I used to LOVE Vacation Bible School when I was growing up. As a preacher’s kid, of course that meant I went to VBS at my dad’s church. But I loved Vacation Bible School more than that. I would sign up for VBS at the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran Church, and would beg, “Can I go? Can I go?” I have always joked that what I really like about VBS was the crafts. But as I watched our own children in Vacation Bible School this week at Hickory Neck, I began to wonder if my crafts assessment was entirely true. I liked the songs too. And the snacks. And the storytelling. I liked the instant comradery and the games and laughter. I liked the feeling of being loved by people who did not even know me. VBS was the first – and probably only since I did not go to church with many Baptists – place where I was asked if I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior; and if I had not, I could ask Jesus to come to me in that moment. My eight-year-old self was not sure what the pastor meant, but I did know a strange warming of my heart that night.
On those hot, humid summer nights, with the cicadas chirping and the lightning bugs flashing, VBS accomplished for me what I talked about with the Baptismal family last weekend. When we prepare a child and their family for baptism, we talk about how their primary role is to raise the child up in the faith – get them to church, talk about Jesus at home, pray together, and read the Bible stories. The parents and godparents are not flying solo with the task of raising the child in the faith – we as a community pledged just last week that we would be active in raising Dallas up in the faith.
As I watched our children at Vacation Bible School this past week, I slowly began to realize that we were doing just that – raising children up in the faith. We were teaching them to pray, to sing, to learn, to tactilely use their bodies to engage Jesus. And sure, there were games and snacks and laughter and silliness. But there were also children who walked over to their neighbor’s houses and delivered VBS registration forms, inviting them into Jesus’ love too. There were children who remembered their neighbors with pets and tentatively rang doorbells to deliver pet treats they had made with their own hands. There were children whose joyous songs in the Public Library later that day brought hope to a man who had lost hope. When I was a child, I was lured by crafts and snacks and potato sack races; but I left with love, and hope, and mercy. I left knowing deep in my soul who Jesus was and what being a Christian meant.
This week I have begun to wonder if we might need an adult version of VBS; if we might need a week of evenings where we just spend some time with Jesus among the community of the faithful. Bishop Curry would call that a revival, and Episcopal Churches are doing revivals all around the country. I am not sure what we call that week matters, but I am beginning to wonder if we need those summer nights because we have fallen away from the practices Paul articulates today in his epistle to the Ephesians. Paul is quite clear. If we are going to claim the moniker of Christian, then our lives need to be signposts. We need to speak truth to one another. We need to not let anger rule our lives. We need to make new ways for thieves and sinners to not only repent, but be fully restored into the world as those who not only contribute their labor, but who are freed to give their money to the poor. We need to take on kindness, tenderness, forgiveness. We need to be imitators of God, beloved children of God, living in love.
We hear Paul’s words today and say to ourselves, “Yes, yes, the world needs more of that.” But what we really mean is, “Yes, that lady two rows over needs to start doing that,” or “Yes, that guy on my committee needs to be that.” But Paul is not talking to our neighbor. He is talking to us. He is talking each person in this room saying, “You…I need you to live in the life of love, to be an imitator of God, to be…to be a Christian.” And that is where the squirming begins. I hear Paul’s words about not letting the sun go down on your anger and I can tell you there have been many a night when I was just not done with my anger – I needed to let my anger burn off before I could speak a word of forgiveness or, more importantly, a word or apology. I hear Paul’s words about thieves and I am not worried about thieves being gainfully employed so they can make charitable contributions – I need them to punished for what they took from me. I hear Paul’s words telling me to imitate God and I am incredulous that I could ever achieve such holiness – I need to worry about all those other people who are not imitating God towards me!
This week, I attended a conference called the Global Leadership Summit. Founded over 25 years ago, the conference is for all people, regardless of industry or position at work or home, looking to hone their leadership skills, to learn new techniques, and to refresh old learnings. The Conference is held in Chicago, but through technology is live broadcasted all over the world, even to Williamsburg. One of the things I took from the Summit was that my leadership improvement work was primarily about improving myself. Craig Groeschel reminded us, “When the leader gets better, everyone gets better.” His message is the same message we teach congregations and families through family systems work. The only person you can improve in a system is yourself – even though you know for certain your brother Bob is the real problem. System experts live by this understanding though because they have witnessed time and again when one person in the system gets better, he or she creates a ripple in the system – and almost magically, everyone else starts getting better.
The reason why we send our children to VBS or Sunday School or Children’s Chapel is because we want them to know, and love, and embody Christ. We want them to be imitators of God, beloved children, who live in love, as Christ loved us. But what we sometimes forget in helping our children grow in Christ is that we adults need to grow in Christ too – to become those imitators of God, beloved children, who live in love, as Christ loved us. We like to bemoan the state of the world today – to look at how we are so divided and cannot seem to come together and we want to just give up on the world, or worse yet, we want to bury our heads in the sand and not come back up until things magically get better. But what Paul says to us today is not to worry about everyone else. Start working on yourself. Now whether that means you need to go to a Leadership Summit, or join a Bible Study, or commit to coming to Church regularly, or maybe agree to help with VBS so you can absorb some of that joyful goodness – do something for your faith formation today. Systems work teaches us that the only person we can change in a dysfunctional system is ourselves. Paul looking at Ephesians or the United States in 2018 would same the same – work on yourself, imitate God, live in love, make your life like Christ’s – or as Paul says, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
I know that Episcopalians are pretty divided about the use of incense. I have always loved incense. The parish I served in Alexandria used incense every Sunday. I loved how the scent lingered in my hair and on my clothes after church. Sometimes, I would bring my alb home, and when I opened the bag, the fragrance of incense wafted into the room. Years later, on the occasions my other parishes used incense, I found the scent had a calming effect on my body. That fragrance was my physical, tangible way of remembering that I was in the presence of God.
When Paul invites us to be a fragrant offering, he is inviting us to be that tangible reminder of God that lingers behind. When we respect the dignity of every human being, our Christian fragrant offering lingers behind. When we are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, our fragrant offering lingers behind. When we seek to imitate God in our lives, even as others see us fail and try again and again, our fragrant offering lingers behind. I am not saying our work on ourselves will be perfect right away – or even ever help us achieve that true fragrant offering. But what Paul encourages us to do is try. To put ourselves in places where we can grow in faith and love and mercy so that we can become those fragrant offerings that linger with others. And Paul knows we can do that work because God is with us to enable us. Our invitation today is to accept the challenge: to not leave behind the foul odors of anger, judgment, and malice, but through our baptismal-life striving through our faithful work on ourselves, to leave behind the fragrant scent of God. What happens after that is God’s work. Amen.