Sermon: August 5, 2018 – Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
FOLK FESTIVAL SUNDAY: I did not grow up in a “Bible-quoting” household. We did lots of other things that gave shape to our days as a “Christian” home, but quoting scripture wasn’t part of it. There were a couple of Bible Story books that got read as bedtime stories, but other than that, scripture was used neither aggressively nor supportively, neither to admonish nor to build up; we endeavoured to live by Bible principles, but we didn’t quote scriptures to one another while doing so.
There was, however, one scripture that did get quoted, and it’s part of the reading from Ephesians we heard this morning: “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” Ephesians 4:26.
To be fair to my Mom, who was the one usually speaking these words, the general subtext was, “let’s find time before the day is done to talk this out.” There were other times, though, when the message very clearly was, “anger is a problem to be solved, quickly, and the way you solve it is by apologizing.” So the words, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” is one of the mixed mantras I bring forward from my family of origin.
On this “Folk Festival Sunday,” there’s a very obvious question to be asked of this Biblical statement, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The question is, “why?”
At its worst, the admonition to “not let the sun go down” on our anger attempts to silence those who have every right to be angry about something, and to remain angry about it until there is change. And over the years, folk singers, voices like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and those who went before them, have been at the forefront of hearing the cries of the oppressed, then transforming the power of that silenced anger into anthems that ring in our ears. So we remember songs like “The Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Talking about a revolution” by Tracy Chapman, any number of songs by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and the Indigo Girls, and while it’s not really a folk song, perhaps the most seething break-up song ever, “You oughta know” by Alanis Morrisette. These songs, and their un-edited anger, pay attention to the world’s experiences of mistreatment and give them voice.
When injustices are supported by laws and systems that will continue to favour the powerful at the expense of the poor, it should make us angry; and, y’know, Ephesians 4:26, that anger needs to be allowed a lifespan longer than 24 hours! Systems of oppression are very, very resilient and have taken a lot of time and money to build and sustain, so suggesting that one’s anger against the injustice needs to be put away quickly, simply perpetuates the suffering. So artists like folk singers, who take the anger and turn it into an unrelenting call for change, stand witness to the power of sustaining our anger long enough for it to become something productive. And if we’re needing a Biblical example to help us along with this, the classic example is Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple (Matt 21: 12-17). Nobody can tell me that his righteous indignation was just something that arose on the spot; this would have been brewing for a while until it turned into a physical action.
So that’s one point to note about anger: there can be great value in using the power of prolonged anger in productive ways as an agent of change.
Many times we are angry, however, it’s not as arm’s length as being angry at someone out there who is doing something harmful to someone else out there, or perhaps harming us but in a very indirect way. My anger when I hear that Sears Canada board members have continued to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars while their workers are not only out of work, but may only get pennies on the dollar on their pension, is authentic – but it is quite different from feeling my blood start to boil at someone who has personally ticked me off. I know in my body what it feels like when someone is literally “in my face” and my jaw sets and my muscles tighten and pointed, wounding words are just ready to explode from my mouth. Like most emotions, anger triggers physical responses, and my physical anger response is quite different when it’s personal.
The apostle Paul, the author of the letter to the Ephesians, was well-familiar with the complexity of anger, especially when it was direct and personal. In a two-volume commentary on Ephesians, Swiss Theologian Markus Barth went through these verses line by line, word by word, to try to determine if there were specific things that Paul was trying to get at, that we simply do not get when we read his words two thousand years later. Was Paul only talking about angry exchanges between Church members, for example? Or was Paul only guiding us to cool it and release our anger before bedtime when the anger is pride-based? The answer, from Markus Barth at least, is that Paul is talking about the anger that arises in any situation, and between any people, Christian or not, whether family, friend or foe. The topic doesn’t matter, nor does the person being confronted. In Paul’s view, anger, while a normal and fully-allowed human emotion, is not to be coddled and fed and allowed to see tomorrow’s sunrise.
But what we may well have missed, is that these words on anger were not original to Paul. Psalm 4, verse 4 says this: “When you are angry, do not sin. Think about these things quietly as you go to bed.” (New Century Version) That’s a little different than Paul’s version in Ephesians, but just a bit. The Psalm basically says, “when you’re angry about something, sleep on it rather than doing something you’ll regret later” whereas Paul would have us reel that back even a bit more. In either case, the implicit thought is to not let anger get the better of us.
We may well have direct experience of this in our primary relationships. Social Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn picks up on this understanding of these two scripture passages, writing “We’ve all heard ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ So late at night, when we’re tired, anxious, and emotionally drained from a contentious ‘discussion,’ we continue to hash it out.
“‘No, we can’t go to sleep,’ we tell our spouse, ‘We have to resolve this!’ Most of us have heard happy couples say ‘never go to bed mad’… but it turns out they don’t follow their own advice! In the research, when pressed on what they actually do, these wise couples admitted that when they are getting emotional and upset, they sometimes realize it is better just to go to bed. And that strengthens their relationship instead of weakening it….
“The key is…to never let anger get the best of us and cause us to hurt someone else. The happiest couples have found that, if you are too tired or upset to come to a peaceful resolution, putting an unresolved issue on hold is not sinful. What would be sinful is trying to not address an issue and holding on to your fury at your spouse. What would be sinful is escalating to hurtful words, or until an exhausted spouse agrees to something they will later regret.”
So perhaps that becomes something else to add to our clipboard: anger is something to be worked through thoughtfully, with those who are impacted by the anger-inducing situation, and in your ponderings and your prayers. As with all of our feelings, we are in control of what we do with our anger, our anger does not control us.
So far, then, we’ve got one point in favour of anger as a change agent, and another one that says “sleep on it and deal with it.” These two perspectives are either favourable or somewhat ambivalent toward anger. Yet, there are reasons why we might not want to spend a lot of our time in the presence of this particular emotion.
Psychologist Leon Seltzer, writing ten years ago, penned these prophetic words: “With the increasing occurrence of such phenomena as road rage, drive-by shootings, high school and post office killing sprees—in short, with the prevalence of violence in [our society] today—the attention given to acting-out, out-of-control anger may never have been greater”. That violence came heartbreakingly close to us this week, with a tourist shot while driving only 40 km from here in what first looked like road rage, and now appears to be even darker than that. Dr. Seltzer continues, writing, “anger is almost never a primary emotion, in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it…. Symptomatic anger covers up the pain …key distressful emotions [which] include feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable.”
What a list that is! This opens my eyes once more to how soul-destroying it can be, when the hurts of our lives do not have the opportunity to heal; when our hurts turn to anger and our anger, in turn, turns to violence, which then begets more hurt and anger and violence. Anger, in Dr. Selzer’s words, can easily “‘mature’ into bitterness” if not dealt with. The apostle Paul’s less-than-24-hours timeline is not broadly realistic, especially if the source of our hurt does not come to light until years later, yet we yearn for a world where open, prompt discussion of difficult emotions would become the norm – where anger might not be resolved before sundown, but the discussion about the origins of that anger may have at least started during the day. In this I am reminded of the memorable words of Presbyterian Minister Rev. Fred Rogers, best known to the world as “Mister Rogers,” who said “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” Imagine how many terrible things in our world could have been averted, if our emotions were truly believed to be both mentionable and manageable.
Anger, then, is not, in itself, a bad thing – and Paul does not suggest it is – but it can often guide us to other hurts that need resolving; and that gets added to our clipboard as well.
A provocative video came my way this week, which needed further investigation. Some of you will be familiar with the work of Nadia Bolz-Weber, described on her website as “a foul-mouthed, tattooed Lutheran Pastor” who is never shy in “calling it as she sees it.” Her item was about forgiveness, specifically about releasing anger and resentments that can potentially diminish us, and she says this:
“When someone else does us harm, we are connected to that mistreatment like a chain…. Holding on to anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil… it feeds it”
“So what if forgiveness… was actually a way of wielding bolt cutters and snapping the chain that links us, saying ‘what you did is so NOT okay, that I refuse to be connected to it anymore’… Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter, [and] free people are not chained to resentments.”
What Pastor Bolz-Weber said about this was way different than what I expected; somehow I had expected her to be in the “use your righteous indignation for all it’s worth” camp. What she is clear on, and what I want to underline here, is the importance of remaining empowered when we have been mistreated. Nowhere is she (or I) suggesting that we just bury our anger and let the oppression continue, or that we should put ourselves in the position of being victimized by someone else’s anger. Here, her words tie in with the old adage that at various painful points in life, we are given the choice: “we can get better or we can get bitter”. We can give our hurts, resentments, and anger ongoing power, or we, working with God, can break the cycle. And that is the fourth and final entry on this morning’s clipboard: refusing to let the power of anger control us on an ongoing basis. While these four points are far from exhaustive, they do give us an idea of why the apostle Paul felt the need to address this topic in his time and place, and why it remains relevant for us today.
In the words of Ephesians 4:26, Paul is pretty clear about two things: anger in itself isn’t a forbidden emotion, but nonetheless needs to be dealt with face-on before it has a chance to open us to a diminishment of soul that is nothing short of evil. As those who live our lives in Christ Jesus, the bringer of reconciliation and new life, we are to refuse to give ourselves over to the destructive power of unexamined anger. In our thoughts, in our words, in our relationships, we are called to pay attention to anger as it arises in us and ask it, “what are you trying to tell me?” rather than letting it harm another person. It could be telling us that there is something awry in the world that needs to have voices raised to fix it; it could be telling us that our feelings are hurt, and that we need to to address that; it could be masking anything from trauma, to shame. Anger can be an important guide, but if allowed to take charge it will make an unforgiving, dangerous, illness-inducing master.
So let us live that examined life, honest with ourselves, honest with one another, honest with God. May our anger spur us to life-giving changes, but never devolve into bitterness. And as we engage our anger, may we be freed from brooding on it, so that each day may be experienced as the full-on gift that God intends it to be. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Barth, Markus. Anchor Bible Commentary: Ephesians 4-6. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974. Pp. 511-525 and 555-559.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. (pardon the title of this video clip!!) https://www.makers.com/playlists/5b0df8e4597f3100013d3753/5b0dd9e77cce6e349079ac04
CBC – Sears Canada story: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/sears-canada-board-of-directors-employees-severance-1.4770027
Global News – tourist incident: https://globalnews.ca/news/4370029/alta-highway-shooting/?utm_medium=Facebook&utm_source=GlobalCalgary
Seltzer, Leon F. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding and https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201501/don-t-let-your-anger-mature-bitterness
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church