I’m behind on my posts. This is a sermon I preached at First Church of Christ, Congregational of East Haddam, Connecticut a couple of weeks ago.
I have an old friend who is a singer-songwriter. He lives in Texas now, but many years ago he lived in California for awhile and we wrote songs together long distance, which means we talked almost every night. One night he answered the phone with tales of his trip to the dentist, which included a root canal.
“I have a song idea from the whole thing,” he said. “It would be called ‘Not Numb Enough.’”
I was in my car Wednesday morning when I first heard the news of the reports that chronicled the decades of child abuse by predatory priests in Pennsylvania. Yesterday, I heard about the overdoses on the New Haven Green—over a hundred people who were given drugs that were intended to hurt them. The fires blaze on in California. The craziness goes on in Washington. The list could go on. I thought about my friend’s song idea and wondered if this might not finally be the week to actually write it. Numbing ourselves from the pain that surrounds and inflicts us is one option, as is distancing ourselves and acting as though those problems are not ours to engage. Our scripture passage for today offers another choice. Listen for the word of God in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
Live life, then, with a due sense of responsibility, not as those who do not know the meaning and purpose of life but as those who do. Make the best use of your time, despite all the difficulties of these days. Don’t be vague but firmly grasp what you know to be the will of God. Don’t get your stimulus from wine (for there is always the danger of excessive drinking), but let the Spirit stimulate your souls. Express your joy in singing among yourselves psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making music in your hearts for the ears of God! Thank God at all times for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And “fit in with” each other, because of your common reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-21, Phillips)
The Letter to the Ephesians, as we call it, was probably a letter that was passed from church to church, and the copy we have is the one that went to Ephesus. Most of the other letters have specific greetings and instructions that let us know they were intended for a specific congregation. Ephesians is a letter of more general encouragement and admonition written to Christians all across the Mediterranean world. The early Christians didn’t have a lot of tradition or history to lean into. They lived in a world made up of good news and bad. They were finding new hope and meaning in their faith, even as they were being persecuted and oppressed by the Roman government. Paul’s words were not speaking to hypotheticals. Life was difficult. Life was painful. And he was encouraging them to do more than look for ways to numb themselves.
“Live life,” he says, “with a due sense of responsibility, not as those who do not know the meaning and purpose of life but as those who do. Make the best use of your time, despite all the difficulties of these days. Don’t be vague but firmly grasp what you know to be the will of God.”
Live like those who know what the purpose of life is.
Make the best of your time, despite the difficulties.
Don’t be vague in the way you live our your faith.
I had breakfast with a friend this week who told me about a marriage enrichment retreat he attended with his wife. One of the things that was mattered most to him was when the leader asked them to remember that love is a series of decisions. The larger promises we make to one another are kept by our daily choices, but the small, deliberate actions that allow others to trust our words.
Last week at our church in Guilford, a woman stood up during our time of prayer to offer a joy for the small intentional ways that our congregation took care of each other. She has a six-year-old son who needed a tissue during church, which was—for him—a crisis. “When we got to the back of the church, there was a box of tissues,” she said, “and a crisis was averted.” She went on the list several small, routine ways that she saw love expressed in the details around her.
Love is a series of decisions.
Yesterday afternoon, I heard a story on NPR about a man named Tsutomo Yamaguchi. In August of 1945, he was on a business trip to Hiroshima, Japan when American forces dropped the first atomic bomb on that city. He was thrown into a ditch by the explosion and thus survived it. Somehow, he managed to get to the train station and find his way to his home and family—in Nagasaki, which was bombed three days later. He survived that attack as well, and lived to be 93. I wondered, as I drove, how he chose to live his life. I found a story about a man who had interviewed him. The reporter said she understood Mr. Yamaguchi had come to feel like he had been given a second life. The interview agreed.
For a period of time,” the man said, “he was very depressed, very angry, even wanting revenge. And he felt where another colleague of his . . . stayed angry for a very long time and referred to these concentric circles of death. Mr. Yamaguchi had another type of viral idea that he could empower children, he could empower anyone to just go out with something. . . . And he felt that somewhere, somehow, this would reach into some place, maybe change the life of some child who might otherwise grow up to do something evil and ultimately had a small chance of even preventing perhaps another Hiroshima or another Nagasaki in the future.”
One of my seminary professors used the image of concentric circles when he talked about how we share our faith. Concentric circles are the rings that emanate from the center, like the rings on the surface of the water when you throw a stone into the lake. If we choose to allow the source of the disturbance to be fueled by our anger or fear, they are “concentric circles of death,” as he called them, perpetuating the violence. But if our lives are disquieted by love—if we make the small decisions to connect with those around us—the ripples become circles of healing, hope, and belonging.
“Sing songs.” Paul said, “Show your joy. Look for ways to be grateful. Pay attention to the ways you fit together in Christ.”
Though Paul was writing to people in crisis, he took a long look. There was more to life than all that seemed wrong with the world. All these centuries later, life feels much the same. These are difficult days. Perhaps you feel like a bomb has been dropped in the middle of your life. Perhaps it feels more like a thousand tiny cuts that all add up to excruciating pain. Perhaps it feels like the best you can do is survive.
Yet, here we are. Gathered again because we trust that the purpose of life is to do more than endure the pain. We were created to do more than survive. We were breathed into existence to take care of one another, to love one another, to make the daily decisions we need to make to let love triumph over anger and hatred and fear. We make the best of our time during these difficult days by sharing our pain with one another, by bearing one another’s burdens.
We can’t get numb enough to stop the pain in our lives or in the world. The pain just keeps coming. Therefore, let us not be vague, then, about the ways we live out our faith. Our lives send out ripples into the world, whether we realize it or not. Life doesn’t offer many discards. Every motion matters. When we choose love, joy, and gratitude in our daily decisions, we offer our world a chance to see itself as something other than a war zone, and for others to see themselves as something other than casualties of that war.
May the ripples of our lives flood the world with the love of Christ. Amen.