Friday, August 7, 2015

August 9, 2015 - “Paper Towns and Real Christians”

Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Last week we were at Brookside Park, worshipping together with friends from the Christian Church and the UCC.  It was a lot of fun, as it always is, and while we all have our own unique emphases and styles, it is important to celebrate what we share in Christ, and that our family of faith is bigger than just our church or just our denomination.  

Our passage this morning begins with the word “therefore,” and as a wise person once said, when a verse starts with “therefore,” you need to look and see what it is there for.  When we go back to earlier verses in chapter 4, we see that the big issue is unity in the church.  We are to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We are all one in the Body of Christ, and there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all.”  As we worshipped with other congregations last Sunday, we celebrated that while we are from different traditions, there is indeed a unity in Christ and that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

By virtue of our common life in Christ, says Paul, we are new people, and we are to clothe ourselves with a new way of living.  This is the background of our passage, and the text for today spells out some of the implications of living this New Life – what it looks like to live in God’s new way.

So what we have here is not a list of random rules for Christians or a laundry list of do’s and don’ts so much as it is a way of living together as a community.

There are a lot of different admonitions and instructions that Paul gives in this passage – when we read it in two alternating parts, as we did this morning, I think it is easier to see all of the individual statements that Paul makes.  Rather than try to cover every individual admonition, we are going to look at a couple of these statements and then look at how they illustrate the larger argument that Paul is making.  

The first statement is, “Be angry but do not sin.”

Some of you may have heard this story before, but this is a memorable experience I had with anger in the church.  I spent a year while in seminary doing a campus ministry internship in Virginia.  After attending a church there for a while, I joined the church on a Sunday morning.  The pastor asked folks if they would support and encourage me as a brother in Christ and they indicated their desire to do so with a hug or a handshake after the service.  It felt good to “officially” be a part of this church.

That evening, I went back to church for a potluck dinner and the quarterly business meeting.  This was a small church and there couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 people at the dinner.  After the meal we headed upstairs to the sanctuary for what I assumed would be a quick business meeting.  I was wrong!  There were a lot of people upstairs—many of whom I had never seen before.

The ringleader of this contingent of folks was Frank.  I had met Frank shortly after I started attending the church.  He wasn’t particularly friendly, but I learned not to take it personally – he was unfriendly toward most people.  What you need to know about Frank is that he had a high-stress job and an unreasonable tyrant of a boss.  Things felt out of control at work.  Things weren’t so great at home either.  But at church, things were different.  At church, Frank was in control.  But things were changing.  There were new people who had new ideas.  Among other things, this Southern Baptist church, in the mid-1980’s, had started ordaining women as deacons, which was a rather bold move.

Frank did not like the changes, he felt like his power was slipping away, and that night at the business meeting, he got together as many people as he could who weren’t satisfied with the direction of the church.  To be honest, most of these folks had not been to church in several years and didn’t care that much one way or the other, but Frank called in all of his IOUs and got them to show up for the meeting.

In the meeting, Frank criticized the pastor, criticized the finance committee, railed against the choir director – he especially had it in for her (I later learned he had been purposely skipping her when he served communion.).  He broke confidences and slandered people.  I thought his head was going to explode.  A few others joined in.  Finally, Frank moved that the pastor be terminated immediately.

I was in shock.  I had just joined the church that morning.  I had thought these were nice people; now I wondered what I had got myself into.  Frank had gathered together enough folks that it appeared the pastor was gone.  The core members of the church, those who had been at the potluck dinner, were shell-shocked, and no one seemed to know what to do.  And so finally I stood up and said that given the importance of this vote, it seems like the membership should know about it ahead of time.  So I moved the motion be tabled until a special called business meeting was held.

Now you can imagine what Frank thought of my idea.  He asked the moderator, “When does a person actually become a member of the church?  Isn’t when we receive the letter of transfer from his last church?”  In other words, shut this kid up.  But Judy stood up.  She was thoughtful and quiet and highly respected.  Judy said, “This morning we all promised that we would encourage and support David as a brother in Christ, and now you’re slapping him in the face!”  Gene, the moderator, ruled that I was a voting member and could make the motion to table.

That motion passed by 2 votes.  When the special business meeting was held, 85% of the membership supported the pastor.  Frank left the church, the other 15% never attended anyway, the pastor stayed 10 more years, and the church moved forward.  But the outcome was nearly very different.

What happened in that church, and what happened to Frank, happens far too often.  Paul’s words have something to say to us.  The letter to the Ephesians was a circular letter, written to churches in the region around Ephesus.  These were young churches with conflicts and struggles, churches that had to deal with anger.

The verse says, “Be angry,” which is definitely not a problem.  With all of the construction going on, just try to drive around Ames without getting aggravated.  (Just trying to get to church can make you crazy.)  Anger is just a part of life.

This is not a big revelation, but sometimes we don’t hear the message in church that anger is OK.  Which is kind of ironic, because look at Jesus.  He threw money changers out of the temple, got angry with the religious leaders for their smug self-righteousness, and was even put out at the denseness of his own disciples.

Paul did not say, “Don’t get angry.”  But he did say, “Don’t let your anger lead you into sin.”  This can happen when we allow our anger to control us.  Frank suppressed his anger about work, but eventually the anger exploded.  Paul gives us some very wise advice regarding anger:  “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”  Failing to deal with anger can lead us into sin.

Now remember, Paul is speaking to the church.  Anger is not in itself a threat to the unity of the church.  Anger is just going to happen, whether we like it or not.  But the way we deal with anger can be a huge threat to unity.  It is important for the church to learn to deal creatively and constructively with conflict.

Anger can be a motivating force for bringing about justice, for working toward reconciliation, for building up.  Or anger can be a destructive force used to tear down.  It’s all in how we deal with it.  Frank needed to be careful not to take out his anger from work at church.  It is best to express your feelings to the source, but if Frank couldn’t do that, he needed to find someone with whom he could talk about it.  He needed to find ways to deal with his anger instead of blowing up at a business meeting and trying to drag the whole church down with him.

One person remember that growing up, when mama was angry at the kids, she took it out on the bread.  It took a lot of effort to knead the bread, and the worse the kids acted, it seemed like the better the bread was that week!

There is another statement Paul makes that I want to look at.  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Be kind.

You know, sometimes the simplest things are the most important.  I have known people to get all worked up over their interpretation of scripture and their understanding of faith.  I have seen angry fundamentalists speak hatefully and spitefully about those who do not share their views.  I have heard those who ground their attitude in the Bible, saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  For those people, I just want to quote a very simple Bible verse.  “Be ye kind one to another.”  That’s the way I learned it in Sunday School, back in the King James days.  “Be ye kind one to another.”

I was on campus near the library one day and there was a guy preaching.  Yelling at people.  Telling students he had never met how sinful they were.  He believed the Bible backwards and forward, believed every word.  That’s what he said, but I had to question whether he believed this verse.  “Be ye kind one to another.”

On several occasions I have encountered the Westboro Baptist Church.  This is the church in Topeka basically made up of Fred Phelps’ family.  They picket churches and schools and busy street corners with signs that say “God Hates Fags” and worse, and they picket military funerals with signs saying that this is God’s judgment on America.  Bible believers, spreading the gospel, they say.

What about kindness?  Do they believe that part?  What about, “Be ye kind one to another?”

Well, the weird preacher on campus or the Phelps bunch are easy targets.  What is harder to admit is that we don’t always do so well with kindness ourselves.  We too can have a holier-than-thou attitude about our own beliefs and convictions.  And we can write off folks whose beliefs disagree with ours just as easily as the fundamentalists do.

Beyond that, it is just plain hard to be kind to some people.  If we are honest, it can be hard to be kind to each other even in the church.  It can be hard to be kind to the people who mean the most to us.  Kindness is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.  But in a way, kindness is an antidote to all of the issues discussed here.  Kindness leads us to speak truthfully, to manage our anger well, to work honestly and share with those in need.  Kindness makes us build up rather than tear down and keeps us from bitterness and slander and malice.

Zoe and I went to a garage sale last week that had hundreds of record albums.  Some of you students may not know what an album is – you can call and ask your parents this afternoon.  Anyway, I came across a Glen Campbell album that was the first album I ever bought, back in 1969.  

Glen sang, “You’ve got to try a little kindness.”  What a difference kindness can make.  There are those people who just radiate kindness, and it makes a world of difference.  I happened to look at our bulletin board this week and there is a little clip art piece that I assume Bev, our Office Manager, has posted.  It said, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

Anger and kindness are just two of the issues touched on in this passage, but they illustrate what Paul is getting at: the way we live our lives really matters, and the way we treat one another in the Christian community is an indication of our faith.  We can claim to believe all kinds of things, but what we really believe is shown in our actions.  Christian community depends on our living in this new way.

As a way of summarizing his argument, Paul says, “Be imitators of God.”  And we thought kindness was hard.  How can we possibly be imitators of God?

Map makers will often include a few fake towns on their highway maps.  They do this to protect their copyright – if another mapmaker produces a map that includes one of these non-existent towns, it will be obvious that they simply copied the first company’s map.  They are called copyright traps or Paper Towns because they only exist on paper.

In the 1930’s General Drafting Company produced a map that included the fictional town of Agloe, New York.  The name came from the initials of draftsmen who worked on the map.  In time, a general store was built at the crossroad identified on the map as Agloe, and then a gas station.

There was a time when gas stations gave away free road maps, and these maps distributed by Gulf and Shell started to show the town of Agloe at that rural intersection.

In the 1970’s Rand McNally, who by then owned the copyright, sued an oil company that had published such a map, claiming it was obvious plagiarism.  They thought they had a great case.  But the oil company argued that this was not a fictional town.  There is a store.  There is a gas station.  It is a community gathering place in that rural area.  This is an actual place, they argued.  And it was.  Once a paper town, Agloe had started to act like a real town until it was a real town.

In a sense, Paul is saying that to be an actual Christian – not just a Christian on paper, not just a believer in theory – this is what you need to do.  You need to live in a certain way.  Speak truthfully, deal with your anger appropriately, work honestly, build one another up, show kindness, be willing to forgive.  Act like a Christian and you will become one.

The great German theologian, Karl Rahner, said that it's better to say that we’re always becoming Christians than simply saying that we are Christians.  He suggested that we are growing into an identity rather than achieving a goal.  We never finish this task, but it is a daily calling.

Paul says it like this: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”  Amen.

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