Sermon for Sunday August 9 2009.
Scripture: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
As many of you know, yesterday afternoon we had the opportunity to celebrate the wedding ceremony of Mary and Brian Good. They put a lot of time and effort into planning the day, and I think that others who were there can say with me this morning that it was a privilege to join them yesterday as they began their married life together.
Preparing for yesterday got me thinking a lot about weddings. I thought a lot about love, and marriage, and responsibility.
I thought about how a commitment like marriage takes a lot of preparation—not just for the wedding day, but for the married life after the wedding day.
I thought about how weddings are typically scripted out down to every last detail, and how we even have rehearsals the day before to make sure everyone knows exactly what will happen, when it will happen, and how it will happen.
During a typical wedding ceremony, one of the last things anyone wants to be is surprised. I thought of that yesterday, when the best man started to faint during the sermon. That wasn’t part of the plan, but we dealt with it and moved on.
And then I started to think about the difference between the wedding day and the actual marriage.
I thought about how during a wedding, everyone knows exactly where to stand, exactly what to say, and what they’re supposed to do, not unlike a typical Sunday morning.
But although the wedding day is typically scripted out from beginning to end, the actual marriage isn’t scripted at all.
Life would be so much easier if it were, wouldn’t it?
So often I wish I knew what to say, where to stand, or how to act. That’s true in my marriage, but it’s true more generally, too.
So often I just make it up as I go along. Don’t we all?
Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
So, as we prepared for the wedding yesterday, I thought about the importance of grace, empathy, and forgiveness whenever we enter covenants of any kind—whether with God or with someone else.
And that got me thinking about my commitments as a baptized believer, how my faith influences how I act, what I say, and where I stand—not only on special occasions like weddings and funerals, but all throughout life in general.
Baptism and marriage are really similar things.
Both are vows which, in a perfect world are never broken.
Both are commitments to work hard at relating to another, putting this ‘other’ above ourselves, forsaking and even excluding at least some other options because of this covenant that we make.
But I think weddings are bigger business because it’s so easy to sentimentalize and even idealize marriage as God’s preferred way for us to be in the world.
But I’ve got a lot of single friends, and at least some of them would like the church to recognize their singleness as a calling every bit as honorable as marriage.
So all that got me thinking last week, and I have to wonder if we would do better as a church—that is, if we would be more faithful to the biblical story—if we would emphasize our Baptismal covenant more than the covenant of marriage as God’s preferred way of our being in the world.
So I started thinking over the past week, wondering what passages we might choose if we started taking our baptism as seriously as we do our marriages.
This passage from Ephesians would surely be a good one for starters.
… putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
We… are… members of one another!
We are bound to each other by a force that is literally stronger than death!
Church is not some organization or institution that we have a membership in, like a health club or a country club. Our baptism isn’t like a ticket that gets us past the checkpoint into the ‘members only’ area.
Instead, church is you and church is me.
And we are members of one another, like my hand is a member of my body, or like any husband and wife are members of their marriage.
Therefore, we owe it to each other remind ourselves of that fact now and then, to consider Sunday morning as a time to come together—to “Re-Member” the body of Christ here in this place, to re-unite this assembly of saints, not just if we want to, neither because we have to—but because we need each other in order to proclaim God’s Truth!! We have committed first and foremost to leading Truthful lives, constantly seeking new and different ways to proclaim the good news.
When we enter the covenant of baptism, we join ourselves to God and the church, for better or worse, till the end of all things and beyond.
When we die to ourselves through baptism, the rules for how we live change.
Through the waters of baptism, we accept a whole different way of being in the world.
For example, the passage goes on to say
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Feeling anger is no sin.
But how we express our anger—and how we don’t express it—can be sinful.
In Romans 12, Paul writes that Love must be sincere. It was a theme at the wedding yesterday. We talked about how unless love is sincere, it is nothing. Then we talked about some things that help to build sincere love.
But Paul wasn’t writing to a love struck couple with stars in their eyes—he was writing to a church in the heart of the empire of his day. So we know he wasn’t just talking about the emotional high of a shared romantic interest.
We can be sure that here in Ephesians, Paul’s understanding of anger is rooted firmly in this idea of sincere love.
For example, some of the biggest fights Christine and I have aren’t because of anything one of us did or didn’t do…rather it’s usually more about how one of us did or didn’t do it! It’s about the motivation behind the action—the nonverbal communication—the nuances in our behavior that demonstrate either sincere love or a self-seeking power play.
So what I’m saying is that when Paul says “be angry but do not sin”, I think he’s saying something like “Love must be sincere, so when you get angry, demonstrate that anger in sincerity and in love, whether you’re married or not.”
And the part where he says not to let the sun go down on your anger, I’ve always had a little bit of trouble with that part. I’ve heard people say that he means you need to resolve your conflicts right now, today before sunset.
But you know, I’m the kind of guy who usually needs some time to process things. I need to think things through before I’m ready to jump in and resolve a fight.
So when it comes to expressing my anger, I just don’t trust myself without having some time to think it through, whether I’m overreacting, and so-on.
Plus, what’s this mean if you get mad after the sun’s already down?
I’d like to suggest this morning that Paul isn’t saying we need to resolve our anger literally before sunset each and every day.
I’d like us to read this verse in more of a rhetorical way—kind of like saying “don’t let the sun set on your dreams”? Do something about it!
Can we think of Paul saying “If and when you get angry, don’t try to brush it under the rug and pretend like everything will be OK.”
Is this a message we Mennonites can hear this morning? Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. But neither should we sin as we express it.
When we are angry and refuse to talk about it, refuse to confront, refuse to do anything with it but push it down and hope it goes away—that’s a sin.
In the same way lashing out at everyone and everything that happens to be near us just because we’re angry—that’s a sin too.
No marriage can last if the two partners don’t communicate anger in sincerity and in love.
And that’s just as true in church as it is in marriage.
The passage goes on, saying
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.
What exactly is evil talk? How will I know if it’s coming out of my mouth?
If we take this part as it stands, it seems like Paul is saying that we should say nothing that is not useful for building others up and nothing that does not give grace to those who hear.
Could it be that evil talk is that which does not build others up, or that which does not give grace to those who hear? Did we really sign up for that when we signed up for baptism?
The answer is yes, yes we did.
Our speech needs to build others up, and never tear them down. It needs always to be laced with grace, for we need always to have the attitude of a servant, and a chief sinner, we need always to remember that we have no right to cast judgment, only the command to build others up with our speech, and to extend grace.
It requires putting away our former ways of living. This covenant of baptism requires we put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, and slander, together with all malice.
It requires us to treat the world as our spouse, learning how to speak the truth in love, in ways that can be heard and taken to heart.
It boils down to kindness.
Shane Claiborne, at the convention in Columbus a couple of weeks ago, he talked about how the people who live in his house fundamentally disagree on some pretty important issues. He talked about how they have discussions, how they can argue passionately for this or that position, but in the end what allows them to share the same space and not kill each other is the level of kindness with which they can argue.
He said in the end, when people meet God we might be surprised at how little our doctrine will matter…how little it might matter to God who believed this or that doctrine or who followed this or that particular belief system—and he suggested it might just matter a little bit more, how mean you are versus how kind. To what extent you were able to put away bitterness, anger, wrath and slander from your life to make room for newness of life, for kindness, for gentleness, for forgiveness and grace.
It seems like a good thought to me.
Not that what we believe doesn’t matter, but that what we believe ought to make us kinder, gentler, more tenderhearted people.
What we believe ought to make us more forgiving, more gracious, and more Christ-like.
This is the meaning of the covenant that we have entered. This is what it means to be a child of God.
Therefore, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
…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.