God, as you provide generously for your people, help us to understand how to respond with lives of faithful action. Amen.
They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
Most of us don’t feel that way in our individualistic American society. If we buy a new car, and a week later our neighbor drives home in the exact same make and model, we might feel a little bit grumpy. We generally don’t want our friends to be wearing the same clothes as us, or our co-worker to decorate their cubicle like ours. We value our uniqueness.
But the saying is true anyway. If someone wants to be just like us, we know we must be doing something right.
It’s usually good if a child wants to be like mom or dad when they grow up, because that means the parent has set a good example to strive for.
That’s the encouragement in today’s reading from Ephesians.
Be like your parent.
But this doesn’t mean your biological parents, or adoptive or foster parents, or whoever raised you.
Be like your heavenly parent, God.
Be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Ephesians 5:1)
When and why and how do we imitate others?
Sometimes it’s to make fun of them, showing how ridiculous something that they did can seem. This is obviously not the kind of imitation that the Bible is talking about – we are not being asked to mock God.
Sometimes we pick a role model or a mentor. We strive to live out the values that they did, building on their achievements, trying to make them proud. This is close to the imitation that Scripture describes – though, of course, we don’t need to work to make God proud. God loves us and extends grace to us regardless of any actions of our own.
And then, to take it up a level, there are the folks who imitate others as their profession.
Actors are paid big bucks to play the part of a character, fictional or historical. The best actors are often the best imitators.
For example, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man is extraordinary. In order to embody this Oscar-winning role, Hoffman spent significant time with two people with autism, to learn their mannerisms and personalities, and how they reacted in various situations.
For the movie Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Steep actually learned how to speak German, and for The Pianist, Adrian Brody really did learn how to play the piano. Their commitments to truly imitate their characters earned them Best Actress and Best Actor, respectfully.
Two of the lead actors in one of my favorite movies learned to fence for their roles. In The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin are actually using real fencing moves in their famous swordfight.
Other actors have had to learn things like tap dancing, magic tricks, archery, tightrope walking, tennis, chopping wood, and – gross but true – how to skin an animal.
Acting is so much more than memorizing lines. The best actors are imitators – they try to actually experience life as their character would. They aren’t simply playing, but they are learning to be like the person they are portraying.
This is the kind of imitating that we are asked to do of God.
Scripture encourages us to embody the Spirit of God.
In order to fully imitate God, we need to learn and experience, like the best actors do. How does God treat other people? How does God respond to crisis situations? What happens when God feels sad?
Of course, the only person who has ever been completely successful in imitating God in this way was Jesus. In the Gospel lesson, those who were following Jesus asked him what they needed to do in order to perform the works of God. He told them to believe in him and follow him.
Being like Jesus is the surest way to be imitators of God.
But, while we can study the Gospels and learn about Jesus’ ministry, we can’t exactly follow him around for a month to figure out how to be more like him. What would Jesus do when someone cut him off in traffic? We can’t know for sure – the Gospels don’t say.
So we are left with those things the Bible does tell us about Jesus, and what we learn in the rest of Scripture, to try to figure out how best to respond to the people and events in our lives today.
We don’t get a step-by-step instruction manual so much as a broad overview of the values of the reign of God. It is those values that we can emulate, even when we find ourselves in a situation that could never have been imagined by the writers of Scripture.
The first inspiration comes immediately prior to today’s reading from Ephesians. We are told:
Speak the truth. Don’t tell lies. Let no evil words come from your mouth.
Anger is OK, but don’t hold grudges. Don’t be bitter and don’t bicker.
Be kind. Be tenderhearted. Forgive others.
First John tells us that God is love, and First Corinthians tells us how to embody love: be patient and kind, not arrogant or rude. Don’t boast about yourself. Be flexible, not irritable and resentful. Rejoice in the truth, bear others’ burdens, and keep the faith.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.
In other words, provide care and hospitality to everyone, especially those who may not be able to ever pay you back.
It is important to note that all of these instructions have to do with how we interact with other people. To imitate God is to be part of a community. These instructions aren’t about a private personal piety. They teach us how to behave in relationship with others.
Ephesians is especially clear about this.
We are members of one another. (Ephesians 4:25c)
The driving force behind our faithful lives is our sense of love for God and neighbor. First, we love God. Scripture tells us that the best way to do that is to be imitators of the divine.
And in order to do any kind of imitation of God, we must love others.
God is not individualistic. God requires community.
We worship a God who is Trinity – three persons in one divine being. Even within Godself, community exists.
So, in order to imitate God, we must participate in community.
And in a faithful community, each person considers themself to be a member of a single whole.
When one person grieves, we all grieve.
When one person rejoices, we all rejoice.
When someone is angry or confused or thankful or scared, a community that seeks to follow the example of Christ will walk alongside that person, and support them in whatever ways are necessary for them to continue living the abundant life that God intends for all.
At its best, a church community is where we can come to watch other people embody God’s Spirit, and be encouraged to do so ourselves. By participating in this community – by sharing in the songs and prayers and word and meal – we gain the sustenance needed to carry on being imitators of God even when we’re apart from this faith community.
Like Elijah was fed in the wilderness, we are fed by worship, Bible study, prayer group, and opportunities to serve.
We experience the presence of God in this place, and it helps us carry on in our attempts to live as God intends until whenever we can return to a community of faith to be fed.
We all know people who say that they don’t need church in order to be Christian. Some of us have even been that person.
But the reading from Ephesians today tells us otherwise.
Our task, as God’s followers, is to become imitators of God, following the example of Jesus.
And to do that, we recognize that we are members of one another – we are part of the community of believers that has been trying to follow the example of Jesus for 2000 years, and still seeks to do so today.
We’ve been cast for the lead role in the most important production of all time – Christians in the world.
Be like your heavenly parent. Be imitators of God, as beloved children.
This isn’t just a part-time job, or a contract with an end date. If we’re going to succeed at this role, we need to adopt it for the rest of our lives, not just until the next thing to imitate comes along.
Like the best actors do for their performances, we need to figure out how to live and breathe our character. And we need to do that with the whole cast of characters who are playing alongside us – the person in the pew next to us, the homebound church member, the members of the church down the street, folks who are part of churches in Ghana and China and Indonesia and Slovakia.
We all are members of one another.
And our task is to imitate God the best that we possibly can, as beloved children, to make this world and this community and our own relationships more closely reflect what God has always wanted them to be.
My prayer this week is that we could all be as awesome as Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, but not just for a single role – for our entire lives, as imitators of God.
May God help and guide us in our efforts.
This sermon was first preached on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, at Lake Edge Lutheran Church in Madison, WI.
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