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Gospel Footwear

August 20, 2012

“Gospel Footwear” Ephesians 5:15-20 © 8/19/12 Ordinary 20B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One scene of the wonderful classic film Romancing the Stone has New York romance novelist Joan Wilder and her newfound companion Jack Colton making their way slowly through the Colombian jungle. Wilder has come to South America to rescue her sister, kidnapped by gangsters on the coast. They’re looking for a fabulous emerald, and Joan has the map. At the moment, however, it’s the infamous and cruel Minister of the Interior who’s the problem. He also wants the emerald and will kill all who stand in his way. Time is of the essence, and Wilder is ill-clad and shod for the jungle. After tossing her heavy suitcase into a ravine, Colton takes Joan’s shoes and chops off the high heels with a machete. “They were Italian,” Joan laments. “Now they’re practical,” comes the reply.

We also have some walking to do, you and I. We are journeying to the city of God, the New Jerusalem, and the way is sometimes rocky or overgrown, the path not always well-marked, and the obstacles not easily overcome. We will need to be careful how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise, says the author of Ephesians. In that day, “to walk” was a popular metaphor meaning “to live.” So what he’s saying is that we need to attend to our way of living. What does such wise walking look like?

Of course, there are many words of advice seasoned travelers on this road would give us. But what we at least require, like Joan Wilder, are some good, practical shoes. So, I invite you to go with me on a little trip to the gospel shoe shop.

When we enter, the first thing we notice is the sale rack. There are some we deem not worth having and others that are OK but nothing to write home about. But then we’re delighted that an expensive brand we’ve coveted for quite some time is being offered at a close-out price. We know a bargain like this doesn’t come along every day. What to do? Seize the moment! Pick up the shoe and ask for its mate. Try them on. Buy and enjoy the comfort, the quality, the style.

Suddenly we realize we’ve discovered more than shoes. This is a lesson about life. Every day is value-laden, and each moment is unlike the next. Here, a chance to say those neglected words "I love you." There, a serious conversation about faith with an unchurched neighbor. At work, in school, around the dinner table, times to build bridges and tear down walls, to say what we have longed to express or do what needs to be done. Providence gives us those chances, those opportunities, those times of kairos as we call them, when God’s work can be one with ours, and God’s word is heard with particular clarity. Part of the business of Christian living is to be alert to those special seasons and days and to the potential of each moment for growth and sharing. We grasp them and use them and enjoy them. We know how to shop for bargains and are on the lookout for them. The same care in living each day can bring us great fulfillment.

So many of us complain that we have so little time. Our days are a jumble of conflicting demands and shrill voices from so many places clamoring for our attention. What would it cost us to buy back our time, to "redeem" it from the chaos that crouches at our doors waiting to scoop up our minutes like a hungry hound dog pounces on a piece of steak fat? A change in priorities? Learning to say “no?” Carving out a niche for silence and centering in order to focus the day? I don’t discount the great demands placed on our schedules or the need to stay connected over social media and the phone. But isn’t it true that we somehow find time for the things we really want to do and all too easily let slip by the distasteful or boring but necessary? The way we spend our time, like our money, is often a reliable index of our real values, despite whatever it is to which we pay lip service.

T.S. Eliot began his poem “Burnt Norton” this way: "Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future/and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present/all time is unredeemable./What might have been is an abstraction/remaining a perpetual possibility/only in a world of speculation.” For Eliot the world was beyond salvation, and death was the only way out. Says the commentator Samuel Terrien: "The world goes to nothing, be it with a bang or a whimper" (“The Pantomime Cat,” Theology Today, January 1988: 458).

We believe, to the contrary, that time is going somewhere and means something; it’s more a river than a circle, a dance than a static pose. God is the river pilot and choreographer. And what we do in every moment has significance; we contribute by our actions to the redemption of creation. “The days are evil” says this morning’s text; there is now corruption and chaos. But we by living out of and into the kairos of God claim time for him once again. Kairos, not chaos. This moment and the next and today and tomorrow are pregnant with meaning, and we are midwives.

We have our first pair of shoes for our journey now. They are bargains; every time we wear them we are reminded of how we benefit from seizing the moment. Moving on into the shop now, we spot some shoes just like a pair we have had before but wore out. We know even before we try these old favorites how they will fit and how long they will last. They are in addition the sort of shoes that let folks know we are thoughtful and practical. This investment footwear costs a little more up front, but wearing it marks us as people somewhat given to reflection and/or serious endeavors, whether in school or business, church or personal life, sports or travel.

We finally understand that we have walked into a store where all the shoes seem to be metaphors standing for something about Christian life. The footwear we’re considering at the moment reminds us that an important part of being a person of faith is having a sanctified mind. Prudence and wisdom are our friends on this journey. The way we are to travel, someone has said, is not “obvious and automatic.” We are called to be “deliberate, thoughtful, and self-reflective” (PNCL: After Pentecost, Year B: 135). What we want to know is “the will of the Lord.” The travelers along the road seem to fall into two categories, namely, the wise and the foolish, and we long to be numbered among the wise. We are people who are claimed by Christ in baptism and bear his name. It’s important for us to discern and do his will.

Presbyterians have a reputation for being stuck in our heads and using too many words. And we need to listen to the critics who remind us we can’t live in our intellect and neglect the other aspects of faith, like mystery, warmth, and emotion. But the text strongly recommends reason and intellectual curiosity as essential tools in finding the will of the Lord. It’s poor theology that discounts the place of thinking and study in faith. The Bible can guide us as we try to make decisions, but it is of little use to us if we are functionally illiterate regarding it. And let’s be honest: so many people who claim to follow the Bible actually have only read small portions of it or know only scattered verses that prop up their prejudices or traditions. Or else they have depended on what somebody else said the Bible teaches and haven’t really read it for themselves. They don’t engage the scriptures in all their difficulty, variety, mystery, and frustrating opaqueness, their strangeness and delight, their resistance to being understood, and both their distance from and their relevance to our day. They don’t push against the text and let it push back. They seem to think the meaning of a text is self-evident on first reading, and no particular effort is required to honor it by truly understanding it.

We can gain comfort from the Bible as surface readers. We can appreciate something of its beauty and its importance. But we won’t grow very much as disciples unless we are willing to think and to learn to use the many tools and resources out there that will get us deeper into the scriptures. We cannot be scared of intellectual labor and expect to find out with any clarity the will of God. Answers may not come right away. We sort through options, read, struggle, review, discuss with trusted advisors, and finally come to some satisfactory course of action. And the solution of yesterday may not work today. The noted author Markus Barth reminds us that discovering God’s will is an “unfinished business” (Ephesians 4-6: 5803. The world changes; people grow; new dimensions of old issues are discovered. The pastoral counselor Don Browning insists that we be involved in a “corporate and personal aggiornamento, an updating of faith for our time.” God is still living and acting with his people. To stop inquiring, to stop reexamining our theological formulations, to let the faith of our personal and corporate yesteryear suffice is to turn the Bible and God himself into crusty relics, revered but useless for anything but adorning a shelf.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up well the matter of “proving God’s will,” as he termed it. “The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of available possibilities. The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each new situation in life, and for this reason [one] must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.” The great martyr went on to enlist the help of all our faculties in this task. Proving the will of God is a serious matter, he said, dependent on God’s ever new grace. Only he or she who keeps at it will uncover the will of God (Ethics: 38).

So we have our bargain shoes and our serious ones. But now we need to think about what to wear to a party or what we’re going to put on our feet when we’re relaxing. Probably the ladies have an easier time imagining party shoes than the men. I don’t know anything for us that fits that description unless it’s those patent leather lace-ups we wear with tuxedos. Or maybe relaxing to us means going barefoot. Perhaps we could all think of the old song from Saturday Night Fever and get ourselves some “boogie shoes.” I think that charming penguin movie title would also work: “happy feet.” These shoes make the statement that on our journey we will give attention to those things and experiences that make life pleasant and joyful. We will relish colors and smells and tastes and sensations as vivid as Ryan Lochte’s bright green Speedo hi-tops. Our emotions will be an integral part of who we are and what we do. Not the least of these experiences of affection and emotion will be the pleasure we have in the company of our traveling partner, the Holy Spirit. There is something very much like intoxication in these feelings the Spirit engenders: this gratitude, this joy, this melody that wells up in our hearts. Even when the going gets hard, it seems we can still give thanks. The words of a hymn or some chorus give us strength, and worship lifts us up like a rousing symphony, magnificent chorus or soaring rock guitar solo. Our colorless lives seem to be filled in now with shades and hues that say “peace” and “fulfillment.”

These religious affections turn out to go along well with the will of God we have discovered and the doctrine we have learned. This is what the worship writer Don Saliers meant when he described Christianity as a “…disciplined form of life distinguished by a certain pattern of affections.” We respond to the story of God’s purpose with us and with all humankind with sadness over our sins, joy in our salvation, and thanksgiving for all God’s benefits. Christian life is neither pure instinct and unrestrained emotion nor is it complete rationality and conscious thought. It is as Thomas Merton said: “…the perfectly balanced life in which the body with its passions and instincts, the mind with its reasoning and its obedience to principle and the spirit with its passive illumination by the love and light of God form one complete [person] who is in God and with God and from God and for God….Our full spiritual life is life in wisdom, life in Christ” (New Seeds of Contemplation).

The Bonner Scholars program at Rhodes College expresses this balance rather well. The young people who participate are excellent academically, but they are also expected to be people in service and who relish community. In a ceremony attended by family and friends, they are given red sneakers to wear with their somber black gowns at their graduation the next day. Our faith, the practice is saying, calls us to vibrant and joyful commitment, as visible as red sneakers.

So we have seized the moment and gotten our bargain shoes. We have purchased some costly, serious footwear. And we let our lighter side take over as we got something relaxed and fun. That seems to be a fairly good collection that should serve us well on our journey. It’s time to leave the shop and get on the road.

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