Toorak Uniting Church

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Look both Ways Before you Step out

Ephesians 5: 1 – 5
Pentecost 11
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
12 August 2012

Some years ago Robert Fulghum wrote the poem, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum was for many years a Unitarian Minister and later a novelist. Of all that he wrote, this poem, and the book that bears the same title, is the most well-known. The book sold over 16 million copies. As I mentioned in the Still Thinking article in the newsletter, never underestimate the selling power of a good title. The home-grown, down-to-earth philosophy of Fulghum’s poem captures the imagination and perhaps gives us the sense that life doesn’t need to be so complicated:

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten
Most of what I really need
To know about how to live
And what to do and how to be
I learned in kindergarten.
Wisdom was not at the top
Of the graduate school mountain,
But there in the sandpile at Sunday school.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

I don’t think that that those words are very far from the words of the author of the letter to the church at Ephesus. Perhaps Ephesians is written in a more didactic and prescriptive way:

…each of you must stop lying and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. And do not let the sun go down on your anger to give the adversary a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must stop stealing, and must work, doing something useful with his or her own hands, so that you may have something to share with those in need.

Living the Good Moral Life:
We should never underestimate the importance of morality. Our morality is how we live into a set of values that form and shape our actions, our behaviours and our lives. For example being a truthful person is really the only way you will be trusted. And if you are always "nicking" other people’s stuff, you’ll end up with a diminishing group of friends. And we know that work is important, not just to provide the finances we need to feed our bodies and shelter us; work also feeds our souls with creativity, purpose and meaning. The moral life is the good life. But we know it is not a simple life.

Here’s a confession I didn’t make to the Joint Nominating Committee when they interviewed me to be the minister at Toorak Uniting Church… I haven’t always told the truth and I have probably taken things that didn’t belong to me. So there, I’ve got it off my chest. Is there anyone else who would like to clear their conscience? I’ve always been pleased with the words in the Anglican service of confession where it speaks of the "sins of commission and the sins of omission"; that which I deliberately did, that was hurtful and self-serving, and that which I omitted to do, that could have the same painful consequences. Sins of omission are picked up in Wendell Berry’s poem Purification, a poem we used at the recent Church Council retreat:

To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.

That’s the sins of omission. Of course we all fail to live the life of our best intentions and surely that’s OK. We are all in the process of living and in the process of learning how to live best. The good life needs a fair measure of tolerance and forgiveness both for ourselves and also of others. Otherwise we would all be paralysed into non-activity. We would never do anything for fear of breaking the moral code.

I have learned through my study and my experience of life that morality and morals are the things that we value, and yet I know I can treat carelessly what I value most.

Looking Both Ways
The words from this letter to the ancient church of Ephesus were meant to be received by the community as values that enhanced their lives and made their relationship with each other more tender, more joyful and more loving. Unlike lists of rules and laws, there is no punishment at the end of this passage. There is nothing punitive about this list of values. Rather they are encouraged to live into this way of being. Here is my paraphrase of this passage:

Don’t be a gossip but instead, find ways to build each other up. We all have different needs, so use positive words that will benefit those who listen. You weaken the power and sadden the Life-giving Spirit among us with words that tear down…. So let go of bitterness and rage and anger and brawling and slander and every form of malice. Learn to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other. Why? Because God has forgiven you through the Spirit of Christ.

Did you think that those words were just what someone else needs to hear? Oh dear, what a pity Geoffrey or Marjory weren’t here to hear those words this morning. (I searched for names that weren’t too common at TUC!) But of course, it’s not about the other person hearing these admonishments, rather the question is, did I hear them? You see when it comes to morality – the way we live out our values – we have to look both ways; first inwardly and only then outwardly. And most importantly, we do not cast the judgmental eye, either inwardly or outwardly. Instead we live into the values that this community honours and holds as sacred.

I’ve been reading Richard Holloway’s autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, kindly loaned to me by Nancy Barrowclough. Holloway was the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in Scotland, from 1992 to 2002. In a chapter on the time he spent at Union Seminary in New York City, he reflects on this issue of values, rules, laws and morality. His conclusion is that all of our morals must enhance and enrich life. He uses the passage from Mark’s gospel where Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". The rule of Sabbath rest must give people rest and recreation and not be a law that we contort into a punitive religious activity or to punish the disobedient.

I also want to briefly consider this image of looking both ways from another perspective. We don’t invent our values, our morality or even our laws with each new generation. They come to us from the past: from wisdom literature, past experience and from encounters that others have had with the divine presence in life. There is a continuity and also a repository of what has worked in the past. Tradition!! What Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof sings about. We look back and embrace that which gives us social stability and order; that which is life-giving. But here’s the rub! We must also look the other way, forward into the new creation evolving around us. What was valued in the past may not be helpful in the present or the future and we may need courage to jettison the beliefs and practices of a previous generation to embrace new expressions of morality.

We all must Step Out in Love!
So we need some guiding light, a true north, which will enable us to live with courage, conviction and wellbeing in the world today. A set of moral laws, or rules and regulations, can be helpful as we go about our daily lives. They are a kind of implicit, short-hand way of acting or behaving. For example, the fellow in front of me in the bus queue drops a $20 note as he gets his fare from his pocket. I instinctively do what?... I scoop it up and put it in my pocket; "Finders Keepers!" I think to myself. Or I pick it up and give it back to him! I don’t need to think about what I should do, my moral compass points me in the best direction. But if our morality is punitive, that is I give him the $20 because I am afraid of being caught stealing, then we reduce our values and morality to rule-following and consequently we reduce ourselves and our lives.

No, for me and I believe from the teaching of the New Testament, the guiding light, the true north, is always the way of love. The simple - if it is ever really simple - question is, "How can I live more fully into love?" From Ephesians we read:

Follow God’s example, my loved ones, walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself fully for us…

When it comes to the moral tradition we have been given and the contemporary world in which we live, the fundamental rule is that we step out into life, in love. It is into this way of love that the Ephesians are encouraged to walk. In fact, it is not just to do the most loving thing, rather, it is to be immersed in the way of love; then, from the experience of being loved and of loving, all our values and morals arise. That’s what is at the centre of the curriculum in Kindergarten.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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