Sermons That Work

Youth Group Songs…, Proper 14 (B) – 2009

August 09, 2009

What is it about youth-group songs that make them stick in your head?

I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will live a new life.
I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will never die.

Who remembers that one? There’s a story about a teen, taking her first tentative steps on her Christian journey who turned up at a youth group. She hears the group sing that song, but it puzzles her. There has to be more. Maybe they clapped because it was a fill-in-the-blank song? She didn’t know.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians could have perhaps helped out that teen. While scripture makes it clear that it is through “grace that we are saved – through faith, not by works,” when we decide to follow Christ, old life is shed and new life is embraced. Kind of like when a child outgrows a winter coat and the loving parent gives the child a new coat of the right size. We don’t earn the new coat – it is given in love.

However, we are to respond to the new life given with Christian action. Paul’s letter provides us with a set of refreshingly clear instructions that guide us as we take off the old “coat” of secular living, of old life, and put on the new coat of Christian life. It’s a list of some of the instructions to guide the actions necessary for Christian living, as applicable today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago when they were first written.

Let’s look closely at a few of Paul’s instructions.

First, Paul instructs his reader to “put away all falsehood.” We, as followers of Christ, are to lose all dishonesty, lies, deceit, and tendency toward fabrication. Paul invites us to live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

In an era of Bernie Madoff, one doesn’t need to look far to find poignant examples of people whose entire existence is based on lies and falsehood. And there are less extravagant examples all around us. During these tough economic times, the excess and lies of the last decade are becoming apparent. Looking at the number of foreclosures, the staggering amount of credit-card debt, and other signs, it is clear that many Americans have been on a spending binge, spending well above and beyond their means. Isn’t spending what one doesn’t have, and pretending to have more than one does, qualify as deceit and fabrication?

Some churches are like this too – dipping deep, or even exhausting their endowments if they are fortunate enough to have them, and spending more than their finances allow.

William Barclay, in his commentary on “The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians” addresses why truth is such a core component of Christian life:

“We are all members of the same body. We can live in safety only if the senses and nerves pass true messages to the brain. If they took to passing false messages, if for instance, they told the brain that something was cool and touchable when in fact it was hot and burning, life would very soon come to an end. A body can function healthily only when each part of it passes true messages to the brain. If then we are all bound into one body, that body can function properly only when we speak the truth.”

As members of the body of Christ, we must live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

Paul also addresses the role of anger in Christian life. In verse 26, Paul advises us to “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

Recently a priest was picking up his clerical shirts from the local dry cleaners. Short on time and with a to-do list a mile long, he ran in for the shirts, expecting the stop to only last a minute or two. As he asked the young woman behind the counter the superficial question, “How are you?” tears filled her eyes. She said, “Father, I have a hate-filled heart, and I don’t know what to do.” Clearly, this was not going to be a quick stop.

The priest listened – holy listening, on God’s schedule, not ours, as is often the case – and the young woman explained that she had lived with her boyfriend, a drug addict, for the past two years. He had been in and out of rehab, and he had now relapsed once again. The night before he had brought home a man that the police were after and let him stay on their sofa. She had spent the night in fear for her own life.

The young woman explained that she knows it is the “Christian thing to do to forgive,” but that she just couldn’t do it any more.

The priest thought long and hard, and he explained that her anger was certainly justifiable. Anger is an emotion, and we can’t help but feel angry. He also explained that forgiveness does not mean that people who sin against us are not responsible for the consequences of their behavior. Radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger once had a phone call from a woman expressing a similar sentiment and Dr. Laura responded by saying, “Being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make you a wimp!”

Forgiving her boyfriend for his relapse is one thing, but allowing him back into her life is far different. To allow the boyfriend to return time and time again had allowed the anger to fester, and the “hate-filled heart” she described was the result – the “making room for the devil” to which Paul refers.

While we all feel anger, as Christians we must seek to resolve our anger. And as Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ. In verse 29, Paul writes that we must not let “evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.”

It’s a funny thing about human nature. It seems that we have a tendency to try and make ourselves seem better off by talking badly about others. While people of all ages can be guilty of this practice, at no other time in life is it more true than in middle school.

There’s a story about a 13-year-old girl, active in her local Episcopal youth group, whose Christian faith ran deep. Most evenings at about bedtime she could be found on her window seat, quietly praying, wholly on her own accord. One Sunday after youth group, when this passage from Ephesians was explored, she came to her mom, looking downright scared. She asked, “Is that really true? Do you think it is a sin to talk bad about someone? Should we really only say things that build up other people – no matter where we are?”

Her mom could only imagine her 13-year-old’s thought process. After a long discussion – and without a lecture or mandate from her mother – the girl decided that for the entire season of Lent she would only say things that would build others up.

There were challenges; at school, with her siblings, and even once at church. But by Easter she was able to explain to her mom that that she realized that putting other people down really didn’t make her feel any better about herself. In fact, it made her feel worse when she thought about it. Taking the time to be intentional about her speech allowed her to break a bad habit.

If a middle school student is able to live by Paul’s words, we as adults certainly should be able to as well. As Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ.

Paul’s instructions conclude with the summary of that point:

“Put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

It is noteworthy that Paul adds the importance of forgiveness – forgiveness of self and others, as God has forgiven us.

In reality, very few of us can always live by the guidelines for Christian living that Paul lays out for us. Maybe today your heart is heavy because you aren’t living a completely authentic life – maybe the world and even your church family see an inauthentic you. Paul’s words suggest it is time to start living in truth.

Or maybe today you are harboring a festering anger – an anger that may well have been justified. Paul’s words suggest that it is time to let it go. God has more for your heart and soul to do than nurse a previous hurt.

Or maybe today you’re thinking that your words aren’t always used to build up others. Paul closes with forgiveness.

So today as our worship continues and we pray together, pay particular attention to the Lord’s Prayer – to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Recalling the youth group song, it is through the gift of God’s forgiveness that we “can live a new life and never die.”

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Christopher Sikkema