“Our Way of Life” / Ephesians 2:4-10 / 29 October 2017
Happy Reformation Day to you. On this five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we diverge from the lectionary—our usual calendar of Bible readings—to examine the words that supposedly sparked the Reformation, which in turn sparked a move toward universal literacy, so that all could read the Scriptures, which in turn sparked a greater sense of equality among people and a move toward democracy. You don’t have to be Protestant or even religious to see that the Reformation had to happen. And it all harkens back to these words in Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing.” But I would like to insist that we push on to the end of that thought, for the text goes on to say, essentially, the good deeds that you thought would get you into heaven are really just meant to be your way of life. They don’t make God love you any more or less; that part is already assured. Do good not to save your soul, but simply as a way of life. Let me ask: What is your way of life?
Let me tell you about the way of life at our suburban homestead. My wife Michelle travels a lot, which means that I function as a single parent much of the time. In some ways it’s nice. When mom’s away, the kids and I live very differently from when mom’s home. We eat what I cook, which is mostly just the stuff I remember from my bachelor days. Omelets, scrambled eggs, dippy eggs. When Michelle’s away, the house is…quiet. And cold. My rule is no furnace until after Halloween. When dad’s at the helm there is tidiness, order, darkness. When evening falls, we light just a few lamps here and there for reading. It feels like study hall, the kids and me sitting around with books, each of us hovering in our own isolated circle of yellow lamplight, like solitary moths, the kind of moths that read. There are no dirty dishes in the sink. There are no lights left on or radios left playing in empty rooms. At dinnertime, when mom’s away, we just eat in the TV room because when dad cooks…it’s never worthy of the dining room. The TV goes on for one half hour a day: one rerun of Modern Family, then the TV goes off until the same time tomorrow. We don’t even have cable, so we sit through the ads for casinos and injury lawyers. At exactly 9:30, we read an evening prayer from the Book of Common Worship (1946 edition). If I’m feeling spontaneous, maybe a Psalm. The kids go to bed. I waken them at precisely 6:45am. In the morning, I supervise their choice of clothing, observe the quantity of toothpaste they squeeze onto their brushes, and make it my business to critique their hair, all before they step onto the front porch at 7:20 to wait for the bus. Just between you and me, I often get the feeling that they’re happy to escape my clutches to a warm, noisy place like school. Let’s just say that I’m teaching them to appreciate education. When the bus deposits them again at home, the process repeats: predictable, orderly, serene…every child’s dream.
That’s our way of life when dad flies solo. Mom? Mom is a force of nature. Mom wakes up most mornings at 4:00am, cranks the temperature to 70 degrees, summer or winter. And she’s got stuff to do, noisy stuff! The very first thing is to turn on a radio in the kitchen, then to promptly leave the kitchen and let that radio squawk at itself all day. By 5am, she’s yelling into the phone at some hapless customer service guy who has the misfortune to be on the clock till 6. When mom’s home, dinner might be at 5:30pm, or maybe 7, sometimes 8. We eat in the dining room, or the kitchen, or on the porch, and we talk about our day. The kitchen looks like the dishroom at Denny’s on Mother’s Day: dirty dishes stacked to the ceiling. Doing dishes is dad’s job, because he cares most about those things, but he cannot keep up. Come evening, every light in the house is on—big overhead lights. The old sitcom Friends is blaring on the computer for an hour or an hour and a half, with its annoying laugh track, telling you when to be amused. Unless dad intervenes, the kids just go to bed when they want, and they wake up barely in time to make the bus. When mom’s home, I’m often at the office by 7:00am. And so the kids’ choice of clothing goes un-supervised; the quantity of toothpaste they put on their toothbrushes goes unobserved; their hair goes un-critiqued.
When she was ten, my older daughter observed, “When dad’s in charge, it’s an introvert’s paradise. When mom’s in charge, it’s an extrovert’s paradise.” And yet, I love it when she’s home. Yes, I make the house clean and quiet. I make it orderly and right! Left to my own devices, I’d be a monk in a hairshirt, but if I wanted always to live that way, would I have married who I married? No, I love the energy, the life, even the noise. I do shudder to think how quickly it would all descend into chaos without me, and I choose to believe that when I’m away, the three of them miss the consistency and order. Two completely different ways of life in one house! We all have a way of life that becomes our default position, don’t we? We rely on something outside of us to shake us up from time to time, to make us better than we could be alone.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The good that you’re supposed to be doing? The good that the text says we were created for? That’s just meant to be your way of life. Being a good person doesn’t earn you any points with God. You’ve got all the points you need. Goodness is just the thing for which you were created. You’re getting things all wrong if you think you can curry favor with the Almighty by doing the very things you were created to do. But remember! No rhododendron is happy in a desert. No sparrow is happy a cave. No lily can bloom beneath the ocean. And no human can find peace and contentment until he or she is living out the goodness for which they were created in the first place. It’s not about heaven and hell, Ephesians is saying. It’s about goodness as a way of life.
The Lutherans are going absolutely wild in their churches today. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a fly on the wall today in a Lutheran church—just to see what it looks like when Lutherans go wild? It’s probably similar to what it looks like when Presbyterians go wild, which—though I’ve never seen it—is surely just unsightly. Martin Luther, the first Lutheran, is credited with starting the Protestant Reformation—which honestly was a movement afoot in the world well before his time. We don’t usually make a very big deal of Reformation Sunday at this church. That’s because we know that no single religious tradition has all the answers, and so we value insights from a variety of faith traditions, Roman Catholicism included. Separation from other people of faith is not a thing to celebrate. And yet, we’re not celebrating the separation. The Reformation was a campaign to put the church into the hands of the laity, yes, but it was also a social and political force that launched the world into modernity. It was unavoidable, for as society emerged from the Middle Ages, hierarchies of every kind were being toppled. Ever since the Magna Carta, the belief that some people outranked others was eroding. People were beginning to doubt that the nobility and the clergy were closer to God than the tradesfolk and the commoners. Five hundred years ago, the Church was the biggest landholder in Europe, rich and powerful beyond anything Jesus would have recognized. They wanted to build a new Vatican in Rome, the current Vatican. But in order to do that, they needed more money, and so they turned to selling real estate—in heaven.
Priests traveled throughout Europe, assuring people of a place in heaven if only they would contribute to the construction of a new Vatican. Or you could buy a deceased loved one out of purgatory. They even had a cute little rhyme that they sang in England: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This was an affront to humanity. Not only were the rich already closer to God, but now they could purchase the afterlife, too. The poor? The poor just had to go on trying to get into heaven by being good people. A monk named Martin Luther, who by all accounts was a strange man, came across these words in Ephesians, and they set him wild. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not the result of works, so that no one may boast. We are…created for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” In other words, you can’t buy God with money or behaviors. God’s already yours; now go live like it. Generosity, kindness, goodness—these things are not spiritual leverage; they’re our way of life.
Five hundred years ago, the first rumblings of an avalanche were heard, and that landside is continuing still today. Ironically, one of its outcomes has been secularization. The Reformation completely changed our way of life. But let’s think about that. What is your way of life? Well, isn’t that what you want—a good way to live your life? You want a way to live your life that makes sense to you, one that’s not too hard on your conscience, one that doesn’t abandon you to your fears. You want a way to live your life that makes you happy and maybe even contributes something of value to the world. What is your way of life? Politicians will occasionally bandy the expression about, saying “our way of life” as if it’s some sacred thing that must be preserved at all cost and never changed. They’re probably borrowing some emotional power from our memories of Superman, with his “Truth, justice, and the American way.” What’s your way of life anyhow? If you could squeeze it all into a single sentence, what would you say?
The journalist Ellen Goodman did just that; she wisely described our modern American way of life like this: “Getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, the car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.” Ouch! That rings true, does it not? If our very purpose and destiny is to perform specific good acts, to create specific good things, do deeds of beauty and compassion that God planned for us to do, then is it any wonder we’re unhappy spending all energy and the very substance of our lives paying off the clothes, and the house, and the car? What’s a better way of life?
Some of you know how Marian Brannan just lights up a room with her presence, her liveliness, her acceptance, her joy? That’s her calling in life, to spread joy. It’s the good work that Ephesians says God created beforehand to be her way of life. And a way of life it is! Well into her nineties, bedbound with cancer, asleep most of the day. But when she wakes up, there’s that old joy! You have a calling in this world. You have things of beauty to contribute. Indeed, creating them is meant to be your way of life. What are the good things that God destined to become your creations, your addition to the health and the wholeness of God’s world? Is it music? Wouldn’t the world be lost without music? Is it some field of science? How miserable human life would be without that! Is it math? We wouldn’t have much of anything without math, certainly not a lovely room like this! Words! Words are the things I love above most other things, words and trees. Words can create hope, and healing, and courage. Words are lovelier to me than any other kind of music, for they are music. Or are you created for good works of a less exact nature? Is compassion your gift? If so, then you’re very near to God’s heart. Is it patience? Would that we all had a little more of your spirit! You see where I’m going. It was Martin Luther himself who once said, “God is not glorified when the shoemaker puts little crosses on his shoes. God is glorified when the shoemaker makes good shoes.” It’s not enough to dabble in charity and kindness in hopes that God is watching. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people see the life of faith as some sort of cosmic bank account. And you’d just better hope the good outweighs the bad at life’s final aufit. No, it’s not enough to be a good person and hope for the best. You were created for works of goodness, things from your very heart to be lavished on the life of the world. What thing are you created for? Justice? Cleanliness? Order? Make it your way of life, for you will never be happy living any other way. It doesn’t have to be your career, but it does have to be the thing you live for in Christ’s name.
You know, my kids are reaching adolescence, and they’re beginning to stage a little reformation of their own…more like a mutiny. They’re getting too old for dad to tell them how to comb their hair. Even so, there are those who believe that Christianity undergoes these seismic shifts—these reformations—every five-hundred years. If so, we’re about due for another. As the Christendom of old crumbles across Europe and North America, surely something new is rising from its ashes. Maybe in the next phase of our faith, people won’t be so worried about earning a place for themselves in heaven, or at least avoiding a place in hell. Maybe in the new era, our motives will be purer. Maybe we’ll get back to the teachings of our Founder, things like forgiveness, mercy, nonviolence, humility, joy. These are meant to be our way of life. What is your way of life? Amen.