Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sermon: 11 Pentecost (16 August 2009)

Sermon: 11 Pentecost (16 August 2009)
(1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14/Psalm 111/Ephesians 5:15-20 or 5:1-20/John 6:51-58)

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Decades ago I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs, though I met him only once, when I was a young boy. It was in the alley behind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Old Opry. I waited there with my dad near the performers’ entrance hoping to see Scruggs as he left the stage and the building that night – really hoping for an autograph. It was a good night; I got the autograph – I still have it filed away somewhere in all my books and in my memory – and, best of all, I shared the moment with my dad. If we had little else in common, we did have the music.

Decades ago I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs, though I met him only once, when I was a young boy. But everyday after school I would go into my dad’s room where he had the stereo system and put a scratchy 45 rpm record on the turntable. I would slow it down to 33 1/3, to where you could just begin to hear the individual notes of those lightening fast rolls that Scruggs played – the rolls Scruggs invented – and I would try to copy him note-for-note. I might just get two or three of the notes before I would have to lift the needle and start all over again. But little-by-little a song emerged that sounded a bit like a slowed down version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Hot Corn, Cold Corn or Cripple Creek or anything I could find on 45 rpm. I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs like most everyone did at that time – by imitation.

Imitation is the most natural – and I think most effective – way to learn. We don’t learn to speak our native language through formal lessons and grammar books. We learn a language even as infants when our parents talk to us and connect the sounds to things and to actions. We begin to mimic them long before we understand the meaning of the sounds, and this mimicry, this imitation, becomes language. Before the Enlightenment educational model, before No Child Left Behind, we had the apprenticeship system – superior in many ways – in which a student lived with and served and learned from a master craftsman – learned not only to handle the tools of the trade, but to think and feel and intuit like a craftsman. There is a certain style that can’t be learned from books, but only through direct contact and admiring imitation.

Jewish rabbis in the first century accepted disciples into a spiritual apprenticeship which

points to an importance difference between our Western idea of instruction and the kind of instruction given by Jewish rabbis to their disciples. To follow a rabbi meant something other than sitting in a classroom and absorbing his lectures. Rather, it involved a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did – from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived. The task of the disciple was to become as much like the rabbi as possible.[1]

And so in keeping with this style of learning, with the style of learning the apostle knew best, having himself learned at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel, Paul writes to the churches in western Asia Minor: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Eph 5:1, NRSV). Now it’s one thing to imitate Earl Scruggs or a master carpenter or even a learned and devout rabbi: but God? What does it mean to imitate God?

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’” (Lev 19:1-2, OSB).[2]

To imitate God means surely this – for us no less than Israel – to be holy, for God is holy. Kadash is the Hebrew root: sacred, set apart. God is Kadash Israel – the Holy One of Israel – and we are to be the kedoshim, the holy ones of God. What God is by nature, we are to become by grace through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within us. To be holy is to reverence that which is worthy of honor: “Every one of you shall reverence his father and mother and keep My Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:3, OSB). To be holy is to worship only the One who is worthy of worship: “Do not follow idols, nor make for yourselves molten gods: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:4, OSB). To be holy is to open hands and hearts to brothers and sisters and neighbors and strangers: “When you reap the harvest of you land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Also you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the resident alien: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:9-10, OSB). To be holy is to obey the word of the Lord your God: “Therefore, you shall keep all My law and all My ordinances, and perform them: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:37, OSB). “Therefore,” Paul writes, “be imitators of God as dear children.”

But for us as Christians it is not enough to say God unless we also say Christ Jesus. And so Paul immediately follows his instruction to imitate God with this: “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph 5:2, OSB). Imitate God. Walk as Christ. To walk as Christ means to walk in love, to walk in light, to walk in wisdom, to walk in joy.

Paul doesn’t tell the churches what the walk of love is directly – at least not here. Instead, he gives counterexamples; here is what the walk in love is not.

But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them (Eph 5:3-7, OSB).

The walk of love is not sexual immorality. It is not indecency. It is not crudeness. These things are not even to be named among us as if fitting for us. Rather, the walk of love treats people as the precious, holy ones of God: not as tools to satisfy our lusts, or objects of our derision, or commodities to be bought and sold and traded. To walk in love means to walk in purity, as ones intent on keeping the baptismal robe unstained, as ones longing to be presented before Christ as a holy, blameless, and spotless bride on the great day of his appearing, at the wedding supper of the Lamb. To walk in love means to take up the basin and the towel and to follow Christ in his great self-emptying, in his embrace of slavery on behalf of all. To walk in love means to take up the cross and follow Christ in his great self-sacrifice, in his embrace of death on behalf of all. To walk in love means to cry out to our God and Father with our crucified Lord, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” in certain hope of the resurrection. Therefore, my beloved, “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

And walk in light, “for you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph 5:8-9, OSB). Not Paul only, but John also, the great theologian of light, exhorts us to walk in the light.

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But, if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7, OSB).

To walk in the light is to walk the path of repentance, always turning and returning to Jesus, the light of the world, the Sun of Righteousness who rises with healing in his wings. To walk in the light is to see with eyes wide open, to see the truth and beauty and hope and promise of the church’s great prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. To walk in the light is to follow Jesus even to the dark night of Gethsemane, even to the sunless noon of Calvary, even to the cold blackness of a borrowed tomb, certain of the bright dawn of new creation on the third day when the stone is rolled away and Christ the Morning Star rises, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Walk in the light as he is in the light.

Shakespeare – master of language and astute observer of human nature – gets it beautiful, but Shakespeare gets it wrong in The Tempest (Act 4, scene 1).

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

We are insubstantial spirit, baseless vision, the stuff of dreams and our lives end in the dark sleep of death, this great poet writes. Not so, Paul replies – not for those who walk in the light. And we have Paul’s own poetic response as he sings a great and ancient hymn of the church:

“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light” (Eph 5:14, OSB).

Walk in the light as Christ is in the light.

Walk also in wisdom.

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph 5:15-17, OSB).

Paul has seen the wisdom of the world. He has debated the philosophers in Athens, and frankly he is not impressed.

For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:19-20, OSB)?

When Paul exhorts us to walk in wisdom, it is a different type of wisdom altogether from the wisdom of the world – not different in degree only, but different also in kind. Christian wisdom is the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of Christ crucified,

to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:23-25, OSB).

To walk in wisdom is to be fools for Christ. To walk in wisdom is to reject the judgments of the world that say power and position and wealth matter and to embrace instead weakness and lowliness and poverty. Ours is not the wisdom of the academy, not the wisdom of the cultured halls of the philosophers. Ours is the wisdom of the Spirit, a wisdom born of trials.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:2-5, OSB).

Ours is the wisdom of God acquired in answer to prayer

“Now, O Lord my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And Your servant is in the midst of Your people whom You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to be numbered or counted. Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:7-9, NKJV).

And this prayer pleased the Lord. Walk in wisdom.

Finally, beloved, walk in joy, inebriated by the all good, all holy, life-giving Spirit of God.

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5:18-20, OSB).

Your life is not a slow, trudging march toward the grave but a joyful, triumphal procession – a victory march – with Christ at the head and clouds of witnesses cheering you on and with brothers and sisters alongside shouting Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Even at the grave we make our joyful song, Alleluia! Walk in joy.

As a parent I want so much for my daughter. As your brother in Christ I want so much for you – just as Paul wanted so much for his spiritual children and brothers and sisters.

I want you to be holy as God is holy, not for want of reward or fear of judgment, but simply because it is your nature and your highest calling; made in the image of God you are called to grow into his likeness and that likeness is holiness. I want you to imitate God in holiness.

I want you to love the Lord your God with all you heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and I want you to love your neighbor as yourself. I want you to walk in love as Christ walked in love and gave himself for us, a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.

I want you to walk in the light – to become light – as Christ is in the light and is himself the light of the world. I want God to dispel all that is dark within you so that you may shine like stars in the universe, shine with the uncreated light of transfiguration through the grace of the Holy Spirit. I want you to become all flame.

I want you to be wise. I want God to answer for you a prayer of St. Francis:

Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart.
And give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity,
wisdom and perception, that I may always do what is truly your most holy will.

I want you to walk in the light of Christ and in the wisdom of God.

I want you to live in the joy of the Holy Spirit – an Alleluia! Life – not in the absence of trials, but in the midst of trials, knowing that God strengthens you through these trials, supports you through these trials, and delivers you from these trials so that you can give thanks for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.


[1] Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009) 51.
[2] Scripture references marked OSB are from The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008). The Old Testament is a new translation of the LXX by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. The New Testament translation is the New King James Version, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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