“Putting Away Anger” Colchester Federated Church, August 12, 2018, (Ephesians 4:25-5:2) Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
I’ve seen my older sister in action a few times in court, including two trials—one was a drunk driving case and the other a domestic violence assault case. During the domestic violence case, Maureen got so mad at the defense attorney that I thought she would get into trouble. At the end of the trial, the defense attorney (who was notoriously unorganized and frequently gave my sister headaches) asked for a recess. He came back saying that he had new evidence to submit, important evidence that his client hadn’t told him about until just now.
My sister immediately objected and the jury was dismissed so that they could hash this out with the judge. But I got to stay and watch the show. Maureen went on a bit of a tirade, calling the defense attorney incompetent and unorganized. And saying that he was clearly violating the rules of discovery. “How convenient that this new evidence appears now!” she said. Maureen claimed that if she would do this as a prosecuting attorney, it would have been prosecutorial misconduct and caused a mistrial. However, he was a public defender and therefore able to get away with these shenanigans.
The judge allowed the evidence to be submitted though reprimanded the public defender for not having his act together. My sister was given a few minutes to examine this photograph (that’s what the new evidence was) and talk to her main witness. The jury came back into the courtroom and when it was her turn to question the defendant and examine this evidence, she ripped them both to shreds. Maureen won the trial convincingly, shook hands with the defense attorney, and we left the courthouse victorious.
As we were leaving, I told her that I was happy she won and justice was done, God willing. However, I felt sorry for the defense attorney. She looked at me, still with that fire in her eyes I grew up with (mom can verify) and asked how I could possibly feel sorry for him. My response was something to the effect of: “Maureen, you went on a rampage, and he looked like he was about to cry. I just feel bad for the guy—that must have been embarrassing and you calling him incompetent in front of the judge was pretty mean.” She agreed that she shouldn’t have said that, but related that she was so mad because what he did wasn’t okay. You must submit evidence well in advance for the opposing side to study. While he didn’t perhaps do this on purpose, he put her at a real disadvantage and that’s not how trials are supposed to go.
What my sister displayed that day in court was anger or perhaps righteous indignation. What irked her and caused her to object was that this move was unjust from a legal perspective. She was feisty, and within her right to be so. Maureen shouldn’t have said the incompetent remark, though calling the defense attorney unorganized was true. It brought the lesson home that there are times when anger over injustice is necessary. Though we must differentiate between justified or even constructive anger and wrathful anger that doesn’t help anybody and is only intended to harm. Objecting when something is unjust isn’t bad, not in court and not in life. Though how do we express our anger? Can we do so in such a way that calls out the truth without harming others?
As we continue exploring Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, we hear about Christian responses when things go awry. Our passage this morning is about the virtues and duties central to a healthy Christian community. Paul writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” It’s not uncommon to hear that advice even now. Don’t go to bed angry! Though some would question this advice. If we can’t have a productive conversation while angry, it could be better to wait and cool down before engaging. Because Paul further writes, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” If we react in anger in the moment and hurtful words come spewing out of our mouths that do not build folks up, that’s only going to make matters worse in the end.
Paul encourages us to speak the truth to our neighbors because we are members of one another. We are part of the Body of Christ in Christian communities. We can be angry. This passage isn’t Paul telling us to be angry, but more so acknowledging that we are human beings and anger will sometimes be present among us. Anytime people get together in groups with differing backgrounds, views, and beliefs—conflicts can arise. Though in the Church we are not supposed to sin (separate from God, one another, and our best selves) even when angry. These aren’t easy words to live by. Lord knows that church conflicts have been present from the beginning—read some of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Galatians and we know this to be true.
Even today, we live in a charged political climate and that charged climate affects all of society, including churches. I’ve just returned from 14 days in Australia, and everyone wanted to speak to me as an American about what in the world is happening in our country. Sometimes it seems that we’ve forgotten that we are part of one another in the United States, let alone part of the wider world. In the Christian Church we believe that we are all part of the Body of Christ. That’s a central belief of Paul’s theology. Thank goodness we aren’t a church full of just eyes or ears or arms or legs. It’s the diversity of the parts of the body that make it work, my friends. Because it ends up that we need each other in order to properly function.
In the United States, do we believe that we are all part of a larger whole? That we need one another in order to function and that diversity can be good? When us versus them language and legislation is constant, we may forget that the motto of the United States remains e pluribus unum—out of many, one. Unity and diversity are both part of the picture in our country, though we often focus on what divides us from them.
For so long, we were taught that it’s impolite to speak about religion and politics. Those topics of conversation lead to issues within relationships when our beliefs differ. That teaching has always made me laugh because I inevitably talk about religion with everybody whenever someone asks me, “So, what do you do?” It can’t be helped! We’re talking about religion if I answer that question honestly. (But it’s always so lovely to hear some people start spewing about how terrible or irrelevant organized religion happens to be in those moments when revealing my vocation.)
Those conversations notwithstanding, the larger problem in our society is that we’ve been told it’s impolite to speak about religion and politics because the conversations could get contentious. So we often didn’t and don’t talk about these topics. As a result, we never learned how to speak about contentious topics in a healthy way. Have we ever begun speaking about politics with someone (this could even be family members or close friends) and all of a sudden, voices get raised and people begin name calling? Anger comes out because we often don’t follow what Paul advises, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Nope, we don’t particularly like what that person said or their views and start calling them names.
Perhaps it’s naïve, but there’s hope that the climate in our nation could be different in churches. It’s often not, but it could be! Why? Because we already have texts like the Letter to the Ephesians that provide a plan for speaking about contentious topics within a Christian community! The Christian Church has been here before with all sorts of conflicts—conflicts within families, within local churches, within communities at large. Paul tells us to “speak the truth to our neighbors.” We can respectfully voice our opinions. And we are to remember that we are “members of one another.” We are all part of the Body of Christ and we are in this together. The diversity of the Body is what makes it work. We can speak the truth in love knowing that we belong to one another. “Be angry but do not sin.” Sometimes someone may say something and we are going to feel mad or hurt. That’s inevitable. It happens.
Though as Christians we are not to respond by letting “evil talk come out of our mouths.” We aren’t supposed to put that person down even if we really want to—because doing so separates us from God, from one another, and from our best selves. Instead we are to speak “only what is useful for building up” so that our words “may give grace to those who hear.” Here’s the kicker from Paul, the instructions that bring this all home: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Oh, well that’s a piece of cake, right? Of course not! Though being in Christian community means that we get to practice being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving with people who are hopefully going to understand when we fail and aren’t always at our best. Because we’re going to forgive others when they aren’t at their best. This practice of putting away our bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice and taking on the practices of kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness here helps transform us and how we can be in the world out there! None of this is easy. Paul wouldn’t have mapped out instructions for dealing with anger and conflict if this never happened within churches and individual relationships in his own time. Though we’re in this together and living transformed lives in Christ is always worth it! Thanks be to God. Amen