Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2018 — Preaching Notes
GIVE THANKS ...In Love Worship Series, week 3
August 19, 2018
“Understand what the will of the Lord is.” This week’s passage includes a tall order: to know the will of God. If only that were a simple task. We use this language frequently, but it is more often spoken in an effort to assure ourselves in the face of doubt rather than spoken in confidence. If only we understood what God’s will was. And yet, much like Jesus, our author “does not leave us orphaned” here. We have been told from the beginning God’s will is to unite all things (1:10–11) in an economy of love (5:1–2) in which Christ has filled us with gifts of love so that being in and filled with the Spirit (2:22) we may walk in love (4:1–2; 5:2). Simple, right?
As if that weren’t enough, however, this is complicated by the injunction to give thanks at all times and for everything. Thanksgiving, it seems, is the sine qua non of what it means to be a community of good communicators, the culmination of the argument running throughout Ephesians that transformed (and transformative) language is a hallmark of what it means to walk in love. The language of thanksgiving is to replace all obscene, silly, and vulgar talk (v. 4), for thanksgiving requires a posture that assumes gentleness, generosity, and openness. Thanksgiving is an act for the other, whether that other is God or our neighbor (cf. 1:16). And in an economy where God is over all and in all, bringing all things together, thanksgiving is a realization and embodiment of the very fullness of God that is endless abundance in the fullness of all things and time (1:10).
But can we really give thanks for all things at all times in a world that, though God may be gathering up (or has gathered up) all things in Christ, still hasn’t fully realized that redemption? Must we forget all the brokenness in the world and simply give thanks to God for all that is? No. The call to give thanks is not a call to forget but, in fact, to remember. Part of what it means to be children of the light is to be attentive to what can be, even in the darkness.
The liturgy may offer an instructive model here. Historically, the prayers of the people occur immediately before the offering, which is, in turn, followed by the doxology. Our proclamation of the doxology is not an act of forgetting the petitions we’ve just made, but rather a response to it. We respond to the needs of the world by bringing forth our gifts, which we ask God to bless and use in order to meet the needs of the world. And we give thanks to God that God is still working in the world to meet those needs and that God has called us to join co-operatively in that work. We have not forgotten the brokenness of the world in our act of thanksgiving, but rather we must hold these two things in tension.
And so, we are led back to the liturgy. As we have already pointed out, Ephesians is replete with references to baptism, and though there is no specific reference to baptism in this passage, the verse immediately preceding this week’s passage (v. 14) is most likely an excerpt from an early baptismal liturgy: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” And while baptism names us and claims us, liturgy shapes us, and it shapes us for thanksgiving (eucharista). And according to this week’s passage, the fullest embodiment of that transformative communication as thanksgiving is singing.
This claim may seem odd at first, but perhaps less so if we think about the act of singing together. According to the passage, singing as an act of thanksgiving is corporate in nature. We are to sing among ourselves, addressing one another in song. When we sing, we resonate with one another. Singing may be the most desirable form of embodying transformed and transformative communication because we are not called to sing at someone, but sing with someone, to resonate. To resonate means literally to sound again, to echo, to vibrate and move with. Something cannot resonate simply by hearing or receiving sound; it must be open, be flexible enough to move, and then be animated in the act of sounding with. Participation in the realization of the fullness of God’s abundance and purpose for humanity through a community of singing actually fosters loving alertness to one’s neighbor (recall the concept of ubuntu from the first week’s notes). This is, of course, highly contrasted with present-day attitudes toward music, which have relegated it to the purview of personal aesthetic, affording it little lasting or profound effect. Here, however, listening—consuming—is not adequate. We must open ourselves to be moved with the song and then to re-sound it, to echo it back. Only then, when we are of one sound, can we be of one mind, one Spirit, and one body (Phil 2:1–2; Col 3:14–16; Eph 4:4–6, 5:18–20). Singing together allows us to embody and to make present—to realize—the unity to which we are called.
Further, the concept of resonating brings attention to an important aspect of how singing achieves this unity. That is, singing has the distinguishing ability to strike a balance between the individual and the community. On the one hand, singing is the act of an individual. It is an act of personal expression, and it is an act of the whole being, at that: mental, emotional, physical, spirit and flesh. Singing both involves the whole self and reorients the whole self. Singing comes from the core of our being and moves outward toward the other.
On the other hand, that fact that singing is both interior and exterior enables it to value the individual’s act of expression while also making room for the other. Though social in its nature, singing is a joining together of many individual voices—unity without uniformity. Singing together constantly invites others in while never giving rise to any sense of crowding out. Rather, it gives rise to a sense of abundance, of fullness, which constantly overflows, fostering ever-expanding boundaries. When we sing together, we must be attentive to and in harmony with the other. Recall Wesley’s instruction in his directions for singing: “do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony.”1
But this does not require the erasure or silencing of ourselves. Singing together builds up the other, but not at the expense of ourselves. We might say that singing together is not a zero-sum economy, where the gain of one means the loss of another. Rather, singing, in the words of David Ford, brings about “a new ‘ecology’ of power.”2 Singing involves reaching outside oneself toward the other in a gesture which in its own vulnerability fosters loving koinonia and which in its ecstatic generosity fosters eucharistic perichoresis. It is an outpouring of the self—a kenosis—which is not to be clutched (cf. Phil 2:6), but rather offered out in love to the other. Singing together creates an economy in which the community is harmonized together into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (2:18–22; the same word is used in Greek in both 2:21 and 5:19). We might say that, in this way, singing is modeled on and derivative of the way the Trinity itself is animated, and this would mean that in singing together, we resonate not only with others, but also with God, in eternal thanksgiving.
Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore, OSL (M.M., M.Div.), is an elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church currently serving as the senior pastor for St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, Texas. For the past two years, he has served as the Creative Director of A Ministry of Congregational Singing & Worship, an extension ministry in the North Texas Conference devoted to helping congregations strengthen their voice and deepen their worship life. He has previously served on the staff of churches large and small in Dallas, Texas, including Highland Park UMC, Lovers Lane UMC, and Walnut Hill UMC. Rev. Moore is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University and currently serves as the President of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and as a member of the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee.