God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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A Christian’s Character

A sermon based on Micah 6:8 and Matthew 5:1-2 preached on January 29th, 2017

Blessed are those who are sure of themselves, who are so confident they have no need to rely on anyone but themselves, because they have it all figured out.

Blessed are those who pay no attention to other people’s suffering, for they will walk through the world with light feet and light hearts and nothing upon their conscience.

Blessed are the strong and the brash, for their lack of humility impresses others around them.

Blessed are those think this world is fair to everyone simply because it’s been fair to them, for they sleep well at night.

Blessed are those who run over their opponents by whatever means necessary, for they will prevail in victory.

Blessed are those who lie through a smile, whose despite their kind appearances, always have ulterior motives, for in their deviousness they always get their way.

Blessed are those who stir up trouble, and never step off the battle field, because troublemaking is always easier than peacemaking.

Blessed are those who persecute and torment others to get their way, because the world belongs to the strongest, and all is fair in love and war.

If the ways of the world had their own set of beatitudes, those are it. We know who the winners are. We’re familiar with all the clichés: Nice guys finish last; Dog Eat Dog; Survival of the Fittest.

I wrote this set of beatitudes trying my best to say the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ said in His set. These alternate beatitudes are the ideals our culture lifts up and celebrates. They’re build into the very fabric of our nation. And anyone who doesn’t live by this set of beatitudes will be trampled underfoot.

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For the next few Sundays, we will move slowly through Jesus’ most famous words—the ones from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is a surprising and upside-down picture of what faithful living looks like. We have heard these words for most of our lives, but I hope they have never really made much sense to you. That’s a good indication that you’ve been listening. I hope they still startle you. They still startle me.

As a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on discipleship. It’s an 8-minute long description of how Christians should perceive and conduct themselves. In a way, it’s a working manual for the Ways of God, but that’s not all it is. That’s too small a thing. More to the heart of the matter, the Sermon on the Mount is a Rule of Life for each and every one of us who call ourselves Christian.

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I want to tell you about my week away doing Continuing Education back in early November. I went to a conference for Presbyterian pastors called Credo. Credo means I put my trust in. For 7 or 8 days, about 50 recently-ordained church leaders were invited to take a step back from the busy day-in and day-out stuff of ministry and focus our energy and imaginations on reconnecting to the very essence of our God-calling. We were challenged to pay closer attention to ourselves, to reclaim that part of us that led us into church ministry in the first place, to reestablish ways that honor our God-given character, to identify the values that are most important to us, and to insist on making time to tend to our spiritual lives throughout our weeks and our months doing ministry.

We all left that week having written our own Rule of Life. A manifesto of sorts. But more than that, I think: a very intentional plan for the living of these days. We promised each other before we left for home that we would spend the next 11 months practicing our newly-written Rules of Life, come back together this coming October, and see how they might need re-tweaking. I want to share my Rule of Life with you.

Stretch: Do an hour of stretching every day.

Pray: Spend an hour reading scripture and in prayer every day.

Play: Go on hikes, dates with my wife, and whenever possible, stop working at 5:30p

Spend: Be a good steward of money

I also wrote a big dream, a Mi Gran Sueno, for this year: Start outlining the book I’ve always wanted to write. These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and

These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and day-out sometimes seems heroic. Often, I do one or the other of them not out of sense that it will lead me into greater life, but merely out of a sense duty or drudgery. Some days, I complete forget I’ve made a Rule of Life at all. And other days, I simply don’t care that I have, and I hope for a better attitude for the next day.

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If these 8 beatitudes that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount had checkboxes next to them, I wouldn’t be able to put a mark in any one of them. None of these come naturally to me. In fact, by many standards, they may look to you and I like terrible advice! Impractical and foolish. But, let’s not pass them up so quickly.

At first glance, they may appear as mere suggestions for how you and I should behave. Or maybe you see them the opposite way, as rules that we need to adhere to. We might think that a list like this isn’t so much for regular Christians, but only for those more holy than we are. Might you think that because I’m a Pastor, they’re made for me, but not for you? Not so fast! These beattitudes are for all of us. And they’re not so much a list of 8 things we have to be or accomplish. These 8 things are really only 1 thing: a single vision of what a God-blessed life looks like. Read rightly, these beattitudes are both an invitation into, and a description of true Christian character. This is what our lives would look like if we lived them the ways God wants us to. We are to take this sketch of blessedness that Jesus has given us and spend the rest of our days doing our best to live into it. And, in a word, the sketch of Christian character looks: Different.

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Maya Angelou was a writer as well a person of deep Christian faith. But if you ever heard her talk about her faith, you’d hear her use hesitant words. She didn’t like to call herself a Christian. As a poet, she knew the meaning of words very deeply, and she understood the word Christian means little Christ, and that was simply too big of a thing for her to claim. She thought that when anyone identified them self as Christian, it rang of self-accomplishment. It seemed to her too big of a thing for anyone to assume about themselves—that they’d made it. They’d become a little Christ. She thought she just wasn’t there yet. I know what she’s saying, but I’m not sure I agree with her. None of us are there yet, and it’s a dangerous person who thinks they have arrived.But can we not call ourselves something that we’re still hoping to become?

The first disciples of Jesus were called by that name not because of what they already were but what Jesus thought they ought to be. We know what we ought to be, and there is no better a collection of words in all of scripture that describe it—the essence of Christian character than these Beattitudes. These are enormous words, and we should spend our days living into every one of them.

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Let’s run through each of them quickly.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I best understand a thing when it’s compared to its opposite, so throughout I’m going to repeat the world’s beattitudes that I shared a few minutes ago.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – The spiritually poor are those who practice a humble dependence upon God. Its opposite are those who are sure of themselves, who say they have it all figured out. The poor in spirit know they are unable to save themselves. They know they have nothing to offer God, and who therefore look to God for salvation, asking for God’s grace. To such as these, the Kingdom of God is given. This is a quality of character we should practice.

Blessed are those who mourn – We usually equate mourning with the loss of a loved one, but this goes deeper than that. Jesus is talking about those who see the sorrow and suffering of an unjust world, who mourn the loss of their own self-respect, or the self-respect of others. The opposite: those who don’t seem to care about the suffering of others. By sharing this quality of Christian character, Jesus asks us to take an honest look at the evil we see in the world, to face it, to name it, take it personally, and weep over it.

Blessed are the meek is there to suggest that we practice a gentle and humble attitude toward others. Its opposite is something like throwing your weight around. The meek are those who know what a great gift God’s grace is, who know in the deepest parts of who they are that there’s nothing about them that earns God’s favor.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones among us who are never satisfied by the world’s idea of justice and fairness—who realize that human beings have a great capacity to mistreat others, and whose greatest prayer for the world is that all people may be treated in a way that honors their God-given integrity and dignity.

Mercy is compassion for those in need. Blessed are the merciful directs us in the ways of forgiveness and compassion for others. We live into this one when another’s suffering becomes our suffering too. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Blessed are the pure in heart – A person pure in heart is sincere. When you look into their eyes, you get this feeling that their whole life—inside and out—all their thoughts and all their motives are pure. I’m sure you can imagine the opposite

Blessed are the peacemakers – We should give ourselves to the work of creating calm where there is anxiety, understanding where there is conflict, and figuring out our problems without the use of violence.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – This one speaks loudest to those Christians in parts of the world where their faith puts their life in danger. For us, it speaks how important it is to be unwavering in our faith, even when—especially when—it’s inconvenient. If you can’t see yourself in any of these descriptions, I implore you, in the name of Jesus Christ to change your ways. This is about as close as a Presbyterian minister will come to giving an alter call.

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Let me give away the ending here…each and every one of us will fall short of this picture of God blessedness. The point isn’t to accomplish any of these. The point is to do our best to live into them, to lean into them, to trust their divine wisdom a whole lot more than we trust in the backwards wisdom of the world. The prophet Jeremiah declared to his people,

Do not follow the ways of the nations…the rituals of the nations are hollow.

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Let us live into these counter-cultural words. They are nothing less than Jesus’ version and vision of personhood and the very shape of human being created in God’s image. May you give yourself to them. May you walk in the directions they take you, and in their practicing, may you discover the Way of Jesus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.