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I know we’ve already had our time of corporate confession this morning but I want us to do a little personal confession right now. You don’t have to raise your hand or anything, although, you can if you like and I’m guessing you’ll be in good company. Feel free to close your eyes. I want you to think of a time you said something you shouldn’t have said…or maybe a time when you shouldn’t have said something the way you said it…a time you regretted the words you chose…a time when you know your words hurt another person…a time when you just had to make your point and make sure the other person knew you were right and they were wrong…a time when the words you used hurt a whole group of people…I could go on but I imagine we can all think of a time or two when one of those things happened. Confession, repentance, assurance of forgiveness are part of this life in Christ. The apostle Paul in writing to the church at Ephesus is pretty clear that we, as human beings, fall short. We sin. None of us is immune to sin though we are called to something else. In this letter Paul is writing about the new life in Christ. The ways in which we are supposed to live as followers of Jesus. It’s a life of intention. A life marked by love. For when the Holy Spirit has claimed you and yanked you up out of the waters of baptism, all things are new. Everything old is gone. Our lives are to reflect this truth. Our words, too. And that’s what Paul is sharing with the church at Ephesus and with us.
Hear the grace offered to us in this living Word:
[Read Ephesians 4:25-5:2]
Think before you speak. Take a beat. Is what you are about to say true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, kind? Don’t make assumptions. You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Have you heard these things before? Good advice. Our words can get us into trouble. We know this and yet. In this particular section of Paul’s letter, the focus seems to be on our speech, the way we speak to one another. The words we use with one another. Paul starts out writing about truth telling. Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors. And why? Because we belong to one another. And if we lie to others, we lie to ourselves. This passage is actually about living in Christian community. It’s about our membership in the body. It’s about remembering that we belong to one another and are bound together by the Holy Spirit. Belonging calls us to speak the truth. Belonging calls us to use our words carefully, to watch our words. To make sure that our words are in service of others, of building community and not tearing it down or dividing it. Only what is useful in building up; giving grace to those who hear, Paul says. This is quite the contrast from what I observe in our world. Our world is full of words and more often than not they are not helpful words. We’re not good at communicating with one another. And in a culture with as much division as ours, to speak with intention, truth, kindness, and grace is pretty countercultural. More often than not we’d rather be right than in relationship which is contrary to what Paul is telling us here. It’s contrary to what Jesus teaches. The life of faith is actually all about relationship. It’s all about community. It’s all about others. So, our treatment of one another matters and our words matter.
I often hear people lament that kids these days (I’m no fan of that phrase, by the way) don’t know how to have a conversation because of smart phones and tablets and social media. We focus on the kids because it’s easier than admitting we’ve all got a problem. Our devices and technology make it so that we don’t actually have to communicate with anyone face to face anymore. How many here have texted someone who is in the same house as you rather than go downstairs or upstairs or into the next room? A silly example but probably a true one. Face to face time, conversations, relationships are rare these days. Texting is wonderfully convenient and useful for many things but it’s no substitute for a face to face conversation. You can put every thought in your head out on social media or in an email and it feels safe because you’re sitting in front of your computer or on your tablet or on your phone. You can’t see that the words you put out into the world just may hurt someone else or a whole bunch of someone elses. They’re not in the room with you, you’re not looking them in the eye or beholding their face, the image of God in them. It’s too easy. It’s too easy to forget that we all belong to one another. It’s too easy to forget that our words wether spoken or typed have consequences. It’s too easy to forget that the words we choose to use matter. It’s not kids these days. We’ve all got a problem with our words and the way we treat one another.
So we hear these words from Ephesians, instructions for a new life in Christ. It doesn’t take great exegetical skill to figure out what this passage means. It’s frustratingly clear. It’s convictingly clear. Truth matters to the health of a community. Secrets and lies only cause upset. Anger is OK and natural but it should not fester and linger or it will become a destructive force. It will spread like a poison. An honest living will mean that you have enough to share with others. Let no ugly talk come out of your mouths. Let your words give grace to those who hear (or read). Shed the armor of bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and slander these things which we believe will protect us from vulnerability when vulnerability is the very thing we should seek. Be kind. Be tenderhearted. Forgive one another because you have been forgiven. If we took any of this to heart, we’d think before we speak and we’d probably speak far less than we do. The claim of Christ on our lives calls us, as individuals, to this kind of living. The binding of the Holy Spirit calls us, this community, to this kind of living. Marked with grace and kindness and truth and vulnerability.
What I appreciate here from Paul is the acknowledgement that these things we’re being asked to do and not do, this way of life, does not come naturally to us. It’s not our instinct. We have to learn it. We have to practice it. It takes intention. Be imitators of God, Paul says. Look at what God does, how God loves and do that. It sounds hard and it does take practice. This is lifetime work. There is no class to take or workshop to attend that will help you to master living a life of love in a day or a week or a year. And that’s what we’re talking about here. God calls us to live a life of love. It’s a daily choice. When we remember that we are members of one another, that we belong to one another, we can love one another. Loving one another, living a life of love means putting away falsehood (secrets and lies) for these only cause harm. It means watching the words we use and the way we speak, measuring our words against the rule of kindness and grace. Is what I’m about to say or write true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind? Think before you speak. A life of love means not holding onto anger for then it becomes a poison which harms our own spirits and the health of the community. Anger in and of itself is not bad. It is natural and normal. It becomes sin when we do not name it and address it. Forgiveness is key. The life of a Christian is marked with these things and we are to be reconcilers, peacemakers, and bridge builders, in the business of forgiveness. Imitators of God.
I’m reading Father Gregory Boyle again and he says this, “Human beings are settlers, but not in the pioneer sense. It is our human occupational hazard to settle for little. We settle for purity and piety when we are being invited to an exquisite holiness. We settle for the fear-driven when love longs to be our engine. We settle for a puny, vindictive God when we are being nudged always closer to this wildly inclusive, larger-than-any-life God. We allow our sense of God to atrophy. We settle for the illusion of separation when we are endlessly asked to enter into kinship with all.” Beloved of God, I don’t want us to settle. I want for us to accept the invitation to exquisite holiness that we are issued at baptism and spend our lives living out. This passage is not about purity and piety; rather it is about the new life we are promised in Christ. I want for love to be our engine, our driving force and for us to be imitators of a wildly inclusive, too good to be true, larger than life God who is full of love, forgiveness, and grace, ever ready to wipe the slate clean. I don’t want us to settle for the false narrative that tells us we are all in this life for ourselves alone, that there is no connection between us particularly if we’re upset with one another or we disagree about something. We belong to one another and we are being asked to enter into kinship with all.
Next week we will kick off our new program year and it comes with a new theme. We’re going to focus on BELONGING And if we’re going to focus on belonging then we should take seriously the words we find in our text today. The part about grieving the Holy Spirit has always given me a little bit of trouble. But I think it means simply that we grieve God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit when we live in a way that is contrary to the life to which we are being called. We grieve God when we do not tell the truth, when we let our anger fester, when we use our words to hurt rather than to help. We grieve God when we are unkind and are unwilling to forgive. We grieve God when we do not consider how our actions or our words will impact others and the community. We grieve God because God knows there is another way. There is a better way. There is a way of intention, kindness, forgiveness, and love. Let’s show that way to the world.
We may hear this passage and think it’s a big list of dos and don’ts but it’s really an invitation to exquisite holiness, to the new life in Christ. It’s an invitation to truth and goodness, to community and belonging. It’s an invitation to never settle for the ways of this world when the ways of God, the ways of Christ, the ways of the Spirit are so much better. Living in Christian community means that we are never alone in this life. We are surrounded by other children of God who are doing their best, too. And we are ready, in position to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to help one another, encourage one another, forgive one another, and love one another. With God’s help, may it be so.
Rev. Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 12, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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