Friday, August 17, 2012

Genuine Imitation

Sermon preached August 12, 2012

Texts: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Genuine Imitation - An odd combination of words. I googled the phrase just to see what might be out there. I found out that some other preacher entitled one of his sermons “genuine imitation.” I had already published the title so I did not feel I was plagiarizing. I watched part of the sermon, and I know I am not plagiarizing. That preacher noted that “genuine imitation” is an oxymoron – a combination of two words whose meanings don’t go together well or even contradict one another. He chose some other examples – jumbo shrimp, fresh frozen. Then he went for cheap laughs where he would have been better not to go. He said airline food was an oxymoron, as was hospital food and British food. He said his favorite oxymoron was female driver. I did not watch any more. There was no genuine imitation about this YouTube preacher, he was genuinely tactless.
When I think of genuine imitation I think of something that is cheap and tawdry, something best sold on late night television where one says “gen – u – wine imi – ta – tion – jewelry, furs, leather. Googling “genuine imitation” I came across a picture from Turkey, a stand selling genuine imitation watches.
Genuine imitation need not apply only to things. People can come across as genuine imitation – implying a disconnect between the inner and outer person, a certain phoniness in life. I discovered that the Four Seasons in 1969 released an album of social commentary which included a song entitled “Genuine Imitation Life.” Four Seasons – social commentary - - - that’s almost an oxymoron.
Not every use of the words genuine imitation has to do with something being cheap, tawdry or phony. Kansas University as a glee club called Genuine Imitation because they seek to provide artistically sound covers of others songs. Nothing wrong with genuine imitation there. I also encountered an article on line entitled “Genuine Imitation.” The article was part of a book - Social Learning in Animals and a rather quick scan revealed that it was about the bidirectional control effect in laboratory guinea pigs and rats. I don’t intend to go into detail, but the point of the paper was rather interesting. The author was trying to argue for the importance of genuine imitation as a tool for learning.
Well we are not lab rats or guinea pigs. Yet today’s Scripture reading encourages us to engage in genuine imitation. “Be imitators of God.” Here we have an invitation, a challenge to a unique kind of genuine imitation, the imitation of God. “Be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved us.” I really appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders these verses in The Message. Watch what God does, and then you do it…. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant…. Love like that.
In the article on the lab rats and guinea pigs, the author argued that genuine imitation is learning to do an act from seeing it done. That is what we are being invited to here, genuine imitation. Watch what God does. Mostly what God does is love. Love like that.
What might that mean for us? The other parts of the Scripture we read help us know a bit more about what loving like God is like. So let’s explore some of that.
“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.” Eugene Peterson renders that last line this way – “say only what helps, each word a gift.” Well, there goes about 90% of the campaign advertising industry.
Loving like God has something to do with our speaking, our words. We strive for words that give grace. We want each word to be a gift. Words matter, and we need not look far to see this. Race continues to be a difficult discussion in our society. Some argue we are past this, but then a news director posts this on Facebook: “add drunk, homeless Native American man to the list of animals that have wandered into my yard” and he ends up resigning his position. Or a person fueled by racial hatred enters a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and begins shooting, killing six people. Race is an issue for us, and sometimes we need to be nudged into the difficult discussions. At the same time the words used to nudge can themselves become a stumbling block for conversation. How do we balance our need to be pushed a little with encouragement to enter into the discussion? Trying to love like God means seeking to find words that give grace, that are a gift, even when, especially when, the topic is tough. And when we find our words are not giving grace, we try other words.
Loving like God has something to do with working with our anger. “Be angry but do not sin.” Those may be some of the more challenging words in all the Bible. Anger has its place. It is ok to feel angry when some guy in the name of the “white race” shoots up a religious temple. It is ok to feel angry when in the name of Islam, people fly planes into buildings, or when in the name of Christianity, some person decides to burn Korans. I think we need to know this, however. Anger can be appropriate, and it is always dangerous. There was a time when people were encouraged to stuff their anger, to ignore it, but that wasn’t very helpful. So people were encouraged to vent their anger, but studies have found that people who vent their anger aggressively tend to get angrier, and aggressively expressed anger tends to engender angry responses from others.
So what do we do? If loving like God has something to do with working on our anger then maybe we need to do some work. There are situations in which anger is an appropriate response, then we need to ask how we use that energy constructively to make change where we can. Sometimes our anger has to do with stuff inside of us that we have to work through, and we need to do that work. If you find yourself getting disproportionately angry in a situation, ask what else is going on in you. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Anger, at its best, should be a temporary fuel for making change, not a permanent motivation or a pervasive stance toward life.
Loving like God means this: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Peterson: “Be gentle with one another, sensitive.” Again, pretty challenging words for us, especially in a culture that seems enamored with toughness and competitiveness. Maybe we need to be able to discover what it means to love fiercely and gently, and to cultivate a tough tenderness.
These few words from Ephesians challenge us all mightily. Be genuine imitators of God. Watch what God does and love like that. As I have been thinking about these words this week, I have also been thinking about their being addressed to a community, like ours. These words were written to a Jesus community in a place called Ephesus. We hear them in a Jesus community called First United Methodist Church, Duluth. I think that makes a difference.
We hear them as a worshipping community, and we gather for worship to remind ourselves of God’s love. Watch what God does. Part of doing that is gathering here to celebrate God’s love. Worship matters because it reminds us regularly of God’s love and of the challenge we have to love like that. Author Marilynne Robinson says that one of the great gifts of community is to give us “a sense of the possible” (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 22-23). Worship gives us a sense of what is possible with a God who loves us and wants to love the world through us.
Community also matters because here we can work on loving with each other. This is a place where we encourage each other to grow in love, and we know that we won’t always succeed. We are gentle with each other, sensitive, kind. We help each other learn what it means to love like God so that when we leave this place, we can continue such loving.
Watch what God does. Mostly what God does is love. Love like that. Be genuine imitators of God. There is nothing fake or cheap or tawdry about that. It is the challenge of a life time. It is our challenge together. Amen.

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