Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Advent 2021

We often fail to get angry about the right things, in the right way.

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 14th November 2021 at 3.00 PM

The email arrived whilst I was on the phone, it hovered in the corner of my eye. Wrapping up the phone call, I read it, scarcely believing what I saw. Standing, before I knew it, I found that I was involuntarily stamping my foot in anger. It was a perfect cartoon moment, like Tom the cartoon cat seeing stars when hit over the head with a frying pan: the stamp of an infuriated foot. Who does that in real life? It turns out I do.

I know a person who, propelled by anger, smashed their fist through a door. And another who, in contrast, quietly smiled and smiled, whilst growing increasingly internally furious over years; fury which became unquenchable.

In Chapter 3 of the book of Daniel we encounter the anger of Nebuchadnezzar at the refusal of Daniel’s companions to follow Nebuchadnezzar’s directive. Another sermon, at another time might explore their faithfulness and God’s deliverance, all of which is fruitful ground. This Remembrance Sunday I invite us to consider the thread of anger in this story and in our lives.

Nebuchadnezzar knew Daniel and his companions, they had previously solved a problem for him so he’d appointed them to high and trusted office. But then he’d ordered a statue, 80 feet tall, to be created. We don’t know whom the subject was. Herodotus and other ancient sources record that many rulers had set up monumental images of Zeus and other gods. Nebuchadnezzar in his time was little different.

When the time for the dedication ceremony came, no honour was spared. The author of the book of Daniel clearly likes a list and the list of those in attendance emphasises the elaborate network of the royal court and bureaucracy. There were satraps, prefects, governors, counsellors, treasurers, justices, magistrates and every official you could imagine all looking on. To add to the colour and pomp of the occasion there were assembled horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and the entire musical ensemble. When they sounded everyone was to bow down to the statute. To the statute that King Nebuchadnezzar had caused to be set up.

Nebuchadnezzar had a lot riding on this. Then he is told that some dared to defy his authority: ‘Certain Jews who pay no heed to you, O King’. What disrespect! What embarrassment! The affect is to provoke ‘furious rage’, and the writer of the book of Daniel records that Nebuchadnezzar was soon ‘so filled with rage that his face was distorted’.

Let loose and reactive, anger is a force to behold and yes, perhaps to be feared. It can most definitely lead to harm. And Nebuchadnezzar’s intent was harm. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Attended to, anger can be revealing. Harnessed it can be a force for good, for change.

We can never know what lay behind Nebuchadnezzar’s anger but you’ll have caught hints of my wondering as to whether frustration at being thwarted, embarrassment and lost of face were part of the mix.

How might things be different if we could pause with our anger or the anger of others and allow our curiosity rather than our reactivity or judgement to rise. If I could ask myself ‘to what is this sense of anger alerting me; within me or within the other who is angry?’ Perhaps outrage at injustice, rejection, fear, frustration, shame, overwhelming stress, confusion, powerlessness, or more?

What kind of brave conversations might emerge if we dared to face our anger and that to which it points. For anger is powerful energy in motion and attended to, can bring clarity of purpose and priority.

After all, in the Scriptures even God seems to get angry sometimes:

Through the prophet Amos, God declares, ‘I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.’ And Jesus caused chaos in the Temple precincts—driving out those who were selling, overturning the tables of the money changers.

I wonder what last made you angry, made me angry?

Was it, in the light of COP 26, the reality that it is the people who are already burdened by poverty who suffer the harshest consequences of the climate crisis, while having the least ability to cope. Was it that across our world 40 million people are victims of modern slavery, of whom almost 25 million are entrapped in forced labour and sexual slavery and 15 million subjected to forced marriage? Or was it that someone sent me an email which was rude and discourteous?

Maybe OUR problem is not that we get angry—but that we often fail to get angry about the right things, in the right way. What might godly anger look like?

Might I suggest that it:

  • concerns the right thing

In the examples I mentioned God’s anger centred on an issue of social justice: people of Amos’ day were blithely worshipping whilst the poor went wanting; Jesus’s anger was set ablaze because pilgrims were being fleeced by an unjust system which hindered their access to worship God.

  • is directed at the right target

Directed at the injustice which oppresses the vulnerable, the prejudice, ignorance, brutality fear, hatred which would separate us from one another. Or at the approach which requires change.

  • is expressed in the right way

It’s timely, proportionate and it leaves room for mercy and even for eventual reconciliation.

  • invites transformation for the good

Asking, ‘so, what are you going to do about this?’ What might you work on before God, in the light of what this anger has revealed?

I might at this point also raise the issue of the privilege of expressed anger. Everyone feels anger of course, but not everyone is given permission to express it equally. Soraya Chemaly writes,

‘In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men as criminality and in black women as threat. Anger in women has been widely associated with ‘madness’’. She goes on to describe the experience of black women and girls in the UK who are routinely silenced by ‘angry black women’ stereotypes.

Do I care enough to seek to understand why my brothers and sisters, children of the same heavenly Father might be angry with their lot? Or would I prefer that they are silent.

On this Remembrance Sunday let us be cautious that our anger does not add to the hate in the world—for there is plenty already—but may God prevent us from being indifferent or passive.

May our own godly anger and our determination to listen to the righteous anger of others, truly bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace.