Eph 5:3-5, 15-20 You are God's people, so don't let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy. Don't use dirty or foolish or filthy words. Instead, say how thankful you are. Being greedy, indecent or immoral is just another way of worshiping idols. You can be sure that people who behave in this way will never be part of the kingdom that belongs to Christ and to God.
Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don't be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do. Don't destroy yourself by getting drunk, but let the spirit fill your life. When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, as you praise the Lord with all you heart. Always use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to thank God the Father for everything. (CEV)
My Dad loves to tell stories. One that seemed quite appropriate for this morning goes like this. A farmer had just bought a plow-mule from a neighbor. He'd paid a good price for this mule--the neighbor spoke glowingly of how well this mule worked--he'd do whatever the farmer asked, work long hours, was well behaved behind the plow, had good ground manners. So the farmer brought the mule home, turned him out in the pasture, and the time came to plow the first field. He went out to get the mule. He got a lead rope on the mule to get him into the barn to get him hitched up. An hour later, that farmer was sweating up a storm, and the mule hadn't budged an inch. They were still out in the pasture, lead rope around the mule's neck, farmer using every trick he had ever learned to get the mule to move. But the mule was having none of this. The farmer was getting past angry when he noticed his neighbor strolling down the road. He was about to use all his angry language on his neighbor, when the neighbor came over and asked if he could help. The farmer said, using words I won't repeat here, that either that mule would move, or the neighbor could return the money and figure out how to get the mule home himself. So, the neighbor looked around the pasture, walked over under a big tree, picked up a fallen limb about 3 inches in diameter and walked back to the mule and hit that ol' mule as hard as he could. He then picked up the lead rope and the mule meekly followed after him. "He'll do anything you want him to. You just have to get his attention!"
As some of you know, I've spent some time this summer at the ranch where my daughter Rebecca is working. (As an aside, I am very proud of the work she has been doing as a camp counselor and riding instructor. Every time I go, I am filled with joy to watch her with the young girls she is helping to teach to ride, with the horses, and how she handles herself and others.) Yesterday I got into an interesting conversation with one of the other counselors. There is a new horse boarding at the ranch--a 6 year old quarter horse. Just so you know, 6 is still youngish--but has the potential to be a fine ride, energetic but not crazy. Jesse is new to her owner. When she got to the ranch, she was somewhat skinny - fairly typical, I've been told, for a "horse dealer" horse. Now on a average diet, she is gaining weight, and energy. In the last two weeks Jesse has changed from a very calm, almost sedate horse to one with more energy who that takes more constant attention to ride. The counselors who have ridden her have made the adjustment, and helping Jesse adjust to her new level of energy. Her owner, however, is taking another approach. Jesse's owner likes the calm, sedate horse that Jesse was for the first week she owned her, so she uses a bit--that metal thing that goes into a horses mouth for control--that is severe. When Jesse shows her owner she has changed--that she has more energy, her owner pulls on the reins, which pulls on the bit, which puts pressure on tender spots in Jesse's mouth. In short, it hurts. And she stops whatever she is doing. This is, by the way, a long standing controversy in the horse world: more training so that the rider and horse are working together, or stronger bits, so that the rider gains control by delivering pain to the horse.
Years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick, then at the height of his influence as minister of the Riverside Church, New York City, was making a tour of Palestine and other countries of the Near and Middle East. He was invited to give an address at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where the student body comprised citizens of many countries and representatives from sixteen different religions. What could one say that would be relevant or of interest to so mixed and varied a group? This is how Fosdick began: "I do not ask anyone here to change his religion; but I do ask all of you to face up to this question: What is your religion doing to your character?" This was a call to consider one of the great issues of human belief: religion and life, Christianity and character, word and spirit. Emerson once said, "What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you say."
What we do--our behavior--and how that behavior fits into a system of right and wrong behavior and conduct. The Farmer in the first story probably spent a few moments thinking that the neighbor had been wrong in his description of the Mule as one who would do whatever one asked of it. You and I might consider hitting the mule with a large limb wrong behavior. In the horse world, for any given training technique, there are folks who will line up on the side of "it is right", some on the "it is wrong" and some on the "it is right, or wrong--but for other reasons" And of course, the adage "your actions speak louder than words" is aptly illustrated with Fosdick's question, What is your religion doing to your character? An easy question to read back into the early middle age Crusades, or even into Salem witch trials--easier, perhaps to ask of others than of ourselves.
The author of Ephesians admonishes "Be careful then how you live"
In his Easter sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams uses the Gospel of John as a foundation as he reminds his congregation what Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that Easter morning in the garden--"Do not cling to me--do not hold on to me" (John 20:17) Jesus is going on to "my Father and your Father, my God and your God." To a place more unknown than Mary could possibly imagine. The resurrection--however we imagine it--means we cannot have Jesus just on our own terms. Jesus is alive and ahead of us--and we cling to him in the garden--to turn away from the journey that he leads.
Quoting the Archbishop: "There is a clinging to Jesus that shows itself in the longing to be utterly sure of our rightness. We want him where we can see him and manage him, so that we know exactly where to turn to be told that everything is all right, and that he is on our side. We do it in religious conflicts, we do it in moral debates. We do it in politics. We want to stand still and be reassured, rather than moving faithfully with Jesus along a path into new life whose turnings we don't know in advance. To have an absolute reassurance of our rightness somehow stands in the way of following Jesus to God. It offers us an image of ourselves that pleases and consoles, instead of the deeper and harder assurance of the gospel--that whether or not we have a satisfying image of ourselves, we have the promise of forgiveness and of a future." "Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to cling to him, one of the many things he says is, 'Do not use me, do not use any vision of what is true or good, to keep yourself from recognizing the real and potential evil within you. Don't cling; follow. Take the next step, putting your feet in the gap I have cleared, conscious of how you may make mistakes, but trusting that I can restore you and lead you further, that I can deal with the residues of evil in your heart and in every heart.'"
"On that journey we must lay aside what one of the desert fathers called the heavy burden of self-justification. I just give up the Jesus who simply assures me of my own image of myself as good and right. From now on, my justification is not that I am proved to have been right all along; it is that Jesus has promised, irrespective of my success or failure, to be there. He assures me not of my innocence, but of my forgiveness and my hope. He was raised to live, says St Paul, for our justification; he was raised so that we may know that his promise to be with us is never defeated by our failures."
The author of Ephesians admonishes "Be careful then how you live." The author of Ephesians, trying to help the Jesus movement in Ephesus differentiate themselves from pagans there, admonished with guidelines, and advised with examples cogent to the context and times of that place. The author of Ephesians urged his readers to discover what the Lord had in store for them. And, as they made these discoveries, he urged them to sing and make melody to the Lord, giving thanks in the name of Jesus Christ at all times and for everything.
Jesus invites us to come, to follow.
If we, in the language of the Archbishop and Fosdick, have Jesus "where we can see him and manage him," what does our "religion say about our character"? What are our actions shouting about the control we have a death grip on?
If we "stand still and be reassured," like Jesse's new owner, what adventures and blessings have we missed with Jesus; what truths have failed to be revealed because we have clung behind instead of journeying ahead.
Or, sometimes, I confess it takes a large stick to get my attention: our old ways are comfortable--like the mule eating grass in the pasture, we think that maybe that is heaven and we don't realize that we're not even close.
We follow then, where Jesus leads. Learning to trust, to risk, to meet with the journey with surprise. To make mistakes, to live with vulnerability. To live with the knowledge that Jesus' promise is not that we will have hard and fast rules, or systems of clear cut right and wrong behavior that cover each and every human circumstance. Our promise from Jesus is he is with us, that we are loved, and we are justified by his gift of love.
Quotes from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams are taken from "Do Not Cling to
Me," Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Sojourners Magazine, July-August, 2003.
Know The Way, Keep The Truth, Win The Life, Donald MacLeod, C.S.S.
Publishing Co., 1987, via sermons.com