This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 9, 2015 at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE. A recording of the story is available here.
The scriptural reference is:
In seventh and eighth grades I participated in Junior Cotillion. This meant that on Thursday nights once a month I would don a “Sunday” dress and spend two hours learning social education through etiquette and ballroom dance with peers from my school and neighborhood. We’d learn things like, door holding decorum, proper table settings, thank you note writing, filling in dance cards, buffet line protocol, and, most importantly how to balance the plate of cookies on our laps while wearing a dress, holding a cup of lemonade, daintily using a napkin, and carrying on polite conversations with neighbors to our immediate left and right. Twice a year we’d really get gussied up for the Spring and Holly Ball, which meant enjoying a three course meal with all of the proper place settings; it also meant that we could potentially earn prizes for winning ballroom dance contests or being caught using “exceptional manners” by any of the adult chaperones. If we behaved well enough, when we graduated the program we just might have been asked to stay on as a high school teaching assistant for the upcoming middle school classes. Now, I’m not usually one to brag, but I was asked to serve as an assistant in both high school AND college, and yeah, I occasionally won a prize for manners or dancing.
A few weeks ago when we visited Ephesians we discussed the transitional prayer in the middle of the letter. As you recall: “The letter begins with encouraging worship and praise for salvation in Christ Jesus… and continues with encouragement in perseverance through social and personal life dimensions as new creations in Christ. The prayer in the middle exists as the rooting, centering, grounding point of this letter to the Ephesians. First: Be thankful for your salvation. Next: Allow me to pray for you, providing you a foundation. Finally: Continue on as new members of the body of Christ.” Today we come to a portion of the epistle entitled “Rules for the New Life,” which appears to be aptly named given the words we’ve heard read in the verses. But I’m bothered by the subtitle of this part of scripture. Something about the word “rule” doesn’t sit well with me, and I’d be willing to bet that the same word doesn’t sit well with y’all either, does it?
Rule. Can also be known as: law, instruction, and regulation. Rules are also decrees, statutes, or directives. Pertinent to us, another synonym to rule is canon – like, our Biblical canon. Rule. The word sounds like such a strong word when we talk about the Gospel message and the other canonical books of our testaments. Did God really give us a rulebook? Well, back in 1995, rapper Killah Priest wrote a song entitled, B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. Rules are instructions, so maybe these words today from Ephesians are rules for the new life as followers of Christ. This passage lists virtues and duties of the transformed community of believers. The apostle imitates the Ten Commandments in format here, giving first those prohibited behaviors before detailing embraceable behaviors, and we consider the commandments to be rules, right? I’m still bothered by the term rule, however. I get stuck there, because I don’t see anywhere in the passage a list of consequences, and when we have rules consequences follow directly.
To me, this passage is about community and dignity within. This passage is about a life of gratitude. G. Porter Taylor states that, “while at first glance this passage resembles a long list of prescribed and proscribed behaviors, in actuality it is centered on the converted life of the baptized.” He explains that baptism brings about new life as a new creation and the theme of this epistle section is behavioral changes from conversion. If we step back in the text to the grounding prayer, verses 16-17 in chapter three provide the roots to us understanding the verses in chapter four: “16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” As baptized, converted children of God, we are privy to the love of Christ. Because we’ve been given this love, we now live lives of gratitude, respect, and in the knowledge that all are God’s beloved children who shall be treated with favor.
The mission statement of the National League of Junior Cotillions is this: To act and learn to treat others with honor, dignity and respect for better relationships with family, friends and associates and to learn and practice ballroom dance. While the Ephesians were probably not regularly practicing the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the waltz, and other ballroom dances, we can be certain that they were practicing treating others with honor, dignity and respect. They worked regularly on their relationships with one another; family, friends and associates. In three words, I’ll sum up our verses today. And I’m sure we’ve all heard these words harshly spoken in our direction a time or two in our life:
Mind your manners.
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (vs. 25). Our scripture passage begins with truth as a building block of the foundation for life together. We can’t live in harmony if we are being false with one another. We must stop lying. We have to speak truth, but we must do it in love. We all now belong to the body of Christ and are members of the body together, so let’s treat each other accordingly. A shaky foundation will only cause the building to rock, crack and eventually crumble. Speaking truth to our neighbors, I think, is the hardest piece of this scripture. How often do we think one thing about someone but say or do another? Like, omitting our true feelings believing that it’s just because we don’t want to hurt their feelings over something simple like not enjoying their taste in music as we occupy the passenger seat of their car, so when asked we say the song on the radio is a great tune, even if we detest what we’re hearing. Often, though, we’re guilty of not speaking truths because we can’t manage to face the other with the root of our issues about them: they are abusive, but we’re afraid they will reject us if we confront them, so we just play nice for the sake of peace. But this is precisely what the apostle is telling us NOT to do: don’t play nice just for the sake of peace, because peace will not exist where falsehood lives. It seems so simple, yet it’s not. But, it’s the most important piece because it’s where we begin. Stop lying. Speak truth. And do so in love to one another. Speak the truth that will not bear hurt, rather increase the love of the community of Christ.
I believe that we too often see today’s passage and get hung up on a different verse about speaking, however. Our eyes speed read past the part about lying and move onto the part about saying ugly things: “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.” Don’t get me wrong, this is important. I might even go as far as to say imperative, however this verse is too often misinterpreted as an individual is not allowed to formulate, hold or share an opinion about another person, thing or situation due to the harmful nature of speaking about another. This interpretation is incorrect. The verse here is encouraging us to choose words of grace, but it’s not condemning us for holding and sharing an opinion. A concern for evil speech runs throughout all of Scripture as words do have the power to destroy. But they have the power to construct, also. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing will be our closing hymn today, and we will sing a prayer asking God to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace and praise. We cannot build a relationship based on lies, but we can choose to speak words of grace to and around our brothers and sisters, therefore not grieving them, the Holy Spirit or ourselves.
Author Margaret Feinberg tells the story of her time as a senior student at Wake Forest University taking a class under Maya Angelou. They spent the first three weeks of the semester, more than one-third of their time together, learning names. These were not names of authors or historical figures to be memorized for an examination; rather the names were those of their classmates. In each class meeting for the first three weeks every student took turns introducing him or herself to the instructor and classmates, clearly spelling their name for everyone. In each class meeting everyone swapped seats and repeated the ritual. Additionally, they were to address one another as “miss” or “mister” in the class. Margaret says this of her time in the course: “More than a decade later, the greatest lesson I learned from Maya Angelou is from those first three weeks. She did more than teach a lesson about human dignity – she allowed me to experience and partake of it firsthand.” Dignity means recognizing that another has self-worth and respecting yourself enough to see your own self-worth, too. Taking time to know another is intimacy. Knowing another’s stories and calling her by name implies a desire to be in relationship with God through relationship with one of God’s own. Margaret continued, “Maya Angelou didn’t just want us to have information; she wanted us to take part in the process of transformation. She didn’t just want us to know about human dignity; more than anything, she wanted us to treat other humans with dignity.” To be formed in Christ is to be formed of value and dignity and favor.
Spiritual formation is work that requires intentionality. It requires a willfulness to grow. Spiritual formation is not something that takes place overnight, but over a lifetime. Spiritual formation is impossible without working towards a life imitating God. “1Therefore 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” (5:1-2). The entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry was teaching us to be imitators. Imitating God means sacrifice, of self for others – in our community, in our family, of behavior, of addiction, and possibly, of life. Our God is the one who imparted wisdom to us through a living, breathing version of himself for the purpose of injecting Christ-likeness into our lives so that we may be formed into Christ through the Spirit, living in love worthy of sacrifice.
Ever-present with us on this transformation is God through the Holy Spirit who has marked us for redemption. The Spirit is essential to the community for without the spirit there is no worship, no community, and no hallmark of virtue. In our baptism we are marked as Christ’s own through the Spirit like Christ was marked in his baptism. This mark means that we belong to Christ, which in itself carries responsibility. Verse 30 instructs us “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” for we exist in an ongoing encounter with the living, loving God in Christ Jesus. “The nature of love, is to love and to grow in that love,” according to Taylor. “No one willingly disappoints the beloved; certainly no one makes the beloved grieve.” In short, we should not “wish to do anything to grieve God, because of our love for God in Christ. Therefore, we joyfully turn toward those acts that bring God joy and away from those that do not.” Living in the presence of the Spirit allows for continuous refining of the individual and the community. God, through the Holy Spirit, invites us to follow the example of Christ’s surrender to God, through imitation, understanding that our lives are pleasingly sacrificial as well. Being transformed into Christ means a conscious decision to do away with behaviors that spurn God and reject community.
I grew up in a family that requires manners, and to this day I will most likely respond with an appropriate “ma’am” or “sir.” I’m teaching my children these same life expectations, as well. Luke, nearly four, he loves to be a gentleman by holding the door open as we walk through, and he knows good and well that we expect him to use his manners. Lilly is learning, but she’s getting the hang of them. Some might think (and I’ve been told) that I’m hard on my children, but they have a born-and-bred Southern Mommy, and I don’t care. We expect manners in my family. To me, minding manners means showing regard. Addressing someone as a “ma’am” or “sir” is thoughtful. Showing respect and gratitude are second nature. I like to think that using my manners and requiring them of my children is helping us to live more fully into the Christian community of believers that we see in Ephesians. I choose to believe that being polite is being graceful. Deep down, minding my manners means recognizing the holy in myself and in the other, and I believe that’s what imitating God looks like on the most basic level.
To God be the glory. Amen.
 Katie Barrett Todd, sermon preached on August 2, 2015 at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE: Rooted and Grounded.
 G. Porter Taylor, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Theological Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, pg. 330.
 Margaret Feinberg, The Organic God, pg. 68.
 Ibid, 68.
 Taylor, pg. 330.