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10th Sunday after Pentecost — August 1, 2021

Ephesians 4:1-16
Pentecost 10B; Proper 13

“I’m baffled,” one of my pastor friends recently wrote on Facebook. “Worship attendance and church engagement are nowhere near pre-COVID-19 levels. Maybe people are not reengaging because they have established new rhythms and patterns while exiled from their sanctuaries?”

Teri McDowell Ott’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

This feels true. But I also wonder if people are hesitant to return because they are leery (or weary) of the divisiveness, debates and polarization that have seeped into every community gathering and invaded every dinner table.

I’ll be honest. Engaging with others in community, even a worshipping community, feels stressful right now. Reengaging means running into that woman who keeps peppering me with conspiracy theories, or that man who talks at me and never takes the cue from my annoyed expression, or the young adult I respect, but whose views constantly challenge me to rethink my own. I’m an introvert. People are exhausting. Disagreeing and debating is exhausting, even when it’s civil. Social isolation has its perks.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the author begs them to make every effort to maintain their unity, reminding them that this unity in faith is the calling to which they have been called. Considering our current divisiveness, it might be tempting for lectionary preachers to skip Ephesians this Sunday. I was tempted. Those other passages about God providing manna in the wilderness sounded a lot better to me, a lot easier, a lot less effort. But I know I can’t stay home forever. God’s calling.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi mourns the current culture war about critical race theory where even basic facts are shared incorrectly. For instance, Kendi’s been referred to as the “father” of critical race theory. But he was born in 1982, and critical race theory was born in 1981.

“How should thinkers respond?” Kendi asks. “Should we mostly ignore the critics? … Because restating facts over and over again gets old. Reciting your own work over and over again to critics who either haven’t read what they are criticizing or are purposefully distorting it gets old.”

But then, Kendi, in a move I admire, restates his commitment to informed dialogue and critique. “As a scholar, I know that nothing is more useful than criticism to improve my scholarship. … Constructive criticism often hurts, but like painful medical treatments, it can be lifesaving.”

The effort God calls us to, and reminds us of here in Ephesians, is constant and exhausting — the labor of living together, the labor of loving one another. But the effort leads to growth. The author of Ephesians outlines our maturation in Christ, a developmental process where we move beyond being “like children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Speaking the truth in love (and listening to the truth spoken in love) will lead us to growth, to faith development and maturity. But we must be engaged in community for this growth to occur. We must promote each other’s growth, engage in critical dialogue, build each other up in love.

Again, in Ephesians, we read how love is key to this whole communal maturation process. We are to bear with one another in love, speak the truth in love, promote the body’s growth in love. We may be a community divided by disagreement, but if we are Christ’s community, we are bound together by our ethic of love.

bell hooks writes beautifully about this ethic of love in her book, “All About Love: New Visions.” It’s refreshing to read hooks’ optimism, her hope in who and what we can become. Speaking to a university audience, hooks expressed her faith in the power of white people to speak out against racism, challenging and changing prejudice — emphatically stating, “I definitely believe we can all change our minds and our actions.” hooks stressed that this faith was not rooted in a utopian longing, but rather in our nation’s history of the many individuals who have offered their lives in the service of justice and freedom. Some folks in the audience challenged hooks, claiming those historic individuals were “exceptions.” But hooks writes about the necessity of changing our thinking to see ourselves as one who does changerather than among those who refuse to change: “What made these individuals exceptional was not that they were any smarter or kinder than their neighbors but that they were willing to live the truth of their values.”

hooks diagnoses our national dilemma, the reason why living together in community feels so impossible: Even though the majority of Americans claim to believe in religion and the power of God’s love we “remain unable to embrace a love ethic and allow it to guide behavior, especially if doing so would mean supporting radical change.”

Perhaps this Sunday, guided by our love ethic, inspired by Ephesians, we can close the gap between what we believe and how we behave and build each other up in love.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What feelings stir within you as you read this passage?
  2. What do you find most challenging about living in community?
  3. In what ways has your faith community changed and matured you?

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