The Power to Empower

A sermon based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Ephesians 5:21-6:9 preached August 13th, 2017

Sermon audio

We’ve been immersing ourselves in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians all summer long now. We’ve tried our best, so far, to do more than that, though. If we’ve been paying attention to what Paul has to say here, if we’ve given ourselves fully to the truth about who God is, who we are in God, then there’s no way we can come to the end of this letter without a transformed and altogether renewed vision of the world, of the God who created it, who entered into it through the person of Jesus Christ, and who still to this day fills it with His mighty and grace-filled presence through the Holy Spirit.

We started big. Talking about God. Big words about the eternal and infinite. We’ve been invited into the vastness of our living God, urged to jump into the deep end of God’s presence—vast, long, wide, deep. And as we have moved further into the letter to the Ephesians, the more particular and specific the language has been.

All the sudden we realize that we are because God is. That the ins and outs of our day—all the way down to the boring and humdrum aspects of it are the way they are because God is the way God is. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in or about our lives that God does not have words to speak into. Nothing is secular or completely up to us. Everything is sacred and completely up to God. We must listen closely.

It’s quite easy for us to see God in the vast expressions of the cosmos—a sunset, the beauty of nature, the flight of a bird, the mysterious changing of Summer into Fall. It’s quite another thing to see God at work in the small parts of our lives. In our relationships, our households, in our daily encounters with neighbors and strangers, our wives and husbands, parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. This is far more complicated.

What does God have to do with those things? How is God speaking into those routine parts of our lives? Is God there at all? Or have we left Him here at church from one Sunday to the next? Did we leave God in the mountains of Montreat or in some other transcendent get-away, under some notion that keeping God in places like that protects God from our everyday lives, and our everyday lives from God?

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Paul isn’t done yet. The further we get along in this letter, the more specific the context gets.

Last week, we talked about how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re in church community. This week, Paul drills down further. This week, Paul wants us reflecting upon how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re at home. How husbands treat wives and wives treat husbands in a way that reflects the love and grace of God. How marriage changes the family dynamics. How children are a part of this. What their role is in the context of family—how they are to treat their parents and, in turn, how their parents are to treat them. There’s absolutely no part of our lives that God is not speaking in to.

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Last Monday evening, I had the honor to officiate the wedding of my Father-in-Law, Jim, and his fiancée, Katheryn. (I have to be careful how I phrase that—at first, I told some folks that I was marrying my Father-in-Law.)

It was a beautiful ceremony. We held it in our Chapel, surrounded by a dozen or so family members. Afterward, all of us went to out to dinner at Fratelli’s. We had a great time. As we were leaving the restaurant, Katheryn, the bride, gave me a hug and said to me,

Thank you for not mentioning anything about submission or obedience.

I laughed and agreed with her. I told her I hadn’t even thought about saying any words like that. And that was true. We’ve all been to plenty of weddings where passages like this one is read or at least mentioned.

Wives, obey your husbands.

Maybe, the word submit is even worse.

We end up cursing passages like this one and others like it. Why couldn’t Paul just keep his mouth shut about such matters? He wasn’t even married! So, when we hear a pastor say these words in the context of a wedding ceremony, all of us squirm about in our pews. But in these weddings, the surrounding verses are always left out. Whether we agree with it or not, we hear verse 22, but we never hear its context—all that Paul says around it.

Verse 21: Be subject to one another. Why, or for what reason? Out of reverence to Christ. And we discover in the next paragraph that husbands are not off the hook. Just like every other Godly relationship, marriage is a two-way street.

Verse 25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

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I want to encourage you to hear what’s astounding about these words from Paul. Women in his day, and in every time before, were considered property. They were not people. They were not her’s or she’s—they were its. Objects. Owned and never loved.

Enter these words from Paul: “Husbands, stop thinking you own your wives. Don’t treat them that way! Love them instead.”

It’s as if Paul is saying “You live in a culture that tells you that in order to be a strong and powerful man, you just assert ownership and dominance over your wife. No more of that for us! Reject this cultural message. Your new life in Christ calls for an entirely different way of thinking about your spouse and your marriage. Husbands, love your wives and hold them up—honor them, seek their interests and personal development.”

This was radically counter-cultural. And in quite a number of places, it’s still a radical idea. Be subject to one another.

Here’s the thing about submission that we don’t understand anymore: Submission, as it’s spoken about in this passage and others like it, is never forced. It is always voluntary. Furthermore, this submission to another is never a permanent arrangement. It’s always situational. There are moments when it’s right for you to submit to me and just as many moments when it’s right for me to submit to you. Such is the way of a healthy relationship.

Neither does Paul’s idea of submission have anything to do with hierarchy. It does not mean that one of us has the right to assert power over another. It is not that. What Paul is talking about here is a flexible, dynamic way of relating to one another that’s based upon self-giving love. We’re talking about the way of mutual servanthood. Never mandated but, in Christ—the Servant King—always encouraged. When we understand all this, it’s easier to see how these words are meant to free wives from the oppressive ways in which that ancient culture made objects out of them.

Today, these words are still here to free all of us, men and women, to empower one another—to lift each other up, asserting each other’s dignity and worth as the beloved and honored children of God we all are.

This is how to bring Christ into our homes, or more to the point, this is what it looks like when we practice Christ in our homes: in each other’s sight, our intrinsic value and worthiness takes off, has no limit. And we respond to each other’s God-given worth by becoming subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. In Christ, we have to power to empower one another, to lift each other into the light, to celebrate each other for the gifts we are to one another!

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I hope you can see how this is radically counter-cultural even today. No one may ever admit it, but we are a people who gain and assert our power and self-worth by recklessly and dismissively climbing over the backs of others.

We live in a world of unbelievers who do believe in something: they believe that the only way to practice power—to assert themselves—is to wield power over others. To these folks, self-centeredness, individualism, and independence are things to aspire to. For these people, the name of the game is that wrong kind of submission—the one Paul speaks against in this passage—the kind that says in order for me to be important and significant, you have to be unimportant and insignificant. Such is the way of the world. In the face of this ugly assertion, we who call ourselves followers of Christ shout No!

We are to live in such a way that we assert one another’s worth, to give witness to the truth that one person’s importance takes nothing away from another’s importance. That your power and significance, expressed and practiced biblically, is never had or asserted at the expense of my power and significance—or anyone else’s for that matter. Life, love, significance, and worth are not zero-sum games. And, in the same way, my expression of submission to you never means that I think myself as less important, less human, than you—just as your expression of submission to me never means you or I think you are worth anything less than me.

If we look at Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we would never think that submitting to each other could ever be done out of a sense of inferiority. Christ, the King of all kings, the All-Sovereign and All-Powerful Lord of all lords, came not to be served but to serve, and even give up His life for others.

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Friends, we are called to imitate Christ in all of our relationships. Each of us looking out for the interests of the other.

We are called to ditch all the worldly notions we have that tell us that submitting to each other makes us push-overs or weaklings or doormats. Far from being an expression of inferiority, our willingness to be, and witness as, servants to one another through our Servant Lord is an opportunity for us to lift up the lowly into the light of Christ. To bend down in an effort to pick others up.

We serve out of an expression of a strange kind of power—one that the world knows nothing about—the power to submit ourselves so that those we serve may be empowered.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Living God’s Image

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:1-11 and Ephesians 5:3-20 preached on August 6th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve owned several cars in my life, but none will be as memorable as the second one—the one I drove around town when I first got my driver license: a 1986 Ford Mustang LX.

My first car was a 1980 Mazda RX-7 in black. The one with the headlights that flipped up out of the hood. It was a 2-seater. I owned it for a few months, but I only drove it on the road once. It looked terrible. The rear quarter panels on both sides had rust holes in them big enough to stick your fists into. The black paint job was worn down to the metal all over that car. But as old as it was, it ran like like a dream. The engine was as solid as the body was rusty.

Looking back now, I wish my father and I had stuck with the RX-7, but when my 16-year-old eyes met that ’86 Mustang. It was love at first sight! It was bright cherry red. It gleamed in the sunlight. The stereo in the dash was missing, but that was okay because I had plans to upgrade whatever was in there anyway.

I drove that Mustang around for a little over two years. By then, my Dad and I had well figured out that we had overpaid for it. We had been taken in, fooled, by its brand new paint job. That stunning red paint covered a multitude of problems. In the ensuing months and years, I had to put that car in Park or Neutral every time I came to a stop, or the thing would stall out. I carried a 5-quart container of motor oil in my back seat, because sometimes I had to jump out while waiting at a red light to refill the oil that constantly leaked out. It turns out that you can polish junk and pass it off as something it isn’t. Window dress the insubstantial and make it look meaningful and purposeful.

At the beginning, I couldn’t wait to make that Mustang my own; at the end, I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

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In the life of faith, paint jobs don’t matter. God knows how we run underneath. All the window dressing in the world can’t hide, and will not cover up, the problems inside. And we don’t get by well—or for long—on how impressive things look on the outside, on the surface of things. In the end, we only get by—find our energy and vitality, our worth and worthiness—because of the quality of what’s hiding underneath our gleaming paint jobs. What matters most is what’s in our guts, our hearts, our minds. And it doesn’t take long for others to see past whatever shiny coat of paint we put on our exterior. We are only as healthy as what’s going on in the parts of us that are hidden away—much deeper.

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We carry on in the back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in pursuit of some vision of what the spiritually mature Christian life is like. Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship

Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship to God’s love and grace and majesty. Our right response is to live well, to pursue those things that only God can give us, to live in search of peace and wholeness and love so that we might better reflect who Jesus is to all those around us.

There are people all around us who know how to look past our nice looking exteriors and see what’s really going on. Who can see past the fleeting light of our smiles and peer into our very character. Just as Paul says, sometimes what we keep hidden away in the dark gets exposed to the light. Here, we are invited to live in such a way that our insides match our outsides. And we do that by continuously making choices that are consistent with our faith. Our faith, Paul writes, is not window dressing. Our faith is never only lived on the outside.

Sometimes we try to get away with throwing on a shiny coat of faith on the outside in an attempt to hide something from God and others. We throw something like glimmering red paint on some shame-filled part of ourselves that we want at all cost to keep under wraps—in the dark. But we are called by Christ to be Children of Light, and our lives will be barren pursuits if we’re unwilling to let God inside and examine us. Sometimes we don’t let God in because we presume that God will judge us harshly. If God sees how shameful or dark it really is inside, He’ll get angry and there won’t be any relationship left at all.

But there’s something wrong with that: scripture, over and over again, tells the story of a good and gentle God whose love for us is infinitely wider and deeper and higher than any love we could ever ask for or imagine. It’s a love that heals and repairs every part of ourselves that’s dark and broken. The invitation here is to trust this. To trust that if we hand over every bit of who we are to God, bring it out into the light, God will get to work in us, through us, for us. And through His grace, God will carefully and lovingly piece us together into the whole beings that He wants to make of us.

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Why do we resist this? Why is it such a daunting thought to open ourselves up this way? Perhaps one reason is that we often fear that if we look too closely at our lives, we’ll see too much that has to be fixed. We might say to ourselves that we’re getting down the road okay just as we are, so why bother opening up the hood—peering deeper into what’s going on beneath the surface of things. Wouldn’t that work be too hard, too much to confront or pay attention to? Too painful to visit or sort through? Some cars aren’t worth repairing, but there’s not one life that isn’t worth redeeming—bringing back to life, getting elbow deep into repairing, making whole, complete.

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Paul tells us to steer clear of a few things: religious smooth talk, useless work, the barren pursuits of darkness—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, drunkenness. He warns us of the many useless ways we can speak—our mouths filling the air with empty words, gossip.

On the surface of things, this appears to be a list of requirements, things we have to either accomplish or effortfully avoid in order to make ourselves shiny and good-looking to God. We can see this entire passage as a word of admonition, a bunch of must-do’s—moral obligations we must fulfill—in order to prove our goodness to God, to live up to His love for us.

There’s nothing wrong with living a moral life, in fact, I encourage it, but ignoring any of these instructions described here doesn’t only result in bad or immoral behavior, it also cheapens us. If we live our lives in any of these ways—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, get taken in by religious smooth talk, live carelessly, unthinkingly—we ignore our value as people made in the image of a loving God. We cheapen ourselves. We live beneath our worth. The image of God that lives deep inside of us must be nurtured to the surface through the right use of our bodies, our words, and our lives. Living our lives away from these dark actions and in the light of God’s love and life is the way we become full and whole human beings. They are the way in which God makes more of us.

These aren’t a bunch of soulless rules. Together they paint a picture of what living in right relationship with God, ourselves, and others looks like—the great value we have because each and every one of us has been bought at a price and rescued in a priceless way: through the cross of Christ. And living our lives in the way of the Cross means in part steering clear of any action or behavior that makes less of you and I and others, that minimizes who you and I and others are in the loving sight of God. We are worth more than we know.

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It’s easy to live in cheap ways, to make choices that end up dehumanizing us. We give ourselves away to lesser things all the time. We chase after shadows and things that glitter, and we lose ourselves in these things. We think they matter, but all they do is distract us, pull us away from true life. When we do this, we suffocate the breath of God’s Holy Spirit inside of us. These things and these ways, they cheapen our worth as the expensive and invaluable Children of God, and that is exactly what we are.

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Sleepers awake!  Climb out of these coffins, these too-tiny ways of bestowing upon ourselves empty forms of meaning, purpose, self-worth! Christ is the Light who will show you the light! Now that’s a Call to Worship! A wake-up call to worship!! A call to enter into the deep life of God, to get out of ourselves and into God—to walk away from the superficial life, get taken in by shiny paint jobs, those life pursuits that do nothing to give real value or purpose to who we are, that do nothing to draw us closer into the meaningful and purposeful holy life that God invites us to live in Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is a life that calls us to more life. One that both on the surface and from deep inside will grow us into people who reflect the glorious and holy image of God, so that others may see.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The Ragamuffin Gospel

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:21-28 and Ephesians 4:17-5:2 preached on July 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve spent time reflecting on Ephesians, so a little bit of a refresher for us may be in order.

We’re a little more than half way through. With the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4, we talked about how Paul shifts the discussion. The first half of this letter is full of big words, ideas about God and what God has done, and is still doing, through Jesus Christ. Paul wows us with Divine ideas that are as deep and wide as eternity itself.

Paul is inviting us into a new way of seeing absolutely everything through and in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that we have been invited into nothing less than the immensity and mystery of a God who is beyond our reach or knowledge, and every bit of our comprehension. And the only way we can ever properly respond to a God this big, an invitation to enter this vast Divine life, is to worship. To stand in awe. To stop right where we are, to cease being distracted by all the small things that take up most of our time, and look up into the heavens with eyes and ears and minds wide open, and start paying attention to something—Someone—much bigger than ourselves. Our tiny little lives and everything that takes up space inside of them are not what we’re made to live for. We are made for so much more. This is news that should startle us awake. Push and pull on our hearts and minds. Throw us out of our ruts.

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The back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about how to properly respond to this immense invitation to live bigger lives. Here’s when Paul’s words get a whole lot more specific. Ephesians chapters 4-6 are all about what it looks like when heaven comes crashing down to earth. What it looks like when the ways of God begin to change the ways we live and relate to one another.

If you’re of the sort who prefers practical advice and instruction about what to do, what to say, how to act in ways that are faithful and responsive to God’s call upon our lives, this is the part where you can start paying attention. All the sudden, Paul is done speaking in poetry. Our passage for the morning is full of  specifics. Short, instructional, no nonsense directives:

Take off your former way of life,

he writes.

Take a fresh breath and let God renew your attitude and spirit.Put on your new self (ok, that’s poetry). Speak truth. Work honestly with your hands. Share with anyone who has a need. Offer only words that build up. Take all the words that are used to tear others down and yank them out of your vocabulary. They have no place in this new life we’re given. Communicate grace, be kind, compassionate. Forgive one another. And, in so doing, you will do nothing less than imitate God—living all your life in all of God’s love!

Easy for him to say. Much harder for us to do. But in the very center of what Paul is saying is a word of grace. This is not so much a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt as it is how our lives, our relationships, our hearts will change as we take off our old self—our conventional attitudes and ways of seeing and engaging everything—and dress up in the life God has for us in Christ Jesus. We don’t do any of this. This—all this—is what God does in us as we put Him on, clothe ourselves in Him.

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This is The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book has changed a lot of lives. And like any good book, it’s also made a lot of others furious. It’s written by a former Franciscan Priest whose name is Brennan Manning. The entire book is a testimony to the goodness and grace of God.

Father Manning, for all appearances, had it all together. He was well-revered by his fellow Priests. He lived a contemplative life among the poor in France. At one point, he spent six months in a cave in the middle of no man’s land as a desert mystic—living in silence and prayer. After that, he became a campus minister at Broward Community College in Florida. It was there that he became an alcoholic. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved through his work—some notion of God-belovedness—he medicated himself with booze. He lost himself inside the bottle. He left the priesthood and got married. He went into a six-month addiction treatment, and in the years that followed, he had two relapses. After 18 years, his marriage ended—a casualty of his alcoholism. And then one day it hit him: Alcohol wasn’t the real problem. It was the thing that he used to cover up the problem. Brennan realized that the problem was this terrible life-long, effort-filled, exhausting, graceless pursuit of God—he had always tried his best to prove himself worthy to God.

All the sudden he found out that in an effort to find God, he has lost himself. This is why he was a broken man. Then, the grace of God invaded him. One of the greatest regrets of his life, Manning says, is all the time he wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.

This is what he writes in his Preface to his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

The Ragamuffin Gospel is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero. It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of biblical scholarship. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.

It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’ It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Manning continues,

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting their heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid, and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.

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Take your former way of life,

Paul writes, your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your

your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your new self: truthful, righteous, holy.

The old way has to go.

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In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear God speak words of frustration to the young prophet. Jeremiah has a tough job to do. Here, God asks him to hold nothing back, to relay to the Israelites how God feels about their actions. They have not listened to God. They have not followed God. Instead, they have chosen their own way, and in so doing, they have not moved forward. They have slid backwards.

Speak to the people, Jeremiah. But they won’t hear you. This is a people who have refused to be taught.

Words like these occur throughout scripture. Even the most faithful among us have a tendency to trust our own wit and wisdom to make it through our days—to live our lives under our own power. To practice this self-help-centered Gospel, a life that, as Brennan Manning would say has much more to do with John Wayne than Jesus. No more of that, God says!

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It’s remarkable that in a letter all about spiritual maturity, we have these words: Stop trying. Even among all the imperatives in their passage, it should be clear to us that it is not we who do the work. It is not we who make the effort to arrive or achieve anything. All Paul is asking us to do is take off all that covers up and keeps us from sharing life with God and to put on something new and renewing. The way into new life starts with simply say Yes to God, letting him dress us with Himself, with truth, and righteousness, and holiness.

Stop trying to catch up to God—that’s the former way of life: trying to be your own God under your our effort, like Brennan Manning was doing. He destroyed himself from the inside out living that way.

All the effort here is God’s. We simply stop and let God catch up to us—take us over. Form us. Renew us. Change us. This is grace. So that we might not be filled with our own fullness, but be emptied of ourselves and then filled with the fullness of God.

The Christian life doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t even continue with us. It’s all God. Living the Ragamuffin Gospel means continuously growing into the truth that I am who I am, you are who you are, because Jesus is who Jesus is. We don’t become good in order to get to God. We are made good because God gets to us.

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The Jesus life isn’t about what we can accomplish for God. It’s about what God can accomplish in and through us when we stop trying to matter to God. So, let’s get out of the way of what God is doing in and among us.

This is the Ragamuffin Gospel.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Diving Strongly Encouraged

A sermon based on Psalm 145:10-21 and Ephesians 3:14-21 preached on July 2nd, 2017

Just last summer I jumped into a swimming pool for the very first time in my life. 38 years in. Even though growing up I always went to the neighborhood pool, not once have I ever jumped off a diving board, done a cannonball, or even a belly-flop off the edge a pool before.

I guess from my experience on land I am well-versed in the less than fine art of falling. And falling hurts. No matter which way you fall, it hurts—we can damage ourselves that way. Sometimes we hurt our bodies, but more often and more lasting, we damage our pride, our senses of independence and strength is hurt. Maybe jumping into a pool seemed to me too much like falling. Why would I ever want to do it on purpose?! So, I never did. Up until last summer.

It took me 20 minutes of standing at the deep end of the pool, toes coming closer and closer to the edge, staring down into the depths of it, before I jumped. For that 20 minutes, I was silently making a bargain with the water: If I jump, do you promise you’ll catch me?

There I stood in the sun, at the edge of the Gold’s pool. My Karen was in front of me in the pool, standing in the shallow end, gently encouraging me, never frustrated with my remarkable hesitation, at least not out loud, God bless her, but hoping I’d eventually summon enough courage to jump in. To do it, already. To trust the fall for the first time in my life. To have some faith that the pool’s liquid arms would reach out and grab hold of me.

All of that took me 20 minutes, but I did it. And once I did it, I couldn’t stop doing it.

It’s funny how these little accomplishments bring out the kid in us. I must have jumped, swam to the side, and jumped in again 30 times before I was through! All of it a celebration of my new relationship with water.

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The bulk of our passage for the day, from the middle of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is a prayer. It’s a remarkable prayer. A prayer of encouragement. And it’s not unlike the encouragement it takes from our loved ones to jump into a swimming pool for the first time ever. So far in this letter, Paul has expressed his love to this church in Ephesus. He’s done so through words of challenge, through prayer, through teaching.

Paul the Apostle, the founder of this church and many others, ran alongside his churches, nurturing them in their new faith in Christ. Like a father running beside his daughter who, for the first time, is on a bicycle without training wheels, barely holding onto the handlebars or the back of the seat, but still right there next to us, encouraging us to go ahead and trust the two wheels and ride. Trust the water and jump in.

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These metaphors, or any other we could make, fall short of course. This is God we’re talking about after all. All our words are too small. But in order to immerse ourselves into the incomprehensible, we need handlebars, and metaphors are the best handlebars we’ve got. So let’s try another metaphor. One literally quite deeper than swimming in a pool: scuba diving.

Dive deep, Paul encourages. Know, or at least try your best to grasp, how wide and long, how high and deep the love of Christ is! Jump in! Explore the vast, immeasurable ocean of God’s love.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Here, only scuba gear will do. Here, we need oxygen tanks, because in order to explore God’s love we will need to leave the superficial behind, get beyond the surface of things, and dive deep underneath. God’s love is fathomless. In order to love this life in Christ, we must plunge its depth. No more wading in this water. No water wings or life vests. There’s no toe-dipping here. God’s love is for diving into. God’s love is fathomless, and ultimately impossible for us to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to understand it. Diving is strongly encouraged.

It’s our business to learn as much as we can about God, His love and mercy for us, His life and the life He wants for us. This is what the Christian life is for. This is our way to maturity in Christ. Jump in. The water’s warm. Dive underneath. Plumb its depths. Get to the bottom of it. The life of faith is total immersion. In order to know—really know!—the love of God, we must know it like a fish knows water. We must swim in it and then it will start swimming in us. The way of Jesus is complete absorption in, involvement in, being occupied by, diving into, God’s love.

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The end of the passage sounds like a benediction. In fact, it’s been our benediction throughout this summer. There’s an Amen at the end of this passage, but Paul is not done. The end of chapter three/the beginning of chapter four is a hinge point in Ephesians.

It’s at this moment where Paul has said all he needs to say about how God is involved in this world and our lives in it, and now it’s time to talk about what that means for us who live together in that God-immersed reality called church. This is when Paul says,

This is how God is, and is with us, and for us. And given these Divine truths and promises, how then shall we live?

This is the challenge of a lifetime, our lifetimes: to take the vertical and put it to work in the horizontal. I don’t much like that metaphor. It seems to suggest there are only 2 dimensions. But we know better than that.

Ocean breadth, length, height, depth. God moves—and God moves in us—in all directions, in every dimension.

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More about this astounding prayer Paul prays. It’s a prayer for us. For all who have ears to listen. Eyes to see.

Before he writes a word of it, Paul says he kneels before God with these words. Those are words that don’t catch us by surprise, because kneeling and prayer go together for us, but for Paul’s time, this is remarkable. People prayed standing up in his time. Kneeling was unusual. It suggests an exceptional degree of earnestness. Paul really means this prayer. Here, at the hinge of his letter to the Ephesians, he takes a knee.

I’ve taken you this far. This is as far as I can go,

he seems to say.

With this prayer, with the Amen at the end of it, I now hand you over to God. The rest I have to say is something only God can do for you.

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In her book, Waiting for God, French philosopher and Christian ethicist, Simone Weil, writes this:

That we may strive after goodness with an effort of our will is one of the lies invented by the mediocre part of ourselves in its fear of being destroyed…There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back to earth but go right up to the sky. Thus occupied, he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If, however, we look heavenward for a very long time, God comes and takes us up.He raises us easily.

Poet Robert Browning put it a different way when he wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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When Paul wants to put the church to work, he doesn’t tell us to get to work. He doesn’t give us jobs to do. Assigning specific roles to specific people. This prayer he prays is no pep rally. No job description, no technique to get something going. It’s prayer, pure and simple. Paul leaves all the inner workings of our life together as Church up to prayerful attention to God.

First and foremost, prayer. Prayer at all times. Prayer is what forms and informs the Church—the people of God in Jesus Christ. This prayer for the Church leaves one thing clear: Church is not some effort we make. Church doesn’t happen under our own power. Church happens because God brings it to life and God sustains its life. The Church must learn to rely upon God, not itself.

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What does that look like?

Well, Pauls says it himself. First and foremost—right from the outset—we kneel. We surrender our own power. We say something to ourselves that’s similar to what Paul said to himself at the hinge point in his letter to this church: We’ve taken ourselves this far. And no, we haven’t done it on our own. God has always been a part of this journey of ours. But God wants more. More for us. Not from us, but for us. And that means we stop and let God lead the way from here. Leading us into the fathomless reaches—how wide, how high up and long, how deep down they are!

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This is the point at which we stop gasping for our own breath, and we strap on our oxygen tanks; stop trying to see for ourselves and put on our dive masks. We stop walking under our own power and we give ourselves to a completely different power. A power that upholds us, cradles us like the ocean does a diver. Committed together, as Church—Christ’s church—to growing daily, praying and living our way toward the fullness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here, swimming together in the depths of God’s love, diving deep is strongly encouraged. And then plunge the depths, lengths, and heights all around us. Completely immersed. Prayer and praise are our oxygen that fills us with the fullness of God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Together, Together, Together

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-8 and Ephesians 3:1-13 preached on June 25th, 2017

Sermon audio

“It’s all a mystery,” we say.

“Everyone likes a good mystery.” We say that, too.

“I think the butler did it,” one says.

“No way!” says another, “It’s the cook in the kitchen. She’s the one with all the knives!”

Most mysteries can be solved. All we need is time and a bit of detective work. Some snooping around.

Most are solved within the sixty minutes of a TV show. Before we get to the bottom of our gigantic bucket of popcorn in a movie theater. By the last page of a book.

Most things we call “mysteries” simply take careful discernment. The combing over of evidence left behind or gathered together. Facts will be collected. Lies will be dispelled. Stories will be set straight. Fingerprints will be lifted, but the truth will be reached. Solving these sorts of mysteries is not only possible but likely. Most times, we can be confident that with the right help we’ll figure it all out. It might take a while, but we’ll get there.

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Then there are those mysteries without end. The ones that cannot, by definition or essence, be sorted through. Mysteries without answers. These sorts of mysteries are not the kind we solve. They’re the kind we live. Fathomless. Their very incomprehension is the thing that draws us in.

Some mysteries are meant to be immersed inside of, rather than figured out, enjoyed instead of scrutinized. The miracle of birth. The ways of the human brain or heart. What the soul is and what it is made of and where it resides. Why ice cream tastes so good.

Some things are best left unscrutinized. Untouched. It’s best to hold them up—behold them—lose ourselves inside of. Wonder about. And getting to the bottom of them, if we ever tried, would drain the beauty, the sensation, the miracle out of them. This is the type of mystery Paul mentions in these verses.

In English, the word mystery means “dark,” “obscure,” secretive,” “puzzling.” But in Paul’s language, Greek, the word mystery is used to talk about a truth into which someone is initiated. It’s God-language. Jesus-language. Mystery is what we’re invited into. Led to see. Become included in. Grow eyes for.

And we’re not brought in, as investigators are, in order to figure it out. No, we are brought into mystery in order to live our lives inside of it. Traverse it. Explore all its parts. Enjoy its landscape. Have our eyes opened further the deeper we go.

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Paul is under house arrest. There areRoman guards standing at his front door 24/7. He has not a window to look out of. In ancient times, only the rich had windows. Paul was not of the lackadaisical sort. One could make an argument that by this time, he had logged more miles than Caesar. He was no homebody. We can easily imagine Paul restless as he wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus while under the custody of Rome.

If you want to get into technicalities, Paul was a prisoner of Nero, the Roman Emporer from 54 to 68 AD. Nero was ruthless. He had it out for Christians. Nero considered this small group of believers a great threat to his power. Nero was the one who fed Christians to lions inside of Roman colosseums. But as Paul gets personal here in this passage, explaining his current situation as a prisoner under house arrest, nowhere do we find the name Nero. Paul refuses to use it. As he saw it, No Nero, no Caesar had the final say about him. Only Jesus did.

Throughout his letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus, because Jesus was the only one he belonged to. Paul was evidently a tiny man. Small in stature and in voice, but he was large in spirit. Imprisoned often, there was no containing him. His essence belonged and resided in the wide open and hope-filled landscapes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That was the only way he allowed himself or others to define him. A prisoner of Jesus Christ. In this way, though often bound in chains, Paul was nonetheless free. That frustrated his captors to no end.

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This vast and wide-open mystery is ours, too. This Jesus-life. This boundless, eternal purpose. We have been invited into it. We have been let in on it. Some still, small voice has whispered something into our ears, and we woke up. This mystery is too big for us to handle. No mind or heart can fathom it. No fence can hold it in or keep it out. This is a revelation that includes us and all who hear it.

There’s no room for barriers or boundaries here. This mystery is like a treasure each and every one of us is invited into. A mystery as big as the cosmos. There’s room here for all of us. No matter what room he was quarantined inside of, jail cell he was thrown into, Paul never felt cut off from it, alone, hopeless, anxious, forgotten. And the same should be true of us, too. Despite our current circumstances, we are a part of an eternal purpose, heirs together, in on a mystery and a promise together, members together, sharers together. In Christ Jesus, we are together, together, together.

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Paul knew why the caged bird sings. That’s an image given to us by the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It’s from a poem called Sympathy.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)

Never alone. Always connected. Always together.

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This shouldn’t be a surprise. We are made in the the image of God, after all. God is, in Himself, community. That’s another mystery we’ve been invited into. The mystery of the Truine God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s hinted at but left unnamed in these verses. Verse 6: Together, together, together. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Holy, holy, holy! Trinity. This is who God is. Not one or the other at different times in different places, but always and everywhere one. Don’t ask me to explain it.

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There are many things I can’t explain. The list is too exhaustive to read off right now, but here are the first to come to mind: The art of Salvador Dali. The reason why The Bachelor is still on the air. Why people suffer and good men die too soon.

There are many things we simply must wonder about. Including this one. God is one. God is three. Both at the same time. Not one of these—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are ever separate from one another. This too is a mystery not for us to solve. That’s been tried before to no avail. It is one to hold onto, be invited inside of. This is a holy mystery, so it’s not the sort we gaze at with our head cocked to the side and with sqinty eyes. It’s not the kind where we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t get it—the numbers just don’t add up!”

The Triune God is the sort of mystery in whose presence we lift up our hands in praise. With awe and reverence, we give ourselves to it. God is a mystery we participate in. Trinity is a way of God revealing Himself to us that says,

You cannot know Me as some impersonal abstraction, as some nameless force, some warm and fuzzy thought, some new age aura swirling around, so don’t even try! Neither can you reduce Me to something you use, or understand, or need for your own bidding, on your terms.

God refuses that, too. Trinity says that God will not and cannot be known on our own. Under your own power, or mine. With our own wits. Solitary isolation is forbidden. The Truine God, the Holy, Holy, Holy, Himself lives in community. So, we, who are created in His image do not try to live on our own. In so doing, we will destroy ourselves. We will uncreate ourselves. Unravel.

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The manifold wisdom of God plays out when we are together, together, together.

So, it’s not a stretch for Paul to declare that of course the Gentiles, those who for centuries upon centuries have been understood as not a part, not a people, have always belonged. This isn’t God doing something new, re-drawing the circle wider. This is God’s people realizing that God’s love for every bit of His creation has always been this big. So, of course, come in! You are a part. We are a part. In fact, we’re all nothing if we’re not a part! We all have always been a part. Sorry it took so long for us to realize this about you, O God, O neighbor, O stranger! But, now we know.

Isn’t that how it has always worked, friends? History is full of moments when suddenly we are let in on the truth that is always been right in front of us. We only needed to grow eyes big enough to see it. The mystery is no secret. It’s God grace for God’s creatures.Each one of us, each one of them, loved beyond reason. Until love is enough to get rid of those words: Us and Them.

Then, all of us will be able to see one another for exactly what we are: each one of us heirs together, members together, sharers together. Together, together, together. What a marvelous plan! Holy, holy, holy!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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.