Sermon August 19 ~ Ephesians 4:1-16 How Firm A Foundation Rev. Betsy Hogan
Can you finish this phrase? If you don’t stand for something, you’ll – fall for anything.
I’m not sure where it originally came from. I first heard it, of course, in a John Cougar Mellancamp song when I was about twenty or so. And at the time I probably assumed he’d thought it up. But I’m fairly sure now he likely didn’t.
Nothing against John Cougar, but it just sounds like the sort of thing people have been saying forever. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. If you haven’t done enough thinking about what really matters to you, what you really believe, then you’ll be easy picking for whatever latest trend is floating around. Whatever latest theory, whatever latest ‘rule book for life’, whatever alluring or attractive or even downright predatory ‘system’ or ‘answer’ is out there, scooping up followers. Believers, disciples, drones.
Or, alternatively, I suppose, if you don’t stand for something, if you haven’t done enough thinking about what really matters to you, what you really believe, then you’ll just kind of perpetually go along with the flow. Whatever flow happens to be going at any particular time. With not a single consideration for what’s driving it, or what its larger ramifications might be.
Either way, I think the phrase does carry the ring of truth, whetaher not standing for something means vulnerability to predatory influences, or rolling through life without questioning anything. So to take the time to consider what’s vital and essential to us, what we DO want to stand for, where we want to locate ourselves in the grand scheme of human interactions and how they should rightly be, it is important. It does give us a foundation. It can keep us steady, less likely to be falling all over the place.
So it’s important. The difficulty arises, of course, when one of the chief values that we decide we stand for, firmly, is in fact… flexibility.
Openness. A willingness to live with the gift -- and tension -- of differentness or variety.
While at the same time, in and around that flexible openness of willingly living with the gift and tension of diversity – there remain other values that we’re not quite so flexible about. That we also stand for, just as much.
There are many things that would presumably surprise the Apostle Paul, were he suddenly to be dropped into Canada in the 21st century, but one of those things, almost certainly, would be any presenting angst about what we now call ‘multiculturalism’.
Not because he’d have no idea what to make of it, but in fact precisely because living in an atmosphere of multiculturalism would have been so completely assumed for him – and for all the other early Christians, including Jesus’ original disciples. I suspect, in fact, that he’d have been surprised that “multiculturalism” would even be a thing that people would talk about. As opposed to its being just “life in the world”.
Because for Paul, as for Jesus, as for the Early Christians generally, that’s just what their world was. It was multicultural. A combination of the kind of ‘mixture of peoples’ that happens in a Roman Empire that stretches in every direction outward from the Mediterranean – together with the kind of ‘mixture of peoples’ that especially happens in places like Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, Rome, because they’re hubs for international trade.
So difference, diversity, variety, multiculturalism – none of these would startle Paul. And the inherent requirement there was, as a result, in the Roman Empire -- for flexibility, for a big tent, for the openness and willingness to accommodate that gift and tension of an assortment of peoples all in one place -- that wouldn’t trouble him either.
Because in and around all that valuing of flexibility and openness and accommodation that was just “life in the world” for citizens of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day, there was also sufficient “Roman Empire-ness”, as it were, to keep the empire, the empire. A sort of fundamental Roman Empire value-matrix holding all of it in a very firm shape.
Which is not to say that either Paul or Jesus was generally appreciative of the entirety of that fundamental-value matrix of the Roman Empire in which they lived – but what it does mean is that the world in which Jesus lived and the world in which Paul lived was a world that taught them both…
… that it’s entirely possible to value openness and to live well flexibly with differences and diversity and variety, when that standing for openness and flexibility happens within a matrix of other things we stand for that we’re not that flexible about.
And that’s important for us to remember, when we hear passages from Paul’s letters like that to the Ephesians that Marg read for us earlier. It’s important for us to remember not just in the midst of any presenting angst about multiculturalism, but it’s important for us to remember too, as people of faith who for whatever reason find ourselves here, in a United Church of Canada.
Because it’s easy for us to hear, in the passage Marg read for us, in Paul’s warning to the Ephesians, to us, not to be “like children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” – it’s easy for us to hear in that warning, a warning against precisely the kind of openness to difference and intentional flexibility that we don’t just deeply value in the United Church, but they’re actually part of our essence.
Because you can’t make a church out of three different churches, as the United Church did in 1925, without having flexibility as part of your essence. Just like you can’t make a country out of two different cultures and two different religious groups – having thoroughly and appallingly smashed those already here, of course – without likewise having flexibility as part of your essence. A fundamental shaping value in both cases.
And if we sometimes imagine wrongly that it’s only very recently that that flexibility has been tested in our country – which it isn’t, because it’s been tested repeatedly with new additions to the mix for the past 200 years and yet here we still are –
We can likewise find ourselves feeling a little reprimanded or tested here for our flexibility in the United Church, by Paul’s stern warning to the Ephesians.
“Don’t be like children, tossed to and fro, and blown about by every wind of doctrine”. Because you gotta STAND for something, as Paul might say if he were Paul Cougar Mellancamp, or else you’ll fall for anything.
But here’s the thing. No matter how much it sounds like Paul’s advocating for the kind of rigidity of doctrine, sign on the dotted-lines list of beliefs, that’s the ANTITHESIS of what we’re about in the United Church – he’s not.
Because Paul knew what Jesus knew, and what both of them embodied and proclaimed. That if everything we do is grounded in an unwavering and immovable commitment to love – love for God and love for neighbour – as the kind of shaping matrix that holds everything in place… then flexibility and openness and differentness and not getting worked up about the details are all entirely possible. And actually they’re sort of a feature.
Because in fact what was essential to what Jesus proclaimed and embodied was that the only thing God really cares about, in terms of the particularities of rules or doctrine, is whether what we’re doing is about love.
Jesus was accused all the time of being too flexible, of having no standards, of breaking all the rules of tradition and doctrine. It’s what got him in trouble, and regularly.
He’d break the sabbath, for example. But what, he shouldn’t heal the man born blind just because it’s the sabbath? The disciples should go hungry instead of picking the corn that’s right there just because it’s the sabbath?
Or when he’s thirsty he shouldn’t accept water from a woman? Or even worse a Samaritan woman? Like somehow God can’t handle that? Or he shouldn’t eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners, because somehow that’ll get God all riled up? Jesus was accused all the time of being too flexible, of a lack of appreciation for “God’s laws”, of playing so fast and loose with the standards of good doctrine that who knew WHAT he believed in, what he stood for, with all his flexibility and all his adapting to whatever situation he found himself in.
But HE was perfectly clear about it. As he replied to the lawyer who asked him ‘Teacher, what is the greatest commandment’, he said “it’s this: Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.
That’s it. That’s what he stood for. And that’s what he did. Period. So there had to be room for common sense, there had to be room for hospitality, there had to be room for justice. There had to be flexibility.
Did that make Jesus wishy-washy on tradition and custom? Did people accuse him of being blown about by every wave of doctrine? Oh, they sure did. All the time. And he WAS wishy-washy on tradition and custom. And he DID bend the rules when he needed to.
Because there was only one thing he stood for. Love God and love your neighbour. Jesus didn’t care about good doctrine. He cared only about proclaiming in his words, in the way he lived, the best way that we could live. So that we could go and do likewise.
And Paul knew that just as surely. We often blame Paul for some of the later epistles that are quite full of warnings like the one in Ephesians that we heard earlier, but actually Paul was very nearly as remarkably wise as Jesus was about what really mattered – and what didn’t – and when to be flexible in the service of love. As rigid as the doctrine of the church eventually became, it really wasn’t Paul’s fault or those who worked with him, and it certainly wasn’t because of Jesus. If Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, Paul cheerfully chowed down on meat that was sacrificed to idols – and God, I’m sure, was no less understanding with Paul than he had been with Jesus.
Because Paul may say to the Ephesians, to us, that he doesn’t want the church bending to and fro, easily blown about by every wind of doctrine -- but he immediately follows it up by reminding the Ephesians, and us, that the only thing we really need to be rigid about is love. Love God and love your neighbour.
Because that’s the point. That’s what we’re called to “stand for” as Christians – it’s all we’re called to ‘stand for’ and it’s enough. That in the life and teaching of Jesus we see what a life characterized by love of God and neighbour looks like – and we try to live likewise. With gentleness, and generosity and forgiveness and hospitality and care and advocacy and justice, especially for the most vulnerable.
It’s easy to become fearful that when there’s a vast variety of possibilities we can ‘fall for’, we’d better double-down on the details. Close down our openness, restrict our flexibility, etch in stone new rules, new boundaries, firmer parameters. Watch out or you’ll be blown away by the wind.
But when the essence is strong, when it’s a steadfast matrix that we truly are grounded in – a gospel, for example, as utterly straightforward as love – flexibility and openness and an embrace of the gift and tension of the variety of people that are us…
…these aren’t just possible. They’re a feature. Amen.