Sermon 9th August
So, what makes you angry? What is it that makes your blood boil or your hackles rise? Can you remember the last time you felt furious and recall what made you so? Well, in a survey carried out on the British public a couple of years back now, participants were asked this very question, to which the following answers were the top 5 offered :
- 5 – being kept on hold
- 4 – spitting in public
- 3 – people not listening
- 2 – rudeness in general
- 1 – pushing into a queue
That’s right, in a survey that seems to confirm the much-suggested British cliché, queue-jumping came out as the top thing that makes us angry…and this week…in London, at least, at lot of people got angry as tube workers went on strike, traffic built up and the queues grew. And these have not been the only scenes of anger that we’ve seen over the past few weeks. For we’ve witnessed the anger of politicians in the UK arguing over the best way to tackle issues of immigration at Calais; anger in America as racial tensions threaten to spill over into further violence; anger seemingly throughout the world directed at an idiot dentist from Minnesota who killed a beloved lion called Cecil…even anger and real vitriol when Sue Perkins was rumoured to become a Top Gear host…with twitter users wishing her dead!
For some of us, the expectations, busyness and demand for instant gratification so instilled in modern life makes it feel like many in our society are constantly on the brink of anger, ready to burst at the slightest hint of a traffic jam, computer error or automated phone call informing us that we have PPI to claim back!
On the other hand, alongside the increase in yoga, pilates and meditation classes we are often encouraged to ‘calm down dear’ – 3 words guaranteed to anger someone even further! And as some seem to be getting madder and madder in our society, others seem to be going in the other direction, perhaps even becoming more and more apathetic. What’s the point in getting angry with the government, with the system, with big banks – it’s bad for your blood pressure and you’ll never get anywhere, so just put your head down, pour yourself a nice cup of tea, keep calm and carry on. And…when I’m honest…I find this second option quite appealing. Anger can seem like such a waste of time and energy; such a needless activity – and thus I often find myself shrugging my shoulders, sticking on some upbeat music and forgetting about whatever it was that irked me.
So I was brought up a little short this week when I read the lectionary passage and had my natural tendencies questioned. You see, in the book of Ephesians, the writer, who may or may not be the apostle Paul, is writing to a group of Christians about what it means to live as the body of Christ. The writer has already spoken of the need for unity, of the different gifts that people might have and of the need to live a radically different life to that which they lived before. In the verses preceding this morning’s passage, the readers are told to no longer live as gentiles do but to put on a new self, created according to the likeness of God. Quite an ask! And so, in the passage we have just heard, the writer lists a number of directives or rules for how followers of Christ might live. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t speak badly of one another…all pretty common sense rules for good living…but then there, in verse 26, the writer gives us an unusual instruction:
“Be angry but do not sin and do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Be angry. Be angry? As new creations, created according to the likeness of God, we are told to be angry? And this is where I got confused…it doesn’t generally take much, I grant you…but be angry? I thought that we’re told to be forgiving and loving and joyful…I thought the psalmist tells us to refrain from anger and to forsake wrath; that Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, warns us that ‘everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment’; that even a few verses later in the same Ephesians passage, we are told to ‘put away all bitterness and wrath and anger’…and yet in verse 27 we are told to ‘be angry’. ‘Perhaps it’s a blip’, I told myself. It’s only one verse – move on and focus on the rest of the passage. Or the gospel reading perhaps. But the more I thought about, the more I kept coming back to this verse. For we don’t often talk about anger in church, do we? We’re supposed to be nice and smiley and gentle…and so…perhaps particularly as Brits…we often don’t even acknowledge our anger and on the occasions when we do feel frustrated, we often quash it, smile through gritted teeth and say ‘bless you’ when we might actually want to replace the word ‘bless’ with a less edifying verb.
And yet, the psalmist does get angry…sometimes furiously, vengefully so; the prophets of old spoke words of anger for the good of the people and Jesus turned over tables in the temple…so perhaps it’s time to review our attitude to anger in the Church. Perhaps, in these next few minutes, we might be open to the charge to ‘be angry’.
Let us first consider the possibility that the writer of Ephesians is giving us permission to be angry. In other words, that he is saying ‘You can be angry…; It’s okay, sometimes healthy, to be angry’. For some of us, this might seem obvious or incidental but for others, it might be liberating. For many of us here might have been brought up under the belief that even feeling angry is wrong; is to sin. I have told you before of two very good friends of mine, both younger than me, with two young children who are walking a very dark path at the moment, for the husband has terminal cancer. And as they navigate hospital visits and sudden seizures; financial difficulties and fear of the unknown; changes in personality and the inevitable relationship tensions that such a horrendous time will bring, the daughter of the couple was given a bouncy ball for her Birthday which was inscribed with the words ‘smile – God loves you’. “I want to stick a pin into that ball and deflate it”, the wife said to me as she told me of her anger…including with God…and her reluctance to share it with those at her church.
We are to be a hopeful people. We are to give thanks, share good news, to smile for God does love us…but this does not mean that we are not to feel pain. It doesn’t mean that we are to ignore suffering or quell our anger. Just imagine someone telling Jesus to calm down as he made a scene in the Temple or saying to him ‘smile, God loves you’ as he wept in Gethsemane? To suppress anger leads to all sorts of it difficulties, to express it is part of a healthy relationship. There are times in our journey of faith when we will be angry, even with God – times when the darkness closes in, when all seems futile and we might want to scream, like King David, like Christ on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. Perhaps, the writer of Ephesians is simply giving us permission. Is telling us that’s it’s okay to be angry – for to deny it is false; to acknowledge or articulate it might lead to dialogue, a path of honesty and an openness with God.
Or perhaps the writer’s words are not allowing us to be angry but encouraging us to be so. In other words, saying, ‘We should be angry…’. Earlier this year, a few of us from the church went to see ‘Selma’ the excellent and, at times, harrowing retelling of the events that led to the Selma to Montogomery civil rights marches and on Thursday of this week, many Americans marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, one of the key changes in law that those in Selma were protesting about for it brought to an end the restrictions that disenfranchised minorities and the poor and had prohibited many African Americans from voting in the south. Now, Martin Luther King was, famously, a non-violent campaigner who sought to defeat hate with love but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t get angry. Quite the contrary, anger at injustice, was at the centre of his campaigning for change. Reflecting on his work, in his autobiography, King recalled a key children encounter with discrimination that always stayed with him:
“When I was 14,” he writes, “I travelled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley (to) participate in an oratorical contest. We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
King was angry at the injustice he witnessed. It was a righteous anger that, as with Paul Robeson, saw him spend the rest of his life campaigning for a fairer, more just, more kingdom-centred society, and a dream that one day his children might live in a world where they would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. This is the same kind of anger that has overthrown dictatorships, freed slaves and got women the vote. The same kind of righteous anger that saw Jesus flip tables and caused God to cry out to wayward Israel ‘I hate, I loathe your festivals – stop your noisy songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream’.
The writer of Ephesians tells us not to let anger linger – not to let the sun go down on our anger; and not to sin in our anger – not to let it lead us to say or do things that hurt ourselves, other people or God. But, acknowledging these caveats, these terms and conditions, the permission or, perhaps, challenge, remains. Be angry. For, as King’s sometime ally, Malcolm X once said, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
So, let us be angry, not over the incidentals of life but over the great injustices that God would have us seek to change.
Let us be angry that as we throw away over 100 million tonnes of food in Europe this year, more than three million children will die around the world from malnutrition.
Let us be angry that newspapers and politicians liken immigrants to insects as yet more women, children and men drown in the Mediterranean whilst fleeing from persecution.
Let us be angry that the Earth’s resources are being plundered and her waters polluted as glaciers melt, oceans rise and forests disappear.
Let us be angry yet not sin as we fight against prejudice, stand up for the poor and persecuted, and strive to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.
Let us be angry, for with the blessing of the Father, the example of the son and the strength of the spirit, our anger might just lead to change – to lives and communities being transformed in God’s name. Amen.