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August 13, 2000 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Agenda for Living
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Micah 6: 6-8
Ephesians 4: 25- 5:2 (NRSV)
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us. . . ."
Ephesians 5:1-2 (NRSV)
It is often seen that those who hear the Gospels find little sweetness in them; the reason is that they do not have the spirit of Christ. So, if we desire to have a true understanding of his Gospels, we must study to conform our life as nearly as we can to his....We ought every day to renew our purpose in God, as though it were the first day of our conversion....The way that we shall walk in this world is found not in ourselves, but in the grace of God.
Thomas à Kempis
The Imitation of Christ
We seem to be living in a time when spirituality is experiencing a resurgence of interest among many people. An entire section of today’s Chicago Tribune is devoted to this resurgence in spirituality and faith. At the same time some of its expressions are reduced to shallow self-help sentimentality or New Age huckstering, a spirituality without obligation, one that is more about us than it is about God.
At the same time, the popularity if not the addiction to the adventures of a young lad named Harry Potter, the protagonist of a series of novels by the British author, J. K. Rowling, and especially her most recent volume, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, attest to her having hit a nerve in the psyche of both adults and children. For these volumes deal with such heady human issues and philosophical and theological concerns as the acquisition and use of power, its relationship to the Good, the kinship of good and evil, why there is so much cruelty in the world, and about God who so mysteriously permits evil in the world. A fairly compelling curriculum.
In such a confusing context, the challenge to imitate God, made by the apostle Paul to the Christians at Ephesus, seems daunting if not downright impossible.
However, before we throw in the towel, so to speak, it might be useful to take a closer look at what Paul was saying to the Ephesian Christians. For example, take his often used adverb, "therefore." Paul uses it frequently in all of his New Testament epistles. If presidents and presidential candidates can verbally duel with one another about what the meaning of is is, then surely we might do well to consider what Paul’s "therefore" was there for.
Paul uses the word to make a transition between his discussion of faith and doctrine, and his consideration of their implications for living. Up to this point in his letter to the Ephesians, which has been described as doctrine set to music, Paul has been discussing such themes as the redemptive work of Christ, the relationship between grace and faith, the nature of the Church, the universality of God’s love, the pivotal place of Jesus Christ in history, and Paul’s own experience and witness as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ" on behalf of others. In all his discourse he praises God, applauds the church as the body of Christ in the world, and insists upon the unity of all who acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord. Then comes his "therefore." "Therefore, (actually the word is "become," indicating a process rather than an instantaneous action) become imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us."
At a time when there is much talk about role models, who they should be and to whom and about what, we are reminded that learning requires, at least initially, a certain amount of imitation. We learn to live our lives as a result of the models others provide us, whether for good or ill, whether constructive and healthy or destructive and sick. Early on we imitate those models consciously and unconsciously, for imitation is the first step to learning.
The point is not whether we are imitators, but whose imitators we are. The Welsh writer, John Cowper Powys, who came to America to escape the English class system which he hated, wrote in his Autobiography, "The deepest emotion I have is my malice against the well-constituted as compared with the ill-constituted . . . Dwarfs, morons, idiots, imbeciles, hunchbacks, . . .(and) every type of individual upon whom the world looked down, I loved . . . .admired . . . .and imitated."
While there is a certain intimacy involved in imitation, it does have its downside. To imitate, to model one’s life after someone you admire and wish to be like, runs the risk of one becoming nothing more than a robot-like clone or copy of that person, and of losing one’s own unique identity. In a sense, both of the leading party nominees for President of the United States are perceived by some as facing this dilemma. Each in his own way is protesting that he is not "running in borrowed clothes." How to emulate and imitate someone while at the same time being a person in one’s own right can be a formidable undertaking, even when there are obvious differences that distinguish the one from the other.
When it comes to imitating God, however, there is little chance that anyone of us will succeed in blurring or obliterating such a distinction, except in some delusional sense. It is one thing to try to be God-like in one’s behavior, it is another thing to assume that behaving like God is tantamount to being God.
Then there is the issue of phoniness, or at least the risk of it. After all an imitation is not the real thing. To imitate is to act, to play a part, to act "as if." As such it smacks of hypocrisy, and no self-respecting person, for whom authenticity is an important value, wants to be caught dead being a fake. The charge that the church is full of hypocrites is true. But there is a difference between those who are trying to imitate as part of a process of learning and growth, and those whose imitating only serves to assure them that they have arrived and are the real thing.
On the other hand, I am convinced that both in and outside the church there are those who, with a reverse form of hypocrisy, parade themselves as worse than they are, because it’s cool, if you pardon the expression. Children are not perfect imitators of their parents, no more than we can be perfect imitators of God. But no caring parent would despise the attempt of a child to imitate that parent as a way of showing honor and love for that parent. Neither does God despise our efforts, however feeble, but rather encourages us to persevere when we may want to quit, calls us to be co-laborers in bringing some measure of hope and healing to at least part of a broken world, and insists upon loving us even though we mess up and fall down in the process.
Learning, therefore, requires a certain amount of risk in pretending, in acting "as if." We learn to drive a car, initially, by pretending to be a car driver and by imitating other car drivers, one would hope not those given to road rage. I had to act as if I were a preacher in order to learn how to preach. I’m still doing it. What can I tell you? Some of us never learn.
That is why the quest for authenticity in the life of faith cannot be fruitful or fulfilling apart from a reliance upon the grace of God, as Thomas à Kempis reminds us in the quotation on the cover of today’s bulletin. So it is that Paul’s concern in his letter to the Ephesians is the transformation of life which results from knowing and learning Christ and from being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Church. Such a transformation means abandoning the pagan posture in life of ruthless self-assertion that tramples on the rights of others, and the splurging self-indulgence that disregards the sufferings of others in favor of the satisfaction of one’s own impulses.
In our scripture passage, Paul tells us what such change will look like. Since, as members of the body of Christ, the Church, we are therefore members one of another, such change will mean that falsehood, unresolved and continually held anger, stealing, slander and foul language used to demean people, are to be considered enemies of community and fellowship. Bitterness, wrath, yelling at one another, bad-mouthing one another, bullying one another, malicious gossip about one another—all these, says Paul, must go. They do not become people made in the image of God, and they have no place in a community of faith. What is called for, Paul insists, is being kind, being and acting in compassionate ways, being forgiving toward one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven us, and seeking reconciliation even when we might be inclined to want revenge. In a word, what is called for is the imitation of God, as the beloved by God that we are.
Admittedly, Paul presents us with an impossible task, not only because we are flawed and finite and less than perfect, but because we are conflicted about whether we want to imitate God, when God seems at times to be indifferent to human suffering, and so removed from our agony and pain. Bishop Josef Homeyer of Germany voiced the anguish of many at a memorial service for the 96 Germs who died when an Air France Concorde jet crashed outside of Paris recently, when he cried to the heavens, "God, where were you in Paris?" Who would want to imitate a God who couldn’t care less?
I remember the response of Lutheran pastor and gifted preacher, Paul Sherer, years ago when an angry man whose son was killed in war asked him, "Where was God when my son was killed?’ Sherer quietly said, "The same place he was when his own son was killed." It couldn’t get the man’s son back, but it took him aback and helped him realize that God in Christ knows and understands and is with us in our pain and in our perplexity, "up to the nail prints in his hands and the crown of thorns on his brow."
In the wake of the losses I have sustained during my life, I believe that. I’ve got to, or I think I would go made in the face of the seeming absurdity of it all. And if that is the way God is, then out of gratitude for the gift of life, for the gift of God’s love, for the gift of God’s presence, and for the gift of the care of others, I can work to imitate that kind of God. For I know of nothing that can overcome my resentment, my reluctance, my resistance to the call to imitate God, more than when I allow myself to be grateful for God’s love and presence, and for God’s mercy and grace. It is one thing to say, "I am blessed, and I am privileged, I am the exception." It is another thing to say, "I am blessed, and I am grateful."
Thomas Lynch is an Irish Catholic essayist and poet. He is also a funeral director in Milford, Michigan whose book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, has met with critical acclaim. In his more recent book of essays, entitled, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality, he traces the history of alcoholism in his family. He writes of how his grandfather, his father, and he himself finally embraced sobriety. Now he is concerned about his son who is on the brink of acknowledging his alcoholism and entering a treatment program.
Finally, he writes about what he learned form his sobriety about how to pray. When he was a child, his prayers were all "Gimme, Gimmie." And none of his prayers were answered. Later, when he was his son’s age, it was "Show me, Lord." He wanted a sign. Full of outrage, arrogance and bravado, he demanded proofs from God. None of these prayers were ever answered.
Still later, as an adult and drinking, his prayer, when he did pray, was essentially, "Why me, God?" He writes:
"Someone told me that I should just say, ‘Thanks,’ and that all my prayers should begin that way and never stray far from the notion that life was a gift to be grateful for. I began by giving thanks for my family, for the blessings to my household, the gifts of my children. Then the daylight and the nightfall and the weather. Then the kindness you could see in humankind, their foibles and their tender mercies.
There’s another thing I could be thankful for. I could be thankful even for this awful illness . . .that has taught me to weep and laugh out loud and better and for real. And thankful that, of all the fatal diseases my son might have gotten, he got one for which there is this little sliver of hope that if he surrenders, he’ll survive. Whatever happens, God will take care of him.
And every time I say it, the prayer gets answered. Someone, out of the blue, everyday—maybe my wife or someone at the office or the guy in the line at the airport or something in a letter that came in the mail, or something in the lives of my sons or daughter—someone gives out a sign or wonder in the voice of God, in some other voice than mine, to answer my prayer. Every day, every time, never fails, if I just say ‘Thanks,’ I’ll get the answer, before the darkness come—‘You’re welcome,’ it says. ‘You’re welcome.’" (Thomas Lynch, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, pp. 113-114)
It is that assurance of God’s welcome, no matter what, that allows us to live life as Doxology, in praise to God from whom all blessings flow, and to dare to be imitators of God, as ones beloved, and to adopt that high calling as our agenda for living. Amen.