Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
So then, putting falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. 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. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Being Imitators of God and Being Deeply Moved: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Sometime this week, one of my friends on Facebook posted a quote that seemed very timely. It is by an author named Neil Gaiman, who writes wonderful and strange books about magic and gods and ancient people and small children and worlds that exist just beyond what we know. A few years ago, he wrote these words:
"I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase 'In these days of political correctness…' talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, 'That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.'
Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase 'politically correct' wherever we could with 'treating other people with respect', and it made me smile.
You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.
I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking 'Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!'"
I remembered these words as I read through today's portion of the letter to the Ephesians. It appears that it is not only modern day people who are trying to figure out how to speak civilly to one another. Ancient Christians worked on that, too. I think the author of Ephesians would have appreciated Gaiman's ideas about treating people with respect. After all, that's what he seems to be telling this church to do.
The letter to Ephesus is intended to be a letter that does two things: provide theological grounding to address an issue, or, in this case, a couple issues, in the community and then, to offer concrete practices for living out that theology. We've already talked about the theological conversations in the first part of the letter. Today, we're going to talk about the concrete practices for living out that theology. This author wanted the church to know that this theology is something that they can't just say they like and then not ever actually live any differently. He is certain that faith in Christ is earth-shattering and world-changing. What that means is that you do not receive this grace without being changed. As I heard one speaker say at the UCC General Synod a couple weeks ago, people should see something change when you become a Christian. Your faith should affect your life. So, the author gave the people of this church some practices so they could live out their faith more fully.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've preached about the cultural and religious divisions that seemed to be affecting the church in Ephesus. There seems to have been a strong division between ethnically Jewish and ethnically Gentile Christians in this community. The division was strong enough that is seemed to be keeping people from actually learning to function together as a church. Also, the church was arguing over who's gifts for leadership were the greatest. This argument, too, seemed intense and seemed to be dividing the community. I would hazard a guess that many of the people in this room know something about living in a world that seems very strictly divided. I read some statistics this week that said that 60% of Americans feel like the country is more divided today than it was 20 years ago. These same studies indicated that there is far less political common ground in the platforms of our major political parties. Nearly one third of the members of each party feels like not only do they have major disagreements with people in the other party, but that the other party is actually a threat to the nation's well being. More than 25% of the members of both parties would be unhappy if someone in their immediate family married someone with different political beliefs.
Now, you might argue that those statistics are about the secular world, not the church. But, I think you can find divisions just as strong both between different Christian communities and within individual communities. I think there is a very similar tone of snark and negativity and pathologization of difference within Christian communities as there is in communities that aren't specifically Christian. Fear-mongering and meanness rule our rhetoric right now. It is very often hard to find the common ground that must exist if we all call ourselves Christian. In times when we struggle to find unity through our difference, it might be helpful to return to some of this author's recommendations to the Ephesians. And, what is says is to speak to people with love.
In order to overcome the divisions within the culture and within the church, this author says that the church is no place for falsehood. He says that the Church is no place for lies or hateful speech that is only intended to cause harm. As one scholar I read this week, Brian Peterson, puts it, "The church ought to be the place where the truth can be spoken: the difficult truths about our world and about ourselves, and the gracious truth about the God who has redeemed us." That doesn't mean the truth will be easy, but it does mean that our words should never be spoken with malice, manipulation, or intent to slander. This also doesn't mean that the truth will never be passionate or even angry. It does mean that the anger will be used more as a tool to disrupt unhealthy or unjust behavior and not as a corrosive force to destroy the community around it. As Peterson notes, anger is often justified and an appropriate response to injustice. We need to listen to people who present the truth with anger, and help to address this anger so that it does not fester.
Sometimes in my research for the week I come upon a discussion of translation that really helps me see a verse differently. That happened a couple of times with this scripture. There is one verse where is says "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths..." Scholar Karoline Lewis says that this is more clearly translated as let no putrid talk come out of your mouth. Make sure that your words aren't rotten and won't infect the entire place. This author puts malice and manipulation on par with putrefaction. It is a sign of disease or death. And, remember, this community is supposed to be living a new life in Christ, a life that has been renewed and cleaned from signs of destruction. Hateful words and lies are signs of death, not Christ. When speaking of Christ's life and sacrifice, the author says that it is a fragrant offering. That is quite different than words that smell of rot and destruction. He says that our offerings to one another should be more fragrant and less stinky. That's what Jesus would do.
A second place with a shift in translation appears to be important is in the word to thieves that is present right in the middle of the scripture. At first, at least to me anyway, this talk of robbery and honest work seemed a little out of place within a larger discussion of respectful, honest speech. But, Peterson argues that this isn't that out of place. He said that this section on work is less about taking care of your own business, and more about doing something worthwhile. Peterson says, "[T]he text speaks about doing 'the good.' This is not a call to keep your head down and just pay attention to your own 'honest work.' Rather, it is a call to pay open-eyed attention to the needs of those around us, so that we can discern the good thing that our neighbors need and then do it." This verse isn't best read as a call to some individualistic, solitary Protestant work ethic but, instead, as a call to service of our neighbor. In this way, according to Peterson, our actions, along with our words, can become a "conduit" of God's grace to others. This is how our faith changes us. Our actions and our words are not separate. They are united in the goal of sharing God's grace. This is how we imitate God. What we say matters. What we do matters. We have to pay attention. We have to be willing to be moved to do something different than the way with did it before we felt the seal of the Holy Spirit on our hearts.
Now, some might argue that this attention to what we say and what we do distracts us from more important, weightier matters of doctrine. Surely it matters most that we profess the right kinds of belief. Emphasizing kindness of speech and loving action is a distraction... it is unimportant. Well, I think that the author of Ephesians is telling us quite the opposite. He argues that how we communicate with one another and how we serve one another are directly related to how we understand ourselves as followers of Christ. In fact, this author has the audacity to charge the Ephesians to not just follow Christ, but to imitate God! How can we even begin to imagine imitating God? When we imitate someone, we look to their words and their actions in order to model their behavior. This author says that we can look to the example of Christ, the incarnation of our God who once walked among us, and is still present with us through the Holy Spirit, to be our model. Scholar Elna Mouton says that, for the author of Ephesians, Christ embodies a concept of God centered on shared work and loving concern. Christ is the model for how to live in humility, hope, love, forgiveness, and peace. When we model our behavior after Christ's, the way a child models her behavior after a parent, we are modeling our behavior after God. We are imitating the Divine.
Imitating God is no small task. It is best done in community, with people who will speak the truth in love, sometimes with anger, but not with malice. It is best done side by side, with an eye out for the people who need some help. It is work best shared among friends, neighbors, and also with people that feel very different from you. In the spirit of being willing to demonstrate how I've received grace, I want to tell you a bit about how I'm going to do some of my part of imitating God. On August 19th, at 2 PM, I'm going to a meeting in Augusta at the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ office where members of the Maine conference will gather to organize an anti-Racism Resource Team. You are invited, too, though I know many of you will be working and can't make a time during the work day. If you really want to be involved, we'll find a way to make that happen. So much of the unrest of the last year has reminded me that racism goes very deep in the bones of this country and in our churches. Just as Christ broke down walls between Jews and non-Jews, I believe that Christ can break down the divisions that we have built between people of European descent and people of Asian, African, Native American, and Latin American descent. But, that wall doesn't come down if Christians don't do the work of speaking the truth in love, addressing the anger, and doing the good to serve the people who need it. I hope that this will be a place that I can do the good, right here, in the place where I live. I hope you find a place where you can do the good, too. Go. Be imitators of God. Be willing to be moved by what you see as you work. Don't be afraid to speak and hear the truth. Christ did it before us and shows us a way. Let's keep on being imitators of God.
Here are resources that Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Brian Peterson's commentary on Ephesians 4:25- 5:2: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2547
Neil Gaiman quote: http://urbanbohemian.com/2015/08/07/43679/
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993)
The New Testament, A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd edition by Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Myer's Political Divide: http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/theological-trackstanding-a-users-guide-to-unity-in-church-and-society-ephesians-41-16/
Sermon Brainwave Podcast-https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=654
Elna Mouton, "(Re) Describing Reality? The Transformative Potential of Ephesians across Times and Cultures," in A feminist companion to the deutero-pauline epistles, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff (Pilgrim Press, 2003)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.