It’s wonderful to be back here with you. The last time I subbed for Pastor Dee, many of you were on a bus headed to Baltimore for the General Synod meetings. I am delighted to be giving Dee some well-deserved rest, and I want to commend you on giving your pastor a lengthy time of renewal.
This morning, I want to wander with you in the first chapter of Ephesians. Now, as Biblical scholars love to do, there has been discussion and disagreement over the years as to whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians. Was it written by a scribe who took liberties with Paul’s dictation? Is it a restatement of Colossians? Is it from a student of Paul? Or is it from the latter period of Paul’s ministry, written for the struggles of the area surrounding Ephesus?
Honestly? I will let wiser heads than mine go argue about that. What is clear is that this book contains wisdom that the First Century Church needed. Its central message is of unity: one calling. One baptism. One household of faith. The earlier patriarchs decided that Ephesians was part of the written Canon and adopted it. Paul/or the author that only God knows wrote it. I think I’ll land there.
In just eleven verses, however, the writer unpacks some heavy-duty theology! He touches on predestination, creation, atonement and redemption: all those “churchy words” that would take a week to unpack and properly understand. The text declares our place in the Kin-dom of God as “God’s own people.” Oh… and just to make it “fun” for those of us who had to study Koine Greek, he does all that in one extremely long run-on sentence.
But I want to focus on these verses because it focuses on the “big picture” of the “kin-dom” of God. The “kin-dom.” Not the kingdom. You may have heard it before… But if you aren’t familiar with it… it is a word that describes the relational nature of God, the way that the Divine adopts, loves and relates to us. We are adopted Kin! This expression works for the central theme of unity, rather than a top-down, power-heavy structure in “kingdom.” Kin-dom has been in public discourse for many years, but appears earliest in the work of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and also the writing of Sister Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun.
A wise woman I know, Dr. Reta Halteman Finger, suggests that “The Kin-dom of God is a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar.” Instead of a top-down, authoritarian government that humans like to set up, there is a sense of communal responsibility and commitment to one another. That’s the kindom! And Paul, teaching this radical re-ordering of government, just might have upset Caesar’s priorities!
Kindom fits this morning’s Epistle reading. Can you hear its familial nature in the first verses of greeting? This concept of unity and community? Paul spends a lot of time defining and declaring the whys and wherefores of our relationship with God. As I reflected on the text, I asked myself, “What was SO IMPORTANT that he wanted to build this painstaking theological foundation?”
That’s where I was drawn as I pondered the text. It would be easier to outline and define each of the big theological words and then go home… and maybe watch a little soccer. But I don’t think that’s the central message. It is, for me, summarized in Ephesians 1: 13-14.
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:13-14
All those conditions and definitions of our relationship with God are for the purpose of cementing in our adoption. Our inclusion in the family of God. Our place in the plan of God from the beginning of time. Not because of anything we do or are. Not because of where we grew up, or who are grandparents are, or where we went to church. But because of grace. We are loved because of grace.
These words applied to the members of a church in the region of Ephesus in the first Century. And they are true for us today. It is because we are chosen, because we are forgiven, because we are redeemed, because we are loved that we are all adopted into the family of God. We are God’s own people. We are all known and loved and covered by God’s grace. Gentiles? Welcomed into the kindom. Jews? No more privileged than the Gentiles. All are part of the beloved!
The problem is, we struggle with what being “the family of God” looks like, acts like, talks like, worships like, eat like, loves like, smells like, and serves like. We have opinions. Definite opinions! “That’s what Church should be!”
Even in a progressive, Christian community.
Even with people who want to be in a church!
Even with a congregation who has deep roots in love, fellowship and service.
Even in an area where we have county, state and federal officials with a progressive bend.
I don’t have to tell you that in our country, the divisiveness and incivility is at epic proportions. Not just on the internet. The highway road rage. The office shootings. The gun violence in schools. The rise in domestic violence. The “bully pulpit” of some politicians who seem bent on dividing any coalitions that threaten his or her own power, and suggest if you don’t do things their way, you’re not really a “Christian.” From County politics to Congress, there’s a whole lot of hating going on!
In all of these situations, grown up people forget what was drummed into their heads in elementary school. You remember some of those truths from the book by Robert Fulghum, All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. You know… basic human decency? “Take turns. Say please and thank you. Clean up your own mess. Say that you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” And so on…
We forget we are all the same — flawed, forgiven humans. From the outside, we are so radically different. We are fractured by our individual needs and interests. We experience life from such radically different perspectives that it’s hard to have peace in a household, let along in a church. Yet Ephesians brings back to mind our mutual inheritance and redemption. As they say in the South, “we are kinfolk!”
How can we see and celebrate this family resemblance? This kin-dom? First, by seeing that we are all brought in to this fold by God.
Not a one of us came up with the idea on our own. We were invited, enticed, engrained, enfolded into the fabric of the community by the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s job! We came into the family under difficult circumstances, or privileged ones. We were nurtured by Godself. We were known, loved and wanted before we knew we were known, loved, and wanted. We are a holy, blended family. Our identity is not because we know how we came into our spiritual heritage, but that we were, indeed adopted in. Just like there are many kinds of family (biological, blended, adopted, foster) there are many ways to come to a knowledge of God’s personal love for each one of us. And there is no “one correct way” to come into the family — just like there are many ways to create a human family! Our identity in God is exactly the same.
This should bring forward in us a sense of deep humility. In every way, we are each forgiven much, and blessed with much more. But far too often, it comes out as entitlement. It’s as if our little selfish inner selves are saying, ‘God always DID like me best!’ or churches say, “God likes the way WE worship best!”
I have to tell you that churches and even whole denominations have split over this entitlement. Congregations “bleed out” and die because there are power struggles and cliques! Common goals and dreams are set aside for personal wishes. But God invites us to lay our sense of “earned favor” and accept that it is unmerited, unearned, and unending. The grace of God.
What’s another way to demonstrate that family resemblance? Because it’s not just understanding that we are brought in on equal theological footing. It is to acknowledge that this kin-dom is not built on the expense or punishment or exclusion of others.
To offer a more modern perspective, I’d like to return to the views of the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She proposes a view of the church and society that is based on Mujerista Liberation theology. She believes that life, in its fullest expression, results in the freeing of families and communities that are not oppressed by others. The Latina culture’s high value of family and community is a result of honoring and promoting the mutual hopes and dreams of everyone. This is the foundation for all societal and spiritual experience. This is how people thrive! She declares that this is multi-generational and in it there is room for all!
How many of us have had living situations where the mutual concerns and benefits of every member of the community were part of the decision-making process? Maybe it was your first apartment or rental house with friends from college. Maybe you lived in an intentional community, or were part of a dorm or rooming house where you shared in the rent, the rules and the chores.
Theoretically, this is the same way that the Church could be. I say, “could be” because we all know that there is a difference between being an “organization” and an “organism.” The Body of Christ is an “organism.” But the practical governing and life of the Church is most definitely an “organization.” We have committees and commissions, pastors and church councils. And sometimes we take our eyes off of our common ground, and we forget our family resemblance in our “organism” as the Body of Christ!
Humor me this morning… because I believe that one metaphor we can visualize is to think of ourselves… is a quilt!
We are stitched together. All of us unique parts are brought together with the whole design in mind. Each quilt, each local Body of believers, are unique and beautiful, and each part of the pattern repeats in a way that brings harmony, beauty, and warmth. The quilt is pieced in patterns of shapes and colors, (like this one, made with squares and diamonds, or like this quilt, made up entirely of hexagons.)
Creating quilts in my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ day created community. Women gathered around frames a “quilting bees.” Their shared efforts provided a piece of practical household furnishing. Quilts take what’s left of scarce resources and make something new.
There is an unproven legend that quilts pointed the way on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it’s true! As Anna Lopez, an education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan said to Time magazine, “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?” Maybe those quilts were used to guide people to freedom.
Quilts memorialize events or people. How many of you saw the NAMES Project, the quilt which remembers AIDS victims? Families and friends created a 3×6’ panel and they were stitched together into huge blocks. In 1995, the quilt covered the entire National Mall. Now it would blanket it many times over.
Perhaps when you think of a quilt as an image of the Body of Christ, you think of this lovely one made by my grandmother. And you think to yourself, “Yes! The Church! Decency, order, variety and diversity! Blended together by God and stitched together in unity and love!” God is that comforting presence, that warmth that welcomes us.
As the poem in our bulletin this morning suggests: I think God is a quilter Who takes His needle and thread To piece our world from nothingness And give it form instead.
Well… yes. And no!
First, I think if God is a quilter, then God should be represented as a “She.” I think I have met one male quilter in my life… No offense to the anonymous writer on the internet. Just sayin… it should say she takes HER needle and thread…
I actually think the kin-dom of God is a little more wild and rambling and creative, and a little less controlled and boxed-in. I think the work of the Spirit is freeing, not confining. I think the actions of the Church are passionate and varied and beautiful. I think there are times for the kin-dom of God to be beautiful and decent and well-ordered enough to make any introvert happy.
And then… the Bapticostal side of me says… No… the Holy Spirit is a crazy quilt!
Here’s the real picture of each of us being grafted in, adopted, changed and molded into a whole. Here there are threadbare places and misshapen pieces. There is imperfection! There is chaos. Wildness. There is random order. It is unified, but unique. They are all stitched together in this crazy quilt called a “church.” Apart by ourselves, there is no sense. Put together, it is a beautiful thing. It is a legacy, a promise, a dream of what is to come. It’s a dream of God might do, if we could get along. Like the “hope chests” of old, there is the possibility of what is “not yet.”
The Body of Christ, the kin-dom of God that is represented by this crazy quilt, is a church that knows there is hard work ahead. Its a church that says, I will do everything I can in this process of loving and caring for one another and our world will take everything we have. It will only be as successful as our least-attached piece, as our least committed member.
In the writing of Ephesians, Paul (or pseudo-Paul), was attempting to bring unity to a deeply divided people. A people who had other gods and religions practicing right on their doorstep. A culture which denied women the rights of full citizenship, and allowed slavery. (And even told slaves how they should act!) Ephesus, though a modern seaport in its day, was not so good at showing love and compassion to one another. The writer’s words were full of encouragement, of unity, of love, and of understanding.
And in these words, may we see and know for ourselves that we are each a piece of God’s divine plan in the world. We are each chosen, beloved, adopted and blessed. We are each stitched into the kin-dom of God. May our lives be a response to God who loves us, and may we together bring the praise of God’s glory.
Thanks be to God!
We who are comfortable, forget those who feel discomfort. We who are healed, forget those who are wounded. We who need you, forget that your Holy Spirit would change us and mold us and meld us and loves us in ways that we cannot even fathom. May the words that have been spoken be like arrows to our hearts, for you are a Great God who can do all things… in Christ, we pray. Amen.
HOPE: Seeing each other and our world as God sees us Romans 5:1-11
It’s so good to see everyone! It’s great to be out of the snowdrifts and black ice, isn’t it? This time last week our driveway was an icy luge in-the-making and we opted to stay safely at home. But we missed you!
In this season of Lent, our sermon series is organized around the Voices of Our Faith.We are focusing on words that reflect the way we approach a life in God – words like justice, hope, mercy, reconciliation, and joy point us towards Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.
Todd spoke last week on Justice – where we work for the world to become as God created it to be. That is, to move past societal norms and politics and focus on the Creator’s design for our world, one that has beauty, equality and justice.
The Voice of Our Faith this week is the voice of HOPE.
HOPE. What is it? What do Hope-filled (or HopeFULL) people do? What difference does Hope make in a Christian’s life?
Hope is an elusive word and it’s one that we misuse all the time. It’s not wishful thinking (“I hope it doesn’t rain on Opening Day for the Nats!”) or a wish-on-a-star-God-make-it-happen kind of prayer. (Though don’t we all pray that way sometimes?)
Hope is vesting ourselves in what is possible. It moves from the present to the future. Hope is desire combined with confidence and discipline. It is based on reality, or, in the Christ-follower’s case, on the Promise that God is absolutely true, absolutely trustworthy, absolutely the same yesterday, today and forever.
Hope is the fire that fuels our passion for justice. It’s beyond feelings, in fact, Hope buoys us up when we feel discouraged and depressed.
Wishful thinking, on the other hand, is when we really REALLY want something to happen. It’s passive. It’s not necessarily based on reality. It’s expressing uncertainty and wishing for the opposite. Tossing a penny in a wishing well or wishing on a star have no guarantees but they can, for the moment, make us feel better.
I like how Eugene Peterson expresses the difference between Hope and Wishing:
“Wishing grows out of our egos; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing…
Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. Picture it in your mind: wishing is a line that comes out of me, with an arrow pointing into the future. Hoping is a line that comes out of God from the future, with an arrow pointing toward me.” (Eugene Peterson, in Living the Message, Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life)
When we build on Hope, we are embracing the reality of God’s work in our world and in each other. When we are hopeFULL, it changes…
What we see
What we hear
What we say
What we want
How we respond
I. When we have hope, we see each other, and our world, as God sees us.
INTELLECTUALLY, we get this. Practically and emotionally, we have a problem, because we rarely experience it.
Why don’t we experience hope?
I think one reason is because we are caught up in the present and the demands in our lives:
Bills and student loans
We are overwhelmed and frustrated. We have little to no endurance. And we lose perspective on what’s really going on.
We do not see God at work. We forget the spiritual realm is active, and God is present and working.
Hope has staying power. It fuels our passion for justice. It allows someone to look past the reality of one’s struggles and believe God can bring change. It energizes and moves us to change. Why else do you think people stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago and banded together to demand change? It was their Hope in justice, God’s justice, to prevail in a human justice system.
Let’s stop and think for a minute… Imagine…
Imagine standing on a bridge, one named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine preparing to walk, peacefully, towards Montgomery, Alabama to petition your state to give you voting rights – ones that you already had been given almost 100 years earlier in the 15th Admendment. Rights that were systematically denied you, and others like you, simply because of your race.
Based on history alone, with generations of discriminatory voting practices, why would you believe that things could change? HOPE.
Hope brought about people who persevered. A week later, in a third attempt, the march started towards Montgomery. The numbers swelled from a couple hundred to 25,000 by the time they reached the capital. And Congress, galvanized by the reaction to that Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, and the show of support from a united front of men and women from many races and religions, passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a few weeks later.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march. President Obama and family, and former President George W. Bush walked across that bridge in a symbolic act of remembering how far we have come, and how far we have to go as a nation. The original marchers, some of whom were present at yesterday’s commemorative events, explained why they decided to march in 1965. They had a confidence that was based on Hope. They were ready to see change.
“When I was a child, I didn’t know how it would affect my life now, but it also makes me sad that some of the same battles of the sixties, we seem to be fighting over again. And things don’t go away. We keep renaming the same stuff and I think every generation thinks they have to start a battle over. But if you don’t know the mistakes and the gains of the past, you’re destined to be bogged down in the same stuff.” – Selma marcher Joanne Bland, 11 years old in 1965
II. It is this kind of hope – one that is active, based on truth and action, that Paul is writing about in Romans.
Paul the lawyer, Paul the Jewish scholar and Paul the human being help us understand something of the nature of Hope. This chapter is a long “therefore” building on everything Paul has written in this letter. A legal argument, if you will, that started back in the previous chapters.
Paul the lawyer set out a logical argument and explanation of the basis of our hope and faith in God. I know it’s a challenge to wade through Paul’s writing sometimes – but don’t let all those dependent clauses and therefores and wherefores throw you off!
Paul explains that it is God doing the work of reconciliation. It is God showing mercy to us.
Paul explains that
We have peace (verse 1) because we are in relationship with God
We have access to God by faith (v 2) because of God’s love, compassion and forgiveness
We are loved in spite of who we are (v 8) – sinners – to use the old-fashioned word – people who fail to live up to God’s standards and who hurt one another – and yet we are accepted by God because of our relationship through Christ.
Paul the Jewish scholar also asks us to remember the faithfulness of God. He knew that God heard the cries of the Jews in exile. The slaves in Egypt. The testimony of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The oppression of the Jews by the Roman Empire.
Paul wrote out of an intimate awareness of how God can be trusted.
Perhaps he remembered the words of Jeremiah to the refugees in Babylon:
From Jeremiah chapter 29 11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
These are words that were written to captives in Babylon, words that they believed but did not see come to pass until their great-grandchildren went back to Jerusalem.
Or perhaps Paul the scholar remembered the promises of God in Joel 2, words that reached across centuries to the coming of the Messiah:
28 “… I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
Words that came true on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled a crowd. These words from Joel are yet to be completely fulfilled – they are full of promise for God’s final redemption in the world to come. Words where WE can find HOPE.
Poignant words, to be sure, for a bridge in Alabama, for Christians who are beheaded in Libya or killed in Nigeria or Mali. They are words of Hope for our country as we try to understand the brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, or the shooting of a homeless man in LA.
Our world needs Hope, doesn’t it?
But I think the perspective I value the most as I try to wrap my head around the legal arguments of Paul the lawyer, and the centuries of Jewish history by Paul the scholar, are the honest hope-FULL statements of Paul the human being.
Paul the human being reminds us that we will walk though more than our share of disappointments, frustrations, doubts, questions and fears. Our very human condition of failure found in the word “trouble”.
Going back to Romans 5:
2b …we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Common English Bible)
Depending on the translation, “trouble” is translated “affliction” or “sufferings” or “problems.” The Greek word is “tribulations” – the soul-rending, heart-breaking events that make us want to give up… the long, dark nights when we are discouraged or depressed. We’re not talking hangnails or flat tires, here. It’s the stuff that causes us to give up completely.
Paul the human being was writing to the Church in Rome – where there was at least some opposition to the Church there, if the outright persecution by Nero and others had not yet begun. “Tribulations” (troubles) were a very real possibility.
Paul the human being reminds us that God invites us to persevere – to make it through the long haul… As someone who likes my coffee quick and hot and ready to go, who loves her microwave and cooks pre-fab dinners, I am honestly not a fan of endurance and perseverance. Our culture is INSTA-everything! It’s not “telegrams” any more — it’s “INSTAgrams!”
Anne Lamott says:
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
When we persevere, when we hang in there, we are invited to lay claim to the promises God has made to each and every one of us!
God’s love is why we hope – hope in God does not disappoint us. Paul says it is an Artesian well poured out into us, full of God’s presence and promises.
From verse 5… “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
This is the “REAL PAUL” – the man who wrote later in 2 Corinthians about having a “thorn in his body” that he had to live with. Something that he suffered with, endured, and kept serving God.
I think he knew what he was talking about.
III. So how do we live out our Hope?
First, we remember that this process of living a Hope-FULL life has no short-cuts.
There will be problems and disappointments. Sometimes it will be simply because “life happens” — like cancer, or dealing with nature. Other times, it is when trouble comes because someone else has directly or indirectly brought it on us – the car accident, dishonest stock broker, or identity thief.
From our troubles, we gut it out with perseverance, demonstrate our character, and discover the faithfulness of God – HOPE in God.
We also need to remember that life is best done TOGETHER.
We are relational beings created in the image of a relational God. We watch, encourage, pray and love each other. Anyone who has ever been in a support group or 12-step group will tell you how much strength and courage is found in others’ presence and love. You can’t get it on-line. It doesn’t happen from a distance. It’s life together.
There’s something else we see in people who understand the power of Hope. A Hope-FULL life is one that is visible and demonstrable.
Hope brings a challenge to live out the ways God is at work in our lives, so that others can find hope in God as well. You can watch someone who is hurting, yet who has a deep-in-the-gut trust in God, and you know that they believe God keeps God’s promises.
I think about the people in my life who are up against incredible odds… physical, emotional, psychological, relational… day after day, they live in a way that honors God and reflects their HOPE. They inspire me to hang in there just a little longer.
Rep. John Lewis, one of the original Selma marchers, tweeted yesterday, “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change.”
Do you think he believed on that day 50 years ago that he would celebrate this day with an African American president? That he would be an elected Representative to Congress from the state of Georgia? I think the work of the Lord exceeded his expectations! This is a man who has lived out the word HOPE.
Hope brings us back to the cross.
The cross of Christ is a place of acceptance. The reminder that our present, finite souls are part of a huge and infinite reality.
The cross is a place where forgiveness, reconciliation and hope-FULL people demonstrate to one another God’s love. It’s one of the reasons that I love how we serve one another communion. It’s God’s hope, in the bread and the cup, put in our hands, that transforms our lives.
Every week we celebrate Communion, we remember these words of Paul – God’s Hope demonstrated through God’s love for us. We boast in the HOPE of God’s glory to be made real in us and through us. The gifts of God for the people of God point us back to the cross where Love brought about reconciliation, peace with God, and Hope. They are a reminder of the ever-present, ever-nurturing Spirit of God within us. They speak to our souls – where we will touch the Infinite Hope, the life-changing power of the risen Christ.
If we remember this, we can make it through life’s disappointments and challenges. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.