Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2018 || Proper 14B || Ephesians 4:25–5:2
It is so good to be back with you here at St. Mark’s after my three weeks of vacation. I’ve never been much for adventurous vacations; I seek only rest, and I got rest in spades during my time away. I also spent much time with my children, who turned four during my vacation. They received their first soccer ball from their Nana and Papa, and I had a great time teaching them how to kick it. I also continued my personal project of reading books that are helping me understand my place in the reality of race and racism in the United States. I read two excellent books during vacation: Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey and The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. If you’d like to learn more about what I’m reading right now, let me know after the service.
All that being said, I’m so happy to back, so let’s talk anger.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul exhorts the people of the Church in Ephesus, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Be angry but do not sin.
Now, this might seem like a contradiction to some of us. Perhaps in your family growing up, displaying any negative emotion such as anger earned you a one-way ticket to your room. An outburst of anger at the dinner table might have been met with awkward, shunning silence, or else a stern talking to. The only time I got truly angry – and I mean really, really mad – while playing soccer in high school, our team was losing about 10-1, and our opponents were just laughing and toying with us. I got fed up, and on a goal kick, I went up for the ball with someone from the opposing team, and I just laid him out on the ground. I got yellow-carded for that. It should have been a red card. I should have been sent off for my angry behavior.
I’m sure we’ve all been punished at one time or another for such anger, and so we’ve built up an emotional diagram that places anger only in the negative zone. To become angry is bad, and therefore we should strive not to become so. I am possessed of a short temper, which flares up and down in quick succession. And I hate how it feels when I let my anger get the better of me. So I try hard not to let it.
Because we place anger in the negative zone, we might wonder about the exhortation from the Paul to the Ephesians. Be angry! What? I’m supposed to be angry? I thought I was trying to avoid anger, or else I might get red-carded! No, says Paul, you’re trying to avoid sin, not anger. This would be impossible if we lumped anger into the bucket labeled “sin.” But Paul doesn’t do that. “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin.”
Paul recognizes that anger is a really useful emotion when deployed properly. Anger is one of the basic, primal emotions, which can transmit so much important data to us once we move past the moment when we see red. When we feel anger, some sort of violation has occurred and triggered that feeling within us. Somehow we have been invaded, and our anger can point us in the direction of the invasion. When I got mad during the high school soccer game, the violation was against my self-worth. The opponents were not respecting our team because we weren’t as good at soccer. Did this excuse my behavior? No, for I failed the second half of Paul’s direction. I got angry and then I sinned by taking my anger out on my opponent.
Oftentimes our anger springs from violations against our worldviews. We spend a great deal of conscious and unconscious thought constructing the world around us and making meaning for ourselves. When that worldview is challenged, anger is the most likely result. Sometimes, however, the anger we feel is righteous anger, anger about some facet of the state of the world that we have just awoken to. In these cases, the violation is a good one because it breaks down the walls that we had been using to isolate ourselves from the truth of things.
The anger here is twofold: first, there is anger directed at the real state of the world. And second, there is anger directed at ourselves for ignoring that real state for so long. The reason I’m currently reading books about race and racism like the ones I mentioned earlier is because I’m in the middle of this angry revelation about my place in the system of racism in the United States. And I’m trying to learn how I can become part of the solution to it. I prefer the fire of this anger over the cold ash of apathy that I had before. And I think this is what Paul means when he says, “Be angry but do not sin.”
For, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Sometimes a little anger knocks us out of our willfulness and helps us align more fully with God’s dream of healing and reconciliation for all people.
I wonder what makes you angry? This week I invite you to bring this question to God in prayer. Surely there are the day to day annoyances that impinge on your time, but dig deeper than that. What about the brokenness in this world ignites a fire in your belly? What brings about that righteous anger inside you? In these places of anger, how is God speaking to you? What is God calling you to do?
So many of us are taught to avoid anger at all costs. It’s unseemly. It’s disruptive. But sometimes, a little disruption is a good thing, especially when we take the time to reflect and pray on the trigger for our anger. For such anger might be ushering us into the real state of the world. And once we’re there, with God’s help, we can offer ourselves to work to make the broken whole.