Angry Pillows – Ephesians 4:25-32
Do you ever get angry, really angry? Novelist Mary Gordon tells this story. “I became an animal: … I was having 10 people for dinner that evening. No one was giving me a bit of help. I was feeling like a victim, as everyone does in a hot kitchen on an August day. I had been chopping, stirring, bending over a low flame and all, alone, alone! The oven’s heat was my purgatory, my crucible. My mother and my children thought this was a good time for civil disobedience. They positioned themselves in the car and refused to move until I took them swimming. They leaned on the horn and shouted my name out the window…. I lost it. I jumped on the hood of the car. I pounded on the windshield. … Then the frightening thing happened. I became a huge bird. A carrion crow. My legs became hard stalks; my eyes were sharp, vicious. I developed a murderous beak. I flapped and flapped. I became that bird. I had to be forced to get off the car and stop pounding the windshield. Even then I did not come back to myself and when I did I was appalled.” Surely Mary’s anger built over time, exponential disrespects compounding forming that angry bird within her.
Angry Jonah ran from God’s call was swallowed by a fish and brought back to serve. Prophet Jonah grudgingly prophesied in Nineveh; the Ninevites repented, and God forgave them. Jonah was pissed. He groused, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah wanted God to pummel the Ninevites into oblivion. Jonah’s judgment of the Ninevites festered within him making room for murderous, genocidal, devilish thinking.
But instead, God baptized Nineveh. God’s kindness flowed, God’s tender heart blessed, God forgave them. Jonah, addicted to the decadent taste of his hatred, simply wanted to die.
Ephesians speaks a word to us today; a word woven into God’s challenge to Jonah -“Is it right for you to be angry?” We must consider when we’re mad, whether it’s right, really alright to be mad or are we overreacting, petulant or selfish. Jonah was mired in negativity, motivated by bitterness, wrath, and anger, full of backbiting and defamation. God wants us, wanted Jonah instead to be motivated by kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
God forgave. Angry, Jonah stormed off, put up a tent, crawled into it and stewed. Awful God sucked him into a fish. Awful God made him preach repentance to his enemies. Awful God forgave Nineveh instead of pummeling.
Have you ever stewed nestling up to a bitter pillow replaying all the bad things of the day? Have you ever replayed scenarios of injustice, times you felt dishonored? Replayed them adding the mean things you wish you had said –adding destructive retributions? Rather than nestling all snug in your beds, with visions of sugar-plums dancing in your heads; you instead go Ben Hur, or Friday the 13th. Pondering vengeance is decadently delicious.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontation still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel both the pain you're given and the pain you're giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Anger can too quickly become destructively obsessive. The author of Ephesians teaches that we transform interior thoughts with motivations of goodness. Don’t dwell on the bad; move quickly towards tenderness, kindness, and forgiveness. Make space in your lives to reflect. “Is it right to be angry – so angry?” “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
I encourage you to adopt a version of Saint Ignatius’ spiritual practice, the Examen. He taught a technique of prayerful reflection. The reflection helps detect God’s daily presence. Ideally, the Examen is done twice a day, at noon and at day’s end. Start by becoming aware of God’s presence. Deeply breathe, pray for discernment, and breathe. Then reflect on the day with gratitude. Intentionally recall the good things in your day. After spending time in gratitude attend to your emotions. What stirred up emotion? How did you feel? Where was God in the feelings? Then choose one feature of the day and pray about it. If you were angry in the day, pray about it. Ask God how to positively respond. The last stage of the Examen is to look forward to tomorrow. With hope start your afternoon afresh, or put your head down on your grace-filled pillow readied for a baptized tomorrow.
But don’t rationalize anger away. Anger is not all bad. The author of Ephesians grants that it is necessary, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Of course we are going to be angry. Protective anger rises when someone threatens us. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor defines anger as one of God's good gifts, our ability to recognize danger and respond to it.
Righteous anger rises, when we see someone being bullied. You all know the story of Jesus’ rage towards the money changers. Jesus was righteously angry. They economically bullied the poor stealing from them by making them buy sacrificial animals as tickets to the Temple.
Tucked into the scripture today is an economic message against theft. “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” We can interpret this as a neat proverb against crooks, an encouragement to honest labor and benevolences. The author knew Hebrew scripture. Zechariah 8:16 is referenced, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the LORD.”
Zechariah, tapped into the vine of the biblical Prophets, censures financial abuses against the poor. Zechariah 7 verse 8, “The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” We can interpret, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” to also mean rather than exploit the poor, get jobs and support them.
Maryland Christians get angry with the bill that sails through our General Assembly opening up more gambling to exploit the poor and create gambling addictions. Our two denominations teach that gambling is a social ill. In 1950 the PC(USA) described gambling as theft as “an unchristian attempt to get something for nothing or at another’s expense.” To the poor, gambling promotes false hope. It promises a release from economic captivity. It encourages the poor to take their grocery money, to steal from savings, to put essential funds up on a table that presents a false hope of release from poverty. Some will say it is entertainment, they’re wrong – it’s theft.
If you get angry about gambling, transform your anger with positive actions. There are pamphlets in the Narthex with your Senators and Delegates. The PC(USA) General Assembly in 1992 enjoined us, “to exert influence on local, state and national legislative bodies to oppose all forms of legalized gambling…” I invite you to gather following worship up here on the Chancel to organize responses.
Friends, be angry but transform your anger with positive resolutions. Transform your anger with thoughts, words and actions for the greater good, “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.”
An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren. He said, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you and inside of every other person too.” One child asked, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.”
Consider a daily practice of St. Ignatius’ Examen. The deep love and grace of God allows us to see others with spiritual eyes, to see that they are cherished, that they are worthy. The deep love and grace of God empowers us to see that we also are cherished and worthy of respect and love.
Jonah allowed his anger to grow into a destructive obsession, seeing no beauty in Nineveh. A bush grew to provide comforting shade to stewing Jonah. He valued the bush. Then the bush is killed by a worm. And Jonah whined. “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left…?”
Friends, ponder before bedtime ways to be kind to one another, offer tenderhearted blessings, forgiveness and an appreciation for God’s love. Don’t lie down with angry pillows. Phyllis Diller wrote, “Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.” Rather than stew in resentment, fight to reconcile. Don’t hold anger inside. Transform it with God’s love. “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.”
May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 Minutes of the 162nd General Assembly (1950), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p.236.
 Minutes of the 204th General Assembly (1992), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p 922.