“Living Wisely” Colchester Federated Church, August 19, 2018,  (Ephesians 5:15-20) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the greatest fantasy stories ever written (and a book one can often find as required summer reading for school children at local bookstores) is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s the tale of a group of thirteen dwarves who return to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their once glorious home from an evil dragon named Smaug who drove them out many years ago.  It’s an epic journey filled with danger, battles, creatures, and many moral lessons.  This group of dwarves ends up finding friends and allies on their quest to win back their home, including Bilbo Baggins, a simple hobbit from the Shire.  (As an aside, hobbits are human-like creatures who are quite short with huge hairy feet, and always content with food, drink, merriment, nature—the simple things of life.)

So when Bilbo is first approached by wizard Gandalf the Grey in The Hobbit Gandalf says, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”  Bilbo responds, “I should think so—in these parts!  We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!  Make you late for dinner!”[1]  If one were off on a quest where one needed battle skills, cunning, and courage, a hobbit is maybe the last creature one would invite along.  Though Bilbo ends up going on this journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain with the dwarves anyway, much to the chagrin of some at first (especially their leader Thorin Oakenshield.)  And the beginning of The Hobbit revolves around Bilbo trying to find his courage and purpose and the dwarves wrestling with viewing Bilbo as a vital part of their fellowship.

Now J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Christian.  Significant Christian themes often play out in his books.  At one point Gandalf reflects on why he would want Bilbo Baggins—a simple hobbit of the Shire—to even come on this quest in the first place.  Bilbo seems so unqualified with no fighting skills, previous quest experience, and he’s never traveled much.  Though Gandalf reflects at some point, “I find it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”[2]  It ends up that small acts of kindness and love by ordinary people can make a huge difference in our broken lives and world.  Bilbo routinely performs these small acts of kindness and love without even giving them a second thought.  His value to his companions is about who he is on the inside, his compassionate character and giving nature.

Sometimes we have more power than we think.  And what truly matters in living our lives?  Tolkien’s tales can help us think about what people prioritize.  Because the parting words that Thorin Oakenshield has for Bilbo Baggins are: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”[3]  Those are important words.  Because we can ask ourselves if we prioritize having wealth and power?  Exemplifying kindness and love—small acts making a huge difference in the lives of others?  Focusing on our own happiness and avoiding human misery?  What do we actually value in our daily lives?  For how we spend our days is, of course, how we are spending our lives.  Tolkien’s fantastical tale of hobbits and elves and wizards and dwarves helps us consider our Christian values.

And today we are further contemplating the words that Paul wrote to the congregation in Ephesus because we can ask ourselves if we are living wisely.  In this morning’s passage Paul tells us to be careful how we live.  It’s another good reminder: “be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”[4]  These words seem timeless.  A call to live right and true here and now, no matter what.

Maybe we would label the times in which we are living as evil.  Maybe we wouldn’t.  Though Paul’s words invite us to question our priorities anytime.  To ask ourselves what really matters in our lives, and ask ourselves whether or not we are living wisely.  None of us are immortal elves like in the world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth which means that none of us will be alive in our present forms walking around the earth forever.  So the call that Paul has for the Church today is to be careful how we live and to make the most of the finite time that we do have.

Paul gets more specific in Chapter 5 by telling folks to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God . . . at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]  These words in the letter are an invitation to give thanks to God every day no matter what’s going on in our lives or in the world.  That’s not always a simple task because there may be times when we are just not feeling it, not feeling like giving thanks.  But again, Paul focuses on time.  Give thanks at all times.  This is a call for all Christians everywhere at any time.  As the Psalmist would say, “Give thanks to God for God is good.  God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

How do we give thanks to God?  We work for a just and loving world.  We worship God wholeheartedly.  Episcopal Bishop G. Porter Taylor reflects that worship is at the core of who we are as Christians.  One of our primary obligations as Christians is to praise God and the primary focus of worship services is praise.[6]  Singing and praying and embodying thanks and praise to God in all circumstances and at all times is at the core of what it means to live wisely.  Because practicing our Christian faith connects us to the Source of Love and Life even and especially in the midst of difficult days.  As Bishop Taylor reminds us, “Worship of God redeems the time.  It orients the person to the Almighty and keeps his or her life in right relation, which is what it is to ‘equip the saints’ (4:12).”[7]  To keep us in right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves—worshiping God helps make it happen my friends!

Though notice that Paul is writing his words to a Christian community.  It’s possible to worship God in isolation, of course.  However, to truly live a Christian life it’s not just about what we believe.  It’s about how we practice, how we put our beliefs into action.  Our singing and praying and embodying thanks and praise to God in all circumstances in community is what helps us live wisely.  Since we become more fully human when we can respond with compassion to one another.  Community can anchor us and even hold us accountable when need be.

Now after another successful Vacation Bible School this week we know this to be true at CFC.  That Christian community can help anchor us and enable us to live wisely.  With 72 kids who participated, 48 adults and youth who volunteered, and Nicole as our fearless leader we helped show forth the love of God in Colchester in a big way.  This educational and outreach program can’t be successfully offered without a ton of support within the congregation and outside the congregation.  Donations of money and supplies help make it happen.  Donations of time and talent help make it happen.  A community of faith has to come together to make VBS happen.

And we can once again consider that those thirteen dwarves needed one another and Gandalf the wizard and Bilbo the hobbit among other allies and friends in order to reclaim the Lonely Mountain in Tolkien’s story.  His tales are all about fellowship.  Tolkien was a devout Christian and knew a thing or two about the power of community.  As did Paul, and hopefully all of us do too.

So let’s remember that Paul is telling these Christians that in order to live wisely—God has got to be at the center of their lives.  Perhaps the times were tough.  Some even saw the times as the apocalyptic end times when Paul was writing in the 50s C.E.  But worship and being in community helps folks face whatever obstacles we may find in our paths in whatever times we find ourselves currently living.  The fellowship of Christian community helps us carry on and persevere no matter what.

We can turn from our old ways and embrace the new.  We accept the new life freely offered in Jesus the Christ.  There’s urgency for the Church in all times and places to redeem the time.  To step back and consider how we are living and ask ourselves if we are living wisely or not.  We can worship God with grateful hearts in praise and thanksgiving at all times.  And we remember that small acts of kindness and love do make a difference.  Valuing food and cheer and song above hoarded gold would make for a merrier world.  In the end we can be careful how we live, making the most of these lives that God has given us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (illustrated by Jemima Catlin), 5.
[2] Tolkien, The Hobbit.
[3] Tolkien, The Hobbit, 353.
[4] Ephesians 5:15-16, NRSV.
[5] Ephesians 5:18-20.
[6] G. Porter Taylor, Theological Perspective of Ephesians 5:15-20, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, 352.
[7] Taylor, Theological Perspective of Ephesians 5:15-20, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 352.