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Only the Best Ingredients (a sermon on Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 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. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[cTherefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us[a] and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

A few different times I worked as a baker at during college and seminary.  I loved the smells of the fresh breads, the cookies, and how the kitchen was always a favorite gathering place as hungry staff people stopped by hoping for a taste of this or that.  There by the large mixer, throwing in the ingredients for the projects of the day, it was a nice place to be.  The ovens preheating and warming up the cool kitchen early in the morning.  The memories are a swirl of tastes and smells – the pumpkin squares in the autumn, the bright Christmas cookies in the winter, fat banana breads and sweet lemon bars in the spring, summertime fruit tarts. 

And so a few years later when I was studying in Ghana and I wanted to make something special for my host family, it seemed like a good idea that I should bake something.  I told them I would make some coffee cake – I whipped up the ingredients, poured them into a pan, stuck it in the oven and went to relax for about 30 minutes until it should be done.  Well, after only about 20 minutes I thought I would go and check on it to see how it was coming.  I walked into the tiny kitchen to see smoke pouring out of the oven.  I grabbed a potholder and yanked the charred remains out of the oven. 

I stared quizzically at it there after I set it on the counter.  What had I done wrong?  One of the little girls in the family came in the kitchen and joined me as I looked at my baking disaster.  She said simply in the bit of English she had learned so far, “the fire, it is too hot.”  I wanted to say “ya think?” but instead  I just said solemnly, “Yes, the fire was too hot.”  I’m not sure at what point or how I came to realize exactly what I had done wrong….but it came down to the fact that the oven temperature dial was centigrade –not Fahrenheit.  When I thought I set it to bake at 350 degrees, my poor little cake had actually been baking at nearly 700 degrees!  

Anyway, it seems I don’t bake too often anymore.  Like you I find myself so busy much of the time – and it isn’t hard to find any baked good we could want at the Safeway down the street.  The convenience of it is great – but it isn’t the same as experiencing the process of mixing together ingredients just so, getting the dough to just the right consistency, seeing some cinnamon and sugar and flour and water and eggs, all combined to become something entirely wonderful.   

It seems to me that sometimes we want our church experience, our faith experience to be a little bit like the convenience of going to Safeway rather than dealing with all the messy ingredients.  But the thing is – trying to make our faith convenient doesn’t really work.  Maybe we can trick ourselves into picking and choosing some major ingredients and call it good – but in the same way we can’t ignore the yeast in the bread recipe and we can’t substitute more baking soda for sugar in the cookies….we can’t pick and choose the ingredients that will make up our character and behavior if we call ourselves Christian people.  There are core ingredients we need to have.   

And our scripture reading today from Ephesians shares some of these core ingredients with us.  It’s an old family recipe for how we need to act as God’s family. 

The first necessary ingredient is truth.  Austin O’Malley said, “Those that think it permissible to tell white lies soon grow colorblind.” 

A couple of hunters chartered a plane to fly into the Canadian wilderness. Two weeks later when the pilot came to pick them up, he saw the two animals they had bagged and said, “I told you fellows I could only take you and one moose. You’ll have to leave the other behind.” 

“But we did it last year in a plane this size,” protested one of the hunters, “and the other pilot let us take two moose.” 

“Well, okay,” said the pilot. “If you did it before I guess we can do it again.” 

So the two moose and the hunters were loaded in and the plane took off. Because of the heavy weight, it rose with difficulty and was unable to clear an obstructing hill. After the crash, the men climbed out and looked around. 

One hunter said to the other, “Where are we, anyway?” 

His companion surveyed the scene. “I think we got about half a mile farther than we got last year.”

Half-truths, fibs, white lies, creative truth-telling – there are many ways we like to put a light-hearted spin on those times when we aren’t completely truthful.  Often we rationalize that we are doing it for some greater good – saying something other than how we really feel in order to be kind or because the truth is too complicated.  But no matter how we want to spin it, the scripture is clear.  “Speak the truth” it says. Rationalizing a little lying, a little cheating,  – it erodes our very character bit by bit.  

So, the first ingredient is truth – and the next one is interesting – it reads “be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  I had this scripture rumbling around in my head all week and this little verse took on a whole new meaning for me on Friday morning when I was getting ready for work.  The main problem is that we have too many pets at our house.  We didn’t mean to – it just sort of happened – all with the best intentions.  It started with a couple skinny stray cats that kept coming around who are now fat and happy and living with us, plus the two old cats I’ve had forever.  This makes a total of four cats, plus the black lab Chad has had forever, the two teeny little dogs that belong to a friend who is staying with us right now – but the real treat, the real icing on the cake is our Saint Bernard, Max, whom we adopted last year.  You could never meet a sweeter soul, but I tell you that every shred of patience that the good Lord has given me is being exercised in living with this dog.  His behavior has gotten a lot better – although I’m still convinced the baby’s first words will be, “Max, No!”  But the frustrating things are things we can’t really change about him.  He’s scared of thunder, during every storm he paces and pants in a circle around our living room.  He has a seizure disorder and so we have to give him his Phenobarbital every night.  He can easily jump over our little fence in the back yard and loves to go socializing so we have to watch him every second he is outside.  And then there is the drool.  I could cry.  Sometimes it’s not so bad – we try to keep towels handy to wipe off his face after he gets a drink.  But then there are certain moments – like Friday morning – when seemingly all at once the baby is crying, a cat has just hacked up a furball, I’m trying to clean because company is coming, I have to find something to wear that doesn’t have too much fur or baby spit-up on it, and then here comes Max lumbering up to me, his face just oozing with saliva and almost in slow motion he began to shake his head…bits of dog drool flying everywhere.  And I was so angry…in that moment it felt like everything that was wrong with the world was all because of this dog.  The dirty dishes in the sink, cancer, terrorists, the fighting between Israel and Lebanon…all because of Max.    

But being angry at a dog is so completely unsatisfying.  I can’t punish him for not having a mouth that holds in his saliva appropriately.  I can’t reason with him to please not shake his head when he’s in the house.  So I stormed about as I yet again cleaned drool off my walls and my clothes and my baby, and he just stared at me good-naturedly with his big brown eyes and then went to nap in the corner.   

So I try to see him as an opportunity to practice my patience and remember that of course I am going to get angry with him now and then.  With Max, with anyone – there are times when anger happens…it’s part of life.  We can’t really control the feeling – but we can control what we do with that anger.  With Max I’m trying my best to remember the good things about him, his sweetness and gentleness…repeating to myself over and over that he is one of God’s creatures.  It’s not easy – but what choice do I have?  We are his pack now…he’s part of the family. 

Have you found yourself angry about anything lately?  Whether the anger comes from something simple or something big – when the scripture tells us to not let the sun go down on our anger, it’s not chiding us for feeling that anger – but rather warning us that it’s important to find ways to deal with it…but then, perhaps most importantly, let it go.  Let it go.  Very little good can come from stewing about something over and over and over…and yet it’s amazing how often we do this.  We can choose to forgive, we can choose to move on, we can choose to live in harmony with one another as best we can.  May God help each of us to find a way to do this in all our relationships. 

So for this recipe for being the family of God we’ve got some truth, we’ve added in some anger-control, and we know that we have a whole lot of other ingredients to go.  We need a good dose of generosity, edifying words, kind-heartedness.  We need to leave out things like bitterness and wrath and slander.  And finally, add a heaping measure of love…but not just any love – the scripture says, “Live in love, as Christ loved us.” 

Perhaps we think it can go without saying that love belongs in our recipe.  But when we’re inspecting our cupboards, making sure they are filled with the ingredients we need to be the family of God, it’s important to check that we have exactly what we need and not some cheaper knock-off.  Because the kind of love we need to have is a terribly inconvenient thing.  There’s very little of fluffiness and cupids in this kind of love…but you’ll recognize it when you see it.   

You see it in the exhausted determination of a couple trying to work through a crisis in their marriage. 

You see it in the frenetic pace of the vice president of a major corporation who still takes time out to teach confirmation every week. 

You hear it in the voice of the wife who gently responds to the same question over and over as she converses with her husband of many years whose memory is lost. 

You see it in the red, tired eyes of a young father who has just been up all night with a fussy newborn. 

You can feel it in the breeze and the silence as a family gathers at a graveside to bid their farewells one last time. 

Love.  Christ’s love.  Agape love.  Without this ingredient our recipe will never turn out right.  But you can never add in too much, either. 

Sisters and brothers, it’s not a complicated recipe.  The ingredients are nothing new.  Though it may take time and hard work and persistence, may we be cooking up something good with our lives…..nourishment for this hungry world.  And may the aroma be pleasing to our God in Heaven.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

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