Imitating God

Ephesian 4:25-5:2

Let us speak truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Let us labor honestly so that we have something to share with the needy.  To whomever we are speaking, let us speak in such a way that our words give grace.

Have you ever heard someone refer to the Bible as an instruction manual for life? Maybe you have thought of the Bible in this way, God’s guide book for living. There is certainly wisdom and guidance to be gained from reading scripture. However, I find approaching the Bible as an owner’s manual for human life a little misguided for a couple of reasons. First, it is a record of God’s revelation to humanity. It tells the story of God’s never ending intention to be reconciled with God’s creation and of God’s desire to be in an intimate, loving relationship with each one of us. The problem is that God loving us does prevent or solve all of the problems we face as human beings. In fact, God loving us and us loving God sometimes gets us into trouble we could have otherwise avoided. Second, if it is an instruction manual, it is a poorly written one. A good instruction manual has logical flow to it. Complete step A. Here is how to complete step A. Do this, then do that, then you a ready to do this. When you have done that you will have completed step A and will be ready to proceed to step B.  The Bible is not written in that format which is just as well because life almost never happens that way.

Nevertheless, if you opened the Bible this week with a question like “What could be done to make the world a better place,” or “Is there any hope of getting out of the mess we are in now,” these words written to the church at Ephesus might offer an intriguing answer, maybe even a helpful one. We are members of one another, share with the needy and speak words that give grace.

The Pew Research Center reports that there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Imagine if those 2.2 billion people, some of whom have thought of the Bible as God’s owner’s manual for life, left worship today looking at everyone they met as someone to whom they were connected, members of. Imagine if they went to work tomorrow to do honest work so that they could share with those in need and they spoke so that their words offered grace.

A little more than a quarter of the world’s population speaking truth to neighbors because we are members of one another, laboring honestly so that we can share with those in need and speaking words that offer grace. The world could not be the same place. These ideas are not uniquely Christian. They are many sources in the ancient world that offer helpful guidance for stable, peaceful human interaction. If those who identify as Christians started to act in ways that reflected the teachings of their Holy texts maybe those of other religious traditions would be inclined to do so as well.

I know, crazy talk, but we can dream can’t we?

We have no more input into the actions of 2.2 billion Christians than we do with the rest of the 5.4 billion people with whom we share this planet. In reality, we have input into the actions of one person. Namely, ourselves. How then do we hear the call this morning to be imitators of God?

Putting away bitterness, anger, wrath, wrangling, slander and malice. Being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving to one another. Forgiving and loving as God has forgiven and loved us. Speaking useful words that build up and offer grace. Doing honest work and sharing the fruit with those in need. Recognizing the connectedness of all creation.  We might think of these ideas in verses 25-32 as the parameters or guardrails on our journey to imitate God. We may not know exactly what it will be like or look like, but it will bear a resemblance to these ideas.

We have seen that resemblance in the lives of saints who have gone before us. Francis, the one from Assisi, renouncing his family’s wealth and giving his life in service as poor friar and now Francis, the one in Rome, allowing glimpses of mercy and hope to slip through the bureaucratic workings of the Holy See. Reading “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” in our epistle this morning, it is not hard to see a reflection of Gandhi, weakened by a self-imposed hunger strike on behalf of his neighbors. Mother Teresa immersed herself in misery so that the destitute and the dying would not die alone. Imitators of God. Of course there are many more who have imitated God in their time and place about which we have never heard, but there is more grace, more mercy and more love in the world because of them. We do know some of the lessor well known imitators of God. They have been our teachers, our parents, our coaches, our mentors, our friends. Without a lot of fanfare and with an abundance of humility, they have quietly given us reason to believe that God is God by sharing their lives with us.

I think it is important to distinguish between imitating and pretending. They are not the same thing. The teachings of Jesus never ask us to pretend to be someone we are not. Which is a good thing, because pretending is exhausting. Pretending to be someone we are not is emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. Because of religious leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and secular ones like Stalin and Hitler, we know how much harm can be done by leaders who pretend to God be and insist on being worshipped.

Imitating is a different thing. Imitating says right up front, I am not this person, but I am trying to be like this person. Usually, the difference is pretty clear. We learn a lot by imitation. When I was a little boy I used to help my grandmother pick beans in the garden. At least, I thought I was helping. When we were finished there would be a big basket full of green beans. Sitting on the porch, my grandmother would put a handful in front of me, while she started working on the ones still in the basket. I would watch her and try to do what she was doing. I was imitating her. By the time she finished breaking that basket full of beans, I was usually finished with my handful. Over the years, I got a little faster, but it all started with me trying to do what I saw my grandmother doing. Imitating her.

Pretending is not imitating. Imitating is something different. Be careful who you imitate. Not everyone is worthy of imitation.

Which raises the question, which God are you going to imitate? More precisely, whose understanding of God are you going to imitate? In a world that loves choices, when it comes to gods to imitate, we have plenty options. Sometimes the choices are more complicated than we would like for them to be.

In my home state of Tennessee, students have already started a new school year. As students arrived at school this year, a new state law required that the phrase “In God We Trust. ” be posted in a prominent place were all students would see it each day. Tennessee is not alone among state Legislatures when it comes to trying to circumvent constitutional prohibitions against government establishment of religion.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students could not pray government written prayers in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, School prayer advocates have been relentless in their efforts to get God back in school. One might ask if an entity that can be voted in or out by a legislature or court should be thought of as a God in the first place.  Much less, one worthy of imitation.

That a state legislature is so vigorously acting to establish religion in public spaces is problematic in and of itself.  But it does not stop there. The state of Tennessee, on Thursday of this week, for the first time in 10 years executed a death row inmate. In 1985, Billy Ray Irick did a terrible thing. To my knowledge no appeals court ever came close to overturning his guilty verdict. Though some question if testimony regarding Irick’s mental competency was ever adequately heard in any of his many appeals. Nevertheless, the state of Tennessee killed Billy Ray and did so with signs that say “In God we trust” plastered on every school house in the state. Evidently the god that students are being ask to trust in Tennessee never said “thou shall not kill” or “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven” or “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

So here is the question: Would the God we are reading about this morning in Ephesians have given the O.K. on Billy Ray Irick’s execution? I don’t think so. Who are those students in Tennessee being encouraged to trust? Is that the sort of God we want to imitate?

Week before last, Kevin Swanson, Pastor of Reformation Church in Elizabeth, Colorado explained the severity of wildfires in California as God burning down the state after 25 years of leading the pack to legitimize homosexuality. Kevin is certainly not the first preacher to speak about God in this way. Again, nothing new here. Through the years we have heard religious leaders blame hurricanes, tornadoes and natural disaster of all sorts on various groups of people. The question is the same: So here is the question: Is our reading this morning in Ephesians inviting us to be imitators of the sort of God who would burn down a whole state?

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.”

Lots of folks, with good reasons, decide that god is just not their cup of tea. They decide to put their trust in what they can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Clearly observable scientific facts become their way of navigating through life. In a sense, science becomes a god for them, the filter through which they view the world, form opinions and make choices. Not a bad way to go. As a cancer survivor, I can tell you that when science is good, it is real good. Scientific progress has given us robots that can do surgery, but it has also  given us a Doomsday Clock that currently reads two minutes to midnight.

I know that 73 years ago the scientific truth that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an answer to the prayers of many people in this country. Since that time, the idea that using the bomb ended the war and prevented untold loss of American and Japanese lives that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan has largely been accepted as sufficient justification for using it. Nevertheless, as countries like North Korea and Iran further develop their nuclear capabilities, I wonder if the prayers of those people would be altered in anyway if they knew how that nuclear cloud would hang over future generations? And I always wonder if the God we are reading about this morning in the letter to the Ephesians would have pulled the lever that released that bomb.

I love the words in our reading this morning, the ideas about and the images of God that they convey. Images of a God who sees the whole human race as members of one another, who wants meaningful work for us all so that we can share with one another and speak to each other with words that give grace. A God who thinks malice can be replaced with tenderheartedness and forgiveness. A God who came to us to love us and to teach us to love one another with that same love.

Yet, 2000 years after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, things are as murky and muddy as they ever were. There are more ways of thinking about God than there are countries, tribes and denominations. God and life were so much easier to understand when I was sitting on the porch with my grandmother breaking beans at an old picnic table.

For me, for now, that is the sort of God I want to imitate. The one sitting at the table were we are all invited and welcomed.  A table full of love and grace. A table where no matter how many us are gathered around it, there is always room for one more.