Your Neighbor

August 12, 2018

Series: August 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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.

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. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

 Your Neighbor

        Have I ever shown my waterproof Bible? Don’t believe me?  Here, watch…(pouring water) You probably wouldn’t guess it could withstand that, would you?  A friend got it for me at a youth ministry conference.  It’s clever and it misses the point that young people like all people don’t want gimmicks as much as they do authenticity, genuine interest, and actual relationship. 

          Real relationships matter, and whether or not they are harder to find these days, they are certainly found in different places.  Modern communication has allowed us to be connected to those great distances away, which means we are often less connected to those nearby.  We can be more selective about who we associate with which has its perks and its problems.  When we hear Ephesians implore us to “speak the truth to our neighbors” the first question that comes to my mind is, “Do we have relationships with our neighbors?”  Do we even know them?  I bet I haven’t had a substantive conversation with a neighbor in years. 

When I was in seminary, a class on theology and the ecological crisis assigned us to sit outside every day in the same place for ½ hour for a month to observe what was happening in the natural world around me. I chose the backyard of the house I was sharing.  Inevitably, these ½ hour sessions ended with conversation across the fence with my neighbor as he was gardening.  He too was a seminarian, but he was a class above me and I didn’t know him well.  Over time, a friendship budded, and years later he stood by me at my wedding.  What are we missing in not knowing our neighbors?

          Part of what we are missing is the daily reminder that our neighbors are people, not objects, things easily captured by a convenient label, incapable of surprising us, moving, or changing.  The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber reminds us that at the heart of relationship is the I-Thou as opposed to I-it. Relationship means relating to others not as objects, but as subjects, as beings.  Ephesians is telling us to treat our neighbors as beings.  Without relationship or at least some semblance of trust or connection, we have little hope of speaking the truth effectively.  More to the point, we have little hope of hearing the truth.  We have seen time and again that evidence alone isn’t convincing to many people, as we find ourselves in the midst of those who dismiss facts as if to say sarcastically, “What is truth?” which is precisely what Pontius Pilate said before he killed Jesus. 

          We have rightly and thankfully reached a day and age when we are more careful to we speak of truth with a capital “T”, for the church has wielded this as a sword at times.  However, Ephesians does not allow us to abandon our commitment to the truth.  It implores us to put aside falsehood, the masquerading of one thing as another to take advantage of the weak or the vulnerable, the desperate or the gullible. 

          Carefully to be sure, we are called to speak.  Silence, which is a good place to begin, a good place to find grounding and perspective, a good place to ensure we are listening, ultimately has to be broken.  To stay silent in the face of wrongdoing is to be complicit with wrongdoing.  That kind of silence is deafening, for it allows falsehood to go unchallenged.

          I once attended a board meeting for an organization whose mission I loved and whose people I loved even more.  It was a source of inspiration for me.  The meetings were always congenial, with widespread agreement…until one time.  The substance of the disagreement is irrelevant for our purposes here; it’s the way it played out that matters.  It got heated.  It got personal.  Ultimatums were thrown out, lines in the sand drawn.  At one point, one had to remove himself from the room.  Another key person threatened to leave the organization. 

          Truth be told, I’m not sure how well we handled it, but I am increasingly convinced we were called into that place of conflict, to wrestle with an issue.  Conflict is not a sign of failure.  How it is managed determines degrees of success or failure.  We who make vows in the Presbyterian church promise to uphold the peace, unity, and purity of the church.  As you’ll notice, these stand in tension.  To only focus on peace forgets our commitment to purity, and by “purity,” we just mean doing the right thing.  To be strident or aggressive in doing what we believe is right runs the risk of upsetting the peace or unity of the body.  Certain moments call for more emphasis on one—tabling an issue because it has become so hot it is tearing the community apart, or, on the other hand, not being afraid to tackle a difficult issue knowing it might make some people unhappy.  Wisdom is know in what measure to attend to each in any given moment.   

          These commitments to peace, unity, and purity is what was on my mind as I sat in on portions of a discussion of immigration we had during the 11:15 education hour last Sunday, part of what will be an ongoing conversation in the church, in which we hope you participate in the various forms and forums.  The topic at this forum was sanctuary congregations, a term which can be confusing because it is being used now more broadly than before, when it referred specifically to hiding undocumented persons from federal law enforcement.  It seems to me the moment demands we consider what we will do, if anything, and whether we will act as a congregation or will provide resources for people to act as individuals.  To avoid the conversation altogether I fear is to too conveniently wrap ourselves in the security blanket of peace, but as they say there is no true peace without justice.  That’s not a threat; it’s a description of reality.  An unjust peace is a condition rooted in falsehood. 

          Now, I have a confession.  I like my church how I like my board meetings—congenial, refreshing, pleasant, unconflicted, inspirational, a break from the rest of the world and an escape.  That’s important and you all deserve it.  Everyone deserves it, but it can’t be all of what church is.  In the end, Jesus wasn’t comfortably affixed to flowers.  He was nailed to a cross.  Well, actually, at the end he was raised from the grave, which is how it feels when God pulls you through a painful place.  Not all of Jesus’ life was crucifixion and neither should following Jesus be evaluated solely on the basis of how much one suffers.  The church has gotten that wrong sometimes too.  I, for one, am glad we are a part of a tradition that doesn’t display Jesus on the cross.  He did go there, but he didn’t spend his life there.  Similarly, we are not called to suffer all the time for Christ, but we should be aware that following Christ will lead us to some painful moments.  There are times when we have to “go there.”  Why?  Not because we are masochists, but because we love.  We love the subject.  We love the other as ourselves and so we enter a difficult space with them.

I was just introduced to a song by the Irish singer-songwriter, Van Morrison, who used to call Marin home. It’s from back in 1967 and it describes a vivid scene.  It is of a man at the bedside of his lover who is dying the gruesome death of tuberculosis.  The title of the song is derived from the haunting line “I can almost smell your TB sheets,” referring to the blood-soaked sheets that would accompany tuberculosis.  Incidentally, I don’t think it was a chart-topper.  Morrison probably had more commercial success with “Brown-Eyed Girl.”  But, why have I been so captivated by that song since I first heard it, if it doesn’t touch something that is deeply true, that life brings us into these terribly difficult moments and we are, in part, measured by how we are in them?  

How shall we be in those moments? A colleague of mine once reminded me that every birth begins with a bowl of water and some blood on the floor.  It can be a birth, if we can learn to midwife the discomfort into something that resembles new life, the birth of an identity.  Ephesians is a bit of a midwifery guide:  “Be angry.”  Don’t deny your feelings even the angry ones, just “do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  Don’t let it take root in you and sow hatred.  Don’t hate anyone.  Be conscious of how you speak.  “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.”  Imagine if we could speak in ways that gave grace to those who heard, including, maybe especially, those with whom we disagree.  Buber tells a story on himself in which he argues the other party into silence at which point he knows not that he was won, but that he has lost. 

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” That’s a full drawer!  Don’t be misled by the imagery.  This is not a once and for all putting away; it is a daily, incremental, little by little practice that comes though the discipline of prayer.  “[B]e kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Remember that, grace has already been shown us.  Might we show it too?  When we do all of these things, we will be nothing short of “imitators of God,” living “in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” as a “fragrant offering…to God.”  Can we strive to be a fragrant offering not just to the world, but to each other?  (Otherwise, we stink).  All of this is captured in the image of the women who bring fragrant oils to anoint the presumed rotting body of Jesus.  We get to participate in resurrection.

As the great preacher Lauren Halsey reminds us, putting ourselves in the difficult place of encountering the other can, in the end, grow our understanding. Rather than tear us apart, connect us more deeply.  You just might be surprised to find out that in faith, we can withstand it. 

Just like this old book…which still reads.