Last week, I preached about how Jesus said: “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” I asked, if two or three of us here at Belmont see it one way, but two or three folks across town see it another way, perhap only God can be living and active in two rival theological camps. I am sure God wept when the Methodist Episcopal Church South, stood with a slaveholding bishop instead of breaking bonds of oppression, nevertheless God prevenient grace persisted. (Isaiah 58) On Acklen Avenue our limestone lettering still bears a graven legacy of that sinfulness. Just after the service, Jerome Del Pino Junior, asked me a question that has hung with me all week: What about God’s anger? Jerome shared how it had been maybe 15 years since he had heard a sermon about God’s anger: “What about God’s anger when anyone mistreats any of God’s children?”
“What about anger?” is a great question for these angry days. Can Love get angry? Can parents grow angry with their child while loving, nurturing, and blessing them? Can prophets speak harsh truths in hopes of purging toxic theology and sinful practices from Christ’s Church? I had planned to preach on a different text and the baptismal question: “According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?” I circled back to lectionary passage which reads:
You have heard, don’t commit murder and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother, sister or sibling will be in spiritual danger . . . if you say, ‘You fool,’ you risk hell fire. Therefore, if you come to worship and there remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gifts at the altar and go be reconciled. First make things right with your sibling in Christ and then come back and offer your gift to God.
Can we hear Jesus’ voice with so much anger swirling around us? The Book of James tells us our words can unleash hell’s fire into the world, “so, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1 & 3) Later Monday, I stepped out of Fido and bumped into Rev. Steve Bryant. I shared Jerome’s question about holiness and anger. He reminded me of the lectionary text, and we affirmed how anger could cloud something spiritual inside us. Steve noted how praying for our enemies transforms anger. Steve left me with a question, I will leave with you: What does it mean to be reconciled with rival Methodist camps right now and if we experience a denominational divorce?
Let us not dismiss anger as unspiritual. The Bible speaks of God’s anger when we fail to love those on the margins. The prophet Jeremiah thunders: “I hate your religious festivals. Your worship services are a burden to me… I won’t listen. Come clean! Learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” Jesus thunders “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They love to be greeted with honor…. They cheat widows out of their homes, while saying long prayers. They will be judged most harshly. (Mark 12) Those sure seem like burns!
Mark 3 tells us that Jesus grew angry. Jesus is angry and grieved at our unyielding hearts, as church leaders preferred “settled” theology over the risks of compassion. Jesus pokes: “what is legal; to do good or to do evil, to save life or to do harm?” The experts refused to enter into dialogue with Jesus- it is settled for them. They say nothing. Looking around at them with anger, Jesus was deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts.”
I grow angry when someone hurts one of my children. Do you know that anger when someone hurts someone you deeply love?Would we be angrier if I thought of every child as a child of God?
So, what about anger and Holiness? Searching the Scriptures with my Bible app, I landed in Colossians and Ephesians. I think Paul knew something about anger management. If you read Paul’s letters you see Paul at times angry with the forces of legalism and exclusion. You will see Paul arrested, beaten, belittled, dragged out of town, pelted with stones, falsely accused, and arrested. I love when Paul fires off: “I opposed Peter to his face, because he was wrong . . .” (Galatians 2) As the Apostle of Inclusion, Paul knew church battles, conflicts and wounds. And yet, Paul who once breathed murderous threats would come to write the most inspired poetry: “If I speak with the tongues of poets and angels, but have not love, I am nothing,… Only faith, hope and love remain and the greatest of these is Love.” Maybe Paul can teach us about anger, truth, love and community.
In Colossians Three, Paul speaks about anger in the context of church community. “Now set aside anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language. Don’t lie to each other… as God’s beloved put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other. If someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other, as the Lord forgave you! And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” Paul addresses anger in the context of a community. Paul calls for forgiveness, tolerance, and naming complaints. Paul warns us about out anger while cautioning us not to lie to each other. Maybe, don’t get enraged or slanderous but don’t put a sunny fake spin on it either?
In Ephessians 4, the Paul’s linking anger, love and truth-telling is clearer. “Don’t be infants blown around by deceitful schemes and outright misdirections . . . Instead, speak the truth with love, grow into the way of Christ, and build up the church with love! And after you have gotten rid of lying, each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.” Hear the command forms: Speak the truth with love! Get rid of lying. Tell the truth to each other. Why tell the truth to each other, because we are in this thing together. And in telling the truth, and getting deeper into community, be angry without sinning.
We are commanded to tell the truth to each other. Churches love to pretend things are okay, when they are not. We treat anger as a personal problem instead of a potential flag of systemic injustices I grew up in a lovely warmhearted church that never spoke about the sin of racism or economic injustice or judging, or if we did, the warning was served up with such gentleness and care so as to make sure that no one got offended. Frankly, It was okay to be a subtly racist, but if someone got mad about racism, well that would be named personal sinfulfuness. As a teenager, I remember reading in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” and thinking, that seems to be about race! And then thinking nah, no way Purdue, someone would have said that if it was! It was about gender as well!
Stop lying. Stop pretending everything is okay. Speak the truth with love! Get rid of that phony sort of smiling inauthenticity. Tell the truth to each other. Because you are one body, don’t ignore the wounds within the body.
Be angry without sinning. How do we do that? Maybe, we need to be quick to listen to the angry truth tellers, and slower to defend our privileged happy place? I am not advocating drinking in anyone’s disconnected rage, malice, slander or abuse. Turning the other cheek, is not a call to empower an abuser to lash out again. Surely, there are times we must shake the dust off our feet and move on. Jesus tells us not to cast our hearts before swine to be re-trampled. I have found defriending the angry voices good for my soul. Still hearing an angry word can bring healing to the listener, the speaker, and the community. (Matthew 7:6 & 10:14) The truth may even set us free from phony surface affection by growing a more genuine Love. How can we forgive each other, if we our forgiveness is not rooted in real conversation?
Jesus tells us to “go to our angry or wounded sibling”. When Lewis, who was our complaint child, got angry, which was not often, you had to sit with him. At times like so many wounded by the church, Lewis would walk away and sit alone. Love goes to the angry ones. Love pursues those who have walked away. Love sits silently with the wounded. Connie would say, “find your words baby”, and with time, his tight careful face would loosen with tears or laughter, he might begin:”it is not fair” Often anger masks tears. Who wants to cry in front of those who have hurt us? Who while being mistreated wants to appear weak? Anger is safer. Walking away is easier. Silence provides a lonely solace! Love listens. Love absorbs. Love yields. Love does not allow the wounded to weep alone.
Hearing can transform us . Like surgery can remove a terrible cancer, the truth can hurt before it heals. In Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, King writes: “Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership… . I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents . . . all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows . . . On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when . . .? That stings me in my privilege, but maybe it is a healing inoculation against my current complacency. Maybe I need to listen more, speak less, and be slower to defend my privilege? It seems like Christ checked his privilege at the manger- All for love of us! Maybe I need to encourage those who have left or don’t feel safe to even enter the conversation to speak up. Maybe God will bring healing in that conversation!
Speak the truth with love! Get rid of lying. Tell the truth to each other. We are in this thing together. And truth-telling with anger and without sinning, may help heal us. And being a place that listens might even bring back those who have given up on the church as a place of truth telling. Amen.