Sunday, August 12, 2012

Live in Love - Sunday Sermon, August 12, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
August 12, 2012

“Live in Love”

The experts tell us we are what we eat. I guess that means if one was to cut me open, a variety of m&ms and crackers with peanut butter would spill out. I almost think it’s worth attempting... almost. If this is true, that our physical bodies are some version of the food and drink we consume, then our mind and soul must also be some version of our thoughts and feelings.  We are what we think and feel, too. If our feelings are primarily positive, open, loving, and generous, then we may become more open, loving and generous people. If our emotions are only ever inward, bitter, and closed-off, then we won’t just feel resentment, but we may be consumed by it. We won’t only feel anger, but we may end up an angry person.

If you go to the search engine on and put in “religion and anger,” more than forty thousand titles surface.[1] That significant number is indicative of just how much anger creeps into every facet of life. Whether anger is wielded outwardly or is masked by passive aggression, we mostly don’t know what to do with it. Some of us are overcome by it, lashing out and leaving a trail of tears while others of us are paralyzed by it, losing our capacity to communicate or express ourselves. Some of us dissolve while others of us go mute. No matter how we handle our anger, our biggest challenge is paying attention to where the anger has come from and what it means to us. Are the circumstances that make us angry really worth it?

A lot of people around here have told me that they feel angrier than usual. The tiniest things can set them off and, in no time, they are filled with rage. Most of the people who have mentioned this aren’t really happy about it. Many of them have even done some self-evaluation. They have looked at their lives here and they have reasoned, “Hey, I have good shelter and decent food, at least on some days. My job isn’t so bad. We aren’t getting hit with lots of IDF. I even get to take the occasional nap. I work out daily. Life is pretty good. Why am I so angry?”

It’s hard to answer this question outright, yet I also know it to be true. I have found myself angrier at some things that really have no business bothering me. It has hit me out of nowhere, and I have found myself asking this same question, “Why?” It is as if our fuses have been shortened so much that they hardly exist at all. The littlest things throw us into a downward spiral. One minute we are going along just fine, and then we walk into the chow hall on a Sunday afternoon to discover that there is no Mongolian Grill. Suddenly, the day has tanked. Recovery is impossible. We become inconsolable and fussy. The only thing that will make this better is going home and since that is months away, we resign ourselves to becoming irascible. Soldiers and sailors beware.

As one commentator put it, “Few things are uglier than a thoroughly irascible person, and it is clear why very early in the church anger came to be regarded as one of the seven deadly vices. When it gets deep and pervasive in life, it really does kill love and everything lovely.”[2] Yet, anger does not always result in irascibility. It only becomes this extreme when anger becomes the primary emotion, when anger is not balanced with all the other emotions which help us to see more colors than red.

According to our passage in Ephesians, anger, itself, is not the problem. “Be angry,” we are told, “But do not sin.” There is an important difference between the emotion, anger, and the behavior, to sin. Anger is an emotion, yet to sin is a verb. To sin is to act out, to commit offense or do wrong. It is action, or in some cases inaction, that results in destruction. When anger drives us, propels us to say things we ought not say or do things we later regret, this is some version of sin.

Anger has an important place in our bank of emotions. It is a normal human reaction to injustice. It is a sign that something has gone wrong or that someone is acting in a way that is harmful. Anger is helpful at times because it signals to us that there is a problem which we need to deal with. “Be angry... but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The danger is when we don’t attend to it, when our anger stays festering inside of us, when it controls our thoughts and even deeds. When we let this emotion take over so much so that any time we don’t get our way or we come up against a challenge, we automatically become angry, this is the real danger. Because every time we allow ourselves to be consumed by our anger, it takes something of our joy. Eventually, anger becomes a kind of default mode. It’s like muscle memory. Soon, we are angry over everything. We find it hard to remember what it is like not to be angry.

But. as one friend pointed out earlier this week, even Jesus got angry, and on a few occasions so angry that he did something about it. When he encountered abuses in the temple, he threw over tables. When he was criticized for healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, he got angry at the leadership who seemed to be more interested in petty rules than caring for those who were most needy. Of all the times that Jesus got mad, though, he never seemed to get riled up over the little things, the things that didn’t really matter. Jesus didn’t expend his energy on spinning his wheels. Whenever he got angry, it was for good reason. His anger was righteous. 

There are a lot of good reasons to be angry, especially this week. The local news has brimmed with reports of green on blue attacks, perhaps the most glaring, an incident in southern Afghanistan where a group of US Special Forces were invited to dinner, to break the Ramadan fast with some of their Afghan partners. When they arrived for dinner, they were shot on the spot. Though they came in a spirit of good will, their gesture was used against them. Reports like this should stir up anger because they are more than stories. This is the reality that is unfolding around us daily. Of course, there are other injustices worthy of our anger, children being abused, used as vehicles of violence, spouses transgressing upon their vows of fidelity, leaders neglecting those entrusted to them for their own selfish gain. I could go on and on and on. Anger in these circumstances may be righteous, too.

But if we are going to use Jesus as our example of good anger, we need to consider one additional dimension. This is the other thing about Jesus’ anger. Not only does it only manifest itself when it really matters, when it is called for, but also, most importantly, in the midst of his anger, Jesus manages to remember love, too. No matter how angry he gets-- with the Pharisees who take careless advantage of their flocks or the disciples who can’t seem to get it or even those who ultimately take his life-- Jesus still manages to love all of them. He finds a way to hold anger and love in both of his hands, so that the offender is both held responsible for wrongful actions but also offered an opportunity to repent, to be forgiven, and ultimately to be made lovable again, despite the offense. Anger without love makes our hearts hard and black. On the other hand, anger tapered with love may be an impetus to grow or to deal with a real problem which left unattended could result in worse damage.

In the end, Paul reminds us that we have been made in God’s image, as beloved children, to live in love. We are only really satisfied when we do this. Putting away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and instead being kind to one another, tenderhearted and forgiving, this is what frees us from the burdens of discontent. No matter how bad things have gotten and how angry we have felt, finding a way to let go of all of it, this is what we are longing for. To live in love is to live in the way that God made us in the beginning-- free and good, very good.

It is hard to know where to begin, especially if we have been angry for a while. On some days, on the hardest days, I think we start this process on our knees. When we are gripped with anger, and we see no other way out, when we are at the end of our rope and have nothing left, we can still pray, even if it is simply the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, to give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In bits of bread, even the hardest of hearts can be transformed anew. This is the power of God’s saving grace. It knows no bounds. It is forever and ever. So, live in love, as Christ loved you and gave himself up for you. Amen.

[1] Paul Marshall. “Ephesians 4:25-5:2: Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word p. 326
[2] Robert C. Roberts. “Tempering the Spirit of Wrath: Anger and the Christian Life.” The Christian Century. June 18-25 1997, pp. 588-592

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