The author of Ephesians writes, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
I can only imagine that the author is writing these words because the Ephesians have known what it is like to be angry and are looking for words of counsel. I imagine this because anger is a universal experience, we all at times struggle to get along with our neighbors.
Just this week someone was telling me how angry she becomes when she is on the freeway and sees a sign that in two or three miles the lane will be closing. This woman is the type of person who moves into the proper lane early and will – in her own words – rant and rave at all those who speed past them and expect to merge into the lane ahead of her.
The person’s anger mounts as she gets closer to the merging point and people keep flying by. Can’t they just merge when they are supposed to? She thinks resentfully.
What do we do when we find ourselves angry at our neighbor?
I heard another story this week. This one from a woman who served as a receptionist in an office in Geneva, Switzerland, where there was headquartered an international organization for peace and reconciliation. She quit her job; it was a good job and a well-paying job, but she quit it. She’d been there six years but she said, “In the six years, all those marvelous people coming and going, trying to bring about the healing of the nations, never spoke to me. The people for whom I worked never called me by name.”
What do when we are frustrated by our neighbors?
When they don’t even take the time to learn our name??
In these cases, the Scripture tells us to “speak the truth “
But what truth, exactly, are we called to speak?
As I pondered that question this week, I found myself thinking about an interpretation I have heard recently of the 23rd Psalm. The psalm has a line that says, “God will make a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies.”
To me that verse always seemed to mean that God will take care of us even in the face of our worst enemies or worst neighbors, God will make us a meal while our enemy starves and looks at us jealously. That interpretation, however, never seemed quite right because that is not my experience of God.
“God will make a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies.”
One pastor I know suggested these words might mean something different, like: God will treat us with love and just lavish dignity in the presence of those who cannot see us.
Maybe enemies, she posits, are simply people who do not see us, people who cannot see the truth of our dignity and see the fullness of who we are. Perhaps an enemy is someone who does not see our hearts and so they can harm us.
Then she wondered aloud, can we be enemies of ourselves sometimes? What if we cannot see our own dignity? What if we cannot see our own profound child of Godness?
And so what does God do?
God makes a banquet and invites us to the table, with ourselves and with one another and invites us to see each other.
I will make you a banquet in the presence of your enemies, the people outside who can’t see us and perhaps the parts of us in us that cannot see ourselves.
I found myself thinking of that interpretation of the 23rd Psalm this week because I think that gets to the truth that the writer of Ephesians is calling us to speak.
“Speak truthfully to our neighbors.” The truth we are invited to speak is the truth of our eternal worth and dignity, our profound child of God-ness.
This is truth that Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes invites us to speak in his Book of Forgiving.
Tutu, an active religious leader during the South African anti-apartheid movement, tells us that part of the process of forgiving our neighbors is telling our story so that we might reclaim our dignity.
Tutu recalls a time, in the 1960s, when South Africa was fierce in the grip of apartheid.
Tutu had been traveling with his family through the semi-desert middle of South Africa which he describes as an oven. When we opened the windows, he said, the air rushed in as if from a blow-dryer set on high. They were sticky with sweat and they were tired.
The kids in the backset started the kind of backseat bickering that comes with heat and fatigue. They had been driving for hours … piled into the station wagon for their trek to Swaziland, which was on the northern border of South Africa.
During those days of apartheid, a law was in place that legalized separate education facilities for black and whites which had led to an inferior school system for the black children of the country. For that reason, Tutu and his wife had enrolled their children for school in neighboring Swaziland. It was a three-thousand mile drive that they made the trek there six times a year, dropping the kids off and picking them up.
On this blistering day, they were dropping the kids off and the coming farewells cast a slight pall over the mood of the family. The heat added another dimension to their despair.
So they were particularly relieved, on this trip, to see a sign that said, “Ice cream ahead.”
Their spirits lifted as they could practically taste the cold, sweet relief. Once at the shop, they clambered out of the car and pushed opened the door to the small store, which doubled as a local take-out joint.
The boy behind the register looked up and jerked his thumb – Kaffirs – which is a derogatory name for a black Africans – Kaffirs he said, have to go to the take-out window.
No black man’s feet were allowed in this dinky store, Tutu realized as the rage seared within him, mixing with the sadness of the impending separation with his children, the fatigue the long day, and now this.
“Get back in the car,” Tutu said furiously. And underneath his temper, he said, lay a bright burning wound. And yet, Tutu wanted to tell the truth, so he said to the boys, that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and in that moment that had been denied theirs.
Later, after they dropped the kids off, Tutu and his wife again retold the story of what had happened, because, in doing so, they reclaimed their dignity and took back what had been taken from them.
Tutu had his wife had participate in the part of the four-part forgiveness process that Tutu lays out in his book. Tutu defines the steps of forgiveness as:
-Telling the story
-Naming the hurt
-And either renewing or releasing the relationship
These are steps that he did not only on an individual level but are also ones that he helped the nation of South Africa practice after apartheid ended. They had a lot of hurts to heal so they established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that the truth of people’s experience could be shared in a safe space.
“Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” the author of Ephesians write.
What the writer is inviting us to in this passage is healing.
Tutu says that each time we experience hurt – whether it is someone who bullied you, a spouse who betrayed you, a driver who cut you off or a boss who passed you over … the choice is this: Will you forgive or will you seek revenge?’
If we chose to harm, then we reject our share humanity, seek revenge, act cruelly and continue the cycle of violence.
If we chose to heal, then we tell our story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness and make a chose to either renew or release the relationship.
If we chose to heal, to forgive, the path begins with truth telling. It could be that tell it to the specific neighbor who wronged us, but it also could be that we tell it to a friend, trusted family member, pastor or even God directly.
If we are to tell the truth, we are to begin telling it somewhere safe.
We see the reality of this even in Jesus’ own life. When he is before Pilate, on trial with his own life at stake, Pilate asks, “What is the truth?” and Jesus remains silent because he is not in a place where he can safely respond. So after we ask the question, what truth are we called to share, we also are called to wonder, where are called to share it?
The Good News today is that God invites us to a banquet, where our dignity and worth is honored. Even though we do not always get it right, we are invited, as dearly loved children, to practice being imitators of God. So we come to church to ask forgiveness for the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We come to church to hear the words, “God forgives you” and “God loves you” and “God is healing us and making us whole.” We come together to speak words of peace to one another, saying to each other, Peace be with you and Peace be with you too. We gather together to pray for reconciliation and that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven and to eat bread and drink wine, remembering that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey that God invites us to the banquet.
We gather together to proclaim that no matter what denomination we may be part of we are all part of one body in Christ Jesus and that each every one of us is endowed with a sacred worth from our Creator. We come to create safe spaces where the truth might be told and honored so that that one day we might gather around the table, fully reconciled, as we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.