This sermon was prepared for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN and delivered on Sunday, August 9th, in both the chapel and sanctuary services. Audio will be available at presby.net… soon.
17 So I’m telling you this, and I insist on it in the Lord: you shouldn’t live your life like the Gentiles anymore. They base their lives on pointless thinking, 18 and they are in the dark in their reasoning. They are disconnected from God’s life because of their ignorance and their closed hearts. 19 They are people who lack all sense of right and wrong, and who have turned themselves over to doing whatever feels good and to practicing every sort of corruption along with greed.
20 But you didn’t learn that sort of thing from Christ. 21 Since you really listened to him and you were taught how the truth is in Jesus, 22 change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. 23 Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit 24 and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.
25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor[a] because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning.[b] Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.
29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
5 Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God. (Ephesians 4:17-5:2, Common English Bible translation)
I want to talk a bit this morning about a recent animated film about feelings. Any guess what film that might be? Nope! Not Inside Out, though that was a contender. Definitely worth watching, in my humble opinion. No, the film I want to talk to you about is Song of the Sea. Perhaps a wee bit less familiar…
Early in this film the young Irish boy at its center loses his mother rather mysteriously just as his sister emerged from her womb. Before she died she told him countless Gaelic stories and painted pictures of these stories on the wall, she taught him ancient gaelic songs as well. He was so excited meet the child in her womb. She assured him he was going be an excellent big brother. But living in a lighthouse accessible only by boat with a grieving father and a needy younger sibling, and no mother with her glorious stories and songs was not a recipe for a happy childhood. And it seems there were many messages in this boy’s life that told him it wasn’t o.k. to feel his feelings. His father’s emotional life was numbed, and on the hardest days he took the boat to the pub. And he had a grandmother who explicitly forbade him to cry. So it seems that the only feeling he felt was anger, all the time, and all of it was directed at his young sister— he aggressively acts out seething resentment towards this little girl who loves him fiercely. One of the gaelic myths that his mother told him was the story of a giant who suffered a great loss and cried so many tears he created the ocean. The giant’s mother, an owl witch, wanted to protect him from pain and so cast a spell to take away his feelings, and thereby turned him to stone. She then tried to protect others in the same way, turning countless fairies to stone throughout the land. There is a moment in the film when the boy meets the witch and realizes his mother’s story was true, and the witch, for a moment, tempts him with the promise of no more feelings. But a strength in him allowed him to resist and ultimately he and sister restore feeling to the witch, her son, and all the hardened fairies bringing life back in abundance.
Both Song of the Sea and the more familiar Inside Out suggest beautifully that to be alive and healthy you have got to feel all your feelings, even the uncomfortable or negative ones. Perhaps it’s time to renew movie night. I want to share both of these films with you— more fully than words alone allow.
Both of these films came back to me as I mused on our reading for this week. One verse in particular screamed at me— “Be angry without sinning. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” Or as it is put in the Bibles in your pews “Be angry, but do not sin; do net let the sun go down on your anger.” The way it is translated in both these versions it sounds like this is a command “Be angry!” It’s not really a command; it’s more like an assumed condition— you’re going to be angry, so here’s some guidance for how to live with your anger. But it was jarring, to me, to find an exhortation to anger in the midst of a whole bunch of teachings on what the new life should include. True confession. I don’t have an easy relationship with anger. Many adults, I think, and maybe kids too, major in particular emotions and minor in others— we have our comfort zones, and our discomfort zones, in the world of feeling. Given my complicated relationship with anger, I seized on the fact that later in our passage the author of the letter says to put away anger, along with other destructive behaviors. But I kept coming back to this earlier verse—“Be angry without sinning. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” I think the anger to be put away, is the anger with sinning— the anger the destroys self or others, anger that tears down rather than builds up. The feeling of anger itself… cannot be completely put away.
Even people who may feel anger quite easily and naturally can get messages, especially in church, I think, that this is an inappropriate feeling. In fact, sometimes it seems to me like we somehow get the impression that only positive emotions are welcome in church. I’ve heard so many stories of the wars that can rage at home in the process of trying to get everyone ready and out the door for church and then the smiles plastered on all the faces when we walk through the doors. I’ve heard people tell stories of avoiding worship for over a decade because every time they step into a worship service they are transported to funerals of loved ones and they can’t stop crying. And crying in church seems to them wholly inappropriate. So often within church walls someone will tell me that everything is fine, when their tight faces and raised shoulders tell a different story.
When the author to the Ephesians discusses the new life they are to be living, transformed from their earlier gentile ways, he doesn’t assume that everything will be happy, happy, joy, joy henceforth. He assumes that sometimes, in the life of faith, especially as that life is lived in human community, you are going to be angry— because you’re going to get hurt. It’s part of being human. Coming into relationship with Christ doesn’t take that away. In fact, Jesus himself got angry… more than once. We have it on record. According to that record, Jesus didn’t just get angry— he felt deep sorrow. He wept. He grieved. He was irritated. He was tired. He laughed. He felt a wide range of human emotions— I suspect he felt them all. And it even appears there were likely times when he struggled with his feelings and acted on his feelings in hurtful ways. But for the most part, Jesus seems to feel his feelings and act in love— whatever his feelings might be. He acts in ways that build up community around him, that build up individuals around him. He uses the energy of his feelings to bring positive change to the people he meets.
There are things in this world and in each of our lives that are not right, things that are not fair, things that make us angry. And there are certainly things in the life of a church that make us angry. Certain people rub us the wrong way. Particular changes irk the heck out of us. Sometimes its even songs—certain hymns just hit us in the wrong spot. Sorry. Yes. Anger is a natural part of church life, as are all the human emotions. We are a human community, the body of a human, not just a divine savior. A body that feels things. But we don’t only feel. We also think. And much of our scripture reading this morning suggests that we need to change the way we think in order to live with our feelings in a way that builds up rather than tearing down. And one of the foundational shifts demanded in our thinking is a refusal of dishonesty. One of the features of the old life we are to leave behind, is that it is driven by deceitful desires— I take this to mean, lies that we tell ourselves, particularly lies about the way that certain earthly pleasures will ultimately satisfy us. I get this partly from the description of lost gentiles as those who have given themselves over to doing whatever feels good. A line from a pop song came to mind— If it makes you happy, then it can’t be that bad. But in fact, a lot that temporarily makes us happy leads us nowhere good— it doesn’t bring joy, contentment, peace… when the momentary pleasure passes, an aching longing takes its place. But I also think that there are other lies that we tell ourselves, particularly lies about the appropriateness of feelings… lies that we have to stop telling in order to truly live. Once we tell the truth to ourselves, then we can follow the admonition in our passage to “tell the truth to our neighbor” and further to do what last week’s passage suggests “to speak the truth in love.” Rather than pushing anger down— lying to ourselves “I’m not angry.” Or “I’m not allowed to be angry.” Or “I’m a bad person because I’m angry.” These are all lies— rather than suppressing anger, or any feeling, grief, sadness, joy— we need to feel it, and admit we feel it, and then decide how to appropriately express this feeling— in a way that will build up rather than tearing down.
I remember a moment when an elder in my first congregation lived this process beautifully. She had had surgery and no one visited her. She was relatively young and healthy, but she had told people this was coming— and everyone forgot. Rather than stew about this, she spoke her sadness and her anger at a session meeting— not accusing or blaming or pointing fingers. She just let her faith community know she was hurting. And she expressed that she hoped something like this would never have to happen again in her church. She may have let the sun go down on her anger for awhile, but she didn’t let it fester. She spoke her truth in love. And the community was helped to be stronger and healthier thanks to her willingness to feel her feeling and share it in love.
Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. This is anger with sinning. Anger we cling to becomes bitterness. Losing our temper hurts people around us. Shouting brings shame. Shouting brings fear. Shouting breeds anger for anger. And slander… oh, what a terribly destructive thing to do with our anger.
But thanks be to God, we have other choices. We can’t choose to never be angry, but we can choose to be angry without sinning. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. We can resolve to always be kind, no matter the intensity of our anger. We can remember when we have been hurt its often hurt people who hurt people— and we can have compassion for the one who has wounded us. By choosing kindness and compassion, we can forgive as we have been forgiven. We imitate the God of forgiving love. We can do this and more because we have been loved; we are loved; we have the love of God within us.
We are a living church. We are a church that feels, all sorts of feelings, and that loves through all that feeling. We will not unconsciously act out nor turn to stone, but we speak the truth in love, building up one another and Christ’s body in this world. May it be so.
Thanks to Kevin Sanderson-Doughty and D. Jay Koyle for their assistance with the birthing of this sermon.
Song of the Sea. Directed by Tomm Moore. 2014. Belgium: Big Farm and Norleum studios. Available for viewing now through Amazon Instant Video, You Tube, Google Play, and Vudu.