Sermons & services

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Published Monday 23rd Jan. 2023, at 9:10 a.m.

Is it just me, or does it feel like we live in an angry world at the moment? Whether it’s the car parked in my parking space; or the cyclist going across the pedestrian crossing just as I’m about to cross. Whether it’s the war in Ukraine or the treatment of women in Iran and Afghanistan. Whether it’s Trump or Brexit; public sector strikes; Covid vaccines; banking bonuses; Extinction Rebellion protests; globalisation; gentrification; LGBTQI+ issues. You name it – someone, somewhere – is going to be getting angry about something. I suppose there’s nothing new in that. Interestingly, sociologists have done research that suggests that anger in societies peaks every fifty years or so. And sometimes these cycles of anger are not unhealthy. They can take in the civil rights movement, the movement for workers right, the suffragette movement. Not all anger is bad: some things are worth getting angry about. But we can also look at world events and see that the anger in the human heart can lead inexorably to violence, bloodshed, and death. Nothing demonstrates the destructive power of sin more than anger. As the Book of Proverbs warns, a hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel. It’s a frightening thing to be the object of someone’s anger, but the irony is that if it is we who are the angry one’s, we often end up harming ourselves as much as the other person. If not more. St John Cassian, of the earliest church writers on the spiritual life, wrote once, the one who is angry ‘turns the poison of their wrath back to their own destruction, brooding over it in their hearts and in glum silence digesting it within themselves’. What a wonderful image: the one who is angry, is literally eaten up by their own anger. It’s why Cassian, like the other desert fathers and mothers, described anger as ‘a deadly poison that must be totally uprooted’. It poisons others, it poisons relationships, it poisons society, it poisons us. According to Cassian, the only excuse for our anger is when we are angry with ourselves, at our own faults and failings. But here’s the paradox. Anger is said to be a sin, and yet, what about Jesus? Didn’t Jesus get angry in the Temple when he overthrew the tables of the money changers? Well, yes, He did get angry in the Temple, but then, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that anger was a sin. So how are we to understand this? Well I think it has something to do with control and intention. We can be angry and in control; or we can be angry and out of control. There is nothing wrong with anger against injustice, and wrong, and evil. That’s why the Old Testament speaks about God’s anger. Surely, we want to feel that God is angry against the evil of Auschwitz or genocide or people trafficking? Do we really want a God who passes by with divine indifference? So anger, if we allow it to control us, can result in violence against another: and that violence may be physical, but it may be verbal or emotional. It can be the silent, chilling, vindictive, anger of revenge against someone we feel has wronged us. But to feel anger against an obvious injustice is not to sin. In fact, avoiding anger at all times may be a sign of weakness. St Thomas Aquinas says it is wrong not to get angry over some things that we should: he calls it unreasonable patience. But we need to temper and cool that anger so that it does not lead to sin. As St Paul tells us in our epistle: “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”. So how, then, do we ensure that our anger is proportionate and just? Creative anger, rather than destructive? We live in a world which says it’s good to let off steam, to give people a piece of our minds. But the Christian monastic tradition tells us that actually to be self-possessed, in control, master of myself, is both good, desirable, and achievable. So how are we to combat anger? The first thing, I would say, is to pray for the gift of peace, for a peaceful heart, a peaceful spirit: peace, after all, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So pray. I do – all the time! Pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to pour peace into your hearts: that peace of God which passes all understanding. Remember: peace doesn’t come that naturally. It’s a gift of the Spirit. Secondly, and sticking to our reading from St Paul, we should learn to hand the anger over to God. Ultimately, it’s God’s job to ensure justice is done and wrong avenged, not ours. We have to do out bit. We can’t sit on our hands over injustice. But when we do it, it’s often destructive. Sometimes, leave it to the God who is Love and Justice and Mercy. In other words, it’s okay to walk away from dispute and controversy. I used to listen to LBC all the time: I now watch how often I listen to phone-ins and argument and dispute. Here, again, we need to cultivate within ourselves the discipline of silence. Often our anger is expressed in sharp words, and the best remedy for that is to learn to shut up. Practicing silence every day can help that. We need to fast from words. If we have to find a vent for our anger, turn it on its head. If you have to confront someone who has made you angry, do it in a way they least expect. Be nice to them. Go out of your way to do them good. At the very least, pray for the people who are making us angry, and ask for God’s blessing upon them. That’s not easy and will take a little practice but we should, at least, try. The effect of all this is to break the cycle of anger, because anger tends only to create yet more anger. Violence begets violence. Our model here, of course, is God. Our sins, as the Prayer Book reminds us, have provoked most justly [God’s] wrath and indignation against us. But does a wrathful and indignant God send down fire and brimstone upon us? No. Instead God keeps giving, keeps for-giving, waiting for us to return to him. God is a ‘compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’ And if God is slow to angry and quick to forgive, then so should we be. So let’s ask God for a new heart, for hearts like his that are compassionate and forgiving and loving. Let us pray for the grace of peace and of self-control – another of the fruits of the spirit – that we may be people who, as Paul told the Romans, live in harmony with one another, loving one another with brotherly affection, outdoing one another in showing honour. Amen.