Here is the manuscript of a sermon I preached this morning at our church.
I would like to begin this morning with a sentence that I’m fairly sure has not been uttered by many people. Here it is: some of my favorite sermons have to do with punctuation and grammar.
Seriously. I’ll give you a couple of quick examples. In Matthew 6, many translations of the Lord’s Prayer read, thy kingdom come (comma), thy will be done (comma) on earth as it is in heaven. Listen to the way we say the prayer. We pause after thy will be done – and when we do, we miss something important in the prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Take out the comma and the prayer becomes more powerful.
Ephesians 6:1-10 uses the metaphor of the armor of God to talk about how we prepare ourselves to live out our faith in the world. If we read the preposition as possessive – that is, as a list of things God has to hand out to us, the passage says one thing. If, however, we read the preposition as descriptive – that is, that God is the armor – then the metaphor deepens: we are called to wrap ourselves up in God.
I’m sharing this scintillating information because our passage from Ephesians 5 is another that turns on grammar and punctuation. Some translations make the final statement into a series of imperative sentences:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit. Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. Give thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
But the Greek is actually one long sentence, filled with participles helping to explain what it looks like to be a Spirit-filled congregation.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Hold that thought and let’s go back to the first part of our passage that sets up the whole idea:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Look carefully, live watchfully — watch where you’re going — is a call to live intentionally. I found a challenging word in what a commentator named John Martens wrote about this verse:
One of the most difficult aspects of living life for me is living life with watchfulness. It is easy to fall into patterns, to live life by rote, to find a comfort zone where watchfulness just drifts away, even if that comfort zone is filled with unreflective busyness. How I live is not always based on conscious decisions, which is precisely the issue. You begin to do things because that is the way you have always done them, or you simply plop on the couch after a busy day, unable to consider what would be the best way to live.
Look carefully and make the most of the time.
In our 24-7-365 world – informed by our Puritan work ethic – making the most of the time means getting more done, working harder, wearing ourselves out. In today’s verses, making the most of the time has to do with taking the time to listen and to connect our lives to God and to one another. The passage continues with an admonition not to get drunk (to do more than numb ourselves to the difficulties of daily life), but to participate in a different sort of intoxication, if you will: to be filled with the Holy Spirit – which brings us back to our parcel of participles and the call to sing together, with gratitude and deference.
Randy Cooper writes:
Singing is more than making a joyful noise. God has given us singing and worshipping to break down categories of gender and age and race and class. In singing and worshipping, we enter the life of God through the Holy Spirit. If God’s Triune life is indeed one of mutual submission and love among [Creator], [Christ], and Holy Spirit, then as we become one body in Christ we share in Christ’s eternal ‘singing.’
Here, then, is how the Spirit moves in our midst: in melody, in gratitude, and in intentional solidarity. We are called to sing together. James, I offer you your new favorite verse. I think it says God wants everyone to join the choir.
As soon as we start talking about singing together in worship, we are going to start talking about what we are going to sing and what one commentator called the “worship wars” break out. What was designed to bring us together sometimes pulls us apart. We all have our favorite songs, yet the meaningfulness of worship shouldn’t ride on whether or not we got to my hit parade this morning. Rather than thinking, “They finally sang my song,” I can choose the respond, “Hey, they’re singing your song,” and let that be when I sing loudest and listen best – when I get to be on something more than what matters to me. That’s how the Spirit helps us to grow and change.
Worship, fundamentally, is a team sport – as are both life and faith. Though it requires personal commitment and contribution, worship is about us, not me. Gathering together to sing is an act of faith and solidarity, and a subversive one, at that. It’s like the end of Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” where he encourages his audience to walk into their psychiatrist’s office and sing, ” You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.” And walk out.
Then he imagines:
You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both nuts and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.
When they marched from Selma to Montgomery, they sang, “We shall overcome” in solidarity with the saints of God who have sung together in the face of oppression and persecution across the centuries. Though we are fortunate to not live under the same kinds of hardship, we are about the same important work when we gather for worship. We cannot afford to let what happens here become rote or mundane, or to allow the songs we sing to divide us over issues of taste rather than unite us in the mystery of the intoxicating Spirit of God. What we do here together can change us, change our city, change or world – or it can simply be another thing to check off of our list of meetings to attend this week.
The melody of faith is more complex than the tunes that meet our specific tastes. If our worship experience is going to make the most of the time, if it’s going to fill our minds with wisdom and our hearts with the gratitude that grows out of the presence God’s Spirit, if it’s going to be more than merely marking our calendars that we made it to church, then we will come to be more committed than comfortable, to be more faithful than forceful, ready to defer rather than demand.
Come, Christians, join to sing. Alleluia. Amen.