Sermon on Lectionary for 20th Ordinary, B, Aug. 16, 2009, Ephesians 5:15-20

Ephesians 5:15-20

Always?  Everything?

"thanks"
"thanks"

the days are evil” – I wonder how that phrase strikes you.  What do you think about first?  The evil in the world at large – terrorism, war, starvation, the economic  crisis?  Or maybe evil closer at hand – people up the road getting murdered in their own home, break-in attempts against homes of our own people within the last couple of weeks, drugs, our prison-system crisis?  Or maybe you think of evil in terms of things that have happened in your own family; things that have been done or said to you, or to your children, or even by them.  “The days are evil” – it would be hard to find a person who could mount an argument against that opinion.

Even if the external world were not a place of such evil but rather a perfect place of peace, security and prosperity, we would still have to deal with our inernal sense that the days are evil: we are finite; limited – our reach always exceeds our grasp.  And we are mortal.  We will not live forever.  Our bodies will eventually break down, no matter what we do to forestall it, and eventually all of us will go “the way of all flesh.”

The thing is, the days have always been evil, haven’t they?  Charles Dickens, long ago, could begin his Tale of Two Cities with that famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...”.  It has always been “the worst of times…the age of foolishness” – at least in some respects.

What we have before us is a paragraph addressed to a small Christian community which felt surrounded and threatened by by the evil-ness of the days they lived in, whose words apply remarkably to the days we live in.  In order to deal with “evil days” we need this text, so let us look at it together.

Just like Charles Dickens, the apostle Paul (assuming he is the author, for convenience sake) thinks of wisdom and foolishness in connection to living in “evil days.”

15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,

17So do not be foolish…

Wisdom and foolishness are not about intelligence, but are really moral categories.  (The concepts come directly from Israel’s “wisdom literature” tradition  – which she shared with the other nations of the ancient Near East as well).  They are not about what a person knows or doesn’t know, but about how a person behaves.  Wise people do the right thing, even while living in “evil days”; foolish people get caught-up in the zeitgeist of the evil days, to their own destruction.

The Path of Escaping Pain

So what is the wise path, in these “evil days”?  Paul starts with a “not that way” before he gets to “but this way”.   The “not that way” is the foolish path of attempted escapism.  It is foolish to try to dull the pain caused by the “evil days”.

18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery;

Wine is all the ancient world could offer as anesthesia; we of course have far more options.  It is not only the fact that we have so many more chemical inebriants than simple alcohol available to us today, but also the fact that we have so many other options for pain avoidance.  Escapism can take many forms, from substance abuse to work-aholism, or even to non-stop media distraction – there are probably as many means of escape as there are people who want to take one.  And like alcohol, many turn out to be addicting as well.

But pain-avoidance and escapism never work.  However this is not a lesson in pragmatism.  Pain-avoidance and escapism are unsuccessful, but that’s not why they are foolish.  Foolishness remember is a moral category; escapism, whether through drunkenness or any other form entails what this text calls “debauchery.” This word means something a lot deeper than dancing on the table top with a lamp shade on your head – or even than waking up next to someone you don’t know; it includes any kind of behavior that disregards the consequences.   In other words the person does something to escape from the pile of problems, and makes the pile larger in the process – hurting themselves and causing pain to others.   Escapism is not merely unsuccessful, it is foolish – that is, wrong- because it does damage.

It could very well be the case that when we started reflecting on the ways in which the days are “evil,” the pain you were thinking of was caused by your, or someone else’s attempt to escape their pain.  We can be our own worst enemies.

The wise way

Is there another way to deal  with the pain caused by “evil days”?  Yes there is, but it requires an act of irony.  It requires that we refuse to focus on the evil-ness of the days.  Yes, the days are evil, but the fact is that focusing on the evil will simply drive you to want to find an escape from it, (like getting drunk with wine, or whatever).   Instead, the way of wisdom – the morally good way – is the the way of thankfulness.

2 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you know that being a clergy person is dangerous – at least it is dangerous for clergy.  The reason is that there is a constant temptation for clergy to become comfortable with the  sacred.  Things that in reality are utterly profound can seem common after frequent exposure.  It is the same human tendency that we all have – to  loose the “awe” we felt when we first came to the beach and saw the ocean (or Gulf) from having lived in the mid-west.

The same danger applies to all of us here: there is an utterly profound truth here, that can get lost in the crowd of our frequent use of the “thank you.”  We say thank you to clerks and waiters; we teach our children to say thank you; it’s what they learn to say when we say, “What do you say?” – “thank you”.

There are, in fact two profound levels to thankfulness that we need to understand, that are far deeper than mere politeness.  God is not like a touchy grandfather that will be hurt or offended if we forget to say “thank you” for the Christmas sweater – that is not what this is about.  Rather, the first level of thankfulness is refusing to be overwhelmed by the evil, but rather intentionally calling to mind the good.  Yes there are wars going on now, but thank God we are in the line of fire.  Yes there is starvation, but thank God, we have food at hand.

Yes there is an economic crisis, but we are not standing in line at a soup kitchen, and we will not be sleeping on the  street tonight.  Yes there are broken relationships in our families, but we are, right now, in the presence of people who love us.  We do not have to obsess about the evil – it is there – we do not deny it or pretend it is either not there, or that it is not evil – but neither do we allow it to consume us.  On the worst days of our lives, we are still surrounded by awesome beauty – in every leaf, in every cloud, in every fingerprint.

The path of wisdom is to lift up our eyes to the Maker and to be thankful for every breath drawn, every bite swallowed, every moment of peaceful rest.  Thankfulness, it turns out, is not trivial at all, but deeply profound.  Thankfulness involves an entirely different orientation to the world – a God-focused one.  Even in “evil days” we are the constant recipients of goodness.  Giving thanks is our defiant assertion of that good, and of its Source, in the face of difficulty and pain.

Thankfulness: level 2

There is a deeper level of thankfulness that Paul asserts here – one so deep that initially it sounds merely like hyperbole; overstatement for effect, but in reality gets to the heart of our very existence.  Listen again to the text:

2 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

at all times and for everything”

This moves us beyond thankfulness for the flowers and the sunsets.  This actually brings us back to the evil of the days, and the pain it causes.  Painful times are included in the phrase “at all times” and pain itself is included in “everything”.

at all times and for everything”

The deepest thankfulness is in thanking God even for the things that we normally would be looking for an escape from; thanking God for the very things that make us want to get anesthetized and forget.

This level of thankfulness is only possible for people who have accepted the ultimate mystery of God’s involvement in our world and in our lives.  And it is a mystery.  Though we pray against all forms of suffering – our own and others’ – we all do suffer.  Though we pray to stay healthy and alive, we all get sick and die.  And somehow, we believe that our lives are nevertheless in the care, custody and control of God whose defining characteristic is love, and who is always and only good.  We believe what Paul said elsewhere,

“….all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)

This is the level of thankfulness that Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations found, as he wrote this utterly profound prayer:

“For everything that has been; thanks.

For everything that will be; yes.”

This is not a human achievement; this is the work, as Paul indicates, of the Holy Spirit, filling a person who is willing to be wise in the context of evil days.

Let us begin to take this deep path of profound thanksgiving “at all times and for everything” in just a moment, as we join our hearts and voices in song: as the apostle says:

18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 2 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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2 thoughts on “Sermon on Lectionary for 20th Ordinary, B, Aug. 16, 2009, Ephesians 5:15-20

  1. Romans 8:28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.

    Thanks Steven, I’m going to steal the escapism reference for getting drunk. Hadn’t thought about how alcohol was really the only escape of the day but today there are many more. That’s very helpful and really broadens the application to something more than just it’s OK to drink wine but don’t over do it.

    Also – I’ve appreciated vs 29 of Romans 8 too where it seems “good” is defined as “conformed into the image of the Son”. In this way we can give thanks for all things because God is working to redeem every experience in our lives to conform us to Christ. I always appreciated your insight. Does that fly with you or do you think I’m reading too much into it?

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