A Love Story
(Proper 14B, John 6:37-51, Ephesians 4.25-5.2)
August 13, 2006
“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.” (Ephesians 4.31-32)
Yesterday I had the honor of participating in the graduation ceremony at Texas A&M Galveston for their summer term graduates. I was invited to do the opening and closing prayers for their event, and I gladly accepted. And although some of you urged me to wear my burnt orange priest’s vest, I restrained myself and went only as a person of the cloth.
And it was great fun. For some unknown reason, we were all crammed into what had to be the smallest auditorium on their campus. So everyone was literally right on top of each other. The beaming faces of proud parents; the whoops of fellow Aggies; the noise of the little kids – it was all right there. It was like a big birthday party in an oversized Aggie living room.
And it was energizing to be there, because of the sense of joy of accomplishment and hopefulness for the future. And I really enjoyed hearing the speeches that are made as new graduates are being sent off into the world. Now there is usually a predictable common thread in speeches of this sort, and yesterday was no exception.
A recent graduate of A&M encouraged the new graduates to utilize everything they had learned from being part of their school community to go out and make a life in the wider community. And he emphasized the difference in being prepared to making a life for oneself and just making a living. Making a life involves all aspects of your being and demands that you be an active participant in your community. And that is much different from just making a living.
The keynote speaker was our County Judge, Jim Yarborough. Now I have no idea how two Longhorns like Judge Yarborough and myself ended up on the dais at the A&M graduation – God’s idea of an Aggie joke I guess.
Anyway, Judge Yarborough talked about building their futures on the strong foundations that they had gotten so far from their families and their school. He quoted a few lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem entitled, “If” which extols virtues such as “Keeping your head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
And his basic message was to stay connected to their values and to follow the golden rule and then their lives would have the right balance of success and humility.
Good advice. Great rules of life.
And as I heard these young men and women being prepared to meet the future, I could not help but think about our reading from Ephesians this morning. A reading in which Paul gives similar advice to the church of Ephesus – telling them how they can best be imitators of Christ. Advice about making a life in Christ – not just making a living in the world.
Chapter 4 of Ephesians lays out who we are as a church and exactly what we are to be about.
Paul begins the chapter by reminding us that the church is the Body of Christ. As such, we are to be united to one another just as parts of the Body are attached to one another in order to maximize efficiency of the whole. Community and unity are favorite topics of Paul. He frequently reminds his followers of the necessity of being in a Christian community. Because it is only in community that we can really utilize our individual gifts and grow in the Spirit. It is only in community that the sum of all of the parts can accomplish so much more than we can if we are all out there trying to work for God on our own.
That sounds like a fairly simple teaching but it is not. Otherwise, our churches would be full every Sunday. Maybe the difficulty in being parts of the same Body is that we don’t get to choose who the other parts of the Body are. But they are the ones on whom we must rely in order for us to also experience spiritual growth.
In our reading this morning, Paul provides some practical instructions for the how we are to live a life in Christ. And paramount of those instructions is that everything we do should serve to build each other up – we are to be encouragers, not discouragers. In all things we act with love – forgiving one another as we are forgiven.
Encouragers, not discouragers. One of my frequent sayings is that complaining is not a spiritual gift. And I mean that. Complaining is of no use in God’s kingdom on earth. We are to build up, not to tear down. Paul says it so poetically. He commands us to speak, “so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” So that our words may give grace to those who hear. That is a good test for us as Christians. Ask yourselves that question after you have had a conversation with someone that you find particularly difficult: Did your words give grace to that person? Or were they mean, or less than encouraging?
Speaking of words that do not bring grace to anyone, the Episcopal Church has regularly been in the news fairly often since our general convention last month.
For such a small denomination, we sure get a lot of national press. You have probably read that some of our churches have left the National Church and many others have suffered losses in membership. So this is a time when it is very easy to focus on the negative aspects of things in the Episcopal church. But I encourage us to take heart in the things that make our church special in a positive way. I am glad that we do not hide behind dogma in this church. I am proud that we encourage people to question what we teach, because it makes us better teachers. I like it that we expect people to think for themselves about their faith.
Having lived abroad and experienced the Anglican church in other countries, the main thing I most appreciate about our church is that it is incarnational. We are centered on the Eucharist. And every time we are gathered here on Sunday to share in the Lord ’s Supper, we know that all over the world in almost in every country and in many different languages, other Anglicans are celebrating Eucharist in a similar way as we are. That heartens me because it reminds me of how deep our roots are. And it reminds me that even if we are due for a little pruning, our tree won’t die.
The body of Christ is more than this diocese and even more than our national church – so we can and will withstand adversity.
Paul also talks about anger. He says that we can be angry – but are not to let our anger cause us to sin. Cause us to be separated from God. Or cause us to harbor a grudge.
I have had to work on this one recently. Let me explain. See, we have had some problems with burglaries in our neighborhood for the past year. And our house has been the target in the last couple of weeks. The thieves never take things of enough value to interest the police; so our choices are to shrug it off, or hire a private militia, I guess. Naturally that is very aggravating to say the least – I feel like my personal peace is what is being stolen. So I have been gnashing my teeth and saying all sorts of evil words about what I would like to do to the perpetrators.
Lo and behold, I saw this admonition against thieves in the reading this week, and I thought “great!” – maybe I can’t catch them, but at least Paul has given me a chance to preach against them. Surely that should make me feel a lot better.
But as I pondered Paul’s words, I discovered that is not what Paul is talking about at all. He is not telling the thieves to give up stealing because he is worried about his stuff. Because he is tired of having to call the police every third or fourth day.
No, Paul is interested in the thief. He wants repentance for the sake of the thief - not for the benefit of society. Paul’s rules – just like the Ten Commandments and the purity laws in the Old Testament – represent God’s fervent desires for us. God surely knows that if we can live according to his plan for us, our lives would be full of joy, and free of evil – even evil thoughts. And that will be good for us. But we never get to hit each other over the head with the Bible. I cannot justify my bitterness and wrath and anger by of the actions of the thieves. This passage reminded me that I have plenty to work on myself – before I could ever assume myself sufficiently fit to point out the sins of others.
In other words, don’t be looking at the person next to you and pointing to what Paul says in here. No - look within yourself – pray about those things that keep you from living in love as Christ did.
Give up trying to change the other person and pray that Jesus Christ will give you the grace and the strength to fully become the child of God who is within you.
And remember the good news of our gospel message this morning. Jesus, as the bread of life, says to us, “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away . . . ”
So our salvation does not depend on our own efforts alone to follow the rules that God lays out for God’s people. Jesus himself is determined that we will be part of his heavenly family and he is part of our efforts to follow the path that God has laid out for us. I pray that we will all give him the chance to do just that.