Sunday, August 9
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Creator God, as we grow and mature into the creation you envisioned, we become more certain that it is community which makes us strong. Through our collective hopes, dreams and endeavors, we push through the barriers of time and distance, race and economics, gender and religion. We pray that we continue to widen the circle of your limitless inclusion until we are all truly one.
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.
All Readings For This Sunday
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, 31-51
1. When is anger justified, and even valuable? How should it be expressed?
2. When have your words been a “creative act”?
3. What does it mean to you to “grieve the Spirit of God”?
4. What “truth” does your use of money tell about your spiritual life?
5. Do these words to an ancient congregation apply only to our life in the church, or to our life in the world as well? If so, how? If not, why not?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
Perhaps we don’t use the word “conversion” often enough in the United Church of Christ. Our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians invites us to consider what it means to be not 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. Earlier in this letter, the author invited us to think about walking the walk as much as talking the talk, and this week’s passage challenges us to examine, among other things, our talk as well. Not so much our public or official speech, 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, always in love, nonetheless. This may be a greater challenge in the church than contentious quarrels about sexuality or even the forbidden topic of money. In fact, speaking the truth in love about money is quite difficult, but so is “walking our talk” about it. For example, it’s been said that stewardship is everything we do after we say “yes” to God; in “Money Is Everything: What Jesus Said about the Spiritual Power of Money,” Herb Miller shares the words of another person for a dedication prayer at offering time: “Lord, no matter what we say or do, here is what we think of you. Amen.” What we do with our money holds more truth than what we may say about it, and our checkbook may list our priorities more accurately than our words do. (There’s a good spiritual formation exercise: examining our checkbook/online banking/credit card statement as an indicator of our beliefs and true priorities.)
Could it be that we in the church and the larger culture spend so much time talking about sexuality (and who is acceptable or not) in order to avoid telling the truth in love about money and its connection to our faith? Perhaps we also want to avoid talking about the even larger questions of generosity: the kind of forgiveness, for example, that comes with 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. We can be immobilized by 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. We are reminded of the power our words have at all times, so 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
Eugene Peterson’s translation (in The Message) of the earliest verses of this letter reminds us not only of who we are but also of the One to whom we belong, the One who was thinking about us long before the earth itself was formed: God, we are told “had us in mind,” and focused God’s own love on us, so that we might be “made whole and holy” by that love (Ephesians 1:4). That’s how we learn the meaning of our lives: 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 good sketch of what it looks like 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 our anger, a struggle that is as ancient as it is modern. Paul Marshall reports that on online book source “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 our progress–since Marshall made his observation. Still, 12,000-plus books are a lot of books!) Anger is indeed part of being human, but part of being the church is to be a community of reconciliation, and Marshall emphasizes the importance of reconciliation as a spiritual practice even when we are afraid to face the anger of others, or even our own. Is reconciliation on our list of spiritual practices? I have a feeling that many of us think we are being peace-makers when we are actually just avoiding conflict and the necessary practice of reconciliation. How else will we learn how to to do it?
Would our acts “betray” us as followers of Jesus?
One contemporary example of acting out of anger, even in a nation that often claims to be Christian, is the experience of road rage. A UCC local church pastor tells the story of being cut off one day in traffic by another driver and remembering that she had a bumper sticker with her congregation’s name on it (along with “God is Still Speaking”). As much as she may have wanted to react, 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 inspire us not to power over but power within–the power of love and truth and gentleness, the power of kindness and humility. Anger may be “only” human, the writer says, but followers of Jesus must not prolong or nurture it. How can we speak the truth, in love, 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). Do we dare to name those angers?
Is there good anger, too?
Dianne Bergant expands on the author’s list of sins, including bitterness, fury, reviling, and malice–“anything that threatens the harmony of the Christian community.” 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 while we can’t achieve moral perfection, we can imitate Paul himself, who was “energized” by his striving toward it, but did so “not effortlessly but willingly.” (We might spend some time reflecting on those two words, especially in light of this passage.) Fortunately, we are saved by grace and not our own actions, and yet we are called to live in a certain way, depending on that grace whenever we fall short or think we can’t make it on our own. Can a perfectionist live with a dependence on grace? Good question.
G. Porter Taylor employs a great image when he says that “the works described by Paul are not merit badges set out for us to achieve.” What might seem to us to be prideful or over-reaching (and totally impossible) is a kind of training, or maybe “growing into” who we want to become as baptized followers of Jesus. Paul Marshall says that even a writer as ancient as this one recognizes that this is a matter of long-term growth, as we are invited to “assume the discipline of a saint in a deliberate way….to do what comes unnaturally as a means to making it natural, or second nature.” Reading these words reminded me of something I heard many years ago, from the great German theologian, Karl Rahner, who said that it’s better to say that we’re becoming Christians than simply being Christians. His words suggest growing into an identity rather than achieving a static goal, or piling up merit badges, either.
Kindness and tender-heartedness
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,” because 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; even Plato, long before the time of early Christianity, said that we should “be kinder than necessary–everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” I keep these words on my desk to remind me, 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.'” 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 to share with those in need. We’re called to 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.” Do these words to the Ephesian Christians long ago have any relevance to our own larger public debates, about hunger, health care, war, the environment (especially in a nation that many claim is a Christian one)? Do they only apply to our life within the church, or to the whole world? When has the church “grieved the Spirit of God? 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?
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_august_9_2015.
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.
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.”
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