Lesson: Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
On Thursday morning, as the centering prayer folks gathered, we left a chair empty for a person who usually joins us. Centering prayer starts on time, and sometimes when people arrive a bit late, they end up sitting over in the easy chairs near the library door, instead of around the table with the group. We all feel bad when that happens, as though someone’s been left out of the circle. So someone quipped, “Let’s make sure no one has to commit the sin of sitting in the easy chairs.” We all chuckled, probably because we all know the word “sin” is a loaded word. We know we all mess up sometimes. Sometimes we mess up royally. But the word “sin” implies that we’ve messed up in God’s eyes – raising the stakes considerably. So the first thing I want to do with this passage is move beyond that loaded word. We could spend years talking about a theology of sin – but let’s not. Not this morning. Let’s agree that what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is saying is, “Be angry – but do not make things worse.”
Be angry. But don’t make things worse. This passage picks up just a bit beyond where we left off last week. It’s a letter to the church about the church – how to be Christian and how to be the Christian church, which then, as now, faced threats to unity and community. Today’s verses are a list of ethical instructions, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors that reflect commitment to Christ’s teachings and that help a community to thrive. The passage begins, “So then…” and this is significant. The verses before this urged the readers to take up the new life granted them by God in Christ, and these verses answer the questions, “What will that look like? How do I do that?” The reference to the devil doesn’t need to be taken literally; it’s a warning against any forces outside the community that are capable of undermining its strength.
I love this passage and particularly the verse that is the sermon title. Be angry, but do not sin. Be angry, but don’t make things worse. Part of the reason I love it is that many of us, maybe most of us, grew up being told we shouldn’t be angry, we didn’t have a right to be angry, in some cases we weren’t allowed to be angry. If you grew up Roman Catholic, you probably remember that anger or wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. That’s pretty serious. Women, in particular, struggle with anger. In an article entitled, “Most Women You Know Are Angry — and That’s All Right,” journalist Laurie Penny writes that female anger is taboo. Women know this. I don’t know whether it’s true that most women are angry, but it is true that most women are pretty good at hiding it, having been taught to do so since childhood. Throughout our lives, women are given all sorts of coded messages that anger is shameful, like “Why so hostile?” or “Don’t get hysterical!” Women worry too much about how men and boys will respond to our anger. One of the things we hear most often, either subtly or explicitly, is that angry women are unattractive. Penny writes, “This is supposed to end the discussion, because more than anything else, women and girls are supposed to want to be attractive.” That – that right there – that just might be just one of the reasons most women you know are angry.
And that’s all right. Be angry, but do not sin. Don’t make it worse. In a burst of emotional intelligence that is exceedingly rare in Scripture outside of Jesus himself, this writer acknowledges that it’s okay to have feelings. It’s all right to feel angry. It’s all right to feel anything, in fact – as a society, we still fail to distinguish between emotions and actions, but it’s what we do, not what we feel, that makes the difference between right and wrong – between making things worse, or making things better. What matters is not how angry you feel, but what you do with it. Choosing to control your rage, to use it for good, is better by far than squashing it down or letting it eat you away from inside. Holding on to anger, writes Brené Brown, will make us exhausted and sick. “Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection.”
Externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. Externalized anger – that is, anger that is acted out – makes things worse. People act out their anger most typically in a couple of ways. Either they are belligerent and aggressive – in other words, they use anger to bully people – or they attempt to manipulate people through passive aggressive behavior, coldness, cutting off communication, maybe even closing the door on relationship all together. Both ways of acting out anger make things worse, make positive change or transformation less likely, make connection and understanding less likely.
We see too much anger, too much destructive outrage, in the media, and especially social media. One commentator calls it “bullying for sport.” The way our culture tears apart public figures and not so public figures is one good reason that smart, qualified people are hesitant to run for office or do anything that puts them in the public eye. John Pavlovitz writes, “We aren’t known as a deep people anymore, as much as we are a combustible people.”
But anger can be useful. It can keep you moving and working when you want to give up. It can give you courage when you need it. It can focus your attention on what has to change, in your life, in your community. Anger can be a tool as well as a weapon, and it’s a tool we shouldn’t let rust away and never learn to use.
A number of years ago one of my heroes, Bill Moyers, was invited to give an address at Occidental College in L.A. The title of his speech was, “A Time For Anger, A Call To Action.” You don’t have to read very far into it to pick up that Moyers is angry. Reading it made me angry. He quotes Mark Hanna, the first modern fundraiser in American politics, who said there are two important things in politics. Hanna said, “One is money, and I can’t remember the other one.” Moyers cites the staggering statistics about the growing gap between the rich and poor in this country and then he tells a story about the Stanleys and the Neumanns, two families who live in Milwaukee. Moyers says, “One is black, the other white. The breadwinners in both were laid off in the first wave of downsizing in 1991 as corporations began moving jobs out of the city and then out of the country. In a documentary series my colleagues and I chronicled their efforts over the next decade to cope with the wrenching changes in their lives and to find a place for themselves in the new global economy. They’re the kind of Americans my mother would have called ‘the salt of the earth.’ They love their kids, care about their communities, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week.”
“To make ends meet after the layoffs, both mothers took full-time jobs. Both fathers became seriously ill. When one father had to stay in the hospital two months the family went $30,000 in debt because they didn’t have adequate health care. We were there with our cameras when the bank started to foreclose on the modest home of one family that couldn’t make mortgage payments. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and still getting stiffed. By the end of the decade they were running harder but slipping further behind, and the gap between them and prosperous America was widening.”
“What turns their personal tragedy into a political travesty is that while they are indeed patriotic, they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country. They simply do not think their concerns will ever be addressed by the political, corporate, and media elites who make up our dominant class. They are not cynical, because they are deeply religious people with no capacity for cynicism, but they know the system is rigged against them.”
Moyers quotes The Economist, a pro-business magazine that is perhaps the most influential defender of capitalism on the newsstand. The editors of The Economist looked at growing income and educational inequalities, and concluded that America’s great companies have made it harder than ever “for people to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchies by dint of hard work and self-improvement.” Moyers concludes that “The only answer to organized money is organized people,” but he doesn’t stop there.
He talks about his faith. Moyers is a life-long Christian, raised a Southern Baptist. He’s angry about the fact that Jesus has been “hijacked,” as he puts it, “and turned from a friend of the dispossessed into a guardian of privilege.” And so he talks about the Jesus who fed hungry people, broke down barriers, touched the unclean and brought them back into community. He talks about the Jesus who got angry, whose message of mercy and love was expressed in action that disturbed the peace.
Moyers’ speech shows how anger doesn’t automatically threaten disconnection and destruction of community. Ever since unfairness was invented, many thousands of years ago, the function of anger has been to protect social connections by protesting unfair treatment. Anger screams, “Something is wrong!” and provides the energy required to restore fairness and social harmony. Dominican priest Bede Jarrett once said, “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” God gave us anger so that we might not just sit complacently by while God’s children and God’s earth are mistreated, excluded, abandoned, abused. God gave us anger so that we would act. Our anger is a calling. It is one way God calls us. It is God speaking to us, saying, “Get off your … get off your recliner and get out there and DO something!”
It can be tempting just to hang onto our anger, to seethe in our own self-righteousness. In her book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené Brown writes, “Sometimes I’ll admit: I don’t give a damn. There were periods during [the research process for writing this book] where I felt like screaming: You keep your true belonging! I’ll keep my hate! My daughter got a book on ‘going to college’ and the first three chapters were essentially lessons in how not to get sexually assaulted. Do I really care about the pain that drives the drunk, violent, [expletive deleted college students] who make college campuses so dangerous that female students need a book about how to avoid those people? No. Screw you and screw the pain of the people who are causing the pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.”
“But to what end? Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working. How much longer are we willing to keep pulling drowning people out of the river one by one, rather than walking to the headwaters of the river to find the source of the pain? What will it take for us to let go of that earned self-righteousness and travel together to the cradle of the pain that is throwing all of us in at such a rate that we couldn’t possibly save everyone?”
What will it take? Certainly, it will take some anger. Anger can be valuable for building and nourishing community if we use it as an alarm clock. It is a signal that things need to change. It’s just that in order not to make things worse, we need to transform our anger into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. We need to see anger as a catalyst, not a way of life; as a path to healing, not a way to cause more hurt.
The hymn we’re about to sing is based on the Prayer of Saint Francis ["Make Me a Channel of Your Peace"]. Many of you will remember Ben Reist, a beloved church member and seminary professor. A number of years ago, Ben brought me a copy of a prayer that Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, prayed at a public event. It echoes a blessing by Saint Francis and it speaks directly to the anger of today’s passage. I won’t read the whole thing but I will close by praying parts of it. Please pray with me:
O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…
Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten … for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon …
Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly Gaventa, and James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 460.
 Laurie Penny, “Most Women You Know Are Angry – and That’s All Right,” August 2, 2018, Teen Vogue, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/women-angry-anger-laurie-penny.
 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (New York: Random House, 2017), 67.
 Brown, 67.
 Susan Rosenthal, “Anger: The Emotion of Injustice,” February 17, 2007, https://www.susanrosenthal.com/articles/anger-is-the-emotion-of-injustice.
 Brown, 66.
 Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDance Press, 2003), 144.
 Brown, 67.
 Bishop Gene Robinson, January 18, 2009, https://queermergent.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/bishop-eugene-robinsons-inaugural-prayer/