Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Be imitators of God. One of the things I’ve come to love most about this letter is how confident it is. Be imitators of God. It exhorts us, as if there is no doubt in the author’s mind that we are capable of doing exactly that. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.

Now, to do that, we are told, be angry, but do not sin. And then, in nearly the next breath: Put away from you all anger. “Be angry” and “put anger away.”

This isn’t the only time the Bible seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. It actually happens all the time. One of Paul’s letters tells women to be quiet; that they ought not speak in church. Elsewhere, Paul writes that women should cover their hair and not wear fancy jewelry, because that would be distracting for the times when they are speaking in church. And, elsewhere still, Paul rejoices that in Christ there is no longer male or female, but that all are one, a united and equal body.

            My favorite example, though, comes from Proverbs. Chapter 26, verses 4 and 5, back to back.

            Verse 4: Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

            Verse 5: Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

            So, should I sit down and be quiet? Or, should I cover my head and keep going? When it comes to fools, should we ignore them, or should we engage them? And, should we let ourselves get good and angry, or should we do everything in our power to set anger aside?

            It’s not hard to see why the Bible can frustrate people. But, in fairness to the author of the letter, I don’t think these words alone can be held responsible for Christianity’s complicated relationship with anger.

            The Seven Deadly Sins originated with the desert fathers, mostly from a man named Evagrius Ponticus, back in the 4th century. John Cassian, who studied under Ponticus, brought the idea to Europe, and eventually Pope Gregory the First adapted and adopted the list on behalf of Western Christianity. The Seven Deadly Sins are gluttony, lust, greed, pride, anger, vanity, and sloth—but anger has long been considered the worst of the bunch. Abraham Heschel, once a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary here in the city, wrote, “Few, if any, passions have been denounced so vehemently by teachers of morality as the passion of anger. It is pictured as a sinister, malignant, evil force, which must under all circumstances be suppressed.”[1]

            The artwork on the cover of your bulletin agrees. The piece before you today is the first of a series of seven (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) and of course, it’s simply titled “Anger.” The artist has depicted what he fears the consequences to be when anger, rather than being suppressed, is brought out into the open and given room to breathe. You only have to glance at it to understand he believes anger yields terrible and terrifying consequences, and I am confident we can all think of moments in the past when anger—someone else’s anger, or maybe even our own—left enormous amounts of destruction in its wake.

            Fred Buechner walks anger down a different path, but he ends in essentially the same place. “Of the Seven Deadly Sins,” he writes, “anger is the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. At the end of such a feast, nothing remains but the skeleton of who you once used to be, but are no more."[2]

            Anger has the capacity to bring out the very worst in us. So, for God’s sake—for God’s sake, and for heaven’s sake, and for your own sake—heed the words of Ephesians, and put anger away.

            Today, though, just to complicate things a bit, I want to propose that the exact opposite is also true: that anger can also bring out the best in us, too.

            Psychologists all agree that anger is always and only a secondary emotion. That doesn’t lessen the power it can wield; it simply means that there is a primary emotion driving the anger, that anger never exists all on its own. Fear is often underneath anger. But longer, I have reflected on the anger I have witnessed in others, and the anger I have felt in myself; I’ve become convinced that anger, at its most primary root, comes from a deep, deep expression of compassion.[3] We get angry at a friend or family member, because we are concerned for them and their well-being. We get angry at ourselves, because we know how badly we wanted to get something right. We get angry at the world and all of its injustice, because we know it’s not yet as good as God intends for it to be.

            A friend of mine, Frances, used to teach at a Lutheran seminary. She says that the biggest theological arguments among the faculty and students were always about communion, and how it was presided over. She says when she crossed over to the Presbyterian seminary, the biggest theological arguments were always about the Bible, and how it was interpreted. If you really want to know what someone values, she says, what they care most about, pay attention to what they are willing to get angry and upset about.

            In the grand scheme of things, seminary feuds are small potatoes. But the observation holds. Anger, real, Biblical anger, can exist only where care and compassion have already taken up residence. Under those circumstances, anger shifts from being dangerously sinful to be tremendously faithful.

            I want to return to Heschel for a moment. He’s the one I mentioned earlier; the one who observed that anger is something we go to any length to suppress. He says that, but then he continues. He says, “Anger’s complete suppression, even in the face of an outburst of evil, may amount to surrender and capitulation. Anger may touch off deadly explosives, but the complete absence of anger extinguishes our moral sensibilities. Patience, long considered a quality of holiness, may, in fact, be sloth of the soul when associated with the lack of appropriately righteous indignation.”[4]

            After all, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.[5] A time to keep silence and a time to speak, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to love and a time to hate, perhaps also, “a time to put anger away, and a time to let anger take flight.”

            In time, I’ve come to understand not only your current theologians, but also our ancient prophets, who believe and communicate clearly that indifference is the true evil of our time. That remaining neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people, is a real danger and a slippery slope. Because it’s within the quietness of indifference that a subtle but significant shift happens. When our indifference carries the day, what was once considered to be unspeakably evil slowly but steadily becomes acceptable.

            Poets are some of our finest modern-day prophets. Hear these words from the poet Mary Oliver:

 

            Here is a story

            to break your heart.

            Are you willing?

            This winter

            the loons came to our harbor

            and died, one by one,

            of nothing we could see.

            A friend told me

            of one on the shore

            that lifted its head and opened

            the elegant beak and cried out

            in the long, sweet savoring of its life

            which, if you have heard it,

            you know is a sacred thing,

            and for which, if you have not heard it,

            you had better hurry to where

            they still sing.

            And believe me, tell no one

            just where that is.

            The next morning

            this loon, speckled

            and iridescent and with a plan

            to fly home

            to some hidden lake,

            was dead on the shore.

            I tell you this

            to break your heart,

            by which I mean only

            that it break open and never close again

            to the rest of the world.[6]

 

            It is impossible to be indifferent once your heart has broken open.

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned that over the course of his life. In one of his earliest theological reflections, he wrote with confidence, “Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and unjustifiable anger. The true disciple must be entirely innocent of anger, because anger is always an offense against both God and neighbor.”[7]

            But, theology is always shaped by the world around us, even as it helps us to shape the world. Bonhoeffer’s increasing awareness of the Nazi regime and what the Jewish people were enduring, particularly after Kristallnacht, changed his view of all this. Hans-Werner Jensen, a friend of his, wrote that during that time, Bonhoeffer described himself as “driven by a great inner restlessness, a holy sort of anger.”[8]

            Anger, when it comes from the right place, and when it is channeled in the right direction, is unquestionably holy and faithful. Holy anger stands up in the face of both injustice and indifference, and says, “No more. There is no room for you here.” Holy anger is what spurred some of the most pivotal moments in our history. Holy anger gave birth to the Civil Rights movement. Holy anger gave birth to women’s suffrage. Perhaps, most recently, holy anger gave birth to marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo campaign. Holy anger fueled resistance to the “Unite the Right” movement in Charlottesville, Virginia one year ago today, and it fueled hundreds of Presbyterians at our national General Assembly marching in St. Louis to end cash bail and mass incarceration.

            Martin Luther King, Jr., full of holy anger himself, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of the moral universe is long, and we tend to travel on it slowly, but the eradication of indifference and the propagation of holy anger pushes us forward one step at a time.

            And let’s not forget: Jesus knew these things as well as anyone. He was no stranger to anger either. We tend to imagine him as gentle and healing, perhaps teaching the masses or feeding a crowd or fearlessly sleeping as a boat crosses a stormy sea. But he was also the one who storms into a temple, flips tables over, and yells about how badly everyone is perverting worship. He does this not because he needs to be worshipped, or because God needs our worship, but because he knows how we need to be worshipping, how much we need to be drawn into something bigger than ourselves, how much we need to come right up against the love that never lets go of us—and he cares too much to let us get in our way when it comes to experiencing all of that. Jesus knows what it is to be angry, but only because he knows what it is to love.

            Love and anger, compassion and anger, care and anger, whatever term you prefer to use—they are tied up with one another. C.S. Lewis said it this way, “Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when it is cut.”

            So, once again, for God’s sake—for God’s sake, and for heaven’s sake, for your own sake, and for all our sake—when the circumstances call for it, be angry. Just don’t get so angry you forget what else scripture has to say about this. Be angry, Ephesians exhorts us, but neither the sentence nor the command stops there. Be angry, but do not sin, and do not let the sun go down on your anger.

            Friends, the truth is this, whether we like it or not: we’re going to get angry. And much like Ephesians points out, sometimes it’s going to be holy anger, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s going to be anger to put away, and sometimes it’s going to be anger to share with the world. The only thing I can tell you for sure, is that we’re never going to escape anger, at least not on this side of God’s promised day.

            So, when anger knocks, we have little choice but to open the door and let it visit. We do not, however, have to let it move in. It does not need to make our hearts its permanent dwelling place. Have you ever met anyone who is just always angry, for no discernible reason, someone who seems happiest when they have something to be mad about? When we let anger have that much control over us, even holy anger, it steals the keys and locks us up within ourselves, cutting us off in important ways from the rest of the world.

            But, when we let anger in, when we welcome it for what it has to teach us and how it can transform us, simply by rubbing up against it we ourselves can become a little more holy. And that, friends, is one way we become imitators of God.

            Let anger have its time. Let anger do its job. And then let anger go home. Don’t let anger talk you into staying in the guest room or crashing on the couch. Because anger only gets the night. Anger only gets the night, because joy comes in the morning.[9]

 

[1] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 360.

[2] Frederick Beuchner, Beyond Words, p. 18.

[3] The idea that compassion lies behind anger is summarized beautifully here by David Whyte, Consolations, p.13.

[4] Heschel, p.360.

[5] Ecclesiastes 3:1.

[6] Mary Oliver, “Lead”.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

[8] Per Matthew Gindin in his essay “The German Pastor Who Died Fighting Nazism With Spiritual Activism,” posted at thewisdomdaily.com. Accessed August 9, 2018.

[9] Psalm 30.