08/26/2018 Sermon

Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2018

The Sacred Between
Ephesians 5:21-6:9

This passage is a difficult one for us progressive Christians.  I say difficult because it has been used for centuries by some of our brothers and sisters, badly in my view, to reinforce unjust hierarchies among people.  Because of this, the gurus who put together the revised common lectionary I often preach from simply skip it.  For my money that is an ostrich move if ever there was one.  By refusing to consider what God may be saying to those of us who do NOT think these words of scripture mean men are predestined by God to occupy, in perpetuity, all the leadership positions at home, work, and church, we cede the passage to those who would use it to maintain their own power at the expense of other groups of people.  In addition, because we avoid considering alternative interpretations to those who favor reading it for insight into “God’s preferred human power structure,” we have no response to the question they may ask if we protest that interpretation.  And that question is, “Ok, then, what do YOU think it means?”

Here is his summary of what it is that the passage we just read means, “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.”  Or, to put it another way for those of us who have ever done yoga, Out of respect for Christ, embody, or live, Namaste.  Namaste is the word often said at the end of a Yoga class, which means roughly “I bow to the divine in you.”  Eugene Peterson, pastor and professor, in his commentary on Ephesians Practicing Resurrection tells us what the passage is actually about living Namaste.  He tells us it is about the “sacred between.”  The “sacred between” this passage illuminates is so important, in fact, that I’d like to focus there this week and next.  This week we will stick with what the sacred between is and why we are focusing there, and next week, how our passage suggests we might practice our faith in ways that cultivate that space.

In short, “the sacred between is the space between people where the Holy Spirit may dwell, if we, by grace, can get out of the way so that she can find the room to do so. This summer, when Debbie was down in Atlanta, the convener of her conference gave her group an illustration that illuminates “the sacred between”, the place into which the conditions are ripe for the cultivation of the Holy Spirit.  She said, imagine how pitiful a fire would be if it were built without leaving room between the logs for the oxygen that feeds the fire?  In the right conditions, if we learn to recognize the sacred between us as one of the places the miracle of the Holy Spirit happens, we may get to enjoy the fire of holiness that warms, protects and encourages the flowering of abundant life as the Spirit’s flame touches us.

But we must not always expect rushing, loud winds.  On the contrary, Paul grounds us in the ordinary as he leads us into the home stretch in this comprehensive Ephesian presentation of what is involved in practicing a mature life in Christ.  With this passage he pries our eyes away from thinking the glory of God reveals itself in grand gestures and swashbuckling projects that propose to eradicate all the devil’s work in one fell swoop.  Instead, he gently turns our attention back to the places no one notices except those who love steadily and without fanfare, or Facebook.  Peterson suggests that our commitment to doing little things for God may in one sense be even more wonderful than great things because those things are not done to accumulate power, or influence, or money.  They are not done for any reason other than love.  Kathleen Norris, a popular newspaper columnist and writer of the mid 20th century insistently keeps our attention on the local, the personal, the mundane place of daily relationships where God actually shows up, in her poems and memoirs.  She claims:  “it is the daily tasks, daily acts of love and worship that serve to remind us that religion is not strictly an intellectual pursuit.  Christian faith is a way of life, not a fortress made of ideas; not a philosophy, not a grocery list of beliefs.”  Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese American philosopher, artist and poet puts it this way, “Your daily life is your temple and your religion.  So, when you enter it, take with you your all.”

Bottom line is that what takes place at home and in the workplace cannot be generalized.  We can’t dreamily croon about loving everyone when we have just reamed out our assistant.  There is nothing abstract about the argument we had this morning with our spouse, or the apology for our unreasonable irritability we made to a colleague.  Everyone and everything at home and work has a name.  We can’t rail on about those irresponsible people who voted for the Republican party, or those who voted for the democratic party, when one of the other stripe lives in our house, can we?   At home and at work, everything is within touching distance and everyone is always in a working context of relationship with everything else.  No one thing in a household or workplace is a piece of art in a museum to be contemplated apart from everything else.  We cannot live to God’s glory if we don’t live to her glory as we interact with the people around us.  We don’t reach a goal called, the glory of God.  We either live it minute by minute, we either are it – “the glory of God is a human being fully alive said Ireneaus,” or we are not – and all of that plays out in the interactions we have daily with others.

Finally, each of Paul’s eight household and workplace designations refers to a role that is more or less culturally defined.  A woman who grows up in a Korean Buddhist home has a different experience of how children, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers live their roles than a woman who grows up in an Italian Catholic home.  A young man in inner city Detroit who has never known a father has a different experience of family life than someone on a family farm in Kansas with both parents and 7 siblings, along with grandparents on a neighbor farm.  Workplace roles are experienced in radically different ways on an Israeli Kibbutz, a Chicago meat packing plant, a Wall Street office, and a Jefferson County school.

The cultural details involved in household and workplace are enormously complex, as most of us already know from experience, some of them excruciatingly painful, as many of us have learned the same way. That is why this part Ephesians 5 does not contain detailed advice or counsel.  What it does do is replace our understanding of our culturally defined roles with a Christ defined role.  Every aspect of our family and work life is redefined in relations to Christ rather than in relation to what the cultures in which we have grown up have told us about how wives are to be with husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, parents to children, servants to masters and masters to servants.  The repeated phrase that redefines who we are in all the complexities of household and workplace is “as to the Lord”, which is repeated for our benefit nine times and “in the Lord,” which is repeated twice.  In the practice of resurrection we no longer understand our role by comparing it to some model taken from the culture, but always, without exception, to Christ.  The measuring stick for maturity in the Christian life is “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”  And that measuring stick applies to all dividing lines our culture, or anyone else’s culture, would try and establish between people, and it applies all the time.  No one serious about Christian maturity gets to disregard the example we have in Christ, regardless of places of privilege the culture would try to carve out for any one class of Christ followers.
If we are serious about the practice of resurrection, we have to do it in company with the risen Christ.  We pay attention to the ways that Jesus forgave, loved, touched lepers, received outsiders, prayed for his friends.  We know a lot about Jesus’ ways.  Resurrection is not a dogmatic truth we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand.  Resurrection is not a behavior we can perfect through carefully managed ascetic techniques, or codify through culturally conditioned preconceptions of who can provide strong leadership.  Resurrection is a practice in which we engage as we “trust and obey, there is no other way, “ as the Spirit, God’s empowering Presence brings the life of the Trinity alive in us, all of us, in Jesus’ name.

But by God’s help, always, by her strength, help and love of us and through us.

Elisa Owen on Euguene Peterson’s Practicing Resurrection and Ephesians
Crescent Hill Presbyterian
August 26, 2018
Louisville, KY