Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 16, 2015

2015.08.16 “Walk This Way” – Ephesians 5: 15 – 20

Central United Methodist Church
Walk This Way
Pastor David L. Haley
Ephesians 5: 15 – 20
August 16th, 2015

Ephesians5

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, the New Revised Standard Version

One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending upon how you look at it) of growing up in Kentucky was the necessity of learning to “watch where you walk,” due to the prevalence of snakes, in a more temperate climate. In addition to non-poisonous snakes like Black Racers, Kentucky has three poisonous snakes; copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins.

Because of this, whenever we walked in the woods, we had to pay attention. For example, once while walking down a creek bed in the fall, my cousin Bill almost stepped on a copperhead perfectly camouflaged by the leaves, and probably would have if a friend had not grabbed him at the last moment. To this day – even up here in Illinois – whenever I walk in the woods I watch where I step.

Those of you from tropical countries with even more poisonous snakes – like Africa, India, or the Philippines – know what I’m talking about. In Africa, I once heard a story about a line of men walking through a field of grass, when suddenly the lead man began to dance: turns out he stumbled upon a cobra.

In the years since, I’ve had other occasions to “watch how I walk.” On a trek in the Himalayas, for example, I carefully walked a rocky trail up the mountain only a few feet wide, with a steep precipice on one side. Fail to choose your step carefully, and you might stumble, and fall off the side. Occasionally you would meet a farmer with a team of yaks (something that doesn’t happen much in Kentucky or Illinois) and you quickly learned to pass the yaks on the mountain side rather than the cliff side, for reasons that should be obvious. So whether due to snakes or yaks, watch your step!

Watching our step, wherever we go and whatever we do, is also the advice given us by St. Paul today, in the six short verses we read from his Letter to the Ephesians. In fact, this is exactly how Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:  “So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times!”

Of course St. Paul is not talking about either snakes or yaks, but how we live our lives. According to Paul, for the sake of our lives in general and our Christian lives in particular, if we want to be wise, there are two things about which we need to be intentional.

The first of these things about which we need to be intentional is to “Be careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

I’m not sure what in particular St. Paul was referring to when he said the days are evil; Paul, like most early Christians believed that were living in apocalyptic times, awaiting the return of Christ, and that therefore “normal” life was suspended.

But I do know this; whether the days are evil or not, they are short and finite, and the older we get the more we experience that the days are not long enough to get everything done that we often desire to do. I once read about a man who calculated – based upon how long it took him to read a book – how many more books he would be able to read in his life.  It made him much more selective.

The days are also full of the mundane and the trivial, often crowding out that which is most important. Many years ago I read a short pamphlet called “Tyranny of the Urgent,” based upon exactly this text, and that was its point. In our lives there is this tyranny of the urgent, that which calls for our attention right now: this plea, that task, this deadline; but the sad thing is that the urgent may crowd out that which is important: what we really need to be doing for our sake or for the sake of those we love or the best use of our limited time and energy.  As we come to learn with experience – to say “yes” to one thing is almost always to say “no” to another, which may actually be more important in the scale of things.

And remember – most of Paul’s nouns and verbs are plural, not singular; he’s not addressing us only as individuals, but as congregations and communities of faith. It is very true that we as congregations can get tunnel vision over inconsequential things – the color of the carpet or the proper vestment to wear or the management structure finely tuned – that we miss what is really happening in our communities and in our pews and even in our lives. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Christians and churches since have often returned the favor.

It is for such reason that we must be intentional, “careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Carpe diem: “seize the day.” What is your method of “watching your step,” “making the most of your time,” and sorting out that which is truly important, from that which is merely trivial?

It’s unclear whether what Paul says next -“So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” – should be understood as a reiteration of what he just said, or as an introduction to what he’s about to say; maybe both.  I like how Eugene Peterson puts it: “Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.”

If there is anything the Master wants and doesn’t want – what the will of the Lord is – it’s what St. Paul says next:  “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.”  We don’t use that word “debauchery” often (at least I don’t) – except in regard to politicians, and that’s probably a good thing.  Again, I like how Eugene Peterson translates it: “Don’t drink too much wine; that cheapens your life.” Isn’t that the truth?

A few months ago, I heard the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. George Valliant say that from his studies about men over the course of their lives, whatever their problems were, once they started heavy self medication, that became THE problem, and the first one that now had to be dealt with regardless of whatever other problems they had. Or to put it another way: Their problems were the consequence of their drinking; their drinking was not the consequence of their problems, as they often claimed. As I once heard a fireman say, “I have a favorite counselor: his name is Johnnie Walker.” Unfortunately, that likely creates more problems than it solves.

However, I believe St. Paul brought up intoxication not to go on about the evils of alcohol, but to provide a parallel image for intoxication by God’s Spirit, which is the second thing Paul calls us to be intentional about: “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  What Paul is saying is this: the Christian life should be a life of exuberant joy.

What does that look like and how do we do it? For most of us the understanding of what it means to be “Spirit filled” is confusing. The rise and spread of Pentecostalism in our time (a very recent movement, by the way, which only began with the Azusa Street revival in California in 1906), makes us think that to be “spirit filled” is to speak in tongues and lose bodily control and fall in the floor. What Paul says here is considerably different.  Spirit-filled behavior, is not something that happens in solitude, but when we gather together, especially for worship, overflowing with song and Scripture, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything.

There are few Christian denominations for whom Paul’s exhortation has been more true than for us as for Methodists. This was the reason the 18th century founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, invested so much effort and energy in composing, teaching, and publishing collections of hymns for the people called Methodists. For them, it mattered deeply that we sing together, as Paul commends here, and also what we sing. For the Wesley’s, what we sing must be that which tends toward and supports “social religion”; that is, religion in which sisters and brothers in Christ are actively watching over and building up one another in love and good works.

This is also why these collections of hymns were made to be sung not only at meetings, but also as part of the daily practice of individual Methodist, wherever they would go. The form of the hymnals was of such a size as to fit in a pocket so that more and more these psalms and hymns and spiritual songs could become their “playlist”, and the collection as a whole their “iPod,” so to speak. (Taylor Burton-Edwards, lectionary comments at umdiscipleship.org, August 16th, 2015)

Can I just lament for a moment what has happened to music in so much contemporary worship today? So often, it runs to either end of the spectrum: either it is about “me, me, me”, or is a complete performance, which no ones knows and no one can sing.  If Christian worship goes that way, we lose something important, that which St. Paul urges us to be intentional about here in Ephesians, that we “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among ourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts.”

Why is this important?  Because of Paul’s last point: a singing heart is a thankful heart: “Giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yes, I know what you know, that terrible things that happen in life, holocausts and war and the death of innocent children, for which I don’t think I could ever, ever, be thankful, if it happened to me.  But I also know that our experiences of life – including the bad ones – are shaped by what we bring to it, how we receive it, and how we respond to it. To a significant extent, our experience of life is what we make of it. And sometimes the best thing to make of it is to give thanks to God for it, even when we don’t understand it.

Stephen Mitchell, in his book The Gospel According to Jesus, shared this story:

Long ago there lived a woman named Sono, whose devotion and purity of heart were respected far and wide.  One day a fellow Buddhist, having made a long trip to see her, asked, “What can I do to put my heart at rest?” Sono said, “Every morning and every evening, and whenever anything happens to you, keep on saying, “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.”  The man did as he was instructed, for a whole year, but his heart was still not at peace.  He returned to Sono, crestfallen.  “I’ve said your prayer, over and over, and yet nothing in my life has changed. I’m still the same selfish person as before.  What should I do now?” Sono immediately said, “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.” On hearing these words, the man was able to open his spiritual eye, and returned home with great joy. (Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 78.)

What does a spirit-filled church look like? A group of people who look a lot like you and me, who – by the grace of God – are careful how we live, making the most of the time by being filled with the spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that arise out of genuinely grateful hearts.  May God give us grace that we may walk this way. Amen.

 

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