I first me Ken Newell in August, 2003. He was the pastor of the church where I would spend the next year, serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was standing in the parlor room pouring himself a cup of tea and preparing a plate of biscuits for himself. Jet lagged and little sheepish, I walked into the room and upon entering, I realized the rumors were true. He did, in fact, look exactly like Father Ted from the British sitcom series. He was tall and had the same bushy gray/white hair and spoke with a clear and lovely voice. The only discernable difference I could find between the two men was that Ken is real…and Father Ted is a fictional character.
It didn’t take long for me to associate Ken with one phrase, which he lives by. ‘Live a life of love.’ It’s simple. He lived it, made it his habit and he would say it often just to remind others. As pastor of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, for nearly 25 years, Ken gained a reputation for being a “liberal” pastor because he was an active and vocal pastor and the congregation followed his lead. Throughout the Troubles, the church was picketed, rioted upon and threatened as he preached a consistent message of Christ’s peace and love, which seeks reconciliation, which the congregation also lived out.
Earlier on in his ministry, Ken befriended a Catholic priest in a local parish, in secret. They would meet in undisclosed locations at undisclosed times and would talk about theology, politics and what was happening in their lives, building a relationship. Over time, they discussed the ongoing Troubles, the strife between their two communities and how they might serve God best as leaders through this trial. Both leaders in their communities of faith sought to seek God’s love and submitted to being a beacon of that love, all the while knowing that the cost of that existence as a beacon may mean backlash from local paramilitary groups. Their commitment to God was as human as yours or mine might be. And, they were also ever-mindful of God’s unwavering commitment to them as God’s own child and so they persevered in love. In 2004 when Ken was installed as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland at their General Assembly meeting, he asked his Catholic friend, a well-established and vocal leader in the community, to offer the prayer over his ministry and the Presbyterian Church. Though there were picketers outside and murmurs on the plenary floor inquiring why a Catholic was offering the prayer, their relationship and expression of God’s unwavering love spoke nothing else but living a life of love.
When I read the text for this morning, I couldn’t help but recall this mantra of Ken’s and how his ministry and friendship with the Catholic priest is clearly rooted in this passage. The passage expresses a simple message of how we, as Christians, live a life of love, even in the midst of anger, because we are imitators of God. So now, let us open our hearts and listen for the Word that our God has for us this morning. Let us pray: Startle us O God with your love. Startle us with your simple message and root within us your Words so that we might live lives of love. Amen.
We turn to the Letter to the Ephesians, the fourth chapter, verse 25 and will read through the 2nd verse of the 5th chapter. Let us listen for God’s Word:
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 (NRSV)
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let 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. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put 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.
5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This is the Word of God for the people of God….thanks be to God.
It is good to be worshipping with you this morning and I want to thank you all for the invitation to come and be here. I am always grateful for the opportunity to worship with God’s people and this morning is no different.
I bring you greetings from McCormick Seminary. I serve there as the Director of Recruitment and Admissions of Master’s Level Programs and we are happily preparing to welcome our newest class in just a few weeks. I specifically bring you greetings from our Dean of Students, Christine Vogel and our president, Dr. Frank Yamada. We are all grateful for our relationships with our local congregations, such as this one, and we are excited for the opportunity to strengthen those relationships. So, again, thank you for inviting me.
When Thom first got in touch with me this week to ask me to preach, he said that I could just take a sermon that I have already preached elsewhere and revamp it. I thought that would be the best thing, too, as time was limited but, then I read the lectionary text for this week and this passage moved me. It isn’t often that we have a text before us in the lectionary that seems so straightforward and clear about how we might live as Christians. There isn’t a parable here, no cryptic symbolism. It is simply an exhortation of how we might be known as Christians. And, this is a unique opportunity that we have, as a community, to talk about it.
So, before we get into it, I want to explain a couple of things that might be helpful to unpack the text. The primary thing being: the audience for whom this letter intended. There is a clue found in the term ‘putting away’ in verse 25 or ‘put away’ in verse 31. As indicated by the mark described in verse 30, we can interpret that the author is speaking to the baptized community, the Church, specifically. You see, through baptism, there is an understood transition that one goes through from the old self to the new. One has ‘put away’ or has ‘striped away’ the old self and is new again through baptism into Christ. This transition is assumed by the author and as such, the author expresses how, once baptized, one will live an outward life, which reflects this inward sign of God’s love.
We, as Presbyterians, understand baptism to be an outward symbol of an inward sign of God’s grace and love. God has chosen us, granted us grace and love beyond our understanding and there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us. We baptize babies, children and adults alike because we, as a community of faith, understand baptism to be the sign of God’s love that is already present within all humans. And, as we pass through those baptismal waters, we are acknowledging this love, this cleansing love, this liberating love and we are accepting the task to live out for ourselves or, to raise our children, in a life which reflects this love that God has for us. In simplest form: God loves us and when we pass through the waters of baptism, we are engaging in a ritual, which indicates that we fully accept that love and grace and commit to living a life as a beloved child of God. However, this task of reflecting God’s love…well, it can be daunting….I know.
At the Willow Creek Leadership Summit this week, Patrick Lencioni said, “People need to be reminded more than instructed. Life is simple…but hard.” And, that is what this text does. The author articulates reminders of how we might live a life that reflects the love of God that inspires our very being. Life is simple…but, hard and folks need a little reminding from time to time, about the simplicity of it all.
The simple fact is the guiding principle that we are living a life of love because we are imitators of God. Now, note here, the text, nor I, say that we are God. We are not striving to be God either. We are imitators of God…which, by the way, is easier than being God. Like a little sibling mimics their older sibling or like an apprentice seeks to mimic their mentor, we, as Christians, seek to mimic the qualities of God that make God our God. Meaning, we seek to love well because God loves us well. We seek to be kind-hearted and forgiving of others because God is kind-hearted and forgiving of us. We seek to be truthful and reconciling with one another because God is truthful and reconciling with us. But, it’s hard…a lot of the time for us, because, we’re not God. So, the author includes some helpful reminders of practical ways we might strive to imitate God.
So, let’s start with the points about anger and unpack those a bit. ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil.” Now, I’m not really one to preach about the devil…I’m not sure I believe in the devil as such. But, I do believe the devil represents a malignant evil in our midst and we do need to be intentional about not allowing that to eclipse our sight of the goodness of God in the world. So, when thinking about ‘making room for the devil’, I would like to suggest we think about that in a way of becoming unhealthy. ‘Making room for the devil’ means building those first stairs on a downward spiral, which inherently then, cannot build up.
I think this is a poignant reminder for Christians, particularly for us today. Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with but it is one of the most basic human emotions. There is not a single person here, I would imagine, that hasn’t been angry at one point or another. We have all been through the fire of anger and have come through the other end, perhaps even with some scars to prove it. Therefore, what the author of the letter is stating is that being angry is a healthy and normal emotion. William Loader affirms, “it is not wrong to feel anger, anymore than it is wrong to feel appetite.” So, the practical reminder that is highlighted in this text is to deal with it…sooner rather than later and with honesty, as suggested in the preceding verse.
Loader continues, that when left unattended, anger, on an individual level, can be “transferred to others, sometimes immediately, sometimes after long periods of build up until it’s explosive and out of proportion. Or it gets swallowed, even forgotten, and we live in a state of self-directed anger, a recipe for depression or a form of self-harm.” I’m sure we all can attest to the damage that suppressed and denied anger does. And, there really is no aggression quite like passive aggression. So, when we read a line from Scripture such as ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil’, this is what the author is referring to. Anger left unattended, or falsely dealt with becomes infectious, malignant, and even can develop into demonic. Therefore, as imitators of God, we must seek to avoid this. It’s not the anger that we need to avoid…we, as imitators of God, seek to engage with anger with honesty so that compassion might seep in, not division.
This is something that we, as a Church, need reminding of quite frequently, don’t we? If we’re honest about our identity as a Church today, we need to realize that onlookers might see us festering in our anger as our lines of division have grown deeper. The Church is regularly shaken up by scandal, ecclesial warfare and fear of the other, difference or change. Richard Ward reminds us that even on our congregational level, “The pastor with an ear pressed down to the ground of congregational life hears the plates shifting underneath. The phone call complaining of the stance the church has taken, the angry tone of the one outvoted, or the diatribe by the one threatening to withdraw a pledge on a ‘matter of doctrine’… So pronounced are these divisions [on a local or global level]…that…the wags who watch us would hear our prayer that ‘all unity will one day be restored’ and snicker.” But, even still, we’re sitting here today, seeking to persevere in being a people loved by God and learning how to reflect that existence.
If you’ve ever been to a therapist or pastoral counselor, you may have heard that anger is always rooted in something else, another, deeper, more vulnerable emotion. Anger is expressed more readily, but that which is expressed or interpreted as anger, often is a product of something more intimate. Meaning, anger is, most frequently, a second emotion, preceded by pain, hurt, grief or the like. You have seen this: A spouse doesn’t feel heard (feels hurt) and responds by doing exactly what the others pet peeve is (expression of anger). A loved one passes (feeling pain) and the survivor lashes out at those who have not lost (expression of anger). A financial loss is experienced (feeling grief) and all energy is then focused on re-gaining that which was lost no matter what the cost (expression of anger). And, regardless of being on an individual, regional, or national level, revenge is heralded as the “strong” response, rather than healing, which seems weak. So, this is the hard part to the simple way of living a life of love. Navigating anger with others in healthy ways to discover the root emotion, where healing can begin.
The Scriptures hold all of our stories. And, our present day story has been told before. So, today, as we listen for the story that has been told before, we hear instruction that applies to us today. The author of the letter to the Church in Ephesus reminds us of the simplicity of God’s love and behaving in accordance with the rule of love. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, -now, here’s the practical reminder part – and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” And, do it sooner, rather than later. Because as imitators of God, imitators of Christ, we seek be that fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, even if we feel like we’re sacrificing pride by not seeking the so-called ‘strong’ way of dealing with anger through revenge or buttoning it up.
I love that image…that thought of being a fragrant offering to God. Because when I think about a fragrance, an aroma, I think of the power that it has to draw me in, or draw others in. The sense of smell is such a prominent element in our memories of childhood, our memories of places and times, and it helps us figure out inviting places to go and not-so-inviting places. For example, there is a pie shop right around the corner from my house called Hoosier Mama Pie Company. For anyone who has been on that particular block of Chicago Ave near Ashland Ave, it is a cacophony of smells, some good and some not-so-good, if I’m honest. When walking from the west, heading to Ashland, the aroma tour begins with a Mexican Grill where the delicious scents of grilled spiced, meat waft into the air. Then, there are a couple of empty store fronts which, at one point or another, may have been used as a private receptacle for an inebriated passer-by or any number of pets out for their daily walk. Then, there is Hoosier Mama. They have a fan that blows the air out of the shop, which carries with it the most intoxicating scents of pie. Call it your mother’s kitchen or your grandmother’s perfume, but it smells like comfort and safety, sweetness and goodness and even on a hot summer’s day, you can’t help but wonder if you need a piece of warm pie right then to be able to continue with your day.
To be a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, we, as individuals, as a Church, as a community need to remember how to draw people in with goodness and kindness, building up and offering grace. As imitators of God, we are allowed to be angry and we are encouraged to deal with it. God never swept anger under the carpet and pretended hurt feelings weren’t there. God never told us of love for us out of one side of the mouth and spoke of degradation out of the other. God never dismissed an angry person without trying to find out why they were angry and showing compassion along the way. This is the hard part for us because we are mere imitators and not God. But, quite simply, we can strive to live a life of love, showing kindness and forgiveness, even when it gets hard. Amen.
Sermon preached on 8.12.12 at First Presbyterian Church, Deerfield, IL