Sunday, August 19, 2012

Because the days are evil

Rooted in Scripture
Ephesians 5:15-20

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After three months away on sabbatical,
it’s great to be back with you, my church family.
It’s been good to connect with many of you personally
during the last week or so,
or in committee meetings and such.
And now, I have to say,
it’s good to be standing behind this pulpit again.
I’m keenly aware that this is an awesome responsibility, 
and a privilege most people don’t get—
that you invite me, on a regular basis,
to stand here, and share my thinking and convictions with you,
and that you willingly listen.

So as I take my place here again, there are two things I want to say
. . . about preaching.
First, I don’t take this responsibility too lightly.
It’s a privilege. There is power in words.
You have granted me this power.
So I want to respect that, and use this power carefully.
Second, I don’t take this responsibility too seriously.
Because while I am the one speaking now,
I am only one voice in this community of believers.
Your voices are also important, and necessary,
for good community discernment on the will of God.
I don’t always get it right.
I like to think of my sermons as just the first part
of a ongoing conversation.
So I hope you speak back to me about what you hear,
and that you speak to each other, as well.
I’m glad there are two S.S. classes
that devote most of their time to sermon discussion.
But there are other ways for the conversation to continue,
and I hope you avail yourselves of those opportunities,
be they in Sunday School, in small groups, at dinner tables,
on morning walks with friends,
or whatever opportunity comes along.
_____________________

That being said, let me share my thoughts 
about the scriptures we heard today.
We heard a reading from Ephesians, for the third Sunday in a row.
Today it was Ephesians 5:15-20,
and that’s where I will focus my thoughts.

The reading began with these words,
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

I think there is no matter of deeper concern to church-going Christians
than figuring out how to go about living in this broken world
in a way that brings happiness, meaning, and purpose.

Of course, that’s a question that’s common to all human beings, 
not just Christians.
Christians have certain ways of framing the question,
such as, how can my life be pleasing to God,
or how can I follow Jesus in my daily life?
But virtually all human beings—
at least, reasonably healthy human beings—
are seeking a place in this world
where they can find a true sense of belonging, 
of meaning, of purpose, of lasting happiness.

And since we’re all looking for these things,
there are, as we might expect, 
all kinds of folks more than ready to tell us where to find them.
There are many people, and lots of groups, 
and countless religious, political, and social institutions
who apparently know the answer to life’s questions,
if we would only just listen, and believe.
And there are countless car companies, beer companies,
and pharmaceutical companies, and other commercial entities,
who know exactly what we should buy, consume, or believe 
in order to be happy.
Not to mention, there are some people running for public office . . . 
. . . in case you hadn’t heard,
and the SuperPACs that support them,
who must know a lot about what we need for happiness,
or more accurately, they know a lot about
who will certainly lead us down a road of utter destruction
and unmitigated disaster for the human race.

So this morning I’d like to lift up for our consideration,
these words attributed to the apostle Paul,
in a letter to Christian residents of Ephesus.
Ephesus was without a doubt the most important city in Asia Minor,
during the time of the Roman Empire.
A center of commerce, and religion, and philosophy,
Christians in Ephesus had all the same outside pressures we have,
although they took different forms.
They had the religious powers-that-be,
the commercial entities,
the political bodies,
and all kinds of other influences,
who were peddling for profit,
one answer or another, to the question,
“What do I need for happiness?”

So Paul wrote them this immensely practical, and pastoral, letter.
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,
making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

Because the days are evil.
That’s a fascinating phrase. “The days are evil.”
Paul is not necessarily talking about evil people.
Or specific evil deeds.
Or evil corporate entities.
Or evil systems of belief.
Those evil things existed, of course.
Paul names some of them elsewhere.
But here, he says the “days are evil.”
I think he’s talking about a pervasive evil 
in the very cultural ethos of that era.
I think he’s saying, “Sisters and brothers of Ephesus,
the very cultural air we breathe,
day in and day out,
make these dangerous times for Christians.
Followers of Jesus are being pulled away,
veering off the Jesus path,
by assumptions that rule the day.
The days have become evil.”

I don’t think our situation today is much different.
Probably not much worse.
Certainly no better.

We live and move and have our being 
in a cultural ethos,
that goes against the way of Jesus.
It simply does.
It opposes what Jesus demonstrated and stood for.
Things like servanthood.
Things like giving high regard to the poor and marginalized.
Things like responding to hate with love,
to violence with kindness,
to prejudice with embrace,
to greed with generosity,
to death with life.

How do we Christians, when the days are evil,
figure out how to live well, and flourish?
_____________________

It seems to me that today there are two ways Christians err,
in trying to figure this out.
Two very different ways that we commonly get off track,
when the days are evil.
And I think we see evidence in scripture 
that the early Christians did the same.

One way I might call “spiritual escapism.”
If everything and everyone in the world is evil,
then the answer is finding a different world to live in.
So the messy here and now of this world is just rejected,
and we create and inhabit an alternate, spiritual world.
We ignore this world, because it’s going to hell in a handbasket,
and we focus only on things spiritual.
We can’t change the world around us,
so we just make things right with Jesus in our heart,
and leave it at that.
We can’t alter the dead-end course of history,
so we just sing songs about flying away to heaven,
where everything is whole and beautiful.
Rather than living in the present, we live in the by-and-by.

That’s the ditch on one side of the road.
And on the other side of the road, some fall in a different ditch.
It’s what I might call “human idealism.”
We recognize there is some brokenness in this world we live in, 
but God leaves it up to us to fix it.
We have the skills and know-how,
so let’s all get to work and make this world a better place,
a more just and peaceable place.
We need to do it, we can do it, 
all that’s lacking is determination and human action.

I have a feeling that some Christians,
who fell in the first ditch, the spiritual escapism,
might read Ephesians 5 and say, “ah-hah! that’s right”—
“The days are evil, 
so let’s be filled with the Spirit and sing songs and hymns, 
until the day we are rescued out of this evil world.”
While the Christians in the other ditch,
might push this text aside, and not quite know what to do with it.
It does seem to suggest that the way we combat the evil,
is by turning to the spiritual—
singing psalms and spiritual songs, worshiping, 
giving God thanks, focusing on “things above,”
that is, being “filled with the Spirit.”

But . . . before anyone gets any ideas that being “filled with the Spirit,”
is a way to escape the harsh realities of life when the days are evil,
let’s just review a few stories in the Bible,
where it said people were “filled with the Spirit,”
and see what all they escaped.

The Old Testament prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Micah, Amos—
were said to be “filled with the Spirit.”
When the Spirit filled them,
they delivered all kinds of unpopular messages—
pointing out sin, condemning injustice, 
announcing doom and death to royalty.
Consequently they were often driven out of town
barely escaping with their lives,
living on meager rations of a kind widow,
or a raven sent by God.

We read in Luke 1, 
that Zechariah and Elizabeth were filled with the Spirit,
as was their son John the Baptist.
What followed was a life of hardship for John,
and heartache for his parents.
John’s Spirit-filled preaching
got him thrown into prison, and eventually beheaded.

Jesus himself was filled with the Spirit, we read in Luke 4.
And he was promptly sent into the desert.
Being Spirit-filled earned Jesus forty days of hunger, thirst,
and multiple assaults by Satan in the wilderness.
And right after that we are told that Jesus, 
“filled with the power of the Spirit,”
returned to Galilee, and began to teach in their synagogues.
Immediately the opposition moved in,
his own townspeople tried to throw him off a cliff.
He escaped, but it only got worse.

The first believers in the early church
were all filled with the Spirit, we read in Acts 2.
They had sweet fellowship with each other,
but a terrible period of persecution and terrorism
was unleashed on members of this radical community.

Peter, while he was making his defense before the authorities,
according to Acts 4, was filled with the Spirit.
Immediately, they threw him in prison.

Stephen, one of the first deacons,
was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6).
He began to preach the gospel,
and was stoned to death.

And Saul, after being prayed for by Ananias,
regained his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit, it says.
His spirit-filled preaching and evangelistic work
resulted in him being imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned,
shipwrecked, and, in his own words from 2 Corinthians,
“in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, 
danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, 
danger in the city, danger in the wilderness,
danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night,
hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”

These words are from the same person who,
in today’s reading from Ephesians 5,
tells us to be “filled with the Spirit.”
Escapism? Hardly.

Paul’s answer, in Ephesians, on how to live when the days are evil,
is nothing short of genius.
He charts a path down the middle
that avoids the ditch on either side.
We don’t seek a spiritual escape.
Nor do we just try harder to be good, and make the world better.

Paul acknowledges precisely where the power for good comes from.
It comes from a life yielded wholly to the risen Christ.
And a life fully engaged with the messy hard reality 
of life here and now, when the days are evil.
We are precisely not supposed to try an escape.
Instead, we are told,
“make the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
Redeem the time.
Ransom the minutes and hours.
“Seize the day!” or “Carpe diem,” 
to use words that were already written by the Roman poet,
Horace, which Paul may have known and read.

The stance of the faithful Christian, then and now,
is a stance of full attention to the world around,
full, conscious, and deliberate engagement with the world.
Not in spite of the fact that the days are evil,
but because the days are evil.

I think this a wonderful invitation,
and a powerful challenge to the church of today.

We cannot blind ourselves 
from the pervasive sin, and brokenness, and evil that fills our days.

But the faithful response 
is neither spiritual escapism, or human idealism.
It is neither to turn our back to the world, while singing of heaven,
nor to combat evil with our own determination 
and good intentions.

It is to engage in the spiritual and communal practices of our faith.
That is Paul’s specific challenge here:
Engage in the spiritual and communal practices of our faith.
Ground ourselves in and among the people and practices
that define who we are.
Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
right in the face of the evil around us.
See the brokenness, in all of its raw ugliness, 
then consciously turn to the one and true healer,
consciously turn, as a community,
“giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

You see, giving thanks in all things,
is not the result of successfully taking our attention off the evil.
It’s the result of seeing the evil full on,
while seeing ourselves in community,
in partnership with a powerful, saving God,
who is making things right, in this world and the next.

Hallelujah!

We need not live in fear of the present world around us,
and all the evil that lurks there.
We need not live in fear of some imagined evil future,
where the presidency is given back to the Republicans,
or where it stays with the Democrats.
We need not live in a spiritual or religious bubble,
isolated from those who think differently from us,
or behave differently.
We need not live in fear.
We are called to live in a state of continual thanksgiving.

Paul teaches here in v. 18 that we should not get drunk with wine,
which is debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit.
It seems clear why he mentions drunkenness in this context.
The sin of drunkenness, 
is not because the alcohol is evil in itself,
and drinking it taints us with evil.
The sin is in allowing a substance—any substance—
alcohol, drugs, food, sex, wealth—
to ever induce in us a state of drunken 
distraction from reality.
Drunkenness prevents us from being attentive.
It prevents us from depending on God, with true thanksgiving.
That kind of drunkenness is an escape. 
And Paul rightly condemns it.

The alternative is being filled with the Spirit,
which does the opposite,
lets us see reality in all its true ugliness, 
and in all the true beauty that it can become
in the powerful hands and saving arm
of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And it calls us to worship and thanksgiving.
It draws us toward the light, which is Jesus Christ.

Let us turn to STJ 97,
and sing, with our whole hearts, and attentive minds,
“The Lord is my Light, and my salvation.”

—Phil Kniss, August 19, 2012


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