A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 – Year B – 9 August 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector
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, and do not make room for the devil. 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. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
– Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Woody Allen’s genius as a writer and filmmaker was established in the late 70s and 80s with a string of award-winning films, beginning with “Annie Hall.” Like many a movie buff, I find his artistry compelling, and I’ve referred to his works from the pulpit regularly through the years. However, his unorthodox personal life of late has raised significant questions about his character. This in turn has dampened enthusiasm about his pictures, even in retrospect. Perhaps we went as overboard about his cinematic gifts as he himself overly romanticized many of his subjects – especially his idealized view of New York’s intellectual and cultural role in shaping America. Nevertheless, despite the tarnish on his Academy Awards, Woody Allen’s screenplays contain gems that continue to sparkle.
In “Manhattan” Allen plays the role of Isaac Davis, a writer who has taken a stand against the shallow wasteland of commercial television by quitting his lucrative job in network comedy. And yet, his high horse righteousness does not preclude him from dating a high school girl less than half his age. Nor does his moral integrity prevent him from dropping the young girl abruptly when he meets the older, more sophisticated Mary (played by Diane Keaton). Isaac’s best friend, Yale Pollock, had had a brief extramarital fling with Mary, but had called it quits when he feared losing his marriage. Yale recommended that Isaac ask her out to console her, and Isaac leapt at the chance.
Meanwhile, Yale, an English professor known more for his marital duplicity than his scholarship, changes his mind and renews his relationship with Mary behind Isaac’s back. When this betrayal comes to light, Isaac becomes furious, and confronts Yale at the college where he teaches. Stepping into a biology classroom nearby, Isaac unloads his anger at Yale. He expressed his disappointment at having been so badly treated by someone he thought he could trust. A replica of a Neanderthal skeleton dangling nearby becomes a silent witness to Isaac’s fury, and serves as a reminder of human weakness and mortality. Gazing at Woody Allen standing beside those bare bones, I am tempted to think that he was giving us a visual version of Cranmer’s phrase, “There is no health in us.” But I doubt that he is that familiar with the Prayer Book.
Anyway, Yale gets defensive and tries to parry all of Isaac’s indignant accusations. Eventually though, he knows that he is cornered, and finally faces the truth, and owns his guilt. Here is the dialogue between the two friends:
Yale: I’m not a saint, OK?
Isaac: You’re too easy on yourself.
Don’t you see?
You’re… You rationalize everything.
You’re not honest with yourself.
You talk about you wanna write a book,
but in the end you’d rather buy a Porsche.
You cheat a little bit on [your wife]
and you play around the truth with me.
The next thing you know you’re in front
of a Senate committee naming names.
Yale: You are so self-righteous.
I mean, we’re just people. We’re just
human beings. You think you’re God!
Isaac: I gotta model myself after someone.
Yale: You just can’t live the way you do. It’s all so perfect.
But it is obvious to the moviegoer that life, in all of its complexity, is far from perfect. Its scenes are colored in shades of gray. Moral clarity is obscured by conflicting agenda and personal biases. There is a yawning chasm between ought and is – a gulf that we can’t seem to bridge on our own.
When he directed his masterpiece, “Manhattan,” Allen chose to shoot the film in black and white, with the music of George Gershwin as a backdrop to the story. This setting was not only classical, emulating the iconic style of Humphrey Bogart and the mythical cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but it also suggested that “Manhattan” was created as a morality play, in which right and wrong were in high contrast of light and dark. Throughout the film Isaac is faced with the moral question, “What should I do?” And near the film’s end Isaac contemplates the purpose of his existence (almost Hamlet-like), and asks, “Why is life worth living?” These are big issues that are never resolved with clear-cut, black-and-white answers. “Manhattan” ends indecisively: Isaac knows what he should do, but time is not on his side, and he fails to grasp the good that he desires. He is left in the great city, waiting for a future that may never materialize. The ambiguity of his situation could prompt us to throw in the towel and call life absurd. But I think that “Manhattan” contains more hope than that. It invites us to wonder how to connect the dots, and span the gap between knowing and doing what is meet and right.
In today’s epistle the Apostle Paul summarizes a pithy moral lesson for the early Church with these words: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and love in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Does “Be imitators of God” sound surprisingly similar to “I gotta model myself after someone”? Well, before we draw a line of demarcation between Paul and someone like Woody Allen, let us recall that Paul too led a dubious, if not downright immoral, life before he met the risen Christ in a vision. And even after that, the Apostle struggled to do what was right. He confessed that he knew what was right, but didn’t do it, and that he knew what was wrong, but that is what he would do. Still, he commended imitation of God as a moral maxim. So he was not a defeatist, despite his realistic appraisal of his flaws and limitations, which are ours as well. Paul based his confidence on something else beside human resolve.
“The Letter to the Ephesians” was composed while Paul was in prison. We give it that title even though the earliest copies of the letter have no reference to Ephesus in the opening address. That lack of a local tag leads many scholars to conclude that the omission was deliberate, making the beautifully written letter an encyclical – a letter meant for circulation among many congregations. In that general form Paul shared his teachings, efficiently spreading his view of the gospel across a wide swath of territory that Paul could not reach in person. It is likely that it’s called “Ephesians” because a copy of the letter was found there and included with the other Pauline letters.
In any event, the first part of the letter is doctrinal. It contains the principles of Paul’s Christian theology. Then Paul shifts gears, moving from the ethereal to the practical. Now his teachings are about morality in the Church. Our lesson is a part of that section; it enumerates standards of conduct for the Christian life.
Paul’s code of behavior has several major tenets. He stresses the need for truth telling as a cardinal principle. Without basic honesty, he believes, there is no morality. He states that it is fine to feel anger, but it is not okay for a believer to act on his anger. Disputes must be settled rather than postponed, drawing out discord. There must be no stealing in the community; former thieves must turn to honest work to live a responsible life. Paul forbids evil talk, including gossip, backbiting, and trashing the reputation of others. The only talk that is worthy is that which edifies; any chatter that tears down is unacceptable. Anything that Christians do that grieves the Holy Spirit, whose seal was placed on their forehead in baptism, is wrong. All bitterness, wrath, wrangling, clamor, and slander are spiritual offenses. On the other hand, advised Paul, a Christian is one who is characterized by kindness, tenderheartedness, and mercy. Forgiving one another, as God has forgiven us in Christ, is a moral imperative.
Paul’s move from God-talk to brass tacks parallels the structure of the Baptismal Covenant in our current Prayer Book. There, questions about the articles of the Apostles’ Creed summarize Christian theology, while further questions about moral responsibility follow. (For example, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”). These questions spell out the implications of Christian belief. Like Paul, the covenant assumes that there is a link between faith and action in Christian ethics. Loving the God made known in Jesus Christ is the reason for being moral. It should be our motivation for loving our neighbor as ourself. However, our track record in that department indicates that making that connection is not simply based on good intentions, or strength of will.
But the moral mandate remains. It says, “Be imitators of God . . .” That is a high expectation, and we may be inclined to say, “We’re just people. We’re just human beings.” Nevertheless, that is the way, that is the truth, and that is the Christian moral life according to the Apostle Paul. He understood fully that putting these standards into action is no simple task. If it were, if peace, love, and harmony were facts of Christian life, there would be no need to stress these things. Paul reminds us that a high bar that has been set for us; it is there for our good. Attempting to reach it is our goal, even though imitating God would seem utterly futile. And yet, Paul pleads with us to make our utmost effort to do so, saying:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
How then are we able to live a life worthy of the calling of Christ? It is crucial to remember that living beyond our means is not up to us alone. We are mortal, formed of the dust, and to dust shall we return. That is true, and it is said of us at our last rites. But that is not the ultimate word about us; for there is good news – merciful and empowering news – that is able to transform futility into possibility. Paul counted on that. Therefore he prefaced his moral challenge to the Church with a word of Gospel on which everything depends. He wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of your works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
God’s grace, not our works, is the last word about our life. There is freedom in grace – freedom from our limitations, and freedom to rise above them to do the good works of love. But this is not our achievement any more than being born into the world, and being nurtured by the love of our mother, was our achievement. Whatever good we do is by the grace of God, who accepts us as we are, and lifts us to a level above mortal limits. Our task is to trust the love of God, and to accept his helping hand. By it we are rescued from the pit of failure that we dig for ourselves, and obtain the power to do what we ought to do.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Woody Allen, from “Manhattan (1979),” in Four Films by Woody Allen (London: Faber Paperbacks, 1983.
 Romans 7:19.
 “The Baptismal Covenant” of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is found in The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 304-305.
 Ephesians 4:1-3.
 Ephesians 1:8-10.