You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 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.
Ephesians 4:22-5:2 NRSV
There is a sweet scene at the end of the movie Steel Magnolias. They are about to attend a funeral, and one of the characters, Truvy, is getting dressed. She doesn’t expect her husband Spud to go. He’s not a church going man. He is most comfortable lying on the ground under a truck with a wrench in his hand. But he decides he wants to go to the funeral too. So he walks into the room wearing a dark suit, which he probably seldom wears. He has a tie in his hand, and he asks his wife, “Does this… go?” She smiles and says, “Yes, it does.” Even though Spud doesn’t go to church much, he still knows there is a dress code, especially for funerals. A dark suit for men, a black dress for women.
I have dress codes on the mind today because of what the Apostle Paul says in our scripture reading from the letter to the Ephesians. “Put off your old way of life” he says. And the language he uses is specific to taking off clothing. “And clothe yourself in a new way of living.” For Paul there was a dress code in being a Christian. We are to clothe ourselves in certain attitudes and actions that are appropriate to our faith. It is a curious thing that we usually care much more how our clothing appears to others than how our conduct appears, but in the end it is our conduct, our behavior that matters, that tells others we are or are not Christian. I want to speak today about three articles of clothing in the dress code of the Christian.
First, truthfulness. “Put away falsehood,” Paul says (again the image of taking off clothing), “and speak the truth to your neighbor.” We are called to be a truthful people, an honest people. I see this in two ways. We tell the truth about ourselves, and at times, when there is a need, we tell the truth about our neighbor. When we tell the truth about ourselves, we are simply open and honest about who we are and who we are not, what we know and what we do not know. We don’t put on airs or pretend to be something we are not. There was a track and field championship in Europe several years ago, and a woman won the long jump by a great distance. But when they handed her the gold medal on the podium, she handed it right back and said, “I know I cannot jump that far. There must have been a mistake in the measuring.” After some negotiating, she agreed to share the bronze medal, and the silver medalist was awarded the gold. But everyone admired the athlete who was honest. There is a beauty to this kind of simple truth telling about ourselves. There is also a time to tell the truth about our neighbor, for sometimes we can see things in them that they cannot. The first religious group in the American colonies to reject slavery was the Quakers, and they did so largely because of one man, John Woolman, a tailor from New Jersey. He felt in his heart that slavery was wrong and inconsistent with Christian faith, and he walked up and down the Eastern seaboard visiting with Quakers and talking especially to the ones who had slaves. He shared his concern that slavery was wrong, and slowly over many years the Quakers as a whole gave up slave holding. John Woolman told the truth, only he did so with great gentleness, love and humility. Sometimes we are called to do the same, to tell our neighbor a hard truth. These occasions are rare, I think, and we do well to handle them with the same gentleness and love that John Woolman showed.
The second article of clothing is forgiveness. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” Paul says. And later he tells us to “put away” our anger, as we would an old garment, and to put on instead kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness. If those lines seem familiar, they are a song we have used in worship, Ephesians 4:32. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I wish there were a magic pill we could take to help us forgive. But there isn’t such a pill, and forgiveness itself can be such a hard thing to do. I’ll be honest here (truth telling!), there have been many nights in my life when the sun has gone down on my anger at something. The anger just lodges inside of you, and you think it has gone away, but then something happens and it flares up again. It’s hard to find the forgiveness. Two things have helped me here. First, a comment Frederick Buechner makes about anger. He says anger is like a delicious feast, and everything tastes so good, until you realize, to your horror, that you yourself are the entree. In the end, anger hurts you more than anyone else. Second, I have come to see the Lord’s Prayer differently. When we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,“ I used to see this as a request and a condition, but now I see it as a double request. “Lord, forgive me my sins, and help me to forgive this person, and if I cannot, then please forgive them through me.” Forgiveness is hard, and it often takes many sundowns to get there, but then suddenly it happens and you are face to face with the person you have needed to forgive, and you look inside your heart and find that the anger has dissolved, and you do indeed forgive them, and you hope they can forgive you too. It can happen, with time and God’s help.
The third piece of clothing is graciousness. Paul says, “Let no evil (literally rotten) talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building others up, so that it may give grace to them.” Wow, how would life be different if we followed this rule? If my words are not necessary, and if they will not give grace to someone, then it is better to stay quiet. It reminds me of a proverb: speak only if you can improve on silence. If my words are not gracious, silence is better. There is deep within us all a hunger to hear gracious words, and need for blessing and affirmation. The number one reason people leave their jobs is a lack of appreciation; they didn’t hear gracious words, only criticism or indifference. Liegh Anne Tuohy (of The Blind Side) tells a story about a young man who grew up in the foster care system, but was never adopted. He eventually went to work as an intern for a US senator. One morning he came in early and reorganized the whole mail room so that everything was neat and orderly. The senator came in and said, “This is great. I’ve never seen the mailroom look so good. Thanks.” A bit later the senator came back and saw the intern crying. “Did I say something to offend you?” “No sir.” “Then what’s wrong?” “When you said that about the mailroom, that’s the first time anyone ever told me I did something good.” Behold the power of graciousness. A gracious word can change a life.
A final thought. At the end of our reading, Paul says to be imitators of God. To us, an imitation is a cheap thing, like imitation leather, not real leather. But when you imitate God, there is nothing cheap about it. It is a good and noble thing. And in the end we do these things I’ve been talking about because it is the very character of God. God tells us the truth; God forgives us; and God is always gracious. When we act in these ways too, we show our family resemblance to God. The best way to imitate God, is to wear the clothes that God wears.