Ephesians 5:15-20 - Lesson for Our Time
If you’ve been here for a while, you’re probably already aware of what I’m about to go over with you, but if you’ve been here only a few months or attend sporadically, this may be new information.
Either way, if you’ve ever wondered how I choose the Scripture that is the basis of my sermon each week, it generally happens like this: there’s a list of readings for each Sunday and holy day and the list is called the Lectionary. Pastors who follow the legionary are following a schedule that gets us through the better part of the New Testament every three years and a large chunk of the Old Testament over the course of a decade. There are four readings assigned to each Sunday: Old Testament, like Genesis or Amos; a reading from the Psalms, Proverbs, or a few other similar books; a Gospel lesson, and a reading from the Epistles. I used to use each assigned reading in the service every week. Lots of churches do just that. Part of my sermon writing was working them all into the same sermon. Sometimes, that’s easy. They often connect in an obvious way. Sometimes, it was a struggle because there was no clear connection. Eventually, because of feedback I got from those who were members here 20-odd years ago, I switched to speaking on just one of the four lections. For a while, I listed the others and suggested you read them at home. I don’t know if anyone ever did, but there’s always hope that you actually want to know what was between the covers of the story of God’s people which we call The Bible.
The other part of this is that, since we often have a newsletter, I try to have a working title and outline for publication in the newsletter of what I’m going to speak about based on that Scripture for every Sunday. Since I had to have all that ready for the July-August issue, that means that the sermons I’ve been giving on Ephesians over the last few weeks were actually started back in mid-June. I didn’t have all the details worked out by any means, but I did have that title and general idea of where it was going back in mid-June.
So, way back then, the reading from the four options that I chose for today was Ephesians 5:15-20 in which Paul wrote about what evil times the church in Ephesus was living through. Scholars tell us that this letter probably circulated among a number of little churches back around the end of the first century, but the focus was that one struggling little congregation we’ve been looking at over the last month. They were struggling, not only because of the way the world around them was treating their church, but also because of the way they were handling – or really, mishandling – their internal issues. So there was pressure both from within and from without. Evil times indeed.
When I write a sermon, I try to tell you something about what was going on when the Scripture it’s based on was written, and then I try to connect that to something we might experience here and now.
And sometimes, things happen between the time I started writing and the time I actually stand here and talk to you about that Scripture lesson and how it applies to us. Over the last week, things have happened here that bring Paul’s words about living in evil times pretty close to home – in fact, right to our meeting house doors. Because, we use to have a pride flag at our center door. That disappeared sometimes around a week and a half ago. Then, on Monday morning as I drove in, I saw that the big God Is Still Speaking in gay pride colors banner had been cut off and stolen. This constitutes what we now call a hate crime. Evil times, Paul might have said. The question is, “how do we respond?”
The church in Ephesus would probably not have handled this well at all. They seemed to have no competent leadership, no ability to focus on issues without getting personal and even nasty about it, and so, no ability to show the community around them anything that would make Jesus – not to mention Paul – proud of them. Paul had to come out and tell them; “Act like people with good sense and not like fools. . . . Don’t be stupid.” Apparently, when trouble came to the church of the Ephesians, their first response was to break out the booze and go way downhill from there. I guess that’s one way to run a church meeting. You may not solve many problems that way, but hey – if you can’t remember what they were – no problem!
Clearly, Paul was not impressed with the way they handled their problems. So he offered them an alternative approach to dealing with them; “When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Praise the Lord with all your heart. Thank God for everything.” Among other things, that approach to problem solving shifts the focus, doesn’t it? It says, whatever we do, we do as God’s people. Our personal responses need to be in that context – that sense of who we are, always guided by the sense that God really is walking beside us in every step we take and every word we say. Because whatever else we are, we are a worshipping community, and if what we say or do doesn’t reflect God’s grace, then it’s the wrong response. Paul had to lay that out for the Ephesians. I learned a new internet expression a couple of weeks ago – smh – when I first saw that, my response was, “Can I sell you some vowels?” My daughter enlightened me. Smh stands for “shake my head.” Paul must have done a lot of head shaking in dealing with the congregation in Ephesus.
Here’s the good news. I don’t have to shake my head about our response to what happened here this week. As it happened, we had a Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday night. This, of course, went to the top of the agenda. Here’s how your leadership chose to respond. We’ll buy another banner. We’ll put it higher up, out of reach, maybe on the steeple or just under it. We’ll reach out to the community to see what kind of town we live in. At this writing, I’m waiting for my call to the mayor’s office to be returned. I’ve reached out to the Agawam clergy group for their response. I checked in with our ACM Jill to find out how other churches have handled hate crimes. And now, as your pastoral leadership, I’m talking to you.
About 70 years ago, another religious group was targeted for hate, along with some social organizations. Then, it was Jews and trade union members and socialists. A pastor named Martin Niemoller summed up what was going on in his country like this. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one lest to speak for me.”
What’s the lesson? A community stands or falls – not as individuals – but as a community. We are at a crossroads in this country, and it has come to our own little part of the community. We are, as Paul would say, in evil times. There is a lot of divisiveness. Whether it’s Socialists or Trade Unionists or Jews, or whether it’s journalists or racial minorities or the LGBTQ community, the basic issue is the same. We stand together. Or we fall. That’s what evil times have in common over the centuries. I say we stand. Proud and tall. I hope the community stands with us. What say you?