I wasn't sure what was going to happen on Sunday. Every time I tried to work on the sermon, I found myself moping on the couch. But things started to fit together on Saturday, and it strangely ended up being one of the sermons I believed in the most. I mean, I believe in what I preach, but I don't always believe it so much my toes tingle. The time that I didn't work last week was needed; even though I felt guilty for being such a lazy good-for-nothin', the down time was much needed.
The other thing about this sermon is that it draws directly from the wellspring of my blogging community. Repressed Librarian's book meme provided the initial inspiration, and JWD's piece about worshipping in times like this was undoubtedly its backbone. Another non-blog resource that was essential was Bruce Epperly's commentary at the Center for Process and Faith.
So, here it is.
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 Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20)
This past week I was asked a difficult question. If I were packing my bags for a shipwreck on a desert island, what one book would I bring along to keep me company? I assume that the distributors of the Gideon Bibles already have desert islands stocked with King James versions of the Holy Scriptures, so I racked my brain for a second-most important book to bring along on my hypothetical marooning. After briefly considering my complete Shakespeare anthology that would take me a good decade to get through, I realized that the one book I couldn’t do without is also tucked into each of your pews: The Chalice Hymnal. Hundreds of faithful melodies rest between the red covers of that weighty volume. As much as I love literature, there isn’t a single book that contains as much depth and breadth as a collection of songs for Christian worship.
As the years circle by, we return again and again to the summer songs of seed and grain, the Christmas carols of love and peace, the Lenten lamentations for the pain of the cross. The songs that carry us through the Christian year bear witness to the glory and the agony of God’s beloved world. Hymns connect us to our spiritual forebears, as we learn the same tunes our ancestors sang to praise the Lord. They teach us the language of our faith. As we worship God in congregational song, we do not only learn profound truths; we learn profound truths that can be hummed. And just as we can get these canticles stuck in our heads, they also have a way of getting lodged within our hearts.
In the New Testament passage that we consider this morning, Paul continues to teach the Ephesians what it means to be a Christian. When we commit ourselves to Christ, our lives take on a distinct shape. We no longer live for ourselves, but for the One who has redeemed us with his love. We are, as Paul says, to be careful how we live. Our lives are to be filled with care, in light of the grace we experience through Jesus Christ.
And we are to live in this hopeful and purposeful way not only when all is well. Paul encourages us to make the most of our time because the days are evil. We generally use that turn of phrase—“to make the most of our time”—to manage our time well enough to fit a lot of business into the hours. According to the wisdom of the world, we make the most of our time when we resist our Sabbath rest to knock every item off our to-do lists.
But I don’t think this is what Paul is getting at. “Making the most of our time” can also be translated to mean that we should transform our time, so that even when the days are evil, our lives bear witness to the goodness of God. Transforming our time is an act of resistance. When we transform our time in light of Christ’s love, we are open to the presence of the Holy Spirit in God’s beloved world.
And to make the most of our time— to live in transformed time—is to be engaged in the foundational Christian practice of worship. Time and space alike are transformed when we worship. The dingiest storefront church becomes a cathedral when the men and women within gather their voices together to praise the Heavenly Father.
I used to sing in the gospel choir at Kent State University. Even though we followed all the appropriate legal guidelines to separate church and state, when we started singing, it didn’t matter if we were in the student center or a candle-lit sanctuary. The Holy Spirit could not be disinvited to the gospel festival. With the electric bass thrumming, the soloist trilling, and all our hands raised in adoration, the air around us was transformed into a tabernacle of praise.
Time is transformed, and used for the best, when we pray, offer thanksgivings, and use our breath for worshipping God in song.
Time is transformed even when the days seem so evil that we can hardly bear to sing.
The days are evil, says Paul. And try as I might to find a way to disagree, I cannot. The days really do seem to be infused with altogether too much fear, too much pain, too much grief. It’s nothing new, really; our days are no more or less evil than Paul’s days. Creation is still broken, still breaking.
A friend of mine wrote recently about her experience of planning a worshipful response to the foiled terrorist plot that would have sent shockwaves of suffering throughout this country and the world. “I truly believe that gathering in worship is one of the most faithful responses we can have to events such as we faced last week. Opening ourselves to the healing presence of God at times of our greatest vulnerability can truly transform this world. God longs for our reconciliation, for the whole cosmos, for the end of strife and terror and abuse.”
We have to do something to endure suffering. All too often we settle for a temporary respite. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is concerned with those who use alcohol to escape their pain. Their abuse of the drug gives them a momentary flash of happiness, but it is a fleeting and foolish diversion. Paul’s judgment here is less about alcohol and more about the fruitlessness of spiritual substitutes. We’ll have no better luck if we seek redemption and relief in mindless television or excessive shopping sprees. I might enjoy the minutes I spend laughing at the antics of a comedian, but those moments are not transformed time.
We need this humble hour, set aside for such a strange and wonderful purpose. At ten-thirty on the dot, this place becomes a church, for we file in and center our hearts on God. Here, we engage in the Christian art of making the most of our time through prayer and praise. We rehearse the postures and practices that make time sacred. We learn to pray, trusting that the compassionate presence of God is embracing us in our weeping and our rejoicing.
And here, as a congregation, we sing. We convert the breath rumbling around in our chests into melody, rhythm, and song. We remake our lungs into instruments of praise. We merge our individual voices into a chorus of thanksgiving. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, we transform every second of every minute of every hour into a vessel of God’s grace.
We worship, and God is glorified. We sing, and God hears. We hope, and God prevails. May it be so.