament was written in Greek. This seems strange, since you might think it would be written in either Hebrew or Aramaic. However, during the time the New Testament was written, Greek was the language of scholarship (50 to 100 AD). Much later the Old Testament was translated into Greek. Rabbi Marc Gellman, writes “The nuances as well as the clear meanings of the original words are lost in translation. This is not just because of the limitations of transferring meanings from one language into another. It is because translations are also interpretations.”
It’s my supposition that the Greeks added some of their own mythology to the Bible when they recorded the stories. Greek mythology has the idea of an eternal after life. Hades, himself, makes decisions about the worthiness and placement of each soul. The soul has the potential to enter four vastly different areas, based on the person’s crimes or his accomplishments in life. The worst place one can go is called the fields of punishment, which most resembles what we think of as hell. Paradise, found on Elysium’s isle of the Blessed is more like heaven. The Greek underworld is not just a place of damnation for the wicked but also a place for sorting all dead souls. The modern Christians’ view of hell has been refined over the centuries by religious authorities that hope to scare people into right action. I was compelled to discuss hell before I move on to anger and resentment because I get so angry when I’m told I’m going to hell; and I had to, once and for all, understand a hell that I can truly believe in.
In the scripture reading, Jesus reminds us that in the Old Testament the law says that murderers shall be judged and punished for their crime but Jesus ups the ante in the New Testament, and says, if you are angry and call your brother good-for-nothing or fool, you will be judged. This seems at first hearing, very upsetting. Jesus himself, got angry when he cleared the temple of moneychangers (Mark 11:15-18) and another time, when the Pharisees refused to answer Jesus’ questions, “Jesus looked at them in anger”, calling them “serpents, and a brood of vipers”(Mark 3:5). Can Jesus’ anger be excused because it was righteous? Well, I should be excused too because I only get righteously angry! I only get angry when others are not doing what I think they should, or they’re lazy, or lying, or are doing something hurtful, or stupid.
Emmet Fox, says that Jesus rarely means what he says. So what does Jesus mean when he says, “you will be judged” for your anger? I believe it’s a way to get people of faith to take their own anger and resentment seriously. In the next portion of the passage Jesus says, if you have come to church to pray and realize that your brother or your adversary has something against you, go settle the matter quickly before you come to church. I find it is very hard to go to my adversary and settle things quickly. I would rather sit and stew, or rail to my loved ones about the injustices made against me by the offender while they are safely out of earshot. I replay events and usually conclude that I have done everything right and can’t imagine a reason why I am being wronged.
I am in another faith community that takes resentment and anger seriously. I’m an “old timer” to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have the family disease of Alcoholism but have symptoms other than actual alcohol abuse. The Big Book of AA says that, “a life lived full of resentment leads to futility and unhappiness, and is perhaps even fatal. If we permit these resentments, we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile.” Pastor Bell, from Austin Texas talks about the real hell we feel when he says, “The more we indulge our anger, the more it consumes us, distorts our perspective on all of life, ruins our other relationships, eats away at our health, and turns us into bitter old men and women.”
In my extended family there have been long standing resentments, concerning unwanted evangelism, another about the lack of support by relatives during the death of my father, and an odd schism, I’d like to tell you about. I’ve heard the story from both sides, explaining the reason they don’t speak. But I must not have all the facts. One of these family members is 89 years old and still does not speak to one of her daughters who had a partner who was of another race and from their union was born a child, now in his 30’s. Right after his birth, my aunt left some baby clothes on the front stoop of her daughter and son in law’s apartment and didn’t knock on the door. My cousin thought her mother wouldn’t come in to the house and had rejected her baby because of prejudice. My aunt says didn’t knock on the door because she was afraid of waking up the baby during his nap. They haven’t spoken since. This lingering resentment between them makes us all heart sick. Weddings and funerals were nail biters, wondering who would show, who would concede their presence for the other. To this day, my poor cousin lives in isolation with only the company of her sick husband. After many additional hurts, she and her son have lost all communication with extended family.
The big book of AA offers a solution to harboring resentment. It asks us to put out of our minds the wrongs others had done, and to look resolutely at our own mistakes. We avoid retaliation or argument. The big book also offers us this prayer, “We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘this is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done’.” I say this prayer over and over again, actually, it is suggested to say it twice a day for two weeks or until the resentment is gone. I say this prayer to relieve my anxiety whenever I feel resentment. I am rarely fearful of eternal damnation from God’s judgment, but I am fearful of a heart attack and the hell that I create within myself. I hate the way my body and my mind feel when I am mad at somebody. I have to relieve myself of it as quickly as possible. I don’t have any tolerance for the feeling any more. Negative thinking and resentment condemn me to a present and a future hell.
To the extent I can let go of resentment is the extent of my happiness. I use the method found in the Big Book. I ask myself “why am I angry?” Usually I feel threatened and fearful. I look for my mistakes that I have made with my neighbor. Where I am to blame? I apologize and make amends for my part of the deal. I admit my wrong as soon as possible because I hate the burn of lingering resentment over night, over days. I don’t like to squander the hours that could have been worthwhile. I try to avoid retaliation and argument. I reason things out with someone else before I face my adversary; I ask this 3rd party to help me look objectively into my resentment. I can blow off some steam before I have to apologize. I have found to work beautifully to give me a better life.
I’ve studied how to have an uncomfortable conversation that leads to a resolution with another person, instead of getting into a bigger fight with more hurt feelings. There is a method and it’s important to learn. Everybody deserves to be heard, to be understood, to be in the good company of a family that loves and respects each other. May God grant us the willingness to do as Jesus asks. Amen.