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Sunday, March 31, 2019


A sermon based upon Ephesians 5: 21-33
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday in Lent-C,  March 31,  2019 
(12-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

Last year I watch a movie (12 Strong) about the incredible story of the first team of brave soldiers who landed in Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, to confront and take out a Taliban and Al-Qaida stronghold.  While given no assurances of ever coming out alive, all of those 12 did accomplish their mission and come home, alive.

While telling that amazing story of heroism, the film writers paused a moment to remind us of the kind of evil America was going up against.  It showed a Taliban tribal leader, taking a woman out into the street, and shooting her dead right in front of her husband and three children.  Why?  Because she had deliberately disobeyed her husband and broken the rules of her society, which had commanded that a woman should submit only to what men dictate, and she cannot even teach her own children to read.    Only men should teach children to read, and the only reading material to be considered, is by teaching the Quran.

For us, in our free world, where the ‘oppressed’ are ‘set free’, to treat a woman as a second-class citizen, or to force a woman to submit to the wishes of men or to society is an idea that seems just as evil as this image of a Taliban killing that mother.   How could anyone not treat another person with fairness and equality?  How could anyone have even ever thought it just and fair to treat another human being this way?

For some people, when Paul says here in our text, that ‘wives’ must ‘submit to their husbands’, it sounds just as strange, or even evil as a Taliban leader taking a woman’s life away.  How could the same Paul who said that ‘in Jesus Christ, there is no male or female’, now say that a wife should submit to her husband?  This is how our modern eyes often focus our attention on this ancient text.  But is this the right focus?  Is this really what Paul meant?  Is the Christian faith just as negative toward women as Taliban leaders?

As we move toward the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul briefly compares the relationship between Christ and His Church to a Christian marriage in the ancient world.  We must understand that it was only secondarily in this discussion that Paul was addressing marriage.  Paul’s primary focus here, was to help his readers understand that the mystery of what happens in a loving marriage can help us better understand the love Christ has for the church, and the kind of love the church should have for Christ.    

To rightly understand that everything written here is about love, and not about control or abuse, we must take everything Paul says in it’s proper context.  Before he commands ‘wives’ to ‘submit’ to their own husbands, he has already instructed everyone, husbands, wives, and all of us in the church as a church family, should ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus Christ’ (v.21).

When you read words like this, you immediately notice a disconnect from the way of the world today.  But you don’t just see this disconnect with the word ‘submit’ but also see it with a word hardly anyone knows what to do with: reverence.  The actual word, phobas, which means ‘fear’ or ‘terror’, is even more disconcerting.  Who in the world today, even Christians, would imagine God or Jesus as someone to be feared.  We reserve the word ‘terror’ for bad people, not for the goodness and glory of God.

But the same Scripture that tells us of the loving grace of God, also reminds us of the ‘terror’ or ‘fear of the Lord’.  “It’s a fearful (dreadful) thing,” Scripture says, “to fall into the hands of a living God” (Heb. 10:31).  Even Christians, who are used to singing, “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”, don’t often contemplate God like this.

What the writer of Hebrews and Paul are describing, is not so much what God is like, but what reality means.  In the book of Hebrews, the writer is describing what happens to people who don’t take their faith seriously any longer, who don’t come together in worship, and who deliberate keep on sinning, even after they have come to know the truth.  When you keep living like this, Hebrews says, even the (atoning) sacrifice of Jesus can run out, as there is ‘no more sacrifice for sins,’ and you are headed for disaster.  In other words, if God’s unconditional love and grace can’t change and save you, nothing can.  And if respecting Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t sacred to you, holding a special place in your heart, probably nothing else us, unless you’ve made something else your god.  When you forgot who God is, and what Jesus means, this is the idea behind encountering the ‘terror of the Lord’.  It is not so much about who God is, or isn’t, it’s about who we are, or who we aren’t. 

In Paul’s words to the Ephesians, Paul is also addressing our need to respect, reverence, appreciate, and appropriate, all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  In short, when we pay attention to Jesus, when we have space for what is sacred and special in our lives, and when we follow Jesus by responding to him with our both our heads and our hearts, we also reverence Jesus.  Because we ‘fear’ hurting Jesus, and we ‘fear’ the hurt of being without Jesus, we have ‘reverence’ for Jesus; for who Jesus was, for who Jesus is, and for what it took for Jesus to accomplished God’s salvation ‘for us’.  This is the ‘sacred’ Christian truth, the gospel, that not only grabs our attention, but also demands our proper respond in our hearts, along with a responsibility for our lives.

Part of the ‘responsibility’ of being a Christian, Paul says, is when we ‘submit to one another’ out of ‘reverence’ to Christ.  The word ‘submit’ came from an old military term, meaning ‘to line up under’.  We can understand the meaning of this word by putting the words ‘sub’ and ‘mission’ together as one word.  The idea here is that when we make Jesus our Lord, and we reverence Jesus, we come to respect and reverence one another, so that we ‘submit’ to each other as our common ‘mission’ for life.  Isn’t that what soldier’s do?  They ‘submit’ to their commander, because they believe in the same mission and share the same mission.

So, the first point Paul makes, is that before we can rightly understand our ‘submission’ in a marriage, in a family, or in a household, we must first understand that everything we do is shaped by our ‘submission’ and our ‘reverence’ to Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.  Only when we make Jesus our King, are we then asked to submit to each other, so that we can best come together to serve the Lord.   

Now we come to the more disconcerting word where Paul writes that ‘wives should submit to their husbands, as to the Lord (v.22).’  Those can certainly become dangerous, if not deadly commands, when they are removed from their Christian context, and transferred into the context of a fallen world that does not know Jesus or his love.

What we must understand, first of all, is that when Paul instructed ‘wives to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord’, Paul was not saying that ‘women should submit to all men.’  Paul only says ‘to their own husbands’ not to other men.  But having all women submit to all men was descriptive of how the Jewish world was, and it was also descriptive of how the Greek and Roman world were, but this is not how the church was supposed to be.  

In another text, Paul tells us how the church was supposed to be, implying how the redeemed world could come to be ‘in Christ’, when he gave us the grand goal of the coming redemption of all human relationships, when he wrote that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Gal. 3:28, NIV).  This is certainly not descriptive of how the world was at that time, but it was prescriptive of how the world should be, can be, and will be, when God finally brings us to the fullness of our redemption. 

So understanding this difference between words in the Bible that describe how faith transforms who we are, but also other words that prescribe the goal of life and relationships, as they should be, we can understand already, that when Paul said that ‘women are to submit to their own husbands’ that this is rightly describes how Christ begins to transform us, but it doesn’t fully prescribe all we should be in Christ.   How do we know the difference?  Well, in short, the Bible says we don’t always know.  “In does not yet appear what we shall be,” John wrote, but ‘when Christ shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn. 3:2).’  John’s point is that there is no limit in how or who can be transformed by God’s love.

Now, I don’t want to get too technical about how we should rightly understand, and not misunderstand Paul’s words about submission.  To put it most simply, we know that Paul’s world and ours too, must have structure and order to keep from becoming chaos.  The way the world was ordered then was patriarchal and male.  There is no mistake about that.  This was the normal way of doing things; men ran things, men had more freedom than women, men own their daughters and gave them away in marriage, and it was, good or bad, in most every way, a man’s world.  In some ways, it still is.  But the difference is that the ‘gospel’ has entered into this fallen, male-dominated world, like leaven rising up in bread dough.  As the gospel truth, whether religious, social or political, continues to secretly rise up through human life, life continues to be transformed from domination to liberation, from selfishness to service, and from submission to sharing and partnership.  Paul saw this kind of equality already becoming a given in Jesus’ love for each of us, but he also did not yet see this kind of equality already realized in the traditions and social structures of the church and the world.  He sees the ‘tradition’ of marriage as being touched by Christ’s love, in everyone submits and humbles themselves to each other, but he still did not see full transformation in the actual practice of how a marriage could work differently.  In his day, men still had hold the world together, and women were expected to help and submit to their husband’s.

Perhaps the great difference for Paul, was not what a marriage was, but rather how this ‘submission’ could happen, in a way that was not detrimental or dangerous for a woman.  Paul plainly expects that when a women submits to her husband, it is only because ‘the man has already left father and mother’ to ‘cleave to his wife’ (Matt. 19:5).  Only when the husband has left everything to lovingly ‘cleave to his wife’ is the woman commanded to lovingly, submit to the love of her husband.  Paul’s point is that the wife is only called to ‘submit’ to love, and is never called to submit to abuse, force, or unreasonable demands.

Speaking of how Paul could require wives to ‘submit’ to their own husbands, brings us to Paul’s second part of the traditional marriage requirement.  “Husbands. Love your wives as Christ loved the church.” 

If you think the wives had the most challenging command, you haven’t fully understood the full meaning. Christian wives are only called to ‘submit’ to their Christian husbands when their husbands live like Jesus and love like Jesus.  When a husband uses his strength, his will, and his leadership like this, I can’t imagine any sensible woman not submitting to him, as he has already sacrificed and submitted himself to her.  That’s the full and correct reading of this text in all its Christian meaning and message.  It’s also the only descriptive interpretation that prescribes what can and should be, when, as Paul said, ‘all become one in Jesus Christ’. 

But before we talk more about ‘oneness’, I want to talk some more about the right use of male-power and strength; the strength and power of loving ‘your wives as Christ loved the church.”   What kind of ‘love’ and what kind of ‘power’ is was this then, and still is now?  You will never understand the goodness of Paul’s understanding of marriage, until you also understand his knowledge of God’s saving, sacrificial, and serving love.

Not long ago, my pastor’s group was required to read a book on helping people deal with depression.  It was very interesting to learn more about this most common illness, which can even affect Christians and ministers too.  There were several well-researched findings in the book, but one of the chapters dealt with how ‘depression’ in one person can affect a family or a marriage.  Statistics about depression reveal that while both men and women can become depressed, women, probably because of their chemical makeup to bear children, are more susceptible to becoming depressed.  Their depression can have an impact on the marriage relationship, but one of the greatest impacts is that it often reverses the male roll, because more men have to care for their depressed wives, than women having to care for depressed men.

What I thought was powerful, was to think how much the idea of a man ‘caring’ for his wife, is exactly one of the things it means for a man ‘to love his wife’ as Christ loved the church.   In the ancient Jewish world, one of the most depressing realities for women, was that their natural biological clock would render them impure for society around them, but what exactly what Paul sees here, is a transformation of this social and religious problem, by a loving husband who not only ‘loves’ his wife sacrificially, but whose love also ‘cleanses’ his wife from any ritualistic or religious impurities, whether real or imagined.  What is this means, to put it simply, is that it in a marriage, it was the husband’s sacrifice of love that restored ritual ‘purity’ to the wife, just like Christ’s love restores the moral purity of the church for the hope of the world.

In short, it’s the husband’s serving and sacrificial love that is supposed to lead in holding the marriage together, just like Christ’s servant, sacrificial brings hope and salvation into the world.  When husband ‘love their wives more than their own bodies’, then a husband loves, like Jesus loves, and the wife can rightly, even necessarily, submit to this kind of love. 

It’s always a two-way process in a marriage; just like it is in faith too.  Jesus loves us, we love Jesus.  Jesus gave himself fully for us, but salvation is not realized in us until we give our life fully to him.  In the same way, as we often say, ‘it takes two to make a marriage’.  But perhaps, what Paul is also saying is that it takes ‘three’. The couple working together as they both submit to the loving Lordship of Jesus Christ.

There’s a lot more to learn about the humble, shared, and servant-oriented Christian call and command to the willing and mutual submission of love and life; but it all comes to its final goal when Paul concludes his discussion about Christian marriage with the idea of ‘oneness’.   When he comes to speaking about marriage as the way two people, husband and wife, become ‘one flesh’, he then immediately jumps to the ‘great mystery’ of the hope for ‘oneness’ between Christ and His Church.

Here Paul corresponds the relational dimension of life directly to the religious dimension of life.  How we work to become one in our marriages, or don’t work to become one, will have a direct impact on how well we work to become one in our relationship with God and with others in the church.  The reverse is also true: how we become one with God and with others in the church, will have a direct impact on how well we can work to become one in our marriage relationships.

When you think about ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’ as one of the most important goals in all human life, you can’t help but think how Paul’s words bear true in every level of human learning today; in psychology and behavior science.  One of the greatest realities in our world is ‘brokenness’ and alienation.  This is what Paul spoke about in the opening lines of this letter, speaking of how ‘we were all dead in trespasses and sins’ until this God, ‘who is rich in mercy’ with ‘his great love, loved us.’  It is out of this ‘great love’ of God that God has given us ‘his peace’ and ‘broken down the walls of separation’ that can exist between us. 

Now, this is of course religious language, but it is still true language, because it points us straight to the most fundamental need of every human being, to receive and to give love.  Because God has given us love, we can ‘break down walls’ of separation and division between us, whether these wall goes up in politics, religion, or in our most personal relationships, like a family and a marriage.  It’s God’s peace, Paul says, that gives us the ability to find a way to be at peace with each other, and to find ways of reconciliation and restoration of the ‘oneness’ and the ‘relationships’ that can be and should be, simply because they are the ways we are created to be, and to love each other in this life.
One of the greatest examples of God’s restoring, redemptive love at work in the world was during the “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission that worked to resolve the distrust between blacks and whites during South Africa’s Apartheid.  Murders, lies, hate, injustices, and unfairness was present on both sides, and the only way out of this relational mess, was that people had to come together, admit their flaws and failures in a public forum, and they were asked to forgive each other, and release each other, when at all possible.

One of the most moving scenes of a movie made about Desmond Tutu, who oversaw the ‘Commission’, was how it was finally admitted that an irresponsible policeman intentionally looked the other way, while a woman’s innocent daughter was ruthlessly and racially murdered. When the policeman finally was confronted with his crime, he struggled to admit that he failed in his responsibility, as a policeman, to protect that little girl.  After the mother stood up and explained to this policeman how he had ‘robbed’ her of the greatest person in her life,  and held him responsible for the crime, remarkable she then proceeded to ‘forgive’; saying that he would have no power over her heart to turn her toward hate, in the way that his own heart had turned to hate.  It’s was that mother’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of many others, that provided the only way forward for healing in that racially divided land.

Folks, isn’t this what the gospel is supposed to be about, ‘making a way, when there is no other way?’  In this world, with all the destructive, divisive, and dysfunctional behaviors we constantly witness, and how harder and harder it is to get people to turn away from all life’s distractions, and to work on the most important things in life, it’s hard to imagine how two people can still come together and become ‘one flesh’.  But as Jesus reminded us, ‘with God, all things are possible’

And the greatest possibilities come into this world, when people love each other, care for each other, and help take care of each other.  There is no greatest place to practice this kind of love than in a marriage.  There is no greater love to practice in our marriages and in all human relationships, than the love Christ displayed when, as Paul says, he ‘gave himself’ to establish the church.  It is this kind of undying love, that not only keeps life going, it keeps us going so that life is worth living, and makes us people who find worth living our lives reflecting God’s love.  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

“The Most of Every Opportunity”

A sermon based upon Ephesians 5: 15-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday in Lent-C,  March 24th,  2019 
(12-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

Kyle MacDonald is a 26-year-old blogger in Montreal, is the ultimate modern-day horse trader.  He has become famous for trading a red paper clip for a house. Yes, you heard right. A paper clip for a house.
How did he accomplish this remarkable exchange? Well, he didn’t have a job, but one day he looked at a red paper clip on his desk and decided to trade it on the barter section of the popular website Craigslist. He asked people to trade with him anything of value, but he was clear that he needed to trade up.

He got a response almost immediately from a pair of young women in Vancouver who offered to trade him a pen that looked like a fish. MacDonald then bartered the fish pen for a handmade doorknob from a potter in Seattle. In Massachusetts, MacDonald traded the doorknob for a camp stove. He traded the stove to a U.S. marine sergeant in California for a 100-watt generator.

In Queens, N.Y., he exchanged the generator for the “instant party kit” an empty beer keg and an illuminated Budweiser sign.  MacDonald then traded the keg and sign for a Ski-doo snowmobile.  He bartered the snowmobile all the way up to an afternoon with rock star Alice Cooper which he promptly traded for a Snow Globe depicting the rock group KISS. Then he approached actor Corbin Bernsen with the snow globe in exchange for a paid role in a Corbin Bernsen movie called Donna on Demand.

Now, why would Corbin Bernsen trade a role in a film for a KISS snow globe?  MacDonald had done his homework. Corbin happens to be one of the biggest snow globe collectors on earth with a collection of 6500 snow globes. Corbin went for MacDonald’s offer.  That’s when MacDonald took the role in the movie and exchanged it to the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan for a farmhouse. The town, in turn, held a competition for the movie role. So now MacDonald has a house. But MacDonald is not done yet. Now the farmhouse is for sale on his website. Mounted in the yard is a giant red paper clip (

…Making the most of every opportunity…”  That’s how the apostle Paul put it in today’s text.  Kyle MacDonald, at least from a business perspective, seems to have taken Paul’s words seriously; and very creatively too.   But of course, the apostle Paul was not talking about business, he was writing to the Ephesians about being ‘made alive in Christ” (2.5); about living the life of a Christian in a difficult, challenging and ‘evil’ time (4:19-20). 

Because we still live in such a world; a world where times can be difficult, challenging, and evil, these words still have valuable ‘wisdom’ for us.

Paul begins with some very normal words: Take Care!  Watch Out!  Be Careful!  These are the kind of words we are used to saying to our family or friends when they leave us.

Here, however, Paul is not just wishing people well.  He is encouraging believers in Christ to live the kind of life that can bring blessings, hope, and maturity of faith, and of course, a ‘life of love’ (5:2).  What Paul means, in the context of this letter, is that if you want to continue to live with these ‘spiritual blessings’ from ‘heavenly places’ (1:3); blessings which can deliver to you ‘the riches of God’s grace’ (1:7), then, he says, you must ‘make every effort’ (4:1) to ‘know Christ’ (1:18) and to ‘grow up’ in Christ (4:15).  Along with this, Paul continues, you must also continue to ‘follow God’s example’ (5:1) to live as ‘children of light’ rather than to keep participating ‘fruitless deeds of darkness’ (5:11).  To do this, he now concludes, you must ‘be very careful how you live…’  (5:15). 

Do you recall all those Road Runner cartoons, about Wile E. Coyote and all the Acme products he bought which most often ‘backfired’ on him.  Most often this happened because either he didn’t read the label, or he didn’t read the label correctly.  It’s was very funny to watch the Coyote mess up, but maybe those cartoons were also making a point about life to children.  Warning labels points to dangers in life.  We do need to pay attention to them, though sometimes they might sound downright ridiculous, because the dangers should be self-explanatory.  When you read these, they make you wonder WHY a company had to put such a warning label on their product in the way that they do.

One warning label I found online said plainly, and wisely:
"Do not put in mouth." That showed up on a box of bottle rockets.
"Not dishwasher safe."  This was on a remote control for a TV.
"Do not attempt to stop the blade with your hand." In the manual for a Swedish chainsaw.
"Warning: May contain nuts." On a package of peanuts?
"Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage." On a portable stroller.
"May be harmful if swallowed." On a shipment of hammers. 

I guess you could say that we are all, somewhat related to Wile E. Coyote.  Haven’t you also met people who aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer?   I've done some stupid things too, haven’t you?  I’ve tried to put something together before reading directions.  I’ve tried to take a short-cut, seen myself as smarter than the person who designed it.  I’ve lived dangerously thinking that something like that could never happen to me.  Haven’t you?

Let's face it, life can be dangerous; and the way forward, the way through can be misleading.  Sometimes even the smartest life can be like walking obstacle course; or a mine field. You never know when something's going to blow up in your face or what the next challenge is going to be. Maybe that's why the game show Survivor is so popular: It’s not real, but it does mirror the pitfalls of real life.

Because anyone’s life can be risky and hazardous, Paul begins to conclude his letter with this practical warning label: “Be very careful how you live.”  Be smart.  Be wise.  Be careful. 

Most of you know that my own daughter struggles with mental illness.   Most people don’t really understand what mental illness means, unless you’ve lived with it in your own family.  Unfortunately, science nor society, still hasn’t got a firm grip on what mental illness means and how it should be addressed by society. We in the church too, sometimes overlook the fact that just as a person can become physically ill, by no known fault of their own, people can also become mentally ill, by no known fault of their own.  These things can just happen, due to past stresses, unseen problems, or simple ‘accidents of nature’.

After several years of struggling to understand what was happening to our daughter’s mind, we finally began to understand and to try to address it, as best we could.  It may have helped, we often wonder, if along with the help of professionals, we could have understood the problems and challenges sooner.  I recall many signals and signs early on, but we never could get professionals to understand what was happening.  We went to doctor after doctor, but either they couldn’t see it, or they wouldn’t address it. 

One of those early signals was that my daughter, even when she got older too, did not know how to stop and look at a crosswalk.  Even when the signs were clearly marked, or a light was blinking ‘don’t walk’, she did not grasp the importance of taking stopping, or taking a look around, before she started to walk.  I don’t have enough fingers on my hands to count the number of times I had to either grab her hand, or shout at her to ‘watch out!’.  This became especially dangerous later, when she was old enough not to want to hold daddy’s hand, but she still would just walk straight into moving traffic.

Mental illnesses are real, and they are very challenging to deal with.  But as we all know, sometimes, even the smartest people; people with the highest IQ’s, and with remarkable abilities, can become so ‘absent minded’, and so care-less, that they fail to watch where they are going or what they are doing.  We all have heard of people who, as my mother used to say, ‘cut off their nose to spite their face.’   This means that people, even smart people, are capable of the crazy, self-destructive behavior.

To give an example, or two, even the ‘unshockable’ among us were shocked several years ago, when we learned that David Petraeus, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and four-star general, had handed in his resignation as a result of an affair he had with Paula Broadwell, his biographer and running partner.  Or what about what happen when one of the smartest presidents and most creative politicians we’ve had in my life-time, Bill Clinton, lied about his relationship with Monika Lewinsky?  It wasn’t just ‘dumb’ that he did it, but then he also did the second really stupid thing of not admitting it, and also lying under oath, even though he knew, as a lawyer, that this was a really stupid thing to do. 

Since people who aren’t being careful, can do really careless, stupid, and foolish things, Paul not only says, ‘take care…., but not leaving anything open ended, he speaks in plain, simple, unmistakable language: “Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is….”   (v.17). 

 “Common sense is not so common”, the French philosopher, Voltaire, once wrote.  The Bible has known this all along.  That’s why Paul doesn’t overlook reminding Christians how to continue to live like Christians.  Validating the Bible’s ancient truth, science gives us insight on why people who know better, don’t always choose better, do better, or live better.  
Shane Frederick at Yale University was among the first to conduct research that explained why rational thinking (making good, logical choices) and intelligence (the ability to make good, logical choices) don’t always go hand in hand.  In his studies, Frederick gave people simple problems to solve, like this one:  A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Frederick found that some people have the tendency to confidently blurt out the wrong answer, stating that the ball costs ten cents. You, of course, knew that the correct answer is that the ball costs five cents, and you’re completely justified if you’re wondering if the, well, less-than-smart people were the ones blurting out the wrong answer.
Psychologists from James Madison University and the University of Toronto wondered the same thing. They gave similar tests of logic to hundreds of people and compared the accuracy of their answers to their levels of intelligence. The researchers found that smart people were more likely to blurt out the wrong answer because they actually make more mental mistakes when problem-solving.
Smart people are more prone to make silly mistakes because of ‘blind spots’ in how they use logic. These blind spots exist because smart people tend to be overconfident in their reasoning abilities. That is, they’re so used to being right and having quick answers that they don’t even realize when they’re blowing it by answering without thinking things through.
The ‘dummies’ getting the bat-and-ball question wrong weren’t so dumb, either. When Frederick gave the question to students from Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T., more than half of them got it wrong. Even students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world make stupid mistakes.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the errors that highly intelligent people make is how unaware they are of them. People of all levels of intelligence succumb to what’s called the “bias blind spot.” That is, they’re great at spotting other people’s mistakes and terrible at recognizing our own. The sillier the mistake, the harder it is for an intelligent person to accept that they’ve made it.
One of the smartest minds in all human history, Socrates, echoed another bit of biblical wisdom when he said: “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Maybe that’s exactly why Paul is saying that in order ‘to make the most of every opportunity’ in life, we have to ‘take care’ and determine not to ‘be foolish’ by seeking God’s will, not going our own way. Only by looking beyond ourselves, can we hope to prevent our own missteps, no matter how smart, how moral, or how Christian we think we already are. 
Finally, when Paul links ‘understanding the Lord’s will’, not ‘getting drunk’ and ‘being filled with the Spirit’, it might sound very disconnected or disjointed, but it isn’t.  Paul is directing his readers to a very a very intentional approach to gaining knowledge and living one’s life. He is reminding us that living one’s life is not just a matter of the head, but it is also a matter of the heart.    

An example of the importance of heart knowledge, comes from how the academic world today reviews student applications.  When I decided to go off to college, back in the 1970’s, you had to take an aptitude test’ like an SAT, or Scholastic Achievement Test.  Most of you, if you wanted to go to college, may remember the ‘fear and trembling’ you underwent, waiting to receive your score to know whether or not you had a chance to get into the college of your choice.  For many years this score carried a lot of weight, and a certain score was absolutely necessary, until college enrollment experts discovered that scholastic aptitudes were not a perfect indicator for life success in school or life.  In short, they were testing aptitude, but overlooked fortitude, determination, or social involvement.

To put it another way, in recent years, experts have determined that to better predict success potential in business, school, and other areas of professional life, IQ, that is Intellectual Quotient, is not as reliable of an indicator as EQ, Emotional Quotient.  Of course, you need both, but when EQ is missing, no matter how smart you may be, people with low EQ, having strong, unresolved, emotional hang-ups, are most often unable to apply the intelligence they have, both for their own good, and for the good of others.

When Paul challenges the Ephesians to ‘be filled with the Spirit’, we must not think that Paul is speaking of some strange, unexplainable, super-spiritual activity.  Paul is simply speaking about the heart’s desire to learn ‘God’s will’, and seek God’s presence, so that we gain the kind of moral, emotional and spiritual perspective and restraint in our lives so we can find focus ourselves on the opportunity we have and avoid the moral and emotional weaknesses that are far too common. 

How does God give us this kind of emotional focus and perspective?  There is a great old Jewish story about a man who goes to his rabbi and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"
The rabbi answers, "Take your goat into the room with you."
The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week."
A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the rabbi. "The goat is filthy."

The rabbi then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week." A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us."

It’s all a matter of perspective isn’t it?  Gaining the right perspective in life can give us both the attitude and the emotional fortitude we need to keeping living our lives with joy and purpose.  Being ‘filled with the Spirit, as Scripture names it, points to the practice of the most basic and regular disciplines of the Christian life: worship; prayer, singing, praise and showing gratitude.  Being filled with God’s Spirit means we focus on living our lives from the inside out’, ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus’, rather than allowing circumstances to take us down into the mess of this world.  This is what Paul means when he says we should filled in the Spirit by ‘speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:18-20 NIV).

Interestingly, when you join a European Baptist Church, there are higher expectations for church members than we have here in the U.S.  One of those expectations is that you must not only purchase a Bible, but you must also purchase your own hymnbook, so that you can attend music classes to learn how to sing and participate in regular worship.  But music is not only understood as important for participating in worship, but music is how God continues to shape your heart.  For only as you continue to give your ‘heart to the Lord’ through song, deed, or word, can you keep your head, and watch your step through this only one life we have to live.

A final word.  Once the great 18th century Danish Pastor, Soren Kierkegaard, said of the great 18th century philosopher, Georg Hegel, that Hegel understood everything there is to know—except that he missed one teeny detail: what it means to live and die in the world.

Paul says, that the way we live wisely is to be ‘being careful’ with how we live, to ‘make the most of every opportunity we have, and to join with Jesus, to help redeem the times we live in.  Are you smart enough to figure out how to do this with your life?   Amen.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

“Children of Light"

A sermon based upon Ephesians 5: 8-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday in Lent-C,  March 17  2019 
(11-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

Since the last message was so heavy, I want to ask us to begin with a story that will help us ‘step’ into the light.

Davon Huss tells how in 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton hadn’t won a game in 8 weeks. The press was suggesting that he be dropped from the starting lineup. The future looked bleak, and Sutton felt terrible. Then, before a game, Dodgers manager Walter Alston tapped him on the shoulder. “I’d like to speak with you, Don,” he said.

Sutton prepared for the worst. “Don,” said Alston, “I know how the past couple of months have been for you. Everyone’s wondering whether we can make it to the play offs. You know there’s a lot of pressure. I’ve had to make a decision.” Sutton had visions of being taken off the mound. Alston continued, “If the Dodgers are going to win this year,” he said, looking Sutton in the eye, “they’re going to win with Don Sutton pitching. Come what may, you’re staying in the starting lineup. That’s all I wanted to say.”

Sutton’s losing streak lasted 2 more weeks, but because of his manager’s encouragement he felt different. Something in him was turning around. He found himself pitching the best ball of his career. In the National League pennant drive, he won 13 games out of 14.

There are all kinds of theories about how to motivate people. We can do it through guilt, fear or shame. But overall, these were not Paul’s nor Jesus’ methods.  At the core, the great messengers of the gospel move and motivate us to answer God’s call through the encouraging messages of promise and hope.  “You are the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14), Jesus told his disciples at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, in today’s text, the apostle Paul challenges God’s people to “live as children of light” (v. 8).

Like, Jesus, Paul takes the challenge one step further.  He challenges them to ‘live as children of light’ because, he says, “…now you are light in the Lord”.  That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it?   The have been people who were ‘once in darkness’, but now, whether they are ‘light in the Lord’. 

The significance here is that Paul is not only describing how they are live, but he is also describing ‘who’ they now are.  This Christian way of living isn’t just something we ‘do’, but it is someone we become; who we are because of ‘whose’ we are.

In today’s church we put a lot more emphasis on ‘what’ we are supposed to be doing as Christians.  We talk about serving the Lord, going on mission, and being ‘doers of the word’ and ‘not hearers only’.  That is a good emphasis.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.  The other day I heard someone say to the Pope and the Catholic church in regard to the coverup of the sexual misbehavior of certain priests, “We’re tired of words, we want to see action!” 

The Christian message is sometimes words.  “Thus Says the Lord!”  This is what the God of Israel says…  You have heard it said, but I say to you.  “Lord, you have the words of life.”   The Bible is the good book, contain a lot of good, hopeful, and even saving words.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”   There is nothing word with words.  We heard so many bad words every day, and we come to church on Sunday to hear a positive, challenging, and hopeful ‘word’ from God. 

But we also know that the saving, and most hopeful message must sometimes go beyond words.  It is said that one of the great early Christians, St. Francis, answered a question put to him by one of his helpers who went with him through villages to preach the gospel.  After the day was over, they had visited a person by the bedside, they had helped a farmer carry a heavy load, they had helped someone on a construction project, and they had also walked with grieving people in a funeral possession, and done a lot of other things like this.  But when the day was over, the novice asked his teacher; “I thought we were going to preach the gospel.”  St. Francis answered.  “But we did.  When you preach the gospel you go around doing good, and only sometimes do you have to use words.”

So, when we share or live the gospel, sometimes we use words, and other times we do as Jesus did, ‘we go around doing good’, but here Paul reminds us that there is another way to share and live the gospel; it is by ‘who’ we are because of ‘whose’ we are.  Sometimes we live the gospel by saying, other times by doing, but here Paul reminds us that it is just as important that we live the gospel by who we are and who we have become by being ‘in the Lord’: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Eph. 5:8 NIV).   Paul’s point here is that ‘who’ we are is just as important to how we live as what we do and what we say.  And the key to ‘who’ we are as Christians, is ‘who’ we are ‘in the Lord’.  

Mother Teresa was a catholic nun who dedicated her life to caring for some poorest of the poor.  Because of her loving, merciful work, people came from all over the world to meet her and to observe and learn.

Among the groups to which she spoke was one of the sisters from many North American orders of catholic nuns. After her talk she asked if there were any questions. “Yes, I have one,” a woman sitting near the front said. “As you know, most of the orders represented here have been losing members. It seems that more and more women are leaving all the time. And yet your order is attracting thousands upon thousands. What do you do?

Mother Teresa said, “I give them Jesus.” Yes, I know,” said the woman, “but take habits, for example. Do your women object to wearing habits? And the rules of the order, how do you do it?”I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa replied. “Yes, I know Mother,” said the woman, “but can you be more specific?” “I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa repeated again. “Mother,” said the woman, “we are all of us aware of your fine work. I want to know about something else.” Mother Teresa said sternly, “I give them Jesus. There is nothing else.”

And the best way to ‘give them Jesus’ is to BE Jesus, by who we are and by ‘whose’ we are.   It is this same Jesus, who not only said in the gospels “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5), but he also said we, his disciples’ of any age, ‘are the light of the world  (Matt. 5:14).”   

Who we become ‘in the Lord’ as so very important, because when we become ‘children of the light’ we show who our true parents are; the Lord who is our Father; the Son who is our Lord and brother in the flesh, and the Holy Spirit, who is Christ alive and living in and through us.  Now, this is a lot to say, but what is means, Paul spells out in a little sidebar and a brief parenthesis, when he next says we ‘live as light’ when we bear the ‘fruit of the light’ which ‘consists of all goodness, righteousness and truth.’  Paul’s point is that when we are ‘light’ and become ‘children of light’ we reflect the great light of truth, righteousness, and goodness has been revealed to us from God, who is our ‘Father in heaven’.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, in this space-age, scientific, modernized, and digitized world, it sounds a little strange to still speak of having a ‘heavenly’ father.  While on the mission field, I often worked alongside Mormons and noticed how they would take special care of always addressing God as being their ‘heavenly father’.  Mormons are very family oriented in their theology, and they take the idea of ‘father’ as not only describing who God is, but also ascribing who they, as Mormon men, will become, when as eternal Mormons, they will become spiritual ‘father’s and ‘mothers’ giving birth to many children and having large families on future planets that God will one day give to them, as they have been faithful parents on earth. 

When we name God our ‘heavenly’ father, and name ourselves God’s children, I don’t think we have to point a ‘literal’ fatherhood of God, or put our hope in becoming heavenly fathers ourselves, but I do believe that we point to God; his truth, his goodness and his righteousness, as the source and hope for our lives.  God is not only the heavenly Father, but he is also, as Israel has declared, ‘The Almighty God’ who not only created all things, but who is also over all things.  Since God is our source of life, it is only when we live in him, his goodness, his goodness and his righteousness, do we align ourselves with the ‘life-source’ that continues to bring us the kind of life that ‘bears’ the kind of spiritual ‘fruit’ which brings life meaning, purpose and hope. 

When Pastor Rob Peter’s from Calvary Baptist in Winston, lead some of our church leaders to help us ReFocus our ministries, he told us that among his 6,000 plus membership, one of the reoccurring questions he keeps hearing is, ‘how can I find meaning and purpose for my life.’  People are searching, looking and longing for a life that brings not just adventure or thrills, but they want to know how they can live a life that matters and means what life should mean.

Eric Butterworth once told about a college professor who had his sociology class go into the Baltimore slums to get case histories of 200 young boys. The students were asked to write an evaluation of each boy’s future. In every case the students wrote, “He hasn’t got a chance.” 25 years later another sociology professor came across the earlier study. He had his students follow up on the project to see what had happened to these boys. With the exception of 20 boys who had moved away or died, the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 had achieved success as lawyers, doctors and businessmen. The professor was astounded about the results. The earlier study was so inaccurate. What had happened to change the futures of these young boys?

Fortunately, all the men were in the area and he was able to ask each one, “How do you account for your success?” In each case the reply came back, “There was this teacher…” That teacher was still alive, so he sought her out and asked the elderly but still alert woman what magic formula she had used to pull these boys out of the slums into successful achievement. The teacher’s eyes sparkled and her lips broke into a smile. “It’s really very simple,” she said. “I loved those boys.” 

That teacher saw possibilities in those boys and it turned the darkness in and around them into the light of love. God’s Redeeming love, received, and now shinning through us, is the very goodness, righteous, and truth that brings us all through and out of the darkness into God’s wonderous light.  No ‘fruit of the light’ is shines brighter than the goodness, righteous, and truth of unconditional, redeeming, and life-saving love.

This image of God’s love as a light shining into our lives, bringing hope into a world that can become dark and dangerous, is without a doubt one of the most powerful spiritual images of hope in the Bible, and in the world. It is a primitive, understandable image based on a universal reality, because both physical and personally, we all know something about darkness and light.

But perhaps the most important part of Paul’s own experience with the ‘light’ of Christ, comes at the end, when he speaks from personal experience, how Christ’s light of love came upon him. Paul writes:
“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-- and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.  This is why it is said: "Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Eph. 5:13-14 NIV).

Paul says the God’s light of love, that shone upon him, and exposed his own dark side, can also shine on you and expose us fully and completely to God’s transforming love.  From Acts 9, when the ‘flash of light’ came upon Paul on the Damascus road, it was not a light exposing his dark side for  mere condemnation, but is was God’s light of love, exposing him to the redeeming, freeing, transforming, ego-altering light of goodness, righteousness, and the truth of God’s love for all people, including those who are still living the pain of darkness.

What about you?  Have you been fully exposed to the illuminating, redeeming, transforming love of Jesus Christ?  As Paul says,  ‘everything exposed to the light becomes visible’, and not just that, but when love surrounds you in fullness and light, love transforms you, and you too become a shining light.  The light in God, through Christ, now becomes contagious, and becomes a light shining through you.,

To convince the people of Philadelphia of the advantage of street lighting, Benjamin Franklin decided to show his neighbors be placing one in front of his house. He purchased an attractive lantern, polished the glass, and placed it on an extended pole in front of his house. Each evening, he would light the wick and hang out the lantern. Before long all of his neighbors noticed the light and even those far up the street noticed the warm glow around his house. The people passing by his house were delighted because it made walking in the dark so much easier. Soon, others placed lanterns in front of their homes and eventually the city recognized the need for having well lighted streets.  Light spread, and took over the whole city.

Anna Quindlen was asked to present the graduation speech at one of America's pre-eminent universities. You may have seen excerpts of it, which made the rounds of forwarded emails some time ago. Being a novelist, she admitted that she had no special expertise or insight enabling her to address that gathering of scholars. Yet, her message was poignant. Following are some excerpts:

You will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life; your particular life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on a bus, or in a car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.

Here is my resume: I am a good mother to three children. I no longer consider myself the center of the universe. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh. I am a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make my marriage vows mean what they say. I am a good friend to my friends and they to me. Without them there would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout.

So here's what I wanted to tell you today: Get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Pick up the phone. Send an email. Write a letter.

Get a life in which you are generous. And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take money you would have spent on beer and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen.

And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived.  (Anna Quindlen, "Commencement Address to Villanova University," June 23, 2000).

People in this world who have lived in the confusion of darkness long enough, need a true light to lead them to spiritual, emotional and mental safety and purpose.  “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead”, the baptismal song is quoted at the end of this text.  That song of hope of living in the light, and becoming children of light continues for those who will allow the light of love to fill the darkness of their souls.  A newer song, expressing the same hope goes:
“There is a candle in every soul,
Some brightly burning, some dark and cold
There is a Spirit who brings a fire,
Ignites a candle and makes His home
Carry your candle, run to the darkness,
Seek out the helpless, confused and torn
And hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Frustrated brother, see how he’s tried to
Light his own candle some other way
See now your sister, she’s been robbed and lied to
Still holds a candle without a flame

So Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn
And hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
We are a family whose hearts are blazing
So let’s raise our candles and light up the sky
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus
Make us a beacon in darkest times
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, deceived and poor
Hold out your candle for all to see it

Take your candle, and go light your world.  Amen.