But That's the Way We've Always Done It... Said Jesus Never
Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as saying, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Whether or not Franklin is the author of this saying is not the point, but for many, these are the two things in this life we can all, regardless of race or creed, socioeconomic status, and religion can be certain of. We will all die but before we do that we will all have the opportunity to pay taxes.
A happy sentiment, right?
But I’m not entirely sure Franklin is accurate in his assertion, at least from a Christian perspective. In this world of Christian doctrine, theology, and polity nothing can be said to be certain, except for conflict when it comes to changing anything in the local church.
It was the summer of 2011 and I had just joined the staff as Director of Youth Ministries at the church Allison and I had been attending for a few years. Having finally answered my calling into ministry I was eagerly awaiting a new school year of ministry with the youth at this church. I started on July 1 and by mid-August, we were finalizing plans for another school year of ministry. How were the children, youth, and adult ministries going to work together to equip those in the congregation entrusted to our care? That was the task at hand, the big picture we were working towards.
One conversation we had was about facilitating conversation and hospitality among these groups on Sunday morning as well as throughout the week. We wanted to create spaces outside of the fellowship hall, by name it was the only place where fellowship in the church was to take place, but we wanted to create spaces where people could sit, talk and share what they had been doing throughout the week or over the summer with one another. These would be spaces for having coffee on Sunday morning but also where small/informal meetings could take place, Bible studies could convene, and parents could sit during worship without fear of the glaring eyes when their 5-year-old son was not as quiet as some people thought he should be during worship.
These spaces would be a place where the life of the community could be lived out. In all our planning meetings the idea was a hit. It seemed like the obvious answer to engaging new acts of hospitality. There was only one problem - Church Council approval.
Our scripture reading this morning begins with a signal that in order to go forward we must first go back. Paul writes, “So then,” meaning that whatever he is about to say is in response to something he had just said. Prior to Paul writing about new life in G-d through Jesus Christ, he laid out what this old life was, what it looks like, and how the new life is different.
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 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.
All of this, hardened hearts (echoing Pharaoh in Exodus), a lack of sensitivity, and greediness is contrary to what Jesus did and what the Ephesians had been taught about Him.
Paul was writing to encourage the Church, especially the new converts in Ephesus, to discard their old nature, their old ways of thinking and behavior, and to take on a new way of life. The way of life made possible by Christ. So, if they, we, are to discard this old life how exactly do we begin that process? Theologian Karl Barth refers to this movement as discarding an old sweater and donning a new life without hesitation.
What must we “put away” so that we can put something else on? That is where we pick up this morning.
Verses 25 and 29 sums up all that this new life in G-d through Christ entails:
“…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…”
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…”
Paul begins by speaking in truth but he doubles-down and says, “Oh, by the way, you must speak kindly to one another as well.” He’s not talking about the backhanded Southern compliment, “Oh bless your heart”, which on the surface sounds polite. Instead, this new life begins with and requires truthful speech that is without evil. Speech that builds up and does not tear down.
It sounds great Paul, but do you know what it was like it 2011? Do you know what it is like in the church in 2018? Do you know what it is like outside the church in 2018?
So, there I was, six weeks into my ministry and I was attending my first Church Council meeting. The roundtables were awkwardly arranged into a square with observers like me, those not allowed to vote seated along the wall on folding chairs. The meeting was held in the newly renovated youth area so that the wall-mounted televisions could be used to show mock-ups of what the proposed coffee spaces might look like.
I kept thinking to myself, “This seems like a silly thing for the Church Council to be concerned with. What do they care about coffee?”
I asked Steve, the President of the United Methodist Men if the Church Council really cared about coffee. Being the new guy, I had no idea what to expect.
Steve responded, “Just watch and listen.” There was a sarcasm with a hint of nervousness to this voice as he finished with a giggle.
“What do they care about coffee?”
After the presentation was made, remember I was behind everyone, so I could not see their reactions to the mock-up images, there was silence. Then one-by-one, those who questioned why this change was necessary, began to break the silence by not only telling the newly hired staff how stupid we were but also questioning our motives for wanting to implement this change.
“This is the way we’ve always done it and you are not going to change that.”
Yes, they were speaking some truth, the way they had always done it that way, the way Jesus might have served coffee in Jerusalem leading up to the Last Supper, but their truthfulness was accompanied with an ill-will towards others in the room. They did not think before they spoke and as a result, their truth was lost in the hurtful language used to tear down those who had been charged with building up the community. Before we knew it, because of proposing to change the way coffee would be served, there was little unity in the room as tempers and egos began to get the best of everyone. And then, there was me, six weeks on the job and thinking, “What did I get myself into?” And Steve sitting to my left telling me, “See, I told you to watch and listen.”
I know changing coffee service in the church is a surface level change. In the big picture of the local church and Christianity it would not be the end of the world, either way, the chips fell at this meeting. But what I learned in my first Church Council meeting was that in any change, whether it be changing an aspect of hospitality or flipping a serious part of what we hold in common as a community of faith is that without truth and love nothing can move us beyond the surface level discussion.
Change is never easy but the Church has changed.
We’ve made room for new musical instruments while not losing the organ.
No longer do we prohibit women from being ordained and teach in the Church as was the practice. We are still working to fully lived into this, but the door is no longer closed.
If you’re one of those people who can’t seem to stay awake for the entire service, don’t worry, no longer do you get knocked in the head by an usher as was the practice in Colonial America.
And there are still things that need to change.
Whenever we remove the old and don the new one we must be is attentive to so that not only we can speak truth to one another but also so that we can do so in love without evil so that we can live a life in Christ with the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our commitment to intentionality and vulnerability cannot be overlooked. Intentionality and vulnerability assist us in resisting anger, which clouds our judgment toward whatever we are deciding needs to be changed.
So often we become comfortable in the different areas of our lives that when change is presented we panic. It is not that we resist change rather it is that something familiar to us might become different and we have trouble seeing where we fit into that newness of life.
The good news to this is that Jesus draws us out of complacency, particularly the things that we think give us a safety net, security, and provision. Those three things, a safety net, security, and provision, are the bedrock for the “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality.
What I learned in that coffee meeting is that anger not only clouds judgement, anger as a result of fear of losing a safety net, security, and provision, but anger also encourages self-righteousness, assuring that I will always be right and that they will always be wrong, regardless if we are talking about changing the coffee served and adding donuts or changing church polity.
Living in unity with one another means that we love one another just as Christ loves us, even if they don’t do things the way we’ve always done them. Unity in the Holy Spirit enables us to love the world as Christ loves. From lacking truth and speaking evil to living a mindset of love towards those we know best and those we avoid at all cost is G-d working in us, changing the way we view the world and flipping what we have always done because in Christ a new way of life has been made possible.
So then, the new life offered to us by G-d in Christ is an invitation to claim the renaming and claiming done by G-d in our baptism. This is not a new list of things we must do to be renamed “beloved child of G-d” and claimed. It is not a list of things we must to do experience G-d’s grace. Instead, in speaking truthfully, resisting evil speech, and resisting anger we are able to don that which G-d has offered to each of us through Christ, a way of life that is different from the “but that’s the way we’ve always done it mentality.” New life, loving one another just as Christ loves us.