Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Building Up"

Sermon 8/9/09

John 6:35, 41-51, Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Building Up

Some of you may know that as a part of my ministry here with you, the Transition Team and I have been working on a covenant – a commitment on my part and your part to talk about our goals, our hope and dreams for this congregation, and to outline, in some broad strokes, what we’ll need to do together to live into God’s plans for us. Together, we’ve identified a few areas of focus – for example stewardship, and working with young people, especially at the start of our new endeavor with our new Children and Youth Ministries Coordinator. But today I want to focus on my goals over the next several months at least: Building relationships and Connecting with the Community. These might seem like pretty generic ministry goals. Of course I need to get to know you and the community in which we do ministry, right? But as “general” as these goals may be, they are also essential – not just for me, but for all of you as well – to be in the ministry of disciple-making, which is what we’re all about. Today I want to speak to you a little more about these ministry goals and what they mean to me.

But first, I want us to look at this passage from Ephesians. A covenant is a promise made by two parties about how to live with one another. In the scriptures, we usually see covenants between God and God’s people, and while God never breaks covenant with us, the scriptures are full of stories of the people breaking their part of the agreement – they worship other gods, when they’ve promised to worship God alone, or they make false idols, or forget what God has done for them, and end up wandering away from God. Fortunately for us, though, God is always extending a new covenant for us, giving us second chances. But here in Ephesians, the apostle Paul is putting forth a sort of covenant for how this new faith community in Ephesus will function. This is a community covenant for living with one another, with this section in particular probably directed at new converts to the faith, where the parties in the covenant are members of the congregation, you might say. It’s a covenant, an agreement for a way of living together, that Paul is helping them to establish.

This passage is filled with words from Paul that seem both simple and deep at once. Let us all speak truth to our neighbors, says Paul, for we are members of one another. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Work so as to have something to share with the needy. The only kind of talk you should speak is that which is useful for building up the community, that your words give grace to those who hear them. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit. But put away bitter thoughts and instead be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as Christ has been with us. And to sum it all up, be imitators of God, like beloved children, and live in love, as Jesus loved us. Paul’s words are so straightforward, and so powerful, and they’re all about relationship, and community: how people of faith live and work together, and more than that, how they love and support one another.

Paul starts this passage with one of his major themes, a theme we see in his other writings, when he writes that we speak truth to our neighbors because “we are members of one another.” Hopefully, that language – “members of one another” – sounds familiar. Thinking of the church as One Body of Christ of which we are members is a foundational theme of Christianity. You might be familiar with the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12 in which Paul compares the body of Christ to a human body, saying that we can no more function without each other than a human body functions without its various members – a nose can never be an eye, and an ear can never be a hand. “If one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” As members of the One Body, what each of us does affects every other person in the body. So, in today’s passage, Paul reminds us – we’re members of one another. You are a part of me, and I’m a part of you. And if you turn in your seats and look around the congregation today, and if you think about those who are part of our church family who aren’t here today, an underlying principle for our covenant is remembering that we are members of one body, members of one another, and what we do impacts each other person in this little piece of the body of Christ. With that in mind, Paul has started us with the idea that since we are so very intertwined, we will want to take extra care of how we treat one another.

Skipping ahead a few verses, Paul shares my favorite words in this passage, the words that kept catching my attention as I was preparing my sermon: “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.” Only what is useful for building up, so that our words may give grace to those who hear. I just love this verse. Grace, which is God’s free gift of unconditional love – well, there’s not much of a better thing for us to communicate to others. Even though grace is free and offered to all, many people, for many reasons, have a hard time accepting God’s love. So what if, by our words, and by the actions that go with them, we could finally help God’s grace sink into a person? Words are amazingly powerful – the can hurt and devastate, and they can heal and, as Paul says, build up. Last year at a district day in New Jersey, our speaker, Lovett Weems, really encouraged us as pastors to spend more time in our congregations verbally building up our people. He said he knew that pastors and congregations got frustrated with the problems they faced – declining attendance, or inactive members, financial problems, conflicts within the church – but that if we, as pastors, spent more time on affirming what was going well, more time on lifting up ministries that were supporting our mission and vision, we’d find that some of those other problems would start to turn around.

Perhaps it sounds simplistic, but I’ve found many instances when this is true in my ministry. Words are powerful, and so often, too often, we use them to hurt one another, or to threaten, or tear down. Think of world leaders, and how we analyze every word they say, how nations can imply so much to each other by the words their politicians choose in speaking to one another. Or think over your own life – there are some exact, detailed scenes I can recall where I said something I wished I hadn’t, or where someone said something that was hurtful. Out of the millions of experiences we have over the years, for something to stick in our minds so exactly tells us that words, even words spoken carelessly by us, can have a huge impact on those who hear them.

Because of this, then, Paul urges us to imagine the good power we can have when we speak in ways that build one another up, so that we can actually share God’s loving grace simply in the way we engage one another. Words can change lives for the better, too. Think of the powerful positive words you have spoken or heard. I can think of words that encouraged my journey to seminary, words of love, words of comfort when I experienced loss. How can we live together, be in relationship in the congregation, and with the community, in a way that we are building each other up by our very words? This week, I want to challenge you: I want you to find three people in this congregation that you don’t interact with as much, or spend as much time with as others, and find words this week to speak to them that will build them up. What can you say to remind them that they are a precious child of God? What can you say to affirm the gifts that God has given them? And I want you to do the same in the community. Find three people in the community – at work, at the gym, at the store, wherever – that you wouldn’t normally spend time in conversation with. And find a way to build them up with the loving words you say. If you’re a little shy, write a note. Send a card or an email. But take the time to speak grace. I think you’ll be surprised at how much your words can communicate God’s love to one another.

Finally, Paul concludes this passage saying, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” You know the expression, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” In other words, there’s no better way to show someone you like and admire them than by trying to copy them and do what they do. Paul asks us to imitate God, like children do. Most of us have probably had a young child copy us doing something, sometimes to the point that will drive you crazy! Just this week, my nephew Sam was following my brother around so closely, matching his every step, wanting to do everything he did, and loving every minute of being around him. That’s how Paul hopes we are with God, as we follow Jesus, and seek to imitate him. Paul hopes we take the attitude of beloved children of God, as we are, and not seek to imitate Jesus in a way that makes it a burdensome task for us, a hardship to be a disciple, but that we try to imitate Jesus because we love him and want to be like him and just can’t get enough of spending time in his company. Imagine how our congregation would be transformed, and how we could help transform the world, if we approached following Jesus with the same joyful abandon as children do.

Friends, when I think about building relationships as a goal for ministry, or think about how I will invest myself in the community I’m serving, I see more than just learning names and learning my way around town. I dream of the kind of community that Paul laid out for the Ephesians. A covenant community, where we are members of one another, deeply affected and enriched by the lives of each other person in our midst. A covenant community, where our words and deeds build each other up, here in this building, and out in the world where we live. A covenant community, where we all take joy in following Jesus wherever he leads us.

“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.” Amen.


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