“Wise and Otherwise” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning. We are continuing — after a pause to experience worship led by Manchester University students last week — our book study of Ephesians, and how the author of that letter challenges us to look and think and imagine and go beyond where we are right now. The passage which Steve read for us is shorter than some of the others we have considered from Ephesians, but do not be misled. As any seasoned church-goer will attest to, a short passage does not necessarily mean a short sermon. There’s a lot of material packed into these five verses.
I want to begin with a question — a pretty big question — but I’m not going to propose an answer until toward the end of my comments today. If you can listen to what I’m saying and formulate your own answer to this question, that’s great. You can also choose one or the other: listen to the sermon or consider your own answer to this question.. Here’s the question: What is the church’s vocation? Or, what is the church’s job? Got that? Hang on to that question; we’ll get back there eventually.
This passage begins with an interesting exhortation, “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise.” Well duh. Nobody wants to be a fool — either in the eyes of the people around them, or even privately to do things which are foolish. Whether foolishness costs us money, the respect of others, or our own self-respect, nobody wants to look foolish or be foolish. Of course, most of us still are foolish at one time or another, for a variety of reasons — often because we’re trying to impress people who aren’t so wise themselves. Knowledge — the grasp of a lot of information — is not necessarily wisdom, which is understanding what to do with that information. My favorite illustration of this feels particularly appropriate here at Creekside: Knowledge is knowing that in botanical terms, tomatoes are not a vegetable, but a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomatoes in a fruit salad.
The author of Ephesians suggests that wisdom is understanding the will of the Lord. What is the church’s vocation? What does God want, or what is God’s calling not only for me personally, but for us as a community of faith, and for the church in the world? Verse 17, sets us up to be wise by understanding the will of the Lord, and the following verse says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” As commentator Richard Ward said, “Pardon me, but is that all?” Taking this verse on only a literal level would be silly; foolish, even. Are we allowed to get drunk on beverages besides wine? How about consuming wine in moderation? How much is that, exactly? The author of Ephesians is not giving us information about temperance; he’s trying to give us wisdom to understand the will of the Lord. So maybe drunkenness is an illustration for what? Not having a clear head, numbing ourselves to the realities around us, stumbling around, lacking initiative and purpose. Instead of those foolish behaviors, we are to be filled with the Spirit.
How do folks behave when they are filled with the Spirit? Verse 19 says they “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Again, I don’t think is meant to be commentary on styles of church music. This is not about electric vs, acoustic guitar, or four-part hymns vs. four-piece worship band. In its simplest construction, people who understand the will of the Lord worship God with a song in their hearts, and give thanks to God at all times. What is the church’s vocation?
Giving thanks to God at all times and for everything turns out to be a practice which takes a lot of wisdom. Of course we don’t want to give thanks for the evil things which happen in the world, and back in verse 15, the author told us “to make the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Are we supposed to give thanks for evil days? Am I the only one who is a little confused by this? It turns out, I’m not. Gerald May was a psychiatrist and spiritual director and a senior fellow at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Here’s what May says that gives me some hope about my confusion.
I must confess I am no longer good at telling the difference between good things and bad things. Of course, there are many events in human history which can only be labeled as evil, but from the standpoint of the inner experience, the distinction has become blurred for me. Some things start out great but wind up terribly, while other things seem bad in the beginning, but turn out to be blessings in disguise . . . [What is revealed is] an even deeper divine activity: a continually gracious, loving, and fundamentally protective guidance through all human experience — the good as well as the bad.”
The key to wisdom is not understanding everything that happens to us, or knowing in advance exactly how it’s going to work out. The key to wisdom is understanding the character of God: gracious, loving, guiding and protecting. Although this is something I believe, and know on an intellectual level, it is beyond my rational experience. It turns out that giving thanks is more about an attitude or disposition toward God and toward other people. To give thanks to God at all times and for everything is not just a nice phrase to put up in the kitchen, or to pull out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Giving thanks to God at all times is a profound act of faith, which might not make much sense., frankly. Giving thanks to God at all times takes us beyond what we can see, beyond our knowledge, and beyond our comfort zone. We have to acknowledge that although we cannot understand how any good can come of this situation, this loss, this pandemic, this death; that God is present with us, and that God is fundamentally protective and loving, even in situations beyond our understanding . This is the same Lord who sent his only Son, who became human and chose to give up his life so that we might be saved. Resurrection from death is what God is in the business of. Resurrection from death is the foundation of our faith in Jesus Christ. It is the hope and salvation we claim as Christians. Tragedy and loss are part of that package. Wisdom is not a free pass to avoid sorrow; wisdom is the faith and the humility to believe that God is beside us and before us and beyond us. Wisdom gives us the hope to endure sorrow.
So what is the church’s vocation? There is no single correct answer to that question, of course, but here is some food for thought. The church’s vocation is to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey Christ’s commandments (modified from the Matthew 28:19) or The church’s vocation is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. (from the Shorter Westminster Catechism) or The church’s vocation is to see that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (from the Lord’s Prayer) or The vocation of the church is to seek, celebrate, and share God’s love (I hope you know where that comes from). Maybe you have been formulating your own answers.
Here is what I read in Ephesians 5:15-20: it isn’t the last word or the only word on the church’s vocation, but it is the word for today as we consider our mission as a congregation, and how we might look beyond where we are to the place where God is calling us to be. The vocation of the church is to Seek God’s will, to Celebrate Christ’s work, and to be filled with the Spirit to give thanks in all things.
Next week, Ted Noffsinger will share a report from Annual Conference. The primary business of that virtual gathering was to approve a vision statement to set the course for the future work of the church of the Brethren. That vision is a bit different from the answer I just proposed for the question What is the church’s vocation? But I think you’ll hear some significant overlap. As we think about the mission of God, and how we are partners in that mission, our task is to see the big picture of what God is doing in the world, but also to consider what part of that mission can Creekside Church be a part of, and how can my individual gifts serve the ministries of Creekside Church. Nothing which we dedicate to the service of Christ and the church is wasted.
Let’s join our voices in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs as we give thanks to God who calls us beyond what we can understand, to a place of wisdom and faith. Amen.