by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry
"But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly and vulgar talk; but instead, let there by thanksgiving.
Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them.
For once you were darkness, and now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the unfruitful work of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
One of the awful things about growing old is that everything that was once so clear, gets murkier and murkier. I'm not talking about memory so much (though my daughter would tell you my memory is less than air-tight). I'm talking about clarity, insight, conviction, and the ability to express the unvarnished truth. I am one of those Baby Boomers who came of age (that is to say, was in college) during the Vietnam War. Things were crystal clear back then. The war was evil. The Establishment was evil. The Man was evil. Richard Nixon was evil. Gene McCarthy was good. Resistance and protest was good. Noam Chomsky was good. Long hair was good. And it was easy to express these things. We had our poets: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Country Joe and the Fish. Black was black. White was white. In the midst of the supposedly chaotic sixties and seventies, all was ordered. (For me.) The world pretty much broke out into good guys and bad guys. (The only fun twist my generation put on this was that the rustlers were the good guys and the sheriffs were the bad guys.) But you get my drift.
When I first heard Joni Mitchell's song "Shadows and Light" in 1975, I was 25. And I hated that song. The Arp-Farfisa (that's the name of the accompanying instrument) and the electronic layering of voices, all suggested church. But the electronics of the sound was robotic, and the chord progressions and harmonies were grating—the antithesis of church, I thought. Above all, the lyrics drove me crazy. The metaphor of darkness and light was so pithy and convenient. Light and darkness: obvious images of good and evil, right and wrong, insight and blindness, yes and no. But here were references to hostage smiles on presidents and blessings of parasites. It was a messy song. It was the last song on the second side of an album, and back in the good ole days of vinyl, I would just stop the record before it got to this song. I pretty much didn't play it for twenty years.
And then somewhere in the mid-nineties, when I was in my mid-forties, I bought the album on CD…and the song made all kinds of sense to me. Of course, hostage smiles on presidents. Of course, blessings of parasites. Of course, shadows and light. Nothing is ever black and white.
Last week I made the smart decision, as it turns out, to lay down a fistful of dollars and go to the Lyric Opera's production of John Adam's Dr. Atomic. What an incredible show! It's the story of the days and minutes leading up to the explosion at Los Alamos of the first atomic bomb, focusing on Oppenheimer's moral dilemma.
The questions he and we face in the opera are: Do we need a bomb now that the Germans have surrendered? Will the bomb strengthen Truman's hand in negotiating a lasting piece? Do we need to unleash such vast powers of death even in the service of good? Do we have the right to take such chances and possibly destroy the world? How is it that our desire for good can be achieved through such evil? It is clear from the opera and all we know about from diaries and other sources that Oppenheimer experienced the days before that first explosion as a hinge in time. "After the bomb" would never allow us to return to "before the bomb". We would be forever changed. The opera works because—even though we know the outcome of that first explosion and don't share the worries of the Los Alamos scientists, we still share those same moral questions. Can good ever be accomplished through evil? Do we have the right to unleash such power on the world?
Staging, choreography and lighting augment music and poetry to convey these questions. Most powerful to me was the use of lighting, in this instance the depiction of lightning to convey menace and warning. There was in actual history a bizarre and violent electric storm at Los Alamos the night of the detonation. The storm almost cancelled the test. (Wouldn't it have been interesting if God's lightning had detonated humanity's bomb and destroyed the destroyer and the destroyers?) The pulsing and chaos of the stage lightning conveyed power and danger and death very dramatically. Light in Dr. Atomic contained evil. The lightning presaged atomic explosion. The brighter the light, the greater the evil. Whoa!
Our text for today is not Dr. Atomic and not Shadows and Light. Our text is Ephesians. I must say, I've never preached from Ephesians before. I'll blame the lectionary that never saw fit to deal me that hand. Though, if I'm honest, Ephesians is not the preacher's best friend. There are no stories in it to jazz it up, there's this awkwardness about the authorship (most scholars now agreeing it was not written by Paul, but by a disciple writing in Paul's name), and there are those passages about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves most of us would just as soon forget. Abstract moral exhortation and rules of conduct, the meat of Ephesians, are just not the contemporary preacher's—well OK, this contemporary preacher's—cup of tea.
And then… I had the misfortune to read our passage for today in the light of (pardon the pun) Dr. Atomic. "For once you were darkness, and now in the Lord you are light… Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true." I read that and saw lightning flashing. Bombs detonating. Freedom scribbled in the subway. Light, shadows, darkness. "It's just not that simple," I inwardly protested. How can this be gospel?
We all struggle with the difference between the Bible and what we have done with the Bible. Ephesians does not have a good track record in this regard. Arguments in support of American slavery and gender dominance have come from this book. People who have felt threatened by social change of any kind have appealed to its language of purity and boundaries. Ephesians has been used to squelch and dominate, condemn and control. Its clear language and powerful imagery make it a great resource for this, I suppose, but I say that with a huge sigh. For what we have done and still do in the name of Ephesians is only what it is—our doing.
Ephesians is a summary of Paul's teaching. A textbook, an outline, the Cliff's Notes of Pauline Theology. Yes, it can read as a rule book. You can almost see a boney finger pointing at you in its words. "Be sure." "Be careful." "Don't be deceived." "Do this. Don't do that." But before it was a rule book it was a description of who Christians are in a world that is clearly not Christian. It had as its mission to say "We have chosen a difference path. We believe otherwise and because of this, we should act otherwise. What should we look like?" The first century world was every bit as active, attractive, exciting and enticing as our twenty-first century world. That world was every bit as "obscene, silly and vulgar" (to use the words of our author) as our contemporary world. It was full of itself, and insofar as it was, it left no room for God. So these were desperate times and called for desperate measures. And we got desperate verbiage from our Pauline writer.
This is all well and good, as long as we don't suck up these words wholesale and spit them out on our own desperate times. Who knows how many of our contemporary ills replicate the first century? It strikes me that there are many: we're all human. Still, it behooves us to examine our own world, our own mess, and come to it with God. And in looking at our mess, one thing leaps out at me: We are scared, scared of our own shadow [again, pardon the pun]. We scream "fear!" from every podium. "Invading hoards of illegal immigrants! Foreign wars that will blow us up! Environmental disaster that poison, drown and burn us! Tainted food and mutant strains of disease that sicken us! Sexual aberrations that undo family and civic life! Terrorists, terrorists, above all terrorists! Everyone is attacking us; we are so vulnerable. There can only be one way to safety," we say: "we must build walls, impenetrable walls. We must build them across national borders, we must build them across deserts. We must separate the sick from the well, the foreign from the native, the homosexual from the heterosexual, the clean from the polluting. Our armies, our laws, our tariffs, our code reds, everything must make clear who is inside and who is out."
Trouble is, all our walls, whether they be along the Rio Grande or in the Book of Order or in the Israeli desert—all our walls are lines drawn in the sand. Barriers to be sure, separating here from there, but lines on shifting sand.
In our world, the clear imagery of Ephesians with its light and dark, its unequivocal right and wrong can be and, I believe, is read as one more call to erect boundaries. The Letter to the Ephesians becomes, in this reading, not a declaration of gospel, but a frightened, angry cry of division. "We're on the inside. Stay in! Keep them out! It's the only way." Purity and renunciation become the proclamation. But grace and inclusion?
I don't know if Oppenheimer was right, and our development of the A-bomb (just a block or so from here!) thrust us into a new era. We've been kicked out of Eden a long time. But our technological ability literally to destroy the world—whether through bombs or more slowly through environmental degradation—has perfected our capacity of perverting the good into the bad and confusing them when we do so. We have taken the light and turned it into death. We have taken the light and dazzled ourselves with it instead of expose ourselves. We've taken the light and, improbably, put ourselves to sleep with it. We have mixed shadows and light.
We must be attentive to this confusion, or "nuance" if you like that word better. If we do, we can use this Letter to the Ephesians to help us. Like our brothers and sisters in Ephesus we are called to look at the world around us. We are called to be wary of its allure, and to be wary of being defined by it. If today we live in a world in which we feel "threatened by all things" and inclined to erect boundaries; as Christians who come to speak of God, we must seek not to be threatened. We must seek to tear walls down. I'm pretty sure about this. The specifics are getting murkier as I age, as I say, but it's still the gospel that all people can know God through Jesus Christ. The challenge issued to the Christian folks in Ephesus is still addressed to us. Be realistic about our world and then:
"Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Ephesians 5: 3-14