Monday, August 13, 2012

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost--Be Careful

Since school is starting again and first graders and college freshman and teachers are all getting ready—I remember reading about this little boy who came to school one morning with a paper sack filled with broken pieces of pottery. He told his teacher his mother and daddy had a fight the night before and the daddy threw a vase against the wall and it shattered. And the next morning their little boy gathered up the broken fragments, put the pieces in a sack and told his teacher he had to put them back together.

Aren’t we all like that in a way? We come here with these little sacks filled with the broken things of our lives. And we keep hoping that maybe, just maybe we might find a way to put the pieces back together again.  

And this is why the text in Ephesians is so important today. There may just be lurking in these words of Paul a word that God sends just to you and me. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus. That little house church was surrounded by a pagan culture. And there were an awful many things in their lives that they couldn’t seem to fix. Apostasy—falling away—was a serous problem for many. Something seemed to chip away at their very souls day after day. Could all those bits and pieces of their lives somehow find some solidity? That was the question underneath the conflict and heartbreak of Ephesus. What are we to do? What in the world can we do? 

So I think these words to the little church at Ephesus might just help us on our journeys, too. His words are found toward the end of his letter in Ephesians 5. 15-20. Their old friend gave them a warning:  Be careful, he said.  One version says: Take heed. Another version translates these words: Look therefore carefully. Another translator says: Take great care. But what I think Paul was trying to say was—I want you to listen. Once I worked with an old Preacher. Every Sunday as he preached he kept saying: “Are you listening? Are you listening?” That’s what Paul was saying: Be careful. This is important.

Be Wise 

And the first thing their former Pastor wrote was: Be careful how you live not as unwise people but as wise. Hee  reached back to his Jewish heri­tage and reclaimed an old, old word: wisdom. Now Ephesus knew about wisdom. Athens and Alexandria were the centers of wisdom in their day. They knew that wisdom meant: knowl­edge, head stuff, facts, or degrees. Intelligentsia. And what Paul reminded Ephesus was there is wisdom and there is wisdom.

Wisdom and wisdom? If he were talking to us I think he would not be talking about scanning the inter­net. He would not be talking about that multitude of how-to books or dragging at the Kindle or  I-pad to ferret out more information. Sometimes I think this information highway will bury us all.  Some of the people in Alexandria and Athens with the most frazzled lives were the most educated. There is wisdom and there is wisdom. We make the mistake of trying to link education with wisdom and these two words are not synonymous. Chad Walsh said once that he never really believed in the fall of man [sic] until he went to his first college faculty meeting. He should have tried some church business meetings I have endured. For you see we can be right and still be wrong. Paul shatters that myth of wisdom being merely head stuff.

 But if wisdom is not intel­lectual achievement what in the world is it? The wise people Paul talks about have the right attitude toward life. Maybe not attitude as much as spirit.  I've met old farmers out there in the field with a tractor that had as much real wisdom as anybody I know. You've met people like that.

Be careful, he says, how you look at the world. This is the real wisdom--to look out at the world as a child of God. To see your broth­ers and sisters everywhere. To know we are here to make a contribution--to give something back. It's not to let the world write our agenda. We seek a better way for ourselves and those we love. Be careful how you live understanding the real meaning of wisdom.

Make the Most of Your Time                     

The Congregational Leader continued to read Paul’s letter: Be careful that you make the most of the time. The old KJV used to say: Redeem the time. The more accurate translation may be: "Snap up all the available opportunities.” The Message by Eugene Peterson translates these words: “ So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get.” My wife and I spent many parts of our summers in New Jersey. And one of things we loved to do was to go this gigantic flea market outside Lambertville, New Jersey. And people were running around looking for bargains. And some of the folk were jerking and snatching some hideous things that I thought should have been consigned to the dump. Lamps made out of old fireplugs. Velvet pictures of Elvis as a baby with his mother. Huge backlighted pictures of Jesus. Boxes of buttons. 

Aren’t we much like that? Our lives are made up of a vast array of tables and choices. And I don’t know about you but I have picked up, along the way some things that I had no business carting home. Hurtful things. Selfish things. Embarrassing things. Broken things. I don't know why it is that so many us have to reach middle age before we realize how much we have collected along the way that had no meaning at all.

John Piper tell the story of this couple who had worked hard all their lives, raised their children and decided to take an early retirement. They moved to Punta Gorda, Florida in a gated community and spent their time cruising on their 30-foot trawler, playing softball one night a week, and collecting shells. They had the most beautiful collection of shells you have ever seen. Piper said that this is the American dream. And he goes on to say that this dream really is a tragedy. To come to the end of one’s life—with all the days and months and years behind them and stand before the Creator and say: “Look, look Lord see my shells.” And Piper reminds us that this just is not enough to show for a life. It is not enough. We are to use our time better than this.


Paul’s letter continued: Be careful how you live--do not be foolish--but understand what is the will of God.  Paul pleaded for the gift of discernment. Understanding. I think Paul was trying to say that we can begin to understand what God wants us to do with all those broken things in our sacks. What is God’s will for us right where we are?  Paul said it matters what we think about others, the world and ourselves. We believe we can under­stand the will of God and we be­lieve there is something healthy about that. We believe that Jesus was right when he said if we ask we receive, if we seek we shall find and if we keep on knocking on the door it will open. And he wasn’t talking about Cadillac’s or finding a parking place close to the store—he was talking about discern­ment.

            Patrick Overton understood this in his poem from The Learning Tree.  
            "When we walk to the edge of all
                        the light we have
             and take that step into the darkness
                        of the unknown,
             we must believe that one of two things
                        will happen--
             There will be something solid for us
                        to stand on
             Or, we will be taught how to fly."

Discernment is finding the way in a jungle of the world. We Christians are hopers. We really do believe that we can take whatever we hold in our sacks and find a way to make them bearable and meaningful.

Filled with the Spirit 

But: Paul was not through: Be careful, he said, not to be drunk with wine--but filled with the spirit. There was the cult of Dionysus that believed that wine-induced frenzies led to religious insight. That cult is still with us. We are not to use alcohol or any­thing else a substitute for coping. I have buried too many 48 year olds that drank themselves to death. They did not intend to do that. They were just trying to make it through the world. Paul says that alcohol is a very poor substitute for the spirit of God. But lest we get too pious, we know that life is filled with a whole table full of addictions. We all have them. Stuff--materialism; money--or the love of it; status--or the desire for it; or success or work or sex or just about anything. And some of these things can account for the broken pieces in our sacks.

So Paul used the phrase: filled with the spirit as opposed to so many other things. Remember what the word spirit means? God brings energy, breath, and life itself. So we are to find some healthy ways to let the spirit get a foothold into our lives. This spirit is comforter, healer, forgiver, energizer, teach­er, helper and friend. Paul reminded those in Ephesus that they could not find that spirit anywhere else.

Give Thanks

Paul then ended his sermon by saying:  Be careful how you live by giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. His word, thanksgiving reminds me of a little book called 365 Thank Yous. It was written by John Kralik about December 22, 2007 which was the darkest day in his life. His law firm was losing money and its lease. He was going through a difficult divorce and was completely broke. He found himself living in a tiny apartment where he slept on the flood u under an ancient air conditioner. He said his sons had nothing to do with him. It looked like everything in his sack was broken.

John Kralik was 52 years old and overweight and was exhausted. He owed $170,000 because clients had not paid what they owed. The lawyer said he did not know how he would tell the people that worked in his office that there would be no Christmas bonuses. He went up into the mountains just trying to think. He got lost and did not know if he could find his out of the wilderness. And he wrote that the strangest thing happened. A voice came to him that said: “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have you will not receive the things you want.” He thought he was losing his mind.

But he remembered his grandfather had told him once that being thankful was one of the important things in life. And his grandfather said, “I will give you a silver dollar and if you write me a thank you note I will give you another silver dollar.” And so Kralik said maybe he’d write a couple of people he was grateful for. But he began to think of his life and he decided he was more blessed than he realized. Maybe, he said, I will try to write a thank you note to someone everyday of the year.

As he sipped coffee he remembered that his son had given him a one-cup coffee maker the used every day. And so his first note was a thank-you to his long-estranged son. This began his journey of gratitude. Weeks later it dawned on him that the way he was looking at his life and it was off track. He wrote to friends, to college professors who had opened windows in his life. He wrote to his ex-wife even though their relationship was poor. As he wrote he wrote he remembered the good times. There were notes to doctors and people in stores that had been kind to him. He looked back and said in 15 months he had written 365 thank you notes.

Slowly he wrote that life began to change.  Not fast. But ever so slow. And out of that experience he wrote this book about his long and winding journey with gratitude. Paul was right: gratitude is at the heart of a good life.

But that Sunday the congregation at Ephesus received Paul’s letter, their leader unrolled the papyrus scroll, carefully so he would not break the parchment. He began to read: “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 will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit…giving thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  So their service ended, and secretly they began to slip out one by one for Rome would not approve. But they went their separate ways a little more hopeful that when anger and envy and lust and gluttony and greed knocked on their doors. They would not lose heart. But they would be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. They would put on the whole armor of God. They would bow their heads and give thanks that in the economy of God’s love it would be enough.

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