The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019
Scripture: Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
Download the message to play on your own device: Coming Soon
Hear other parts of this service…
Anger: Put Away all Falsehood
“The old is dying. The new is coming.”
Our excessive pride, our extreme greed, our uncontrolled lust and envy, and our unrestrained gluttony are dying if only just a little bit this year, this season. If only because we’re talking about these “deadly sins” and are at least a bit more aware of how and why they get control of our lives and separate us form the love of God and love of neighbor. We will die a little more this morning, if we’re faithful – to anger. Again … if only just a bit.
Let’s pray together …
So, I want to share a distinction I made this past week. As the week began, as I started considering the bulletin liturgy, the reflections, the hymns, the scripture readings, as I stared my reading to prep the Thoughtful Christian study that is paralleling the sermon series this Lent, I typed in “Wrath” everywhere you now see, or I am now saying, “Anger.” I did that because that was what is most often written in the list of Deadly sins I’ve been referencing throughout Lent this year. “Wrath” is old school, isn’t it? It conjures up the “wrath of God” imagery we read about in the Old Testament whenever Yahweh unleashes it on a people who have strayed from the path. And it brings to mind New Testament predictions of that same wrath found in the Book of Revelation that so completely eclipses the Jesus we know from the Gospel accounts.
The problem very early with all this for me, with “wrath” as this week’s Deadly sin, was, and is, that I was able to separate it from my own experience very easily. I don’t feel like I’m “wrathful”, full of wrath. Rightly or wrongly, wrath makes me think of revenge and punishment and total annihilation. I don’t have the deep desires, let alone the ability for all that. Or, again, I at least fool myself into thinking I don’t when I say and feel the word “Wrath.”
But, Anger … that gets personal, even more personal than the sins of the weeks past, for me.
In the more traditional list of these vices, I most often read “pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, (parentheses anger).” More contemporary lists tend to state this vice as “wrath (slash) / anger.” And a few actually use “anger” first – “anger (comma), wrath.” Every time I read that word, “anger,” I felt something I didn’t feel when I read “wrath.” Something visceral, really. It started, it starts with a kind of guilt or concern, but ultimately it was shame. I’ve gotten angry. I get angry. Where “wrath” allows me to separate, “anger” insists I engage. My guess is … you, too.
Many of us have, or have had, problems with anger. Some of us may have developed successful coping strategies, others may not have. Some of us may be the victims of violent anger. This “deadly sin” is deeply personal. Much more than the ones that have come before it for me. My guess is … you, too.
Now, however damning the change from “wrath” to “anger” may feel for you (I feel it deeply), or however personal anger, itself, is for you, we’re not alone. We’re in good company as we engage it, and attempt to control it, before it controls us, personally and communally. The first Christian communities did, as well. The earliest Christian communities understood anger’s power and they fought constantly to “not make room for this devil” in their lives.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
There is nothing wounding the Body of Christ today that the first Christian communities had not already seen in earlier versions.
We hear the conflict behind this text and the bitter fruit of it is evident: lying (verse 25), anger that festers in the heart (verse 26), stealing (28), evil talk (29), bitterness, wrath, wrangling, and slander (31), all of which grieves the Holy Spirit of God. What a picture of community? Who would want to join First Church Ephesus?! But, there is nothing that wounded the Body of Christ in the first centuries that is not seen in contemporary versions. Who wants to join the church of today?
The Church universal is shaken regularly by scandal, ecclesial warfare, fear of the other, difference, and change. As the Pastor of this particular congregation, with my ear pressed down on the ground of its communal life, I hear and feel all of these conflicts and more: the angry phone call or email complaining of a stance the church has taken; the malicious tone of the one or two outvoted; the wrathful tirade of one threatening to withdraw a pledge for one reason or another; the bitter laments for “how it used to be!”; the slanderous words from one member about another. What on earth should anyone say to any church congregation in any age to address all of that? We must respond with what has always been shared.
There are several “deadly sins” noted in these verses. I might have chosen this periscope for all seven Sundays if I had come across it with this sermon series on my mind four Sundays ago! But anger is the death that gets our attention this morning – anger and how to master it. The writer of Ephesians speaks of “forgiveness.” So do we of course, so do I, and reconciliation and redemption, and also this morning, patience. Patience is the virtue most often associated with, paired with, the vice of anger. So let’s explore anger a bit.
In my preparation this week, I read that Amazon.com currently lists more than forty thousand religious titles that touch on the subject of anger. I did a quick search myself, but didn’t count them up. I stopped looking about the fifth page. With ten listings per page, if the number forty thousand is correct, I had about three thousand nine-hundred and ninety-five pages to go. So I stopped and took the authors word for it. That number of titles that touch on the subject of anger testifies to the level of difficulty we all have with this emotion. And we all have this emotion. We can’t avoid it altogether.
In verse twenty-six, Paul is not giving us an imperative. He’s not telling us to “be angry” when he says “be angry but do not sin.” He’s acknowledging that anger is, and will always be present. So he writes, “be angry …”, it’s inevitable, but … “do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger; do not make room for (that) devil.” How many of you who are married remember this admonition from your pre-marital counseling sessions? “You’ll get angry at each other, eventually, that’s normal, just don’t go to sleep angry. That’s the key.” Good sound advice. I’ve offered it myself. I’m just not sure how long it’s heeded by newlyweds. I’m afraid to guess how long it was before my own wife and I were snoring away with just a little bit of irritation carried into the next day. (She’s seated only ten feet to my right so I won’t try to guess.) But it cannot remain in any relationship that is going to continue.
Our scripture doesn’t say “Don’t get angry. Anger isn’t Christian.” Instead it’s warns us against the dangers that accompany anger. Anger itself doesn’t afflict us so much as holding on to anger. In fact, anger in the moment can be quite cathartic, but letting anger steep, a day or two or more, certainly, changes its quality.
Anger is a powerful vice because its real work, its deepest affects, are psychological. Anger makes us feel better. Think about it. When we have been attacked, physically or perhaps more challengingly emotionally or mentally, we feel powerless. When we get angry at another for making us feel this way, that anger seems to restore a power that was taken from us by some hurt or another. Anger gives us a sense of justice in a situation that has gone haywire. But as we hold onto that anger, we begin to see only how we’ve been “wronged” or hurt and we become blind to others, especially to the one we believe has hurt us. Anger as a vice is like a drug that consoles us when we feel hurt or powerless. And like a drug, it can become addictive.
Even worse than what we do when we are angry is what we do not do. Anger is not simply a minor moral failing like shouting at someone for cutting you off in traffic, or shaking your fist at someone whose annoyed you, or swearing under your breath at a co-worker who has upset you. Anger is not simply an act, it is a deep emotional habit that we may not even be aware of but which traps us in feelings and actions that lead us astray. Anger is not an isolated instance, but a root habit that expresses itself all day long every day of our lives in large or small ways until we engage it, expose it, address it, and overcome it. Anger neutralizes compassion, sympathy, forgiveness, redemption, and ultimately love.
The longer we hold onto anger, the more like an anchor it becomes, keeping us fixated on the past. And it becomes really deadly when it destroys our future, too. Our anger from what has happened in the past works on our future by suggesting to us that the situation or the person who angers us will never change. Tethered to the past and afraid of a future we have created, we are “dead” in the water. What now?
Patience, we are told.
Patience is the virtue, the antidote, the medicine that is most often offered to heal anger. It’s a difficult virtue to understand, let alone employ, in our struggle. We too quickly think of patience as a wishy-washy response that asks us to accept bad treatment and “be patient,” wait for something, or someone, to change. Patience is more properly understood as mercy or forbearance that seeks to “dissolve.” When something angers us, instead of charging into a situation, patience takes a breath. Patience thinks about the other person. It considers whether or not they may have a point, or at least why they may be acting the way they’re acting.
From this patience, from this persistent insistence that we slow down, listen, and learn before we react in anger comes a vision for the church and every individual in it in every age that is our challenge. The key to this passage is at the very beginning. Paul says we are to “put off” or “strip away” the old self so that God can give us something new. There is no one here for whom these words do not embody a challenge and an opportunity. “Put away all falsehood”.
The old is dying. The new is coming.
Where is anger right here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian? Anger in our personal lives, or at our places of work, or in our families, or right here when we are gathered in Christ’s name? How is that anger keeping us from emptying ourselves, from seeing the truth, from connecting to those who need to experience the Love of our God the most? Where is the anger in your life that keeps you from being all you were created by God to be and that keeps others from doing the same?
More questions for Lent. Our song is Love unknown. It’s past time to make it known to the world. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” begins with us. Let us begin our preparation for the meal that makes this love known.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2019