Shaping Community

Sunday, August 12
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Focus Theme
Shaping Community

Weekly Prayer
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.

Focus Scripture
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 31-51

Focus Questions

1. What “truth” does your use of money tell about your spiritual life?

2. When have your words been a “creative act”?

3. What does it mean to you to “grieve the Spirit of God”?

4. When is anger justified, and even valuable? How should it be expressed?

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?

by Kate Huey

Perhaps we don’t hear the word “conversion” often enough in the United Church of Christ. Our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians invites us to think about 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, 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 fact, Herb Miller shares the words of another person as 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.

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 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 need to be aware at all times of the power of our words.

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, for example, 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 “ currently lists more than forty thousand religious titles that touch on the subject of anger.” Forty-thousand titles just in the religious section, on this one subject! (When I checked, it looked more like 75,000–even more.) 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 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 local church pastor in the UCC tells the story of being cut off one day in traffic by another driver and remembering that she had a magnetic 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 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, 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). Can we name those angers?

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? How much of the world’s conflict is caused by anger nurtured for years and generations? Is anger ever justified, for example, on the part of those suffering injustice over many years? How should it be expressed? Does such anger have any value?

The dangers of perfectionism

Even a short passage like this one, however, can make a person feel very small, and very unworthy. How can we 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.) What does it mean that we’re saved by grace (which we believe is true), and yet we’re 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?

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, about 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, because of our deep divisions and long-held resentments in–of all places–the church, the Body of Christ in the world. Ward says: “The wags who watch us would hear our prayer that ‘all unity will one day be restored’ and snicker.” Here we find the value of reading and truly living out these teachings from a writer who witnessed those same old sins so long ago and urged us toward practices, Ward writes, that “can save our ditties of devotion to love and unity from becoming sentimental schlock….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. 

There is responsibility threaded through this reading, too, with everyone called on to work and contribute and help–share 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.” 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? 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?

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.

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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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.