How many of you have a favorite pair of jeans, shirt, hat whatever it is that you’ve had forever and don’t want to get rid of? You know the type of thing I’m talking about – the fabric is so thin you can see through it. It’s those items that you’ve rescued from the Goodwill pile more than once. A couple of years ago I had to give up a favorite pair of jeans. They were my go-to jeans. They were comfortable. Fit loosely and were soft. But… they were also wearing thin and when a hole wore clear through… and not in the knee… I had to finally give them away. I don’t know about you, but I love these old clothes because they’re comfortable and familiar.
Old clothes aren’t the only things we find comfortable and familiar in our lives… old habits are the same. Old ways of doing things are hard to change. It’s specifically the old ways of doing things that the writer of Ephesians addresses in our reading for this morning. If you read back a little farther in Ephesians beginning at verse 22 the writer tells us that we’ve been given new clothes – a new way of doing things: “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.” In the waters of our baptism, bathed with God’s Spirit we are given new clothes – a new self. The writer of Ephesians tells us that in these new clothes, covered with God’s love, we are called to be “imitators of God.” Being an imitator of God sounds like pretty big shoes to fill to me. How does this really work with imperfect humans?
One theologian put it this way: "Jesus himself is the footsteps of God through this world, not simply giving us an example to follow by our own determination, but cutting the path for us and then pulling us along. We imitate by grace, not as those who are goaded and threatened into stepping in only the right places, but as those who are loved into walking this path. He goes on to say: It may be significant that the imperative in Ephesians 5:1 indicates that this imitation is an ongoing process. We might translate it as “Keep on becoming imitators of God … ” It calls to mind the words of Martin Luther: "This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed."
Our new self is a work in progress we do not yet gleam and sparkle because those old familiar clothes – old familiar ways of doing things continue to beckon us back. The comfortable ways of the world in which we live entice us every day. The writer of Ephesians goes on to list the markers that are signs of this new life the things that follow the writer’s so then… at the beginning of our reading like speaking truth to our neighbors, not letting the sun go down on our anger, not stealing but finding honest work so as to have something to share with the needy.
And… what I believe might be the most difficult sign of the new clothes- the new life that God has given to us. “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.”
In a 2014 study a sample set of 396 people were outfitted with an electronically activated recorder. This digital voice recorder captured 30 seconds of every 12.5 minutes or 5% of every person’s day. The experiment was actually conducted to see whether women speak more than men. The results of this experiment were that on average both males and females speak about 16,000 words a day. This means we have 16,000 opportunities to build up or tear down with our words each and every day. We have to be intentional about how we use those opportunities because the old self – the one that thinks of ourselves and not others the one that bends to self-preservation – is continually beckoning to us.
How do we continue to exercise our speech so that we, being tugged along by Jesus’ example, might say more that builds up rather than tears down? How can we be different than the world around us? If you follow things on Facebook, the ELCA Clergy Facebook page included, watch television, especially anything to do with politics, or spend much time listening to people in our world and even in the church when they speak about things on which they differ: racism, same-gender marriage, right to life, gun rights, just to name a few, you will note that often the words that come out of our mouths do not yet gleam and sparkle. We must be intentional. As Luther said it’s not rest… but exercise. And exercise doesn’t just happen believe me I know this to be true…it comes with intention. We must think before we speak. My Mom always used to say, and perhaps yours did as well: “If you don’t have anything nice to say… don’t say anything at all.” Along with Mom’s advice I also found an old Sufi saying on the internet: "Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is it true.’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary.’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind.’"
Just imagine what a difference it would make in the world today if we exercised the way we use our words – if we were intentional in thinking before we spoke. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that our words will always be what the other person wants to hear at the time, for the writer of Ephesians tells us in verse 25 that we are to “speak the truth to our neighbors.” We all know that sometimes the truth is difficult to hear but we are called to speak that truth out of love. Speaking the truth in love means that we must think first whether our words are for the benefit of ourselves and our own need to be right or to seek revenge, or for the benefit of the person.
The words we speak are powerful. Every time we open our mouths we have the power to build up the person to whom we are speaking and we have the power to tear them down. It may only take a moment to say the words… but I am guessing each of us knows from personal experience that their affects may last a lifetime! As works in progress, may we be intentional about those 16,000 words we say each day seeking to speak only words that build up and not tear down. Amen.