Here is the manuscript of the sermon I preached this morning at Pilgrim UCC here in Durham.
For many of us, text messaging is a part of life. There’s much of what comes with sending texts that works for me. I like being able to send and receive messages that don’t require I answer the phone. I like that I can make contact in situations where the phone would be disruptive. I like that people can text from the second floor of our house down to the kitchen to let me know what they need. Still, as one who loves language and spent many years as an English teacher, there’s a great deal about texting that drives me nuts beginning with the use of “texted” as the alleged past tense of an alleged verb to the rampant disregard for the need for correct spelling and punctuation.
(I can’t see Ginger right now, but I assume her expression is a combination of a smirk and an eye-roll.)
Punctuation makes a difference. If I say, “The panda eats shoots and leaves,” I am describing a vegetarian bear until I add commas — then he becomes a brazen killer. The presence of the comma in the sentence, “Let’s eat, grandma” is the difference between an invitation and cannibalism. And though not quite as humorous, our understanding of today’s passage swings on the punctuation, along with a few participles.
Now I realize I am getting my geek on, but to aid our language study, I am going to ask you to do something out of the ordinary: please open your pew Bibles.
I need you to see this. Turn to Ephesians 5 and find your way down to our passage today, verses 15-21. If you will notice, the Bible in your hand has a paragraph break between verses 20 and 21. Here’s the thing: in the Greek, it’s one big, long-running sentence that ends with verse 21. For Paul, how we sing and worship together was inextricably tied to how we relate to one another.
Let us bring fresh ears and listen again to the passage:
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. 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.
As we look more closely at the passage, let us recall what Ginger said last week: the church at Ephesus was a strong church. Paul was writing to people who were committed to incarnating their faith in their daily lives to challenge them to an even more profound encounter with God. So he called them to be thoughtful, wise, and filled with the Spirit. I would like to spend our time together this morning focusing on that last admonition: be filled with the Spirit.
And I would like to keep my geek on for a few minutes and talk about the theological implications of the participle. The final sentence of our reading has four participles that describe what the call to be filled with the Spirit means:
- addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;
- singing and making melody to God;
- giving thanks in all things;
- submitting to one another in Christ.
“Addressing” seems an odd verb choice when it comes to singing. I get this image of the lounge singer saying, “This one’s going out to a very special lady right here in the front row” before he sings some worn out standard. But the word means our manner of speaking to one another; our personal bearing in conversation. Singing together as a congregation is one of the ways we tighten the bonds, we unite ourselves — even before it becomes a way to offer ourselves to God. Randy Cooper writes,
Singing is more than making a joyful noise. God has given us singing and worshiping to break down categories of gender and age and race and class. In singing and worshiping, we enter the life of God through the Holy Spirit. If God’s Triune life is indeed one of mutual submission and love among the [Creator, Christ,] and Holy Spirit, then as we become one body in Christ we share in God’s eternal “singing” . . . Music and singing can be a means of grace that makes the Body one.
Our singing together — our addressing one another in song — then, becomes our worship: we sing together, making melodies for God. The hymns we sing together in this room are not just traveling music or melodic segues; they are at the heart of what we are doing together, actually and in metaphor because the first act of singing is not making sound but listening. For the melody. For the harmonies. Listening so we can sing our parts and help build the song.
As I lean into the metaphor, I understand not all of us sing well. Perhaps that is why the psalmist enjoined us to make a joyful noise. Our making melody together is not about everyone hitting the note as it is about as raising our voices together as we worship the God who created us for one another. The way we address one another, how we show our regard and deference for one another, begins in how well we are listening.
And if you think singing is the hard part, look at the next phrase: giving thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two things come to mind for me here. One is the cliche that we are to live in “an attitude of gratitude.” Yeah, I know it’s cheesy, but it’s pretty close to the mark. The other thing that came to mind is one of my favorite poems by W. S. Merwin entitled “Listen.”
With the night falling we are saying thank you
We are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
We are running out of the glass rooms
With our mouths full of food to look at the sky
And say thank you
We are standing by the water looking out
In different directions
Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
After funerals we are saying thank you
After the news of the dead
Whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
In a culture up to its chin in shame
Living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
Over telephones we are saying thank you
In doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
Remembering wars and the police at the back door
And the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
In the banks that use us we are saying thank you
With the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
Unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
With the animals dying around us
Our lost feelings we are saying thank you
With the forests falling faster than the minutes
Of our lives we are saying thank you
With the words going out like cells of a brain
With the cities growing over us like the earth
We are saying thank you faster and faster
With nobody listening we are saying thank you
We are saying thank you and waving
Dark though it is
“We are saying thank you dark though it is.” And we are not alone. We are singing together and giving thanks together in order that we might be filled to intoxication with the Spirit of God. And in that flow comes the final phrase: submitting ourselves to one another in Christ.
Submit is a difficult verb to me because it carries such a notion of over and under. To submit feels like giving up or giving in. Capitulating. J. B. Phillips offers a different view by translating the phrase as “‘fitting in with’ each other, because of your common reverence for Christ.” Once again, the phrase has to do with how we learn to live together: how we fit together. We worship together, we draw out the gratitude in one another, and we work to learn how we fit together as the Body of Christ. We are, as the old song says, one in the Spirit. In my Baptist days we sang a chorus that said,
We are one in the bond of Love
We are one in the bond of Love
We have joined our spirits to the Spirit of God
We are one in the bond of Love
That’s pretty good four line theology. If we are going to be filled with the Spirit of God, we have to give the Spirit something to fill. As we learn how we fit together, we create a vessel which God can fill to change our world — and to continue to transform us into thoughtful, thankful people making melody together in Jesus’ name. Amen.