Ephesians: Building Up
This week I was finishing up my homework for my latest Doctor of Ministry class, which was titled “Preaching and Change,” taught by retired Bishop (and real role model of mine) Judy Craig. Our final assignment was to write about our Five Tenets for Preaching – in other words, our five main themes, main points that we strive to hold to in our sermon preparation. We talked in class about which tenets we might use, and then had to write about them in detail for our final paper. My five ended up being: 1) Be yourself when you preach, rather than trying to preach like anybody else. 2) Let the scripture text speak to you before you try to tell it what it says. 3) Preaching is about relationships, relationships, relationships. Our relationship with God, our relationship as pastor and congregation, our relationships with the community and one another. 4) Tell the truth. Sounds easy, but in practice, is sometimes harder than we think. And 5) Don’t shortchange the process of sermon preparation.
I share these tenets of preaching with you first because I want you to know what I’m doing when I’m off at my classes, or what Aaron is doing when he’s working on his DMin project, because I want you to know that this whole back-to-school thing is, above all else, a way to better equip ourselves to serve in ministry. If what we were doing didn’t have anything to do with the places we were serving, we wouldn’t be spending our time doing it! But more specifically, I’ve shared my whole assignment with you because as I was reading over and over our text from Ephesians for today, I couldn’t stop thinking about how similar the text and my preaching tenets were! I started wondering if the tenets I chose, with maybe some modification, weren’t really some good discipleship guidelines, beyond good guidelines for preaching. Be yourself. Let God’s Word speak to you, instead of you trying to make it fit your life. It’s about relationships, relationships, relationships. Tell the truth. And be prepared. Not a bad list, right?
In our lesson from Ephesians, “Paul” seems to be giving out several snippets of advice for how to live in community with one another. Put away falsehood, and speak truth, because we are members of one another. Be angry, sure, but don’t let your anger cause you to sin: resolve your anger before the sun sets. Everyone should work hard, in order to be able to serve the needy. Don’t let evil words come out of your mouth, but make sure everything you say is about building up, so that your words are grace to your hearers. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, a word which literally means to be knotted up in your stomach with care for each other, and forgive, just like God forgives you. Imitate God, and live in love, like Christ loves us – sacrificially. I love this vision of community. “Paul’s” words seem so simple and straightforward. But I suspect we all find them challenging to follow. Confession time: how many of you have avoided speaking the truth, not to deceive, necessarily, but perhaps because the truth was hard to hear? How many of you have found yourselves holding on to anger over a situation for a very long time? How many have let words exit our mouths that caused hurt, and not grace, to the ones who hear us?
“Paul,” I think, tries to give us a clear foundation for this way of being with one another. I don’t think he thinks it is easy. But he thinks it is necessary for the Body of Christ to be just that – the representative of Christ in the world. We are meant to speak truth to one another because we are members of one another, part of each other in Christ, so a lack of honesty is a lack of honesty with ourselves and with God. We’re called to speak with love because our words are carriers of the good news of Jesus – or not – depending on how we speak to one another. Your words are the gospel that others hear. We’re meant to live with kindness and tenderness because God has forgiven us, and we, created in God’s image, show that best when we imitate God, our Creator.
We are still just weeks into our time together as pastors and congregation. Aaron and I are so excited about the possibilities we see, ready to unfold in our midst. Everywhere we turn, things are happening, people are dreaming and hoping and planning for our future. We are going to have a lot going on here, and we have potential just oozing out of every nook and cranny of this congregation, waiting to be acted on. As we embark on this adventure together, we have the opportunity to see things go very well, or to see things go very poorly! We’ve got a lot of folks here working in ministry together. And if there are four hundred plus of you who are regularly active and involved in what is happening here at Liverpool First, then there are four hundred plus opinions and plans for how things should be done. So, it is absolutely essential that we are on the same page when it comes to our purpose, our mission, and our vision. We will have many different expressions of purpose, and mission, and vision, but our foundation must be solid, and must be the place where we all stand, where we all start from.
We have to agree to tell the truth, because we are members of one another. As I said before, it isn’t always easy to tell the truth. One of the major reasons that Jesus was always getting into trouble with the religious leaders is that he was just telling the truth. When he saw injustice taking place, when he saw religious folks putting more energy into being religious than into being faithful, Jesus said so. Do you know the story of the Emperor who had no clothes? The leader of the people ended up parading down the street without clothes because no one was willing to speak the truth, until finally a child broke the silence. We have to agree to tell each other the truth. Yes, we can speak the truth with kindness, with gentleness. But a foundation of our life together must be truth telling, because we are a part of one another, and for the whole body to be healthy, we have to speak truthfully.
We have to speak in ways that build each other up, so that our words give grace to those who hear them. I remember as a child attending our church camps, a camp rule was that there were “no put downs.” And if you did put someone down, you had to apologize by giving “two put ups and a hug.” In other words, you had to find two ways to build the person back up that you had just knocked down. I think you will agree with me that you can find places to be put down and knocked down about everywhere you turn in this world. Lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about anti-bullying campaigns, because it seems like young people bullying, harassing, ridiculing, hurting one another online and in schools has developed into a huge problem. But this culture of tearing each other down doesn’t come from our young people. It’s being modeled for them by the adults they see in politics, in entertainment, in the media, and yes, in their communities, homes, and churches too. How do you speak to and about one another? How often do the words you speak act in a way that builds another person up? In my preaching class last week, after we preached for each other, we spent some time providing feedback to each other. After some wrestling with it, Bishop Craig decided she only wanted us to share with each other positive feedback. We didn’t have to say anything that we didn’t believe. But she wanted us to highlight for each other the areas where we really had strength. What could have been a very competitive, critical process was turned into an affirming process that still helped us to grow, to experiment, to risk, and to learn about our preaching process. “Paul” says what we say to each other is so powerful that when we build up, we give the gift of grace to one another. How can we withhold such a precious gift by tearing each other down? Our foundation must be building up and up.
We have to act with forgiveness, as we are forgiven by God. We know we are not perfect. We will try and sometimes fail, sometimes struggle, sometimes still hurt one another. Part of our foundation must be knowing what to do when that happens. “Paul” says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” We cannot accept the gifts that God wants to place in our hands if we are holding onto hurts and grievances and wrongs. Forgiveness involves repentance and reconciliation, but if you have been wronged, you don’t have to wait for an apology to be ready with forgiveness. God certainly offers it to us without waiting for our apologies, knowing that forgiveness is more likely to change hearts than bitterness and resentment.
Speak the truth in love. Build each other up. Forgive, as we’re forgiven by God. These are “Paul’s” tenets, you could say, for laying the foundation for a community that is seeking to be imitators of God, no small goal. What are your tenets, your guidelines? As we set about this journey together, as we dream together, as we act with purpose, mission, vision, what would you put at the root of our work? I’d really like to hear from you, and know that as we set out, we set out together. Friends, beloved children of God, let us live in love, as Christ loved us. Amen.