Homily for Proper 20, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 16th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20
"Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of time..."
Our short selection from Ephesians is a study in contrasts: be wise, not foolish; be filled with the Spirit, not with wine; and while the times may be dark and evil, rejoice, sing and give thanks.
In previously reflecting on St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have spoken about how the first half of the letter is about the content of Christian belief, while the second half of the letter is about the content of the Christian life. We call these kerygma and paraneisis. There is the message, and there is action. But I have also argued previously that the “action” or the way of life is not what brings about faith, but is what flows out of a faithful life. I maintain that it is all too easy for us to think that doing the right things will make us better people. Rather, I emphatically believe that it is God that transforms our innermost being and outermost shape in order that we might become the beautiful creations he intended us to be! To be created in his image and conformed to his likeness – this is both the content and action of faith. And while it would be easy to read the letters of Paul and the writings of his school in a simplistic fashion that reveals the secrets of successful Christian living, it would be a shame if this was all we got from a reading of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Sadly, this is how many choose to read this text, as a handbook for how to live. But, oh! How much more there is for us to see in these hallowed pages, because how to live is but the surface; Paul’s express purpose is to tell us who we are! The letters of Paul and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian Scriptures is less about what we do and entirely about who we are.
The verb, “to be” is a wonderful verb. It encapsulates so much. It is at once pragmatic and yet mystical. “Being” is both rooted in our material reality and our eternal purpose. And the nexus at which they intersect is place in which all the angst of our material finitude confronts the glory of God’s eternal goodness. It is a frightful moment of decision. It is the moment in which we have the opportunity to embrace the goodness that knows no beginning or ending, or drown in the river of eternal nothingness. To be, to truly “be” is to embrace the reality in which we live, in the presence of that eternal reality from which the heavens and the earth take their meaning. It is in this moment of decision, when we utter the eternal Shakespearean cry, “to be or not to be,” that we both choose and abandon ourselves.
Should we choose not “to be,” we say “no” to life, “no” to both the beauty of this wondrous, divine, material creation, and “no” to the glories of eternal goodness and unending beauty. This is choice. And in this choice we let ourselves go. We abandon all hope for life. The world, both material and eternal, becomes unmanageable, untenable, unbelievable, unlivable, and then (As T.S. Eliot wrote in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), “human voices wake us and we drown.” We drown in nothingness.
Should we choose “to be”, though, we say “yes” to both the beauty of this wondrous, divine, material creation, whose splendours seem freshly new to our transformed eyes; and “yes” to the eternal goodness and unending beauty that surrounds, enfolds, and knows us from our mothers’ wombs. All that is in the world takes on new and brilliant meaning in the brilliant light of all that is eternal. And in one single moment, a moment of choice in which we say “yes,” I will face that bottomless chasm, I will face those fog-filled frightening streets, and the chasm closes, the fog dissipates, and then, our eyes are opened to the reality that no chasm can claim us and no fog can cloud our way! Choosing to face the demon that threatens us and the power that threatens to overwhelm us is to claim the reality that we, that I, cannot make the demon disappear or defeat the power with shows of brutal force or acts of will. My choice is simply “to be” before the chasm, to stand at the head of the fog-filled street, to face the demon, and hand myself over to eternal goodness. We abandon not hope, but our reliance on our limited power and stand before the Almighty who alone makes us who we need to be; who we were made to be.
In the nexus of choice and abandonment we meet the Christ.
The words immediately preceding today’s passage are the words, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” It is into death; it is into non-being, that Christ shines his light! It is into meaninglessness, that the radiance of eternal meaning is shone! It is into our failed attempts at making our own meaning that the meaning of God gathers us into the hope-filled meaning of sacred history.
“Be wise, not foolish.” Across frightening chasms, and down fog-filled streets heaven touches earth in the companionship of Christ. It is in tears along the Emmaus road that hearts are warmed and eyes are opened. What glories we would miss if chose not to walk the road, or abandon ourselves to the baptism of our tears?
“Be filled, with the Spirit, not with wine.” Wine can function as a symbol of life or symbol of despair, and while in much of Scripture the life-giving properties of wine are emphasized and extolled, in this instance it stands as symbol of denial, and as a metaphor of self-destruction. When we cannot face the chasm or fog-filled streets, and are afraid of the death they might bring, with sad irony we drown ourselves; kill ourselves with self-destructive behaviours. Each of us knows in the depths of our hearts what our own particular self-destructive patterns are. But there is a better course: We can stand before the chasm or fog in awe and trembling, but with the courage of heaven as our friend we shall be filled with the Spirit that collapses heaven and earth, and be led into a new and bounteous promised land.
“Give thanks in the name of Christ, sing hymns and songs, and make a melody to the Lord in your hearts.” The days are evil. But we make them so. It need not be thus, for in Christ we are a new creation. In Christ we choose to face the evil with song and thanksgiving, robbing evil of its fearful power and negating guile. In Christ we abandon ourselves to the worst possible fate knowing that should even death take us, death will not rob us of our sacred identity or life’s holy meaning. As the chorus sung in that ancient Greek drama by Aeschylus, “be sorrow, sorrow spoken, but let the good prevail!”
“To be or not to be?” Ah, ‘tis indeed the question for people of faith, and for all who walk this earth. In the moment on the edge of the chasm we face a choice of life and death; between being and non-being; between meaning and meaninglessness. Let us choose life. Before the fog-filled street of fear we must abandon ourselves, either into drowning nothingness or into holy meaning in the embrace of our Lord. Let us abandon ourselves into his holy embrace. Then, indeed in the midst of sorrow and pain, heaven will touch earth, and a song of praise be stirred in our hearts and sound from our lips.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves