For many years before we merged with our nearby conferences to become the Upper New York Annual Conference, I was the Conference Youth Coordinator for the North Central New York Conference Council on Youth Ministries - CCYM. One of the tasks of the CCYM every year was to interview candidates for the Mission of Peace, a trip for young people from the Northeastern US to visit young people in countries around the world, to build relationships, connections, and peace. The interview team was made up of youth leadership, past trip attendees, and a couple of adult advisors. Well, one year, there were only two candidates who applied, and we had three positions we could fill from our area. We were going to interview them anyway, but a bad winter storm meant we had to cancel our interviews, and we decided to go ahead and affirm the candidates for the trip, even without the interview. They went on the trip, had a great experience, and came back ready to be part of the interview team the next year.
The next cycle, though, a funny thing happened. Even though these two young people never had to go through a Mission of Peace interview themselves, they were incredibly tough on the candidates they interviewed for the following year. They asked the new applicants really hard questions, had grim, unsmiling faces, and I think they left our new group of candidates feeling pretty discouraged about their prospects. I tried really hard to radiate some encouragement to the new applicants in the midst of all challenging questions. In the long run, everything worked out fine, but it struck me as so interesting that the youth who had not even had to endure an interview themselves would in turn be so hard on the youth who followed them in the process. I wondered about why that was, and I could only imagine that these youth - relatively inexperienced at that point in their lives in many ways - were drawing on some images they had in their mind of what interviews should be like. They knew that their assumptions about others’ cultures had been challenged when they went on their Mission of Peace and they wanted to prepare those who would come after them, not realizing that these new candidates would have to learn in the same way they had the year before - through experience. And so when these youth stepped into the role of interviewer, they stepped into this imagined picture of a hard-nosed questioner, even though that didn’t match their own experiences. They seemed to be imitating some vision of this interview process that they drew from other sources - maybe from TV or movies, maybe something they’d experienced at school, maybe what they’d read about or been told about how stressful an interview might be - instead of modeling their behavior on what they’d actually experienced - an application process that was flexible and encouraging.
These youth are now thoughtful, compassionate adults, but thinking back on this story always makes me smile. And it was on my mind this week as I read our scripture lesson from Ephesians. At the conclusion of our passage, the author of the letter to the church at Ephesus - maybe Paul, maybe one of Paul’s proteges writing a bit later - says “Therefore 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.” We’re called to be imitators of God! That’s a pretty big ask, a pretty big task for us to attempt - to imitate the creator of the universe. And this isn’t the only place the scriptures call on us to imitate God, or to be imitators of Christ. It’s not just a passing comment. We’re meant to shape our lives in such a way that we are as Christ-like as possible, that we show in our living that indeed, we are created in God’s image and so we live lives shaped by God, shaped into mini-images-of-God in the world, being Christ’s body, Christ’s hand and feet in the world. We’re called to imitate God.
And yet, sometimes, I think we’re a bit like the CCYM kids. We’ve got the message - imitate God - but what we end up imitating is some picture we have in our minds of God’s character, instead of what God is really like with us. We’re kids playing dress-up at God, and we’ve got some stereotypes of God in our minds, some bad images, some caricatures of God, and that’s what we try to imitate. What is God like? According to our imitation attempts, it seems that we have sometimes understood God to be harsh, judgmental, unforgiving, and unrelenting. Sometimes, in the name of imitating God, we seek out faults in our neighbors, and we hold each other to standards that have us set for failure. Sometimes, in the name of imitating God, we imply that people can be beyond redeeming, and we imply that we have it figured out, that we’re superior in judgment, in morality, in choosing what’s right. We’re trying to imitate God - but we skip over our own actual experiences of God in favor of some picture of God that isn’t quite right, and ends up doing more harm than good, as we pass off harsh treatment of others with a claim tying our actions to the divine.
What is God like, though? What has been our experience of God? In our reading from Ephesians, the author gives us just a few statements, but a lot to go on: God’s Holy Spirit marks us for redemption. He says that we should “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another” as God in Christ has done for us. God is tender-hearted and forgiving! And if we want to imitate God, we should “live in love,” loving as Christ loved us, which was by giving himself up for us, putting aside his will for God’s will, acting for us instead of for himself - a love poured out for others. That’s what God is like, and that’s what we’re called to imitate. When we imitate God in this way, through lives of love, our text says, it’s like a sweet gift to God.
Having started at the end of our reading today, I think we can now go back to the beginning of our passage reading with a different perspective. As our author gives a series of instructions, culminating in the call to imitate God, we can read the whole section as a pattern offered to us for how we might go about imitating God. My Bible calls this section “rules for the new life,” and what came to mind for me are the various groups I’ve been a part of where we spend the beginning of our time establishing a covenant - an agreement between two parties outlining how we’re going to behave, how we commit to treating each other, promises we make to each other for care and compassion that help us live in community. I have a professor in my PhD program who does this at the start of every class, no matter how experienced and seasoned her students are. And I have a supervisor in a nonprofit I work with who does this at every step in every process she leads. I was part of an interview team with her organization, and we had a covenant for the three people involved in that process, even though we’d all worked together in various ways before interviewing folks together. Sometimes I’ll admit I’ve thought: do we really need this? Again? But then I think about my young CCYMers, and I think about my own failed attempts at imitating God, when I’m imitating a caricature of God instead of the real thing, and I think that a covenant is a way to help us keep a clear picture in our minds and hearts of the values we hold.
Here’s what’s in the Ephesians “rules for the new life”: Put away falsehood. Speak the truth about each other. Remember that you’re part of each other. We’ll all get angry, but don’t sin out of anger. Don’t hold onto your anger. Don’t give space to the devil, to something ruling your heart and life that is not God. Don’t steal. Work to share with those in need. Speak with an intent to build each other up, not tear each other down. Speak with the intent to give grace - because that’s certainly what God does for us! Don’t grieve God - you’re marked by God for redemption! so put away bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, malice. We don’t need it. We need kindness. We need tenderheartedness. We need forgiveness. We get all that from God. And so, to imitate God, to live in love, we commit to living in this way with one another. I don’t know about you, but I need the reminders of this rule of living, because otherwise I’ve talked myself into believing I’m imitating God when I’m really just copying a cheap imitation, a twisted image of God that’s more about my power and my will and my way than God’s way.
Friends, we’re called to the boldest of tasks - we’re called to imitate God! But as we go about imitating God, we need to make sure that we know God’s character well, so that what we present to the world as like-God, as Christ-like, is a true representation. No, we won’t be a perfect reflection, seeing, as we do, only dimly - but we have to be faithful, to be accountable to who God really is. We have to study God’s character closely, so we can make as true a representation as we can. And to study God closely? We have to be in deep relationship. We have to journey with God everyday. We have to learn as much as we can, talk to God as often as we can, open our hearts to God as wide as we can. We can help each other do that, as we live in community, in covenant, building each other up, so that our words and actions communicate God’s grace - to ourselves and to all who hear them. Let us therefore be imitators of God, living in love, as Christ loved us, an offering to our loving, forgiving, grace-full and tender-hearted God. Amen.