11. Pentecost: Cutting Down and Building Up

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

12 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Cutting Down and Building Up

Based on Ephesians 4: 25-5:2

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            The church at Ephesus, to which the letter of Ephesians was written, was an important congregation. The church is also mentioned in the book of Revelation and was later the site of a major council in the 400s. There is a possibility that St. John and Mary, the mother of Jesus lived in Ephesus and were part of the church there. What is believed to be the last home of Mary is located there, and is still a pilgrimage site today. In the time of the letter, Ephesus was a booming city of 250,000 – one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean. It was Rome’s capital in Asia Minor, and the site of a major Greek temple. The church there was most likely largely made up of Gentiles. St. Paul lived among the Ephesians from 52-54 AD. If he indeed wrote this letter to the Ephesians, which is debated, it was likely while imprisoned in Rome around the year 63. William Loader says that, “Ephesians wants hearers to make the connections between the new relationship they have with Christ, with each other (including with Jews), on the one hand, and real living, concrete behaviour, on the other. It is important to see both aspects. They assume a new state of being which makes such changes possible.”[1]

Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, a central theme is unity. They are told, “So then, you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but citizens in the household of God.” In our passage today, the author says to the Ephesians, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” He continues to urge thieves to give up stealing, and others to not speak slander or do malice. Now this is not advice unique to the Christian faith. You can find such moral teaching in Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions. What does make it unique is how the command continues. The writer says, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” He later reminds the reader that they are to forgive just as Christ has forgiven them. The Ephesians, and we, are reminded that we are members of one another. That is language that recalls Paul’s letter in I Corninthians when he says that we are all members of the Body of Christ, likening each to a different part of the body. Because we are members of the Body of Christ together, we need to speak truth to our neighbors. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible puts it this way, “We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth.” The Good News Bible says, “Everyone must tell the truth to his fellow believer, because we are all members together in the body of Christ.” In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, it is put this way: “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” All this is to say that because we are united together in the Body of Christ, we need to speak truth in love to each other and hold each other accountable in honesty.

The next admonition is familiar, at least in part. Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” In fact, I know more than one couple that uses this adage in their relationship. Notice too though, the phrase that precedes it – “Be angry, but do not sin.” We are actually told to be angry! Too often Christianity gets confused with the niceties of society and Aesop’s Fables. Here we see plainly that anger can be a Christian virtue. There is a place for righteous anger, as long as we don’t let it fester and burn up inside us. Anger can actually be productive in that it can lead us to right what is wrong and to work for justice in an unjust system. Eugene Peterson rephrases it this way, “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry.”

The writer of the epistle continues by writing, “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.” What we say matters. Words have power. They can build up, encourage and support – or they can completely destroy. I know that in the most difficult times of my life a few well-chosen words by a friend made all the difference and helped me persevere. Several months ago, I was having a particularly difficult weekend. I saw the light on my answering machine flashing. I was loathe to check my messages. I thought, “What is it now?!” I checked the message anyway, and it was one of our shut-in members with a message of thanks for visiting her. She has no idea how much her words of gratitude meant to me. And of course, we also each have had times when particularly harsh words cut deeply. Such words can cause deep and lasting pain – more than we often know.

The Pultizer Prize winning play Doubt deals with this issue. It is about a priest, Father Flynn, and the principal of his parish school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier who has leveled accusations against him without evidence. From the pulpit one Sunday he tells this modern parable:

“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man she

hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this, and that night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that the Hand of

God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have borne false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what was the result?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’[2]

This modern parable illustrates just how far words can go particularly in regard to gossip or rumors. We can’t retrieve our words once they have been said – they float away, irretrievable like feathers.

In the past two weeks, there has been a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin killing six people and a fire completely destroying the mosque in Joplin. It is no wonder when a local Congressman freely calls those who disagree with him, “Godless,” and the dehumanizing and demoralizing rhetoric so often thrown at those one is in conflict with, that such speech leads to physical actions that destroy and kill. In such a time we should be especially careful that “no evil talk” come out of our mouths. I have been appalled to hear the ways in which so many people have gone beyond civil debate over politics and religion, to vitriolic attacks with no respect or concern, let alone Christian compassion. I have been ashamed of the way people have degraded Governor Romney’s Mormon faith and accused President Obama of being a secret Muslim. It is one thing to disagree on issues and to calmly and rationally debate, but another to descend into a pit of name-calling and cursing anyone who disagrees.

Because we are indeed members of one another, we should not use our words to tear down, but to build up. There is such a great need in our country to build up. So many people are despairing in the midst of all the problems our country faces, that the infighting and baseless accusations across aisles only aids and abets ignoring our problems. Rather, with our speech and actions we should be building bridges to better understand and care for one another. Rev. Kate Huey, Minister for Stewardship, Scripture, and Discipleship in the United Church of Christ national office, says, “If we claim our identity in Christ, if we know ourselves as members of a body, how can we be at war with one another, outwardly or underneath the surface and behind one another’s back? If we truly belong to one another and to the Body of Christ, how can we, for example, hurt one another with angry words and actions? When we act out of anger, we hurt ourselves, in a very real sense, as the members of a body should not and would not hurt each other.”[3] Since we are all members of the Body of Christ we should remember that we cannot simply cast each other aside, but care for each other for the health of the whole body.

In Joplin, Ashley Carter, a student at Ozark Christian College, is building up. CNN reported this week that when she heard that the mosque in Joplin had been burned to the ground, likely because of arson, she said, “I was very saddened. I thought it was very evil. I was pretty discouraged,” Carter said. “Regardless of what you believe, I think everybody’s entitled to loving whoever.”  So she organized a “rally of people coming together, from all walks of life, all religions, a really diverse group of people trying to promote this radical love.” To date, over 400 people have committed to attend on August 25. Ashley says she was inspired by “my love for Jesus. And I know that Jesus calls us to love people.”[4]

This is indeed the kind of speech and action that builds up across divisions. The author of Ephesians reminds us, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Eugene Peterson continues his paraphrase of this passage saying, “Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love.” Once again, it comes down to love. We should be loving in telling each other the truth, in our dealings with one another and our speech. God loves each one of us. Each one of us are beloved children of God, gifted and created with marvelous potential. And yet each one of us is flawed, and each one of us has said and done things we wish we could gather back up like feathers. Yet, God loves each one of us unconditionally. That is what we should imitate in how we speak to each other. We are told to speak in such a way that our “words may give grace to those who hear.” You see when we imitate God in showing unconditional love, we share God’s grace with those with whom we communicate. Truly may our words be gracious, that we may share God’s love whenever we speak.

+To God be the glory. Amen.

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