A Stubborn Passion

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, August 6, 2017.

Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2 



Is it OK to be angry?  Is it acceptable to express anger? 


In our reading today from the letter to the Ephesians we hear, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”  This epistle was written in the first century of the Common Era.  I doubt we’re surprised that the quandary of anger management has been around from the beginning; it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.  Anger is a stubborn passion in human life.  It is part of the deal.


I know from experience there are folks around who feel it’s wrong to get angry.  But the scripture today says, “Be angry.”  It doesn’t say, pretend you aren’t angry, it doesn’t say, play the martyr and bury your anger, it doesn’t say, ignore your anger so that you don’t have to deal with it.  It says, “Be angry.”  This may be stating the obvious but it is very important if we are to begin to understand what our Christian faith has to say to us about this very real, very stubborn part of human experience.  Anger is part of our life.  Let me be clear at the outset: This verse is NOT biblical permission to go around indiscriminately spewing anger.  The letter to the Ephesians is trying to help the early churches learn how to live the new life in Christ together.  In order to live together in love and peace, it’s imperative that we attend to our anger.


Often, anger is a second emotion, preceded by pain, vulnerability, frustration, or grief.  Insofar as this is the case, anger can be for us a helpful sign, like the impulse of pain we feel when we touch something that is too hot, our anger can alert us to something deeper within us that needs some care and attention.


Furthermore, if we never get angry, then that is itself a telling sign—do we really care about anything?  Is there nothing we can see in ourselves, in our relationships, in our world that makes us angry?  If this is the case, then we need to pay attention to that for sure, because it is likely pointing to the fact that we are either mightily depressed or terribly apathetic, neither of which is good for us or for anyone else.


So…“Be angry.”  These words remind us that being angry can be a sign that our hearts and minds are rightly attuned to injustices or problems; or can be a sign leading us to self-care.  “Be angry.”  These words allow us to give ourselves a break from beating ourselves up for feeling anger.  These are good things.  But I, for one, don’t want to hear these words.  I don’t want to be angry.  I don’t want to acknowledge my anger.  I don’t want to deal with it; I don’t want to have to name its source.  I have my reasons for feeling this way—and maybe you feel the same for your own reasons.  Maybe you grew up in a household that was full of rage; perhaps you were taught by example not to show your anger or to talk about it; maybe you’re afraid of the sheer force of your anger if you were to let it out; or maybe you can’t bear to admit the reason or circumstance that causes you to be angry.  Maybe you are guilty about your anger because it comes up in your role as caregiver to a partner, parent, or child.  Wherever or however you find yourself when you hear the words, “be angry,” the bottom line is that there is both comfort and challenge in them. 


A big part of the challenge comes in the line that follows, “Be angry, but do not sin.” 

I am convinced—and I believe that this is the point of the admonition to “be angry”—that the only way to be angry and not sin is to be mindful of our own anger—this means that we have to do exactly that which I do not want to do.  We have to learn to recognize when we’re getting angry, to be attentive to our anger, to reflect on it, to sit with it, to get to know it. Ugh.


Don’t we know, after all, that uncontrolled, buried, festering anger will do damage to others and to ourselves?  Unmanaged anger can get projected onto other people, it can build up and then blow up way out of proportion and, when turned inward, can lead to depression and all sorts of other self-destructive things. 


While we may know all that, many of us don’t know how to attend to our anger gently, with love; we don’t know how to express our anger creatively, in ways that will build up instead of tearing down.  Iona Senior Services is a wonderful, local organization that supports people as they experience the opportunities and challenges of aging.  A recent post on Iona’s blog provides such helpful information for managing anger.[i]  While the post is focused on anger that arises in providing care for a loved one with dementia, the tips are so helpful for any occasion when we find ourselves needing to manage our anger with love.  The first two are all about self-awareness: recognize the signs of anger (shortness of breath, muscle tension, getting red in the face, raising your voice, etc.) and become aware of the ways you express your anger (aggressively, passive aggressively, passively, etc.).  The blog goes on to provide some suggestions for healthy ways to manage anger once you’ve begun to identify it.  I commend this resource to you. 

I also highly recommend the work of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who teaches both how to be aware of our anger and how to hold it gently.  Over the years he has offered retreat to Vietnam veterans.  He tells of one American commander who lost 417 of his men in a single battle on a single day and had been unable for twenty tears to get past his anger.  Another man had out of anger taken the lives of children in a Vietnamese village and had lost all sense of peace.  Thich Nhat Hanh taught what he calls mindfulness, which is simply sitting and watching one’s breath come and go and looking after one’s anger, seeking neither to push it down nor erase it but to attend to it, to offer it affection and care.  It was a way of giving the anger both space and boundaries so that it could be touched and felt and recognized and healed.  When we are angry, he writes, we are not with ourselves.  We are thinking about the one who makes us angry (that can be another person or ourselves) and thinking about the hateful aspects of that person: his/her betrayal, rudeness, disregard, meanness, cruelty and so on.  Instead of attending to what is in us we spill out what is in us on the other.  And the more we attend to the other, the more the anger grows.  We have to come back to ourselves and look inside.  Like a fireman, he continues, we have to pour water on the blaze before we look for the one who has set the house on fire.  The simple practice he offers is this:  ‘Breathing in, I know I am angry.  Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.’”[ii]


And so we learn that in order to be angry and not sin, we cannot allow our anger to be forgotten, ignored, or buried.  The admonition to not “let the sun to go down on our anger” is, I think, not only a reminder to attend to it today, but also that anger allowed to move into the dark, out of the light of our attentiveness, can grow into something ugly and destructive; it opens the door to “the devil,” to that power that feeds on negativity and on harbored resentment.  When left alone, our anger can feed in us a self-righteous, judgmental attitude that is incapable of seeing the other as lovable or a person of sacred worth; this breeds hatred and division—the devil smacks his metaphorical lips!—what a feast!  But when held lovingly in the light of our consciousness, we are able to identify our own weaknesses, our own pain, our need, indeed our own tendency to make mistakes that cause others to be angry or hurt.  This self-awareness helps us to have compassion, not only with ourselves, but also with the one with whom we are angry.


God shows us what it looks like when righteous anger is expressed not with vengeance, but with love.  We see it in the prophets whose hearts broke and whose voices raged on behalf of God’s disappointment and grief over the brokenness and injustice and forgetfulness of Israel.  And we see it most clearly in Jesus Christ who had every reason to be angry at us, but whose love for us was more stubborn than our refusal to love him back.  And so he got angry at the ways that we hurt each other and ignore God, but he did not sin.  His stubborn passion was love.  That love, freely offered to you and to me is what feeds us, it fortifies our hearts to be able to love ourselves and other people enough to attend to our anger. 


A poetic prayer entitled “Holy Anger,” includes the line, “let anger be the first note in love’s ascending scale.”[iii]  Loving attentiveness to our anger can be the beginning of healing, the first glimmer of a sacred calling, the birth of greater love of ourselves, of others, of God.  So let your anger, whatever it is, be the first note in love’s ascending scale.  You might be surprised at what happens—in your relationships, your thoughts, your own heart—when you’re in tune with the love of Christ.


[i] https://www.iona.org/manage-anger-caring-dementia/?bblinkid=55569581&bbemailid=4586880&bbejrid=344310322

[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 1998.

[iii]Thomas H. Troeger, “Holy Anger,” Copyright and reproduced at The Living Pulpit.com by permission of Oxford University Press, 2000.