Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 8, 2021
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 “Right Inside the Wrong”
In third grade, I was the proud founder and president of the Polly Pocket Club of Folwell Elementary School. For those of you who don’t know, Polly Pockets were those strange miniature houses with itty bitty pieces and dolls. The only thing a child could really do with them was either loose the pieces or choke on them. But – I was a big fan when I was young, as were a few of my friends. In an effort to create cohesion around our shared interest, I formed a club that would meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the playground during recess. And because I am, well…me, I put together some rather complex policies and procedures for our club. There was an executive council – which included a Treasurer, though I am not sure what we used as currency. We even had standards of behavior, because, obviously, to be in the Polly Pocket Club came with certain expectations that we had to live in to.
As far as I can recall, we had two meetings before my friends gave up on me, my rules, and behavioral standards. I had yet to learn in my young life that not everyone wanted to conform to my way of being in the world.
Fast forward to my thirties. Prior to moving to Winona, I lived in a townhome community in a suburb of St. Paul. I was a renter, but still had to follow the rules of the Home Owner’s Association. I hated those rules and standards of behavior. I thought they were stifling and left no room for independence and self-expression. I still get angry when I think about the letter I received from the HOA telling me that my planter of winter greens was in violation of their policies about holiday decorations. Who were they, I thought, to tell me what to do and how to behave?
It turns out, I am much better at setting the rules than I am following them. And, I should point out, I am more forgiving now of my young friends who knew better than trying to stick with my Polly Pocket Club and its unforgiving policies.
How to behave, what rules govern communities, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable – those have been sources of intense debate and rebellion probably since the first humans tried to live together. And whenever a new community is formed, one of the first tasks is to decide how that community will be a community together. That always includes behavioral expectations. And Christian communities, including the oldest we have records of, certainly had to learn what it meant to live together.
The scripture this morning was a section from a letter written to the Ephesians. While attributed to Paul, it was likely actually written in his name by one of his disciples. And while it is addressed to the church in Ephesus, scholars today believe this letter was actually formulaic – a letter that went to all of the earliest churches, especially those formed by Gentiles. Paul, or the one writing on behalf of him, is outlining a few reminders of what it means to be a community with God at the center and Christ as the example.
We forget, I think, that Christianity was something that was created over time. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, and he was a faithful Jew. While he spoke against Jewish rules and customs that didn’t place God and God’s grace in the center, he was not trying to form a new religion. It was the people who came together after Jesus, sharing his stories, reciting his prayers, telling others about the Good News he brought, it was those people who formed a religion. They were the ones who first started to gather regularly, to tell stories (remember, the New Testament was written yet), to share meals, to give to the poor, and figure out what it means to live a ‘Christian life’. This was an entirely new way of being together, and they soon figured out that to follow Christ’s example would require setting aside the cultural expectations of life and embrace a new way.
The Epistles, the letters either written by Paul or in Paul’s name, that make up the majority of the New Testament, are letters to these earliest communities. The letters, some gracious, others exasperated, and a few downright rude, contain guidance for how the communities of those following Christ were to behave, not only towards the world but with one another. Some of these communities were Jewish, trying to reconcile their long-held and cherished beliefs with the new teachings of Jesus. Other communities, like the church in Ephesus, were Gentile – a group of people putting God at the center of their lives for the first time. Just like the churches of today, they argued about how to be in community. They argued about what worship looks like, who is included, and what is the ‘right’ way of being Christian. These were groups of people doing their best, filled with questions and hope.
At the center of why they gathered was the Good News that Jesus taught – that God’s favor is with everyone, especially those who were in the margins of society. The promise of the Kingdom of God – the promise of a world steeped in justice, peace, equality, and love – was the promise that held them together. It was the source of their strength and their hope. And while the earliest followers of Jesus thought his second coming was imminent, by the time we get to the later letters like we read today, it has been clear that to be Christian was also about making real the promise of Christ. At first the believers thought they just had to wait for Jesus to come back and make the promise real. But, over time, they learned that it would be up to them – that they were now the hands and feet of Christ, and it was their responsibility to make the promise of the Kingdom of God a reality not only for themselves, but for the entire world. And in order to do that, they needed to adjust the essence of how they lived and acted.
“Put away falsehood, speak the truth, give grace.” “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with malice.” “Be kind, tender-hearted, forgiving, imitators of God.” Be ‘imitators of God’. That is a tall order. But that was the expectation of what it meant to be Christian. And that is the expectation we have before us today.
To be a Christian is to be a part of the world, but to not be conformed to it. Instead we are to be transformed by the Good News, the promise of the Kingdom of God. And to live into that promise, to make that promise real for all we encounter, means living and acting as children of God, following the example of Jesus. It is a heavy expectation, and creates a standard for living that can feel burdensome. But, we must remember these are not rules forced on us, rules that are ripe for rebellion. Rather, to live the Christian life is an invitation to ministry, to be a part of something greater.
And to live the Christian life is to hold ourselves to a high standard, indeed the letter to Ephesus says we are to be imitators of God – there is no higher standard that I can think of. And to live this life often feels like we are living a life that is constantly uphill, against the tide of the world around us. The selflessness can be, and often is, exhausting. As the pandemic surges once again, and we have as a community needed to adjust our way of being together, again, we are faced with making decisions that are a challenge the call to lead a Christian life. I am not ashamed to admit that I am angry that it is necessary for us to once again mask, despite our vaccination status. I am angry that the current surge we are experiencing was completely preventable. I am angry that to respond to Jesus’ instruction of loving neighbors so often feels like I am doing all of the work, while my neighbors do nothing to love me in return.
And yet, it is what we must do to live a Christian life. As we have learned more about the new COVID delta variant, and how it has adapted as it spread through unvaccinated people, we need to once again wear masks and curtail our activities to protect our neighbors. Our neighbors who are children and are not yet eligible for vaccines. Our neighbors who are immune-compromised and whose vaccine may not be up to the task. Our neighbors who are healthcare workers and are once again facing a surge of patients. And, yes, our neighbors who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated, and even our neighbors who have spread false information about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines. When Christ said we must love our neighbors as ourselves, he did not give exceptions to that standard of behavior. That rule has no caveats attached, as much as we may try to search the scriptures for loop-holes.
There is a song that I love entitled ‘Here Comes the Change’ by Kesha. It is actually the theme song to the recent movie about the early life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called ‘On the Basis of Sex.’ The entire song is wonderful, but there is one line that has always resonated with me, that often makes me tear up when I am singing along in my car. The line says this: “Oh, it’s hard, I know it’s hard, to be the right inside the wrong.” Be the right inside the wrong. If we could sum up Jesus’ message, even the letter to the Ephesians it would be that. It’s hard to be right inside the wrong, yet we must. It is how miracles are created. And the world needs miracles.
A life that has God at the center, with Jesus as the example, is a life that creates miracles. A word of grace, an act of justice, an offer of forgiveness – that is the stuff of miracles. And that is the basis for the Kingdom of God. We will never be perfect at it – indeed the forces of this world will constantly be pulling us in different directions. And there will be times when it feels futile. But the promise is real and the hope is not naïve. It is why we gather, it is why we study scripture, it is why we serve with no expectation of return. It is why we once again wear our masks. It is the center of this community and millions of communities across this world.
The earliest followers of Christ wondered what it meant to live the Christian life, and the earliest leaders did their best to define it. How we choose to live it is up to us, but we have a guide and example to follow. We cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good we can do. Let me say that again for those who really need to hear, let me say it again because I really need to hear it: we cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good we can do. And when we choose to do good, when we choose to be imitators of God, then we will create miracles. Amen.
God of miracles – we are in need of a miracle once again. We are in need of the miracle of grace and forgiveness. We are in need of the miracle of hope and courage. We are in need of the miracle of health and healing.
God of miracles – we are in need of your presence amongst us and all of our neighbors.
As we once again hear distressing news and see hospitals fill up, we ask that you fill our hearts with compassion and ease our anger. When we are tired of responding to your expectation that we love our neighbors, no matter how they act, we ask that you fill us with grace and resilience. And when we need to rest, give us the courage to do so, resting in your ever-present arms.
As we pray for ourselves, we also pray for those who are sick. We especially pray for those sick and hospitalized with COVID-19, both in our country and in the world. We pray that you surround them with comfort and peace.
O God, it is hard to be the right inside the wrong, but we draw on the comfort of knowing that we are not doing it alone. We are joined with millions of people of all faiths and backgrounds who are committed to the good. And we are joined by the Holy Spirit, the living and active memory of Christ in our midst. For this, we are grateful.
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our guide and example. And we lift our voices with our kindred across the world by praying in the way he taught by saying…Our Father…