Today is a very special Sunday in our church year as United Methodists. If you knew what it was, you might have decided not to come to church today (yes, I know that’s what many of you do when I’m not preaching). Today is laity Sunday!
For those who don’t know, Laity Sunday began as a yearly tradition in the Methodist Church in 1929 to “emphasize the place that lay members have in the total life and work of the church.”
Back then it was called “Laymen’s Sunday,” but we are blessed that all 3 of our currently certified Lay Servants in Eldersville are women.
Last year, Mallory preached on Laity Sunday to commemorate the occasion and before the year is out, some of our lay leaders will preach in my place again.
But this Sunday, I decided to do something different to recognize the contributions of our laity. It’s not just our 3 certified Lay Servants that lead us in service, but as a small church, we all pitch in when there’s a job to do.
Today, I want to lead us in reflecting on the way of life that Christ has laid out for all of us, lay and clergy, and then we’ll respond to the word by praying for all of our ministries as part of Christ’s body as we all strive to be principled Christian leaders.
Ephesians 4:25–5:2 (NRSV) — Rules for the New Life
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves 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. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you 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 may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: all Pastors were once laypeople. It’s not like our substance has changed because we assume a different role.
You know this because you know me and that I am NOT more holy than you (from experience).
But other people don’t know me as well. It’s really interesting when I’m out in the public in a position where people recognize me as a pastor. Even if they don’t actually think that I’m closer to God or holier than them, they approach a pastor like there’s some sort of hallowed distance between us.
The truth is, no matter who we are, clergy, laity, or even non-Christian people outside of the Church, God is calling us on the same path. God is calling us closer to himself. God is calling us to imitate the divine.
For those of us who have been aware of this journey that we often call “discipleship,” this journey toward God, for most of our lives, we probably started in the same place (even if our formative Christian years were separated by many years). Whether it was Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, or Bible Quizzing, one of the things that we were encouraged to do in order to become deeper Christians was memorize Bible verses. (Any champion verse memorizers out there?)
I’m going to be honest and admit, I was not very good at the Bible memorization thing. My brain seems to work more thematically, more in the context of the stories than it does with chapter and verse and precise wording. In seminary, I was frequently jealous of those who could spout off lines of scripture with references at the drop of a hat. But, God chose to gift me in other ways.
Among the verses I was able to memorize was one at the core of our reading from Ephesians 4, from the NIV: “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” It’s hard to say that verse without the cheesy melody we came up with in Bible quizzing to memorize it!
Ever since I learned that verse, I sought to make it a life-verse of sorts. I still think that verse is a good starting point for living the Christian life. As the NRSV has it, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
There’s a lot of Christian wisdom in that little verse.
Be kind rather than bitter or mean. Be tenderhearted and compassionate rather than being hardhearted. Try to understand the experiences of others in your responses to them. Let go of malice and ill will toward those who have hurt you and instead offer forgiveness, just as God has offered it to you.
The verses that surround it give the wisdom of Ephesians 4 further definition, even if their commands are harder: “let us speak the truth to our neighbors,” “be angry but do not sin,” and “labor and work honestly so that you have something to share with the needy.”
Probably the hardest one of those commands for us to understand is “be angry but do not sin.” We assume that the Christian life is a life without anger, even maybe a life without emotion. We treat apathy as a Christian virtue when Ephesians tells us instead, “be angry” about the right things, but don’t let that anger lead to sin. Let go of your anger at the right time, and give it to God.
In any case, for me as a young Christian, this life verse became part of my routine of self-examination. It was like a “key check,” you know, when you pat your pockets to make sure you’re not going to get locked out of your vehicle or house? Well, I would often come back to this verse and think to myself, “was I kind today? Was I compassionate? Did I forgive, or did I hold stupid grudges?”
Let me be honest again, in my teenage years specifically, when I finally did make my way back these verses, I realized I had forgotten many important things. On many occasions, I was sinful in my anger. I lashed out at those who cared about me, often for no good reason. I held onto grudges against people rather than letting things go in forgiveness. My heart was often made of stone rather than being tender and loving. I said hurtful and degrading things. I grieved the Holy Spirit of God on many occasions, and I grieved the spirit of my parents and friends who tried to show me love.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Maybe you weren’t as rebellious as I was at times as a young Christian, but we all know the struggle. Being an imitator of God is difficult. The Christian life seems like a list of impossible rules—Ephesians 4 sure seems that way at least. Often as we become aware of our sin, we seek forgiveness just to sin in the same way all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Our response is sometimes to just give up the rat race entirely, to let go of the commands in Ephesians and to not try to be a loving person at all. We just give it up and try to just “be ourselves” instead.
I don’t think that’s a faithful response to these words of Scripture. Paul challenges us to put all these things away in our lives—bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. But it’s like a drawer that just won’t close! Every time we try to put them away, they rear their ugly head all over again.
To be clear, I’m not suddenly perfect at these things now. I still don’t always do a great job at living out the challenge of these verses. The challenge we have as we lead in the church, in our homes, and in the world is to keep checking ourselves. We want to just do what feels right to us in the moment. But we should be checking ourselves.
Many children’s classrooms have posters with the acronym THINK. I think I’ve heard some of our former teachers in the congregation use this on occasion too:
I think it’s important for us to have verses and sayings like these at our quick disposal to check us when we’re falling into sinful patterns of behavior in our interactions with others. As a Christian spiritual practice, this is often called a prayer of examen. Many believers pray a prayer at the end of each day in which they reflect on the ways they imitated God and the ways they fell into sin.
Prayers like that can be transformational when they become part of our prayer practice.
But there’s something else that I think is even more transformational—being around people who really live this verse in practice, who “live in love” as Ephesians says. When we live in love as a community, we shape one another to be more loving.
See, when I was growing up in the church, it wasn’t the introspection that I think made the most difference. Because, to be honest, I was and am a sinful human being. I was sinfully angry, full of evil talk, bitterness and malice. No level of introspection could have made me more loving.
But the grace of God in other people made all the difference. Sure, some people responded to my bitterness with more bitterness. Not everyone tried to reach out to me with love because, to be honest, I was sometimes hard to love.
Yet, there was a transformational love that worked in my life through the church and through others in my life that reflected and embodied the love of God through genuine care and concern.
My transformation into a more complete disciple of Jesus Christ wasn’t my own doing. It was the marks of God’s love in other people rubbing off on me that made all the difference.
When we’re surrounded by a Christian community that embodies the virtues of God’s love, we are transformed from anger to kindness, from bitterness to compassion, and from malice to forgiveness.
When we embody those virtues in the church and in our lives outside of this building, lives are changed for the kingdom of God. Our love rubs off on other people.
Now, I realize that not all the places of service around the church are glamorous and innately rewarding. The offering counters, for example, work behind the scenes and the only time we normally realize their role is when they’re not there to do it!
But here’s the thing, in each thing we do in the church as a Christian leader, we act as priests of the most high God. We act as those who share the love of God with others.
So you count the offering? Count it with the love and grace of God and the highest ethical standards. You clean the church? Clean it to God’s glory. You lead or participate in a committee meeting, do so out of love for God and God’s church. Do you cook or serve food for Christmas in the Village? Do it as if each person who is served by you is Jesus Christ himself.
When everything we do as a church is done as a labor of love, it impacts others in transformational ways. Our simple acts of service become down payments on the kingdom of God!
Whatever our role is in the church, it is a role of Christian leadership. In everything each of us does in this church, we lead one another—we lead in love.
This is our common gift from God to us and shared with the world.
You’ve probably heard the song. It’s not in our hymnal, but it goes…
“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored.
They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”
To be clear, people can lead with love without being Christians. In fact, most people do. They show love to those who love them and ignore the haters, so to speak. But Jesus reminds us in Luke 6 that our life of love should be extravagant. He says, “if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”
Instead, we as Christians are to live in love toward everyone we encounter. Our friends, our enemies, people we don’t care about. And we’re called to outdo each other in love. Loving even when we get no love in return.
The plainest expression of this love is simple kindness. N.T. Wright gets at this virtue by asking, “How would it be if God were the kind of god who was always making snide or bitter remarks at us? What would worship and prayer be like if we thought God had been talking about us behind our backs, putting us down to others? How would we feel if we thought we couldn’t trust God to tell us the truth?”
God has shown “kindness, compassion, and forgiveness” to us at every moment of our lives. Why would we not show that kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in everything that we do?
May God grant us an abundance of love so that we can more faithfully show love toward others in everything we do—as we count the offering, type up board minutes, teach, preach, clean, and most of all, lead in love. Amen.