Sermon: “Walking Wisely” (Ephesians 5:15-20)

greyhound

In my college years, I was not one of those people who went on road trips.

That was a feature of college life, I guess, but not my particular college life.

I wasn’t against them. In fact, I once considered writing a paper about road-trip movies for a film class I was taking.

(I’m not even kidding.)

But it was not easy to get me out of the library, much less on the road, and for the most part, that was just fine by me.

But I did take one road trip.

It was to go see my best friend from high school, who went to Cornell and was turning twenty.

So, to go say hi and see what Cornell was all about, one Friday afternoon in the middle of February, I set out for Ithaca, New York, via Greyhound Bus, which went there…via New York City, Newark, Scranton, and Binghamton.

Now when I say “went” I need to press pause and qualify myself.
Because it is more accurate to say, once it went, the bus to Ithaca went via New York City, Newark, Scranton, and Binghamton.

Because we are talking about a trip that began at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1990, which was the end of the bad old days in New York City, and so, when we lined up at our gate at boarding time, and nothing happened…and nothing happened…and nothing happened, and there was no announcement, and no uniformed agent, and the little flippy sign flipped to “DELAYED” and then didn’t flip again, this was not something that seemed to surprise anybody.

Apparently, that was just how it was.

This might be something we’d handle differently now.

But back then, the line just kept on keeping on, faithfully intact. And if you were new to the whole thing, as I was, well, you didn’t dare leave your spot because you just knew that somehow, if you went to go get a soda or to ask at the ticket counter for some sort of update, the bus would arrive right then, and you’d come back and the line, and the bus, and your bag would simply have vanished forever into the February night.

And so there we were, on that line, all forty or so of us.

And in retrospect, let me say how very glad I am that there were no cell phones. There was no Facebook, and no Twitter.

There were Walkmen…until the batteries wore out. In fact, we didn’t know it then, but in a few short months, Greyhound would ban smoking on interstate buses…and I would have been fine with that, myself, but I saw that there were plenty of people who didn’t even bother with a Walkman, but who passed the time on the bus, chain smoking and looking out the window.

In fact, someone murmured that this was turning into about a three-pack trip.

And that’s the reason that I’m glad there were no cell phones, because whoever murmured that had to murmur it to the rest of us, and it was when that person said that that the walls between us began to come down.

And that’s really what the point of this story is.

Because on that line and then on the bus itself, as the weather turned bad and the roads got slow, and our four hour trip became a seven hour trip, not counting our initial delay…through the crucible of all that, somehow, the walls came down, and with nothing to do but talk to strangers, we talked.

We talked and something very real, and very beautiful was quickly present.

I still remember their names. I still remember their stories. I remember Ruth’s glasses. And DeSean’s Alpha Phi Alpha jacket. The smell of Terry’s Kools. And Constantine, who was pre-med and trying to read his Physical Chemistry textbook by the pin-sized light from the overhead rack.

We talked about it all. What we were doing on the bus. Where we were from and what it was like there. Where we hoped we were going in life.

It was as close as I’ve ever come to being a character in the Canterbury Tales, and it had that sense of pilgrimage about it somehow, and in some strange way, redemption, too.

We were all in search of something. A few of us were on that bus because we were trying to set something right.

By the time we got to Scranton, which after three hours on I-80 looked like Paris, I knew those people as well as I had ever known anyone.

Pulling out of Binghamton, Ruth told us a story about her own time in college, and telling it actually made her cry. And then she said, “I don’t think I’ve told anyone that story in ten years.”

But it was a time of lost threads and temporary connections.

We finally made it to Ithaca at about two in the morning, in the middle of a snowstorm…and that was it. We smiled goodbye, or nodded and said “Hey, take care…” and meant it not formulaically but deeply.

Our paths never crossed again.

Even so, sometimes, I still think of them. Over the years, I’ve wondered if they ever went back to Ithaca, or if I’ve ever been sitting next to them on the subway without realizing it, or if Constantine the pre-med ended up becoming a doctor, after all.

I wonder if they sometimes think about that trip, too.

Have you ever had that kind of experience?

Anthropologists talk about the experience of communitas, that raw sense of bondedness we feel when we’re in one of those strange, unstructured groups that comes together, however it comes together….maybe on a February bus or bunkhouse at summer camp, the waiting room of a doctor’s office, or on the line to pick up your student i.d. at a new school.

Unlike most the formal roles and the unspoken rules are suspended for a time, and the group shares a kind of deep equality, and a profound and sacred sense of connection and honesty begins to form that seems to exist almost nowhere else.

Anthropologists would be quick to say that it’s these brief moments when the masks come off that we prepare to take on new masks—new identities, new responsibilities, new roles, because even if it’s only for a short time, we’ve found a way to let go of our familiar identity, our customary masks, and to imagine ourselves in new ways.

And I’m telling you about this at such length because I think it helps us get a handle on the Apostle Paul’s message in Ephesians this morning.

The verses we heard this morning are just a small part of a larger whole, which is marked by stern warnings and hopeful recommendations for the Christian community—addressed to one or more of the small churches he had planted along what is now the western coast of Turkey.

“Be careful then how you live,” he says, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (15-16).

The King James Version puts this even more pointedly. It says, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

It would be easy to hear that little bit and conclude, as indeed some Christians over the years have done, that Paul thinks the world is simply an evil place—a place to be shunned, a place too corrupt for good people to risk getting caught up in, and that anyone who isn’t a Christian is simply a fool, and a danger-prone fool, at that, and that what Christians needed to do was hole up and hide until Jesus returned.

Paul names a lot of sinful behavior to stay away from in Ephesians.

But if we read him simply to be saying some sort of list of “don’t do this and don’t do that,” we miss his larger point.

And if we think it’s not doing this or not doing that that defines what it is to be Christian, then we’re not doing justice to Paul or justice to our faith.

Because I think what he’s saying is that, when we truly encounter the love of God—when we’ve had the experience of standing on holy ground—then the old life we once knew, the old masks we once wore, the old roles we once played begin to fall away, and we begin to imagine ourselves and our world in new ways.

Paul is not telling us to leave the world—not at all. He’s challenging to live differently in the world, as people shaped by knowing that the masks we wear can fall away, and that when they do, something wonderful—something sacred—is starting to happen. And our call is to live as people unafraid to live just as we are. Without one plea.

That’s what church is for Paul. That’s what happens when we are claimed by God, and when we come to see ourselves in the light of Jesus. Our masks fall away, and we are free to know one another and to be known in a way that nothing else can ever offer.

And when life gets hard for us, as indeed it must for everyone, Christian or not, we have something precious to hold onto, something precious to remember and find hope in: that strange equality and honesty and love for one another that we encounter, maybe only rarely, but decisively…and transformationally.

That’s what Paul wants for the Ephesians, and that’s what Paul wants for you and me.

I only took that one road trip in college. But the community that formed on that bus for a few short hours taught me a great deal about what it is to be on this journey, and what it is to have companions on the way.

“Be careful then how you live,” cautions Paul. “Not as unwise people but as wise.”

No matter what the weather, and no matter how meandering the path may be, with God’s grace we learn what is to take care, and to offer it, and to find not only wisdom, but the peace that passes all understanding.

In a world of lost threads and temporary connections, God finds us and offers us a way to walk wisely, and to live in a way that endures.

Amen.

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