HEBREW BIBLE LESSON II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
EPISTLE LESSON Ephesians 4:25-5:2
SERMON: “Manners Matters”
You all surely remember the story of the three little pigs. Recently I came across the sequel, “The Three Little Pigs Return. Years had passed since the crisis with the wolf. The family of the three little pigs had settled down comfortably in their brick house in the suburbs. Gradually boredom set in. Something was missing in their lives. The three pigs decided that what they were missing had to do with love. They determined to go out and seek love’s meaning.
The first little pig went to the university library and read all she could on the subject of love. When she had finished she had learned a great deal about love, but her life was still empty. The second little pig read in the newspaper that a famous pig was coming to town to deliver a series of sermons on the subject of love. The second little pig attended all the sermons and was filled with enthusiasm and lovely feelings. His emotional high lasted for a few days, and then his life became pretty much as empty as it had been before.
The third little pig invited two other pig families over to their house one evening and all the little pigs began to share their life stories, continuing until late in the night. They found this so interesting that they decided to meet together regularly to share experiences and life together. In time they came to care about each other very deeply. One evening, after the other families had left, the third little pig said to her siblings “Now I know what love is, for I have experienced it.”
Love. “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” We talk about love a lot in the church. We use it as a measuring stick. The author of I John wrote, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God,” and goes on to say that whoever doesn’t love doesn’t know God. That’s a pretty clear evaluation. Well and good. But how does one go about being loving aside from the kind of love we reserve for spouse and family? That’s precisely what Paul is getting at in this part of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He zeroes in on some manners matters that will demonstrate to one another and to those outside the church that the love of Christ lives in them and has transformed them. After all, why would anyone want to join these fledgling Christians if they aren’t any different, don’t have a different quality of life from everybody else?
We have the Ten Commandments. If I were to give a quiz this morning, most of us could list most of them. No other gods, no graven images, don’t misuse God’s name, keep the Sabbath holy, honor mother and father, don’t steal, murder, commit adultery, lie or yearn for what belongs to someone else. (Exodus 20). But how do we show love for one another?
Not stealing, murdering or lying will surely be a part of it. The Apostle Paul gives us a guide for more than getting along, for being loving towards others. The first of the manners that Paul says matter is putting off the old self of impurity and greed and putting on the new self, as we were created to like God in true righteousness and holiness. Mainline Christian churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, UCC, etc.) are all losing members and support all across the nation. There are surely a number of reasons for that. If I knew a single cause I would write the book and make a fortune. But one factor is that the Church today is rarely consistently different from the culture that surrounds it. Why be a part of or join a church if there is nothing different about it from any other ‘service organization’?
And yet this church in its baptismal liturgy proclaims: “In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the Church, the Body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. . .
“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established. Within that covenant we are given new life and are guarded from evil, nurtured by the love of God and God’s people. On our part, we are to turn from evil and turn to Jesus Christ. I ask you, therefore, to reject sin, (emphasis added) to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”
Today we live in a culture, probably not all that different from the culture surrounding these Ephesian Christians, a culture given over to every kind of impurity, to the point where it recoils from calling anything ‘sin.’ Society says, “Whatever is right for you is right.” And yet both the New and the Old Testaments are clear that we are called to be God’s people and that God’s people are to be holy.
The second of the manners that Paul says matter is putting off falsehood, speaking truthfully to your neighbor (which we know from Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan means everyone). Tell the truth. Even when it’s not to your best advantage. This ought to be a “no-brainer,” but from national politics to office politics to church politics, we know that people bend the truth. The old Ann Landers’ yardstick still applies to everything that comes out of our mouths: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Then Paul talks about how we deal with anger. Everybody gets angry – from time to time.
There is anger, both the short-fused, everything just went wrong, snappish anger. And then there is the more deep-seated, slow-burning, “bitterness”-”wrath”-”shouting”-”slander” anger, not to mention the deep, stunting erosion of “malice.” The prescription: a prepared salve of “kindness,” “compassion” and most especially “forgiveness.” The community of faith is to apply daily a remembrance that “God in Christ has forgiven you” (v.32), and that we will be forgiven as we forgive others.
Forgiveness is a hard gulp to swallow.
It is so much easier to feel bad — and “pass it on.”
It is so much simpler to see the failure of others than our own failures.
It is so much more reasonable to “earn” respectability in the world, than it is to receive God’s free gift of grace and confess the hugeness of that gift.
It is so much easier to watch our checkbooks, our “bottom line,” than it is to watch our mouths.
It’s what you do with your anger that matters. But forgiveness is the salve (from the same root from which we get ‘salvation) for human anger.
This is the message the church has that is different from what the world around us offers: That God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son so that we might know the love and forgiveness of God.
That’s great. It’s nice to know. We feel relief from guilt and bask in the warmth of God’s redeeming love. What’s next? The answer to that question is in my last story for today:
A first year seminary student was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before. He was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he still didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance
tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no reason to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”
Now the dean was really angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave the seminary.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed.” Those who know, tell those who don’t know: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.