Monday, October 27, 2008

Sermon from Sunday, Oct 27

On Ephesians 5:21-6:4.

By the way, sorry--no audio this week. Forgot to hook it up as I got home late Saturday night after the Phillies' glorious World series win!

In this sermon series on stewardship, we spent a lot of time talking about spiritual gifts. God gives us each gifts which we are supposed to use to serve others, and we are supposed to exercise responsible stewardship of those gifts. Last week, we talked a great deal about our time; we talked about how our time also is a gift from God and we are responsible for managing it well on behalf of the world. So we make time for work and time for play, and in all things we don’t let our time dominate us, but we execute dominion over our time, because it is God’s gift to us.
This week I want to talk about something a bit different and it might be sort of surprising—our families. You might at first wonder about the idea of stewarding our families, just because our families are not things, they are other people. We don’t often think positively of managing other people. Yet I want you to think a little bit outside the box with this. For one thing, stewardship is always about a gift from God. Stewardship is always about gifts that God gives us that we are supposed to use in a certain way. Who would deny that our families are gifts from God? This is not to say that they are perfect—none of our families are. Yet our families are a way of connecting us to each other, a way to relieve the loneliness of the human condition, God’s way of putting others in our lives that we deeply care about. So if families are a gift from God, and I think they are, then they can be stewarded—God’s gifts can.
Consider also that all the things we steward can be used in such a way that they bring blessing or curse. Money is a gift from God—if you manage your money in a certain way, it can bring blessing to the world. If you manage your money in another way, it can bring a curse to the world. If you manage your time in a certain way, it can bring a blessing to yourself and to the world. If you manage it in a different way, it will bring a curse to yourself in the world. Stewardship means that the gifts God gives us are not unilaterally good things, but instead have the potential for good or for bad depending on how we manage it. Consider your spiritual gifts. Suppose for a second you have the gift of intelligence; you can use that gift either to bless the world or curse the world. And I don’t know what each of your gifts is, but the flip side to your greatest gift is often your greatest fault. Those of you whose gift is generosity might be tempted to run another person’s life for them. Those of you whose gift is mercy might never hold anyone accountable. The way we steward our gifts determine whether our gifts will bring us blessing or curse.
All this talk of potential for great blessings and great curses—doesn’t this sound like families? Who can make us so happy as our families? The holidays are coming up and who among us doesn’t want to celebrate with our families? Families can bring us incredible blessings, bringing us closer to God and closer together. Of course, at the same time, who can make us so devastated as our families? Who can hurt us so much as a parent or a child can hurt us? Who can hurt us worth by withholding their love? No one. Families, like other gifts of God, can crush us or lift us up all based on how they are stewarded.
So let’s turn our minds to this text of Scripture and see what advice it has about how we should steward our families. This text contains some of Scripture’s most famous verses—or its most infamous verses, depending on your point of view. They are verses that we hear every so often at weddings, verses which make us profoundly uncomfortable in our culture, especially as “enlightened people.” “Wives, submit (or be subject) to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”
Wow. Next time you’re at a Bible study and people want to know your favorite verse of the Bible, say that and just watch people squirm. Watch the room grow quiet, as that verse just sits there in the middle of the room like a bit old nasty bag of smelly laundry. It does make us squirm, doesn’t it? How do verses like this play in a modern society? How are we supposed to view it as Christians? Well, I know what most enlightened Christians do with it—they pretend it doesn’t exist. Honestly. I spend a lot of my life wishing these verses of Scripture away. Many other preachers do too. In fact, there’s a document out there called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a sort of preaching schedule which many churches abide by. I’ve told you about it before—if you go to a Catholic or Lutheran Church and some other churches, they follow the lectionary each week; the churches agree that all the churches will talk about these Scriptures each week. Some American Baptist churches use the Lectionary exclusively (maybe 5%); some, like ours, use it sometimes but not all the time. Anyway, over the summer, the lectionary usually stays in one book for a long time, so that preachers will talk about the overall themes of the book throughout the summer. One summer, it goes through Ephesians—so many passages from this book—but it just skips right over this passage. Why? Because nobody really likes to talk about it. Preachers don’t want to talk about it—in churches with bishops, bishops don’t want their priests talking about it—everyone just wishes it wasn’t there.
Let me say as clearly as I can that when I am backed into a corner, I will admit it—I believe this passage. I believe wives are to submit to their husbands. It is Holy Scripture and so as counterintuitive as it is to me, I believe this. Some of you are uncomfortable. I’m not a prophet, but I know that.
But let me encourage you before you get too nervous about me to read what comes after this part of the passage, and then what comes before this part of the passage. First, look at what comes after this: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” Hmmm. Let’s think about this for a second. What’s this verse saying? Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…and just like Jesus, give her orders from on high. No—what we read is that husbands are supposed to love their wives like Jesus loves humanity—giving themselves up for their spouse. What word would you choose for “giving yourself up for someone else?” I might choose “submission.” After all, isn’t that the essence of Jesus’ love for us? That he submitted to the human experience even when it cost him his life? That he submitted to persecution and torment and eventually crucifixion? Jesus’ mission was lots of things but you could define it basically by talking about submission; Jesus submitted. Husbands, if you want to love your wives like Jesus loved the church, you will give yourselves up, and you will submit too. So do I believe that wives should submit to their husbands? Yes. But I also believe that husbands should submit to their wives, just as Jesus submitted.
And this is the thing about the Christian family that you see when you look at the very first verse in this passage. “Submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.” Because you honor Christ, the Submissive One, you too need to submit. Whether you are a wife or whether you are a husband, no matter what your position is in the family, you need to have a mindset of submission toward the other. Whether you are the traditionally dominant one, the husband, or the traditionally submissive one, the wife, you need to be a person of submission. Since we are people who follow Christ, it means having a submissive attitude toward the world.
In fact, what Paul is doing here is classic preaching. He says, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and you can almost see the self-satisfied husbands nodding their heads. And they elbow their wife in the ribs and they say—hey, I like this guy, this guy’s right, he’s got something to say…and then he flips the script on them and then he says, “Oh, by the way, you husbands need to love your wives too.” And the husbands still nod, and then he says, “Love them like Jesus…” and the men realize that he means to submit, even to die for them. Paul’s tactic is to make spouses realize that in the Christian home, everything is turned upside down. A Christian family is not a place where the strong dominate the weak and trample on them to get their way. A Christian family is instead a place where spouses are concerned not with manipulating each other to get their own way, but seeking the best for each other and giving themselves up for each other, submitting to each other. Yes, wives submit to your husbands, but husbands submit to your wives as well.
As if to prove the point, then Paul moves on to the issues of parents and children. Parents in ancient Mediterranean societies—especially fathers—were dominant figures, not cuddly involved parents who coach soccer and participate in fundraisers. They were almost godlike and what they say goes. And so Paul first gives this predictable counsel to children: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Not because of what you get out of it, but just because it’s right. Paul then reminds us that this is the first commandment with a promise. If you look at the 10 Commandments, you’ll see Paul is right: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God has given you.” I think I’ve mentioned before that this was my punishment when I would talk back excessively to my parents: I’d have to write this verse 50 or 100 times. I never liked this verse…but it does have a promise. Honor your father and your mother and you will be blessed with long life. So Paul says you should obey your parents just because it’s right, but it also benefits you in the end.
And again, as the church would read this letter from Paul, you can almost see the fathers in the room sitting up a little straighter, a little prouder. “Yes! Honor your father! That’s me! God made me your father and you need to obey me. And if you do, it will be well for you! There you go, right there, it’s scriptural…do my bidding!” But then again, Paul flips the script, Paul turns it upside-down and he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” In other words, fathers, don’t torment your children. You don’t have any right to torment them without cause. Instead, says Paul, “Bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” That is, don’t admonish them to get your way, but admonish them in order that God’s will be done in their lives. You don’t have the right to make your children do whatever you feel like; you have the obligation to help your children become more like Jesus.
Paul’s writing here really has a great challenge for us in stewarding our families. The overall picture we get when we look at Paul’s picture of the family is upside down. In an ancient world where husbands and fathers were the dominant figures, the Bible challenges them to submission and kindness instead of dominance. And Paul’s picture of the family is just as upside down in today’s world; in fact, it may be even more upside down in today’s world. Because in today’s world, no one is expected to be submissive. It’s not just men who are expected to be dominant, strong individuals today, it is both men and women who are encouraged to stand up for themselves, be strong individuals, seek their happiness and fulfillment first. We live in a world where the self is king, where what matters primarily is our own happiness and success. Paul’s counsel to families could not seem stranger to a world like this—everyone submit? Do not dominate each other? Even if you see a way in which you can get what you want, don’t take it but seek the good of the others? How strange! How foreign! And of course, it should be said, how refreshing. How life-giving. How different. How unique. Nobody does this anymore, and perhaps not coincidentally, no one is happy anymore.
Again, what Paul is saying is that a Christian family is upside down from the cultural rules that govern families. The culture says that the family is one thing, but the gospel totally subverts what seems logical in the culture and turns it on its head. Not only wives submit but husbands also submit; not only children honor their parents, but parents honor their children. Upside-down.
So what would it look like if families were to be upside-down like Paul wants them to be upside down? For one, we would begin to see the image of God in each other. Children would be able to see and respect the image of God in their parents, and so when they get frustrated with their parents as children often do, they would know that even though parents can be frustrating, they still intend well for them as God intends well for them. Likewise, parents would see the image of God in their children; as such they would take pains to bring that image to full flower by teaching their children the ways of God. They also would remember that when their children make them want to pull their hair out, that their children were creatures of sacred worth, made by God and bearing His image. IN an upside-down family, spouses would respect and honor and submit to each other, laying themselves and their own desires down for each other’s good.
Now the last thing I want to ask is why the Gospel wants us to order our lives this way. Well, it’s not just so we can have a certain kind of home; it’s not just so we can be happy. As Christian families practice this stewardship, something amazing can happen. As families mature and grow together in Christ, they also become places of deep harmony. When you can go to bed at night and rest easy that you don’t have to pursue your own agenda because your family has your back, your home can become a place of deep harmony. And you can use that deep harmony to touch the world. When your family is a blessing rather than a curse, when you’re stewarding it rightly, you don’t have to take all of this energy tending to family affairs; and you become more free to serve God and others as a family. It’s my prayer that this is the type of family that typifies our church—whether it is a traditional family, a blended family, or a single-parent family—families that no matter what they are are upside down and thus places where God can be seen.