When was the first time my pants fell down in public? Good question. I was in third grade, and it was Halloween. Now, I was never a huge fan of Halloween. I’ve always been a scaredy-cat. I scare easily – I jump easily. Halloween was never something I really enjoyed. BUT – you don’t get a body like this by refusing free candy very often, so…you better believe I was out there, doing my thing, EVERY YEAR.
Now, one year, I went as a painter. My dad is a union, commercial painter; he paints big buildings, he’s a big shot in his construction company. And since he’s a member of a painter’s union, the acceptable “uniform,” if you will, is white pants and a white shirt. So that’s what I wore for Halloween that year. And to reallytie the ensemble together, I carried around a paintbrush and a paint-bucket to collect my candy in. Now, there was this one driveway down the street which was basically a 90-degree angle. It was SO steep. It was like climbing Everest. So, when I got to the top of that driveway, out of breath and sweaty – I was a pudgy child – I know that that candy would be the sweetest candy of all.
So, when I got that Butterfinger in hand, you better believe that I was NOT going to wait until I got home to eat it. I ripped into that thing like someone was trying to take it from me. Here’s the problem, though: I’m in third grade, and I’m wearing my dad’s pants, so unless I keep a hand on those bad-boys, they’re coming down. And that’s exactly what happened. I was so occupied with that Butterfinger, that I walked on down that driveway until I felt an unusual breeze at which time I realized my pants were on the ground.
And, as weird as it may sound, this is how it goes sometimes in our lives. We’re going along, thinking we’re doing the right thing, until something stops us in our tracks, and onlythendo we realize that we weren’t doingthe right thing because we weren’t focusedon the right thing. The things we focus on dictate the things we do; they dictate the way we live and move and have our being in the world.
And sometimes that requires us to carefully examine our current focus and, sometimes, it forces us to change. This is what our author is telling the people in Ephesus. The first verse says: “be careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise…” The verb in this sentence is actually “peripeteite”, which means “to walk.” So, really, this verse should read “be careful then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” Now, remember from last week that when this was written there was no division between paragraphs and sections. So, we need to look around this passage to gain some context, and what we find when we do that is that this passage is addressing people who may be flirting with other pagan and idolatrous religions. This is a persistent problem for Paul and his disciples and that’s why he’s, to put it frankly, always talking about sex.
It’s well-documented that Paul and his followers had to constantly deal with people who were walking down the road and were enticed by the pagan temples where sexual acts were considered acts of worship. Now, there’s a lot of speculation about the letters attributed to Paul, but this is a fact: when Paul talks about fornication, sexual immorality, impurity – basically, all those words which a lot of Christians try to use to demonize the LGBT community -- he’s not making normative claims about human sexuality: he’s referencing pagan worship acts. Once we realize this, not only do the so called “LGBT clobber texts” lose all their power, but we can understand why our author is exhorting people to stay on the straight-and-narrow.
Because, in this world, we’re faced with a lot of decisions; we hear a lot of different voices and multiple things are constantly vying for our attention. It’s easy to get lost; it’s easy to lose our focus when we’re just going through the day-to-day. You probably don’t walk by pagan temples very often but you do walk by people at work who aren’t your spouse; you walk by the bar after having a bad day. You’re presented with a lot of opportunities everyday which can tempt us off the beaten path and into a place we don’t really want to go. But it’s all fair-game unless we believe that there’s something ultimate and enduring to which we should appeal rather than our own desires.
That’s what this whole passage is about – STOP being all about the short game. STOP being tempted by something which may bring temporary relief or pleasure, but will be devastating in the long run. You can either devote yourself to Jesus and his mission and his vision, or you can devote yourself to something else. That’s the fundamental choice here. You can either devote yourself to Jesus’ dream or to someone else’s. And I’m here to tell you that you are indeed free to choose whatever you want to choose, but Jesus’ dream is the only one worth dreaming. It’s not the ancient pagan dream of “pleasure alone” or the modern nationalistic dream of “America alone” but it’s the dream of a first-century Jewish peasant which asks for “love alone.”
That’s why Paul and the tradition attributed to his name is so concerned with paganism. It focuses on the wrong things. It focuses on the self instead of the other. Now, I tend to think a lot of the “Pauline tradition” was written independently of Jesus’ teachings and ethics but I think they got this much right. That the fundamental element of the gospel is love. And love works itself out in this world as responsibility without limit for one’s neighbor. Verse 17: “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” Now, we talk a lot about discerning the will of the Lord in specific situations but there are some overarching rules and guidelines, and Jesus’ understanding of the greatest commandment is a good place to start: “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”
That’sthe focus. That’swhere we’re trying to go. As individuals and as a church, that alone is the helm of the ship which can steer us to the right path. And the reason we come together on Sunday mornings is to remind us of this focus, this mission. We gather in order to hear God’s word spoken to us anew. We gather for the same reason the church gathered 2000 years ago: to sing songs and hymns of thanksgiving to the God who showed us love. The words in this letter are just as potent for us as it was for them because we’re just as guilty of chasing the shiny new thing whenever it comes along.
So, here’s the question (you’re probably starting to see a pattern emerge in my preaching; there’s always a question). Here’s the question: what is the thing which causes you to lose your focus? What are the things which catch your eye and tempt you to chase after them? Maybe it’s something which may fix some problems, but might cause others. Maybe it’s a relationship with someone that you pine after, but isn’t reciprocated. Or maybe it’s something which you think is more important than your faith in general, and nowwe’re talking about idols.
If we’re going to worship a God, then we better be sure it’s the right one. Our text is right – the days are evil. We only have so much time to run this race and we can either take up our crosses and follow Jesus or we can just stay where we are. And we can’t build the kingdom by staying where we are. We can’t radically love this world by staying where we are. We have to get up and go. Out into the world and the places where no one else will to love the people no one else will. So, don’t lose focus. Keep your eyes on the prize. Go out into the world, filled with the Spirit, and ready to love each and every person you come into contact with. Because we’re only here for a short time, and there’s still work to be done.