22 August 2012

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost - "Sing a Better Song"

Preaching Text:  Ephesians 5.6-20

          I’d like to start this morning by doing something of a recap of where we’ve been these last five weeks in Ephesians, and not just for those of you who’ve had to miss a Sunday or two because of a wedding or vacation or whatever.  This has to do with the structure of this letter and what’s going on in it – the letter to the Ephesians is carefully constructed, built with definite intent to emphasize certain aspects of this church’s life together and what that says about the God who has made them one.  A review, then, of what we’ve seen and heard.
            In Ephesians 1 we talked about adoption, about what it means to be a people of God grafted onto the tree that was the Israelites from centuries ago.  We talked about what it would have been like to be a house church gathering to read a letter from our founding pastor, and how things would have been so very different in a culture where our faith in Jesus might have literally been dangerous for us and for our families. 
            In Ephesians 2 we talked about being a family of faith, bound together by blood – the blood of Jesus makes us one.  Both Kristin and I, when we preached on this chapter, lifted up the ELCA Youth Gathering as an example of how big and colorful this family of faith really is.  It’s much more than just our small gathering here in Story City on Sunday mornings: we are part of an international family that lives together in faith seven days a week.  Remember, we’re gumbo:  everyone belongs and everyone adds their own special flavor to the mix.  I was going to say we’re a potluck dinner, because I love potluck dinners, but that’s not good enough, really:  you can pick and choose what you like at a potluck, and that’s not what God is up to here.  God’s making gumbo:  it all goes in the pot together, and you can’t pick and choose what you like in this family of faith!
            In Ephesians 3 we talked about unlearning what we have learned about faith and life and how it all fits together.  I got to talk about Star Wars, which always makes me happy, but more importantly, Ephesians 3 reminds us that it is God who has triumphed over evil – the church gathers to celebrate that triumph.  We are not called to galaxies far, far away to battle the forces of darkness on God’s behalf.  God has already won the battle: we are called to lay down our lightsabers, to trust in God and live humbly and peacefully as God’s people after the war has been won.
            Last week, as we looked at Ephesians 4, we talked about the Olympics and what it means to be part of a global community of faith.  If you remember, the Olympics celebrates the best of what we hope to achieve, but at its best it is NOT about defeating your opponent.  Rather, we looked at those Olympic moments that celebrate the vitality, creativity and spirit we all share as members of the human race, gathered together in a gigantic, colorful community where old boundaries, divisions and hatreds can begin to be broken down.  For us, the church gathered, it is Christ who makes us one, who calls us all together to proclaim his victory over sin and death, and it happens every week in churches all over the world.
            This is where we’ve been in this letter to the church in Ephesus.  Here’s why it matters:  if you start with our reading from this morning, without everything that comes before it, you could easily turn this wonderful letter of love and adoption into a harsh demand for self-righteousness and exclusion.  It’s important to put the emphAHsis on the right sylLAble, as my choir director used to say – so we remind ourselves where we’ve been before we hear our reading this morning. 
This picture’s been floating around on Facebook this week.  (BONHOEFFER PIC)  As you all get to know me better as your pastor, you’ll come to hear a LOT about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but that’s not why this picture is important this morning.  It’s important because it illustrates both the danger and the opportunity present in our following of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we pay too much attention to avoiding sin and evil, life becomes a never-ending game of Pac-Man:  make one wrong move and it’s all over.  One of my favorite illustrations of this comes from Father Robert Farrar Capon:
“If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do.  The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom.  It has spent so much time inculcating in us fear of making mistakes that it has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our pieces, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in Dutch.  The church…has been so afraid we will lose sight of the laws of our nature that it has made us care more about how we look than about who we are—made us act more like the subjects of a police state than fellow citizens of the saints.
”..there is one thing we will need from here on out: to live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home.  My repentance, accordingly, is not so much for my failings but for the two-bit attitude toward them by which I made them more sovereign than grace.  Grace—the imperative to hear the music, not just listen for errors—makes all infirmities occasions of glory.”[1]
Well and good, Father Capon – but how do we get there from Ephesians 5?  How do we play the song right when the days are evil?  I sat over at the parsonage all afternoon on Friday, trying to figure out how I was going to get here.  If we’re not careful, we turn into exactly what Father Capon and Dr. Bonhoeffer warned us against:  the piano teacher with the ruler in her hand, ready to smack the knuckles of anyone who steps out of line.  That’s not living – that’s avoiding. 
            Thankfully, preachers never venture into the text alone, particularly if they can use the internet.  Every week I listen to a podcast from Luther Seminary called Sermon Brainwave, and when I’d finally had enough Friday afternoon, I went into the kitchen, queued up the podcast again and started making potato salad.  Finally, one sentence by Dr. Rolf Jacobsen brought it home for me:  “Sing a better song.”  Boom.  Sermon done.
            Sing a better song.  “Make the most of your time, for the days are evil.”  If we are going to live well as followers of Jesus Christ together, then it isn’t enough to just march through our lives saying, “Don’t do that.”  Wisdom does not come to those raised in a vacuum – wisdom comes from a life lived in the world.  Sing a better song.  It’s not enough for the church to become the disapproving nanny who traps her charges in their rooms and won’t let them out until they’ve eaten all their brussel sprouts – we are called to invite the world into something better than what they already know.  Sing a better song – and as we sing, teach the world to join in the song.
            This is why a recap of this letter to the Ephesians is so important:  we need to remember to keep things in order so we can sing with joy and without fear.  This letter starts with what God has done, and then moves to living with wisdom.  Those of us who’ve been in the church for a while often forget that it is God who brings us here, God who makes us one, God who calls us to sing with love.  Sing a better song.  Life in the darkness of sin and evil is not what we’re created for – but the world will not know it if all we do is point out what’s wrong.  Sing a better song.  God has made us one in Christ, adopted us into the great chorus of the saints.  We belong.  No evil can harm us.  No sin can take us out of God’s hands.  Even death itself cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Sing a better song.  Sing about what you love, about what God has done for you, about what God is up to in the world.  The very breath you breathe is a gift from God:  use it to make a joyful noise in thankfulness for what God has given you.  Sing a better song, about the family of faith God has brought together here, about the gumbo that is our church, and give thanks, people of God:  the very song you sing comes from God’s gracious love for you.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace, p. 149