Ephesians 5: 1-14
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But sexual immorality and impurity of any kind or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no sexually immoral or impure person or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them, for once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; rather, expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly, but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Recently I had the chance to watch a sunrise. It is a simple fact that we have a sunrise everyday, and there is often very little keping us from observing it except our own tiredness an the clouds that seem to constantly cover our view of the sky. This morning where I saw the sunrise was a special day though. I got to wake up early, climb up a hill where I was staying, and look out at the world before it had woken up. Some deer just over the nearst gulley, light creeping over the mountain in front of me. Several minutes after the sun had crested the horizon line, it crested that distant hilltop, and shone out, wreathed in clouds that made its light seem even brighter by contrast.
Light is a common image we go to in scripture, but outside of moments like this, we get inoculated to just what a difference light can make when it chases darkness away. I think power outages are about the only time we get a good idea of what real darkness looks like. Some of us who camp might also know something about that, but I can’t stand camping myself so that’s not where my mind goes. The precious nature of just being able to see where we are going is something we cannot understate. It is no wonder then that we constantly go back to it as a means to talk about life with and without God’s presence.
For people of Jesus’s time there was a fairly common understanding of people as broadly fitting into two categories – children of light and children of darkness. Now, splitting people into these categories is dangerous, and nothing I say here should have you start sorting people into one group or another in your head. Still there are good things and bad things in this world and the way that we conduct ourselves matters. We work constantly to try and make more good come from us than bad, and it is in doing that we push ourselves more into our identity as “children of light.”
My mother raised me with some very particular expectations about how I should act in given situation. I remember one time I was telling a story about how my step-mother had reacted to something I said back to her one day in a funny way, how exactly I don’t remember. My mother, rather than laughing with me at the strange situation, looked me dead in the eyes, face suddenly grave, and asked one simple question. “Are you telling me you’ve been talking back to your step-mother?” I quickly learned that my mother raised me to have sense in my head, and I would not find sympathy for the moments my senselessness caused anything to happen.
As I was reading this scripture and discerning what the message for us here today should be, I kept coming back to the way we talk. I think that there are few lessons we can take closer to heart, and meditate more upon, than how we speak to one another. 90% of what we do in a relationship is based in speech, and far fewer things are based in the work of our hands or feet. When I am interacting with friends, family, the people of God wherever they might be – I am interacting primarily through the words of my mouth.
Paul lists three kinds of speech that are not helpful, and he might go even further to call completely unworthy of being spoken. These are called “obscene, silly, and vulgar…” Those each have their own meaning for us today, but as always, we have to ask what Paul meant and then work forward to where we are now. We’ll spend a little time on each and then work toward something we can take with us into the world.
Firstly, there is obscenity. The word in Greek just means, “unclean,” and is not explicitly a word used for how a person talks. Paul is talking about talking though, so we can make that leap. What is obscenity? That’s hard to say because most every topic of conversation has its place in certain contexts, except I think, the sorts of things we can just call, “Gross.” What is a “Gross,” talking point? Well, let me try and explain.
There was a year when a stamped happened during a Muslim festival. Stampedes are unfortunately common in large groups of people. I heard multiple people afterward say something to the affect that they hoped more stampedes happened at these events. – that is obscenity. The conversations that several of my friends chose to have when women walked away from us where they felt the need to share their general inability to see them as something other than an object – that is obscenity. The words we speak in malice, or close mindedness, that deny the humanity of those around us – these things are obscenity.
The next category of language is “silly,” in the translation we read this morning. The word really means pointed jokes at another person’s expense. Plato uses it to describe when a student picks on their teacher and their teacher, graciously, allows it as part of youth. I am not someone who believes you can never pick on someone a little bit, I would not be able to preach in this Church if I did not believe that lighthearted ribbing has its place in a community. Still, the difference between a joke that lands well and a joke that causes great harm is very, very slight. We have to be considerate, and careful, of how we talk to people around us, being aware of their sensitivities and backgrounds, so that we never harm them in what we say.
Finally, we are given “vulgar talk,” which we usually think of as cursing. I do not, as a rule, care about whether someone curses or not – context depending. My family is full of people with the mouths of sailors, and I do not see an inherent sin in their word choice. Time and place for everything of course, but I will not moralize the frequent and flippant foul mouths of my family. No, I think that we are better to see that this word is μορολογια, (Morologia,) Moros – Stupid; Logia – words. This is a warning against talking without thinking, and I found some amazing texts talking about this. In particular, people at Paul’s time thought that talking too much, and with too many words, was a sure sign that someone was not being earnest.
Now, as a long winded person, I am mildly offended, but I see what is meant by it all. Plutarch, an ancient writer, describes someone who speaks without thinking as being like a sieve. The second you pour knowledge in their head, they start talking about something completely unfounded until any benefit they might have gotten from the lesson is completely lost. Again, a bit harsh, but there is a powerful lesson in our ability to think before we speak. More important than not saying things that are cruel, or things that are more serious than we treat them, is to not say something we have not thought to its end.
If you are thoughtful about what you say, then you’ll find yourself avoiding those other problems. When we speak, we need to take time to make sure what we say is really worth saying. Once we know it is worth saying, we have to be sure that we say it in a way that reflects what we really feel, and what is really the case, and not just what we would want to say. Sometimes you all will notice that I start a sentence and then stop one or two words in to rework what I want to say. This is not because I’m trying to clean up what I want to say (usually,) but because I let my wordiness get ahead of me. I have to stop my words, redirect them, and then hopefully have something to say that is true, helpful, and reflective of what I am thinking of.
Speech, the source of so many problems, is often times the one thing that we have complete control over, if we can only reign in our initial tendency toward these three vices. Going back to our initial image, light shining out on the world, and from that our identity as members of God’s family. Like my mother when I told her I talked back to my stepmother, we have to know that God wants us to act like we are children who have been raised with some sense. And the most sensible thing we can do, it be careful how we talk to one another. – Amen.
 Plato. Republic. VIII
 In particular, Plutarch describes word without thought as being like, “vain and silly discourse,” that comes from being drunk. Plutarch. De garrulitate 4.