ANGER BEFORE SUNDOWN
A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-5:2
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
It is my great privilege and pleasure to be with all of you today in this sacred place and community called Ascension. I am grateful to God, who has seen fit to deploy me in ministry, one more time. And I am grateful to Polly, Scott, Rosa, members of the Vestry and staff, and the rest of you, who are taking a chance on this aging priest. Together, we begin to finish your season of interim ministry. I say “begin,” mindful of the great sixth century monastic leader, St. Benedict, who taught that, every day, we begin again.
I want to begin by telling you: I will not be preaching on the Gospel text today – or next Sunday, for that matter. Every three years that long, beautiful passage from John’s Gospel about Jesus as the bread of life is sliced and served to us over five consecutive Sundays. Today is the third of those five. I’ll let my bread of life reflections bake a little while longer.
Today, my text is our Epistle, ten verses from the letter written to the Ephesians about the church as the body of Christ. St. Paul may have written this letter, but centuries of scholarship strongly suggest it was crafted by one of Paul’s disciples. I think it’s tailor-made for churches going through transitions or other hard times. One scholar and a spiritual guide, Eugene Peterson, wrote that Ephesians “joins together what has been torn apart in a sin-wrecked world.” Peterson paints his own picture of the body:
Like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, (Ephesians’ writer) “sets” this belief in God into our behavior before God, so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal. Once our attention is called to it, we notice these fractures all over the place. There is hardly a bone in our bodies that has escaped injury, hardly a relationship in city or job, school or church, family or country, that isn’t out of joint or limping in pain. There is much work to be done (The Message).
Sisters and brothers, one question for us, in this brief time we will share, is this: What might be the work of love you and I have been given to do? Today, my answer is found in five of those ten verses from Ephesians we have just heard. Allow me to read those five verses again:
Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear….Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:25-27, 31-32).
I want to focus primarily on the verses about anger. But let’s not miss the wisdom in that first verse: speaking the truth to our neighbors. This verse reminds me of a verse from last Sunday, read here at Church of the Ascension and in all Christian churches who follow our common lectionary. It’s one of my favorites. Here it is: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15).
Speaking the truth in love to our neighbors. Those two verses, in combination, are incredibly important, because truth-telling, even with those neighbors we love, can be terribly difficult and painful. It’s hard to be that grown up, every day! It’s easier to fall silent and think about what we think we dare not say. Our Prayer Book speaks to that kind of silence.
In our Catechism there’s a new version of the Ten Commandments. There, we can find this fresh interpretation of “Thou shalt not bear false witness”: “To tell the truth and not mislead others with our silence” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 8xx). A priest I know loved saying that Episcopalians have Eleven Commandments. The 11th: Thou shalt be nice. We’d often rather be “nice” than tell the truth. But Ephesians invites us to speak the truth in love. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love . . .
This means we’re called to speak the truth of our anger in love. First, we need to admit we do get angry. That’s something nice Episcopalians can find it hard to do. So, allow me. I have a confession to make. Not a confession of sin. That comes later. This is a confession of humanity.
I confess: I get angry. I get angry about silly things, like losing my place in line. I get angry about more important things, like the state of our environment. I get really angry about what happens when we do not take good care of the children of our human family, here and all over the world.
My truth about what makes me angry may well be different from your truth about your anger. The whole truth lies somewhere between us. But how do we speak our truth about anger in love? How do we begin to do that? Might this be some of the love-work you and I are now given to do?
As I’ve reflected on this Ephesians text, I’ve come up with five things I think we need to remember about anger. Here’s Tom’s Top 5 Tips on Anger:
5. Anger is not a sin. What we do with our anger may be. Aristotle said, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person…and to the right degree…and at the right time…and for the right purpose…and in the right way – that is…not easy.” Amen, Brother A! More than 2,300 years later, that’s still true, isn’t it?
Moses got angry. Jesus got angry. Their anger was righteous anger. Aristotle also said that, without the proper amount of anger and without some kind of righteous indignation, we lose the desire to protect our friends from our enemies. Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed a year ago in Charlottesville, said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
We will get angry. We need to. It’s what we do with our anger that matters. As a wise counselor once said to me, “Tom, we either work it out, or we act it out.” What we do with our anger may be “of God.” Or, not so much. We Christians need to seek “the wisdom to know the difference.”
4. Anger is a universal human emotion. On reflection, it can often lead us to another universal human emotion: sadness. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr teaches that, for men, anger is the surface feeling, and, if we dare go deeper, we will inevitably find sadness, grief, loss. I don’t know about you, but when I feel angry, and when I make time to think about my anger, it’s often about what or who I have lost. I’ve been angry about losing stamina. About losing a longtime friendship. I’ve even been angry about losing my parish. Of course, it never was “my” parish, but that’s how it felt.
Here’s an example of anger I think is about a deeper sense of loss. A year ago yesterday, young white men at the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted, “You will not replace us!” I believe their words were an honest expression – not just of anger, but of the fear of loss. The loss of identity. The loss of a way of life. The loss of the future for which they had planned. I don’t agree with either those young men’s conclusions or their behaviors. Yet we share an experience: we fear and have known deep sadness and loss.
3. When we do not respond in a healthy way to our feelings of anger, we contribute to the diminishment of our world. I’m talking about our personal world and our global village. When anger and the deeper sense of sadness are unexamined; when normal, human feelings become behaviors that are unchecked – they can easily lead to violence and destruction.
Another one of my spiritual guides, a Quaker teacher named Parker Palmer, says that violence is what we do when we don’t know what to do with our suffering. Violence can take different forms: physical, verbal, psychological, spiritual. The suffering that leads to violence is rampant in our world today. How do we begin to change that? We start with ourselves.
2. A healthy response to our anger begins with naming it. “It’s anger, and it’s mine.” Are we so nice and polite when we’re angry that we don’t know or don’t want to admit it’s anger? “I’m not angry. I’m just irritated. I’m just annoyed. I’m just disappointed. I’m just hurt. I’m just . . . ” (Fill in the blank.) Anger is a spectrum, from mild irritation to aggressive rage. Speaking of aggression, there’s no aggression quite like passive aggression. “I’m not inviting him, because he never did like my grits…bless his heart.”
With whom and about what am I really, truly angry? More often than not, I get angry with my wife, Eyleen, not because of what she has done or left undone. I get angry with her because she’s available and more forgiving than anyone else. The Mills Brothers, a popular group when my parents were young, had a hit song called, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
1. All you need to do today and every day is to take one, small step toward working on your anger – before the sun goes down. I’m inviting you to do something about your anger. Today, begin – again. Perhaps you can make a date to talk about your anger with someone you trust and love. Let those bones of belief and behavior start knitting together. Before it’s too late. Before the sun sets today – or on the final day of life. Today, take one, small step toward working it out, so you don’t act it out. Take that step, so you won’t ever regret never having done something about your anger.
Sisters and brothers, do it. Just do it, because it’s the loving, Christian thing to do. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love . . .