Trinity XX. November 3, 2019. All Saints’, Macon, GA
Ephesians v, verses 15-16 – See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Let me begin at the end of my text: ‘the days are evil’. Nobody who knows St. Paul’s letters can be surprised to hear him announce that ‘the days are evil’. In fact, this is an assertion we could make in most places and in most periods without stirring up too much controversy. The older generation always thinks that the young are ill-behaved, or at any rate not so well-behaved as they were. My parents thought our hair was bad, and they were right. I think the pink and green hair in downtown Athens is worse. Twenty years ago there was a pretty appalling goatee fad among young men. Nowadays the female college students in Athens wear what appear to be gym shorts as they go to restaurants or classes. And so it goes with age and youth. Age always thinks the days are evil, and in some ways they’re usually right.
Likewise, people enjoy complaining about crime. In 1993 I went to Bulgaria, and a local woman told me that crime there was very, very bad, because just three months earlier two Australian tourists had been robbed on the streets in Sofia in broad daylight. I thought, ‘This woman can remember a mere mugging from three months earlier. Crime is nothing here.’ But for in her mind, ‘The days are evil.’
In many ways the days are undoubtedly evil. In other ways we live in the best of times. I have no desire to live in any century except our own, unless I can take my dentist and my g.p. with me. Also airconditioning and my iPod and electricity. Nevertheless, I recognize that the last century is the bloodiest and most vicious of centuries in many ways. The days are evil. Our own country is much richer than it was 30 or 40 years ago, and we are at peace, and Soviet-style Communism is dead almost everywhere. Those are great blessings. Yet when I grew up I did not know any children whose parents were divorced. I only knew two or three children who did not live with both of their birth parents, and those children had had a parent die. Compared to the situation now, that world was a paradise in that children could generally count on something that millions of children now lack. The days are evil in this way and in many others that we could name.
The days are always evil. St. Paul is not saying something unusual about 1st century Ephesus or about our days or about any particular period or place. My text is not social commentary but theological truth and exhortation. We live in the midst of what the Prayer Book calls a ‘naughty world’: a world that is running headlong to ‘naughtiness’, which is to say, ‘nothingness’. Mankind is fallen and the world is vanity, a nothingness, a naught. So it always is. The end of the text is correct. The days are always evil.
What, then, about Paul’s exhortation? He writes, ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time….’ We have a constant duty, to ‘redeem the time’, which amounts to the same thing as walking ‘circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise’. What does this mean?
First, ‘walk circumspectly’: ‘walk’ — that is live, go about, behave in the world — ‘circumspectly’ — that is, carefully, diligently, with a careful regard to the situation. Because we live in a dangerous, fallen world and in evil days, we cannot afford spiritual sloth. We can’t just coast along spiritually. We are called to a diligent, careful, examined, self-reflective life. Just before today’s lesson Paul tells the Ephesians to wake up: ‘Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.’ This may be a quotation from an early baptismal service, which would fit my point exactly. As baptized Christians we are called to be watchful, wakeful, careful, to walk circumspectly in a world full of booby-traps and pitfalls. Just after my text Paul says, ‘be not drunk with wine’, which is the same point: if we are circumspect and careful, then we will be wakeful and sober. If we’re waiting for the bombs to fall or the Chinese to march in or the IRS audit to begin or we think our child is in danger — if the days really are evil — then we won’t take a nap or drink a bottle of wine. We’ll be careful and circumspect. Of course this doesn’t mean we may never sleep or have a drink. Rather the point is that our lives in general should be careful and examined, because we are set in the midst of many and great dangers and our eternal souls are in the balance.
Paul also tells us to be ‘not as fools, but as wise’. Again, if you’re in the midst of pressing and serious danger, it is the height of folly to take a nap or get drunk. Paul does us the honor to assume that our spiritual and moral decisions are important matters. It matters to God whether we are wise or fools, whether our souls are spiritual disaster areas of chaos, anger, envy, malice, pride, vainglory, lust, sloth, and deceit, or whether our souls bear the spiritual fruits of joy, love, peace, long-suffering, kindness, gentleness, prudence, and truth-telling. Care for the soul’s state is spiritual wisdom. Neglect of the soul is folly: ‘Thou fool,’ says God on the night of death when he calls the unprepared man: ‘Thou fool.’ But we are to walk, ‘not as fools, but as wise’.
If we walk circumspectly, if we are wise and not fools, because the days are evil and our time is short, then we will be ‘redeeming the time’. Greek has two words for time: chronos, meaning chronological, sequential time, such as your watch measures. The word here is different, kairos, usually meaning a decisive moment, a fixed or definite time: not ‘an hour’ or ‘any old hour’ but ‘the hour’, the ‘H-hour of D-day’. Because the days are evil, we are to ‘redeem the “time”’, meaning the definite moment, with its decisive problems and choices that confront us now and demand our serious, careful decision. We are to ‘redeem’ the moment. The word ‘redeem’ here usually means ‘make the most of’, ‘make good use of’. We are supposed to make good use of the moments God gives us, for each might be our last and each might prove to be a decisive spiritual turning point.
Please note, we are supposed to make good use of the moments God gives us, not of the moments he does not give us. A great spiritual writer of the 18th century, Pierre de Caussade, speaks of ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. He means that every moment sent to us by God brings decisions for us to make, each of which has a purpose. Each moment is sent to us to be endured or used or enjoyed. But for whatever purpose each moment is sent, however awful or wonderful it may be, it is a kind of sacrament which we are called upon to receive and to use. The use we make of each moment brings spiritual advancement or setback. This is why we must walk circumspectly: because every moment is full of spiritual challenges and opportunities and dangers. We must continually call on God to let us see what the moment is calling us to do, but also must do his will in each moment even if we do not see what that purpose is. If we accept each moment as a kind of sacrament, not as trivial, but as full of possibilities of grace, then we will indeed be walking circumspectly. If we recognize that the days are evil and therefore may hurt us, then we will be wise and accept the sacrament of the present moment. We will not slumber and sleep, as did the foolish virgins of the parable who missed the party because they were not careful enough. If we see God at work in every moment of the day, then though the days be evil, yet we will have made good use of our time and thereby will redeem the days for God as he has redeemed our souls for himself.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.