As my Uncle Don likes to say, the Swan family descends from a group of very stubborn Swedes, the most stubborn of all being my grandmother. My grandmother was an interesting person. When she wanted to be, she could be the sweetest, most generous person one could ever meet. She and my grandfather had many friends who loved and admired them both.
There was, however, another side of my grandmother’s personality as well. It was a very angry, at times bitter side that was often complicated with her sense of constantly being short changed by others. Its worst manifestation occurred when she was in her sixties. For a reasons still unknown to this day, my grandmother just stopped talking to her sister, my Aunt Edna. When family asked her what the issue was, she would just say that Edna knows. When we asked Aunt Edna, she always claimed she hadn’t a clue but figured Ruthie, my grandmother, would get over it soon enough, she always did.
Well, my grandmother did not get over whatever it was she was upset about. The rift between the two sisters lasted over ten years. My grandmother was so good at cutting someone off from her, she did not even acknowledge her sister at their brother’s funeral five years into the rift.
As I look back on the “feud,” all I can think is how sad it was for both of them. Two sisters, not speaking to each other, neither knowing what the feud was really about, missing out on the support they could have been for each other through those ten years of life. It wasn’t until Edna was diagnosed with cancer that my grandmother finally let go of her anger and the two reunited.
Anger and hurt, they are a natural part of life, I don’t think I know too many people who at one time or another have not been hurt or frustrated by the circumstances of their lives or truly hurt by someone they love. And anger is the natural and reasonable response when we feel betrayed, or violated by someone or something else. What we do with our anger or how we work through our anger can be what makes us or break us as a Christian people.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus states, “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 . . . So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.”
As I read through this passage and reflect on what Jesus is saying to the gathered community, on some level, I begin to see Jesus as the Dr. Phil of his day. Jesus innately understood how destructive anger and enmity is to any community. He also realized the healing power of forgiveness was beneficial, not just to communal and interpersonal relationships but for the individual as well.
Last week during Bambi Carkey’s session on mental health, Bambi discussed how anger is one of the most destructive causes of emotional stress. She talked about how, when we let something small fester within us, the energy the festering generates becomes toxic, and in time can and will negatively impact other parts of our lives. In my grandmother’s case, the anger she had with her sister, not only impacted their relationship, her anger over time isolated her from her other siblings, her nieces and nephews, and at times, her anger carried over towards her own children and grandchildren. As I look at the last thirty years of her life, I realize, my grandmother became a very lonely and isolated old woman trapped by her anger. Sadly, her loneliness and isolation was for the most part of her of own making and even sadder there was no real reason for her to be so lonely.
I wish I could say anger has no place within the context of our community. But to say this would be to deny our reality and to deny what is part of being human. The Church, is as much a human institution as it is a sacred institution. And like any institution it is fraught with our human frailty and therefore contains discord within its very being. While we believe, where two or three are gathered in His name, God is in the midst of us, it is also true that where two or three are gathered together, discord is also present.
There is no denying our reality. The last ten years of our history as a church speaks loudly to the discord that has arisen among us. As I look at the issues and the schism that has transpired these recent years. I wonder if things could have ended differently if both sides had been willing to work through the issues openly and honestly. If instead of arguing the issues through caucuses and position papers, we would had instead listened to each other as individuals, sought to understand the other’s story and truly listened for the voice of the Holy Spirit, how different things could be today. If instead of seeking separation, if both sides had worked towards staying together, unified by Christ while working within a dynamic tension perhaps, the decline we have experienced these past years would be less.
As I ask these questions of the greater church, I also have to ask us the same questions, how different would St. Luke’s be today, if we heeded Christ’s advice and sought reconciliation with our brothers and sisters when conflict and anger arose within each of us?
As a community, we are not any different from most other Episcopal Congregations. As Episcopalians, we do not like conflict. We avoid it whenever and where ever possible. Instead of directly confronting each other, we often do what is typically called triangulation. (Triangulation goes something like this. Person A is offended by person B, but instead speaking with person B directly, person A chose talk to person C, who really cannot do anything to resolve the issue.)
Triangulation is a common way to deal with our anger and discord. It allows us to avoid dealing with emotions that are both uncomfortable and at times may feel overwhelming. Triangulation allows us to avoid being vulnerable and taking the risk of rejection. Triangulation allows us to avoid taking responsibility for the part we may have in the discord. Ultimately triangulation prevents us from resolving the actual issue .
However, when we choose to follow Jesus words to leave our offering at the altar and to seek the one with whom we are in discord, the benefits outweigh the risks. While we may risk being rejected, or having to face our own short comings, we gain the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, we gain the opportunity to experience the grace and mercy of God. Most importantly we gain the opportunity to once again to live in love and charity with a fellow brother or sister in Christ. And there is little else greater or less stressful in the reign of God than to live in love and charity with each other.