Sermon Seeds: Shaping Community/Christ-like Living
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 14
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 with Psalm 130 or
1 Kings 19:4-8 with Psalm 34:1-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Shaping Community/Christ-like Living
Note: Special resources for Sunday, August 9, as a day of prayer for racial justice are available at http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways, including Children’s Sermon Starters by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood.
Also, a lectionary-based service by the Rev. Rachel Hackenberg for this Sunday reflecting on #blacklivesmatter is at http://rachelhackenberg.com/a-lectionary-meditation-on-blacklivesmatter/.
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
We don’t often hear the word “conversion” in the United Church of Christ, but this week’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians invites us to consider what it means not to be just a name on the rolls of a congregation but a living, breathing, “whole and holy” follower of Jesus, with our hearts and minds and entire selves converted – transformed – by giving our lives over to God in Jesus Christ. While last week’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians urged us to walk the walk as much as talking the talk, this week’s passage leads us to examine our talk as well (see the alternative Sermon Seeds reflection on Ephesians 4:1-16 at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_august_2_2015). Not our preaching and proclaiming, really, but our everyday, person-to-person talk, with one another and about one another.
If we are truly given over to Christ, truly transformed, people will be able to see it. It will show. For example, it might be hard to “speak the truth in love,” but we will speak it, in love, nonetheless. This may be a greater challenge in the church than contentious quarrels about sexuality or even the forbidden topic of money. Speaking the truth in love about money is quite difficult, as is “walking our talk” about it. For example, it’s been said that stewardship is everything we do after we say “yes” to God, and Herb Miller shares the words of someone who “suggested the following as an appropriate offertory prayer: ‘Lord, no matter what we say or do, here is what we think of you. Amen'” (Money Is Everything: What Jesus Said about the Spiritual Power of Money). What we do with our money holds more truth than what we may say about it; for example, our checkbook may describe our priorities more accurately than our words do. (There’s a good spiritual formation exercise – examining our checkbook/online banking/credit card statement as indicators of our beliefs and true priorities.)
Could it be that we in the church spend so much time talking about sexuality (and who is acceptable or not, based on their sexuality) in order to avoid telling the truth in love about money and its connection to our faith? And we may also want to avoid talking about the even larger questions of generosity: the forgiveness that reflects a gentle and generous spirit that lets go of resentment, anger, and old grudges, not to mention the death-grip that we often have on our own self-righteousness. Even more paralyzing is our fear of the truth, of telling and hearing the truth. And yet, a faith community that is both truthful and loving is an immeasurable gift in our lives. This passage begins with an exhortation to tell the truth, but that command is tempered by love, and, later, by kindness. Paul V. Marshall observes, “For the author of Ephesians, truth is not sufficient warrant for speech. What is spoken is to be for building up, for occasioning grace….Do we understand the power of the slightest of our words to be creative acts?” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Maybe we don’t have to say every single thing that’s on our mind, even if it is “the truth” (as we see it).
God had us in mind long ago
In Eugene Peterson’s translation (in The Message) of the earliest verses of this letter (again, see last week’s additional reflection in Sermon Seeds), the writer of Ephesians (Paul or one writing in his name, from prison) speaks clearly to the church of what it means to remember who we are, and to remember whose we are. Today’s reading is a sketch (and a good one) of what it looks like, then, if we say yes to God. If we claim our identity in Christ, if we know ourselves as members of a body, how can we be at war with one another, outwardly or underneath the surface and behind one another’s back? If we truly belong to one another and to the Body of Christ, how can we hurt one another with angry words and actions? When we act out of anger, we hurt ourselves, in a very real sense, as the members of a body should not and would not hurt each other.
If God has been generous and forgiving to us, how can we who belong to God be anything but generous and forgiving, anything but kind to one another? Yes, we’re human, and anger is part of the human experience. The writer of Ephesians has sense enough to recognize that, but urges us to resist acting out of anger, a struggle that is clearly an ancient one for humans. Paul Marshall reports that “amazon.com currently lists more than forty thousand religious titles that touch on the subject of anger.” (Last time I checked, there were fewer than 13,000 books on anger listed; I’m not sure what that says about our interests – or progress – since Marshall wrote his commentary. Still, 12,000-plus? That’s a lot of books!) Anger is indeed part of being human, but to be the church is to be a community of reconciliation, and Marshall lifts up reconciliation as a spiritual practice for “the reconciled community,” a practice that “begins with naming” the “frightening” emotion of anger (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Is reconciliation on our list of spiritual practices?
Would our acts “betray” us as followers of Jesus?
One contemporary example of acting out of anger, in a nation that often claims to be Christian, is the experience of road rage. Even our lesser temptations to react to rudeness on the road can carry consequences. A local church pastor in the UCC tells the story of being cut off in traffic by another driver, but then she remembered that she had a bumper sticker with her congregation’s name on it (along with “God is Still Speaking”). She felt a heightened sense of responsibility to bear witness to a gentle spirit since she was, in effect, representing her church. She felt the anger, but didn’t act out of it. Do folks outside our church encounter us each day as people of gentle spirits and tender hearts? Would our conduct and manner “betray” us as followers of Jesus?
How often we humans strive to “play God” without actually imitating God’s love, forgiveness, and generosity! And yet, this Letter to the Ephesians holds us to an “imitation of God” in terms that challenge us not to power over but power within – the power of love and truth and gentleness, the power of kindness and humility. The writer speaks of anger itself as something human, perhaps, but not when it’s prolonged and nurtured. How can we speak the truth in love, from the pulpit, about anger, especially in the church itself? Quiet angers may simmer within congregations, as well as marriages and families, neighbors and nations, undermining human relationships at every turn, and grieving “the Holy Spirit of God” (v. 30).
Anger is only part of the picture
Dianne Bergant expands on the author’s list of sins: “Bitterness is that disposition that cherishes resentment….Fury is anger expressed in violent outbursts of temper. Anger is the eruption of impulsive passion….Reviling denotes slanderous words spoken behind another’s back. Malice is less a vice than a quality of evil.” All of these sins, Bergant writes, are harmful to the Christian community, and they grieve the Holy Spirit (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). Alas, the church in every age seems beset by conflict and anger, including our own. The actors and the issues may vary, but the sins persist. What angers flare up within you and the body of your church, within the community of your church’s setting, its neighborhood? Within and beyond our own walls, our own neighborhoods, so much of the world’s conflict is caused by anger nurtured for years and generations, and we know that anger can indeed be justified, for example, on the part of those suffering injustice over many years. If such anger motivates us to action on behalf of justice and healing, then it has great value. But how should it be expressed?
In fact, we need to examine more closely the other times when anger may be quite justified, and how it might be connected to healing, for example, on the part of victims of different forms of abuse. Part of depression, it is said, can be anger suppressed, and healing is helped when the anger is expressed. And then there is anger as a stage of grieving, too. Anger, it seems, if it’s a healthy human emotion, isn’t always all bad. Do you think we can actually be too quick to forgive, too swift to excuse another’s actions, especially if there has been no sorrow expressed, no repentance, and if there have been significant consequences of a person’s actions? What if the person is still committing the offense – what then? These are difficult questions, and pastors surely need to draw on deep wells of wisdom, both ancient (Scripture) and new (psychology and other sources of insight) in order to help those who struggle with them. If anger is ever justified, what is the Christian way of dealing with it, of expressing it without sinning, as Paul suggests?
The dangers of perfectionism
This is a lot to live up to, Paul. Even a short passage like this one, can make a person feel very small, and very unworthy. We wonder how we can ever measure up, how can we avoid these sins, how can we even think of imitating God. Such an effort with its inevitable failures is especially hard on a perfectionist. Joel E. Kok, however, cautions us that perfectionistic tendencies in the spiritual life, thinking that we have to measure up to impossible standards, can make us, well, “neurotic.” Instead, Kok urges us to look to Paul as our example, as Paul never hesitated to speak of his own shortcomings but still found the “striving toward perfection” as something “energizing, enabling him, in the beautiful and familiar words of Philippians 3:14, to ‘press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.'” We’re saved by grace, it’s true, not by our own effort, but Kok uses the wonderful phrase, “not effortlessly but willingly” to describe this way of living (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles; we might spend some time reflecting on the difference between those two words, especially in light of this passage). Can a perfectionist live with a dependence on grace? Good question.
G. Porter Taylor employs a wonderful image when he describes these virtues or works not as “merit badges” but as “marks of the new life given to us in baptism” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). What might seem to us to be prideful or over-reaching (and totally impossible) is a kind of training, or maybe a process of growing into who we want to become. Paul Marshall says that a writer as ancient as this one recognizes that being a Christian is something “we grow into.”
It’s odd that, when we try to claim that identity while we’re still growing into it, we often meet with criticism, as if we’re being hypocritical or “phony,” Taylor writes, by claiming to be Christian when we still have a long way to go to meet the Christian ideals: “One would never argue with anyone’s attempt to ‘become’ possessed of the traits of a successful lawyer, rock star, or world leader….The text invites us to do what comes unnaturally as a means to making it natural, or second nature” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Reading these words reminded me of something I heard many years ago, about the great German theologian, Karl Rahner, who said that it’s better to say that we’re always becoming Christians than saying that we simply are Christians. His words suggest growing into an identity rather than achieving a static goal, or piling up merit badges, either.
Kindness and tender-heartedness
Scholars observe that there is a beautiful Greek word in this text that we miss in English: chrēstos, or kindness, and the word itself, as well as its meaning, reminds us of Christ himself. So does the word “tender-hearted,” and we remember the times Jesus felt compassion for a sick person, or a hungry crowd, or grieving sisters at their brother’s tomb. It seems to me that kindness ought to be the foundation of our behavior toward one another; I think it was a man named John Watson (and not Plato) who said that we should “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I put these words on my desk, where I’m reminded, in different words, of what the writer to the church at Ephesus is trying to say.
In Richard Ward’s thought-provoking commentary on this text, he questions the authenticity of our “liturgical hand-holding,” singing about our unity and our love for one another, if the world does not see us and think of the One we claim to follow. Ward draws on Ephesians to urge us on in “the practice of kindness,” which will help us to avoid slipping into “empty gestures” of “love and unity” in church that do not reflect the quality of our shared life. Here we find the value of reading and truly living out these words from a writer who witnessed those same old sins so long ago: “The practice of kindness draws one away from ‘hardness of heart’ and into the ‘life of God'” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Everyday life, everyday struggles, and everyday practice…and God gives us, at every moment, grace along the way to energize and sustain us.
There is responsibility threaded through this reading, too, with everyone called on to work and contribute, to help and share their goods with those in need. We should also build one another up, sharing not only our material goods but a spirit that strengthens and encourages one another. To do otherwise is to “grieve the Spirit of God.” What does it mean to you to “grieve the Spirit of God”? When has the church itself “grieved the Spirit of God”? Is it more difficult to share a generous, encouraging spirit than it is to share our money? When do we have the opportunity to be loving, generous, tender-hearted, and forgiving, and in so doing and being, offer ourselves up “as a fragrant offering” to God?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For Further Reflection:
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
William Pickens, in a speech to a meeting of Congregationalists, Oak Park, Illinois, November 2, 1932
“Living together in an art.”
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible to be kind.”
Maya Angelou, 21st century
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
Aristotle, 4th century b.c.e.
“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
“We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden.”
Stanley Hauerwas, 21st century
“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”
Wendell Berry, 20th century
“Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
Dorothy Day, 20th century
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.
O God, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O God, should mark iniquities,
who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for God, my soul waits,
and in God’s word I hope;
my soul waits for God
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in God!
For with God there is steadfast love.
With God is great power to redeem.
It is God who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
1 Kings 19:4-8
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
I will bless God at all times;
God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in God;
let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify God with me,
and let us exalt God’s name together.
I sought God, and God answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to God, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by God,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of God encamps
around those who fear God,
God’s angel delivers them.
O taste and see that God is good;
happy are those who take refuge in God.
So then, putting away 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, tenderhearted, 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.
John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.