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.

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Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Observant and Absorbent

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-7 and 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, preached on November 3rd, 2014

Sermon audio

So, we are planting a tree today.

Joan and Johnny Sharp have donated a Hawthorne tree especially for this occasion. This is our Centennial Tree. Capital letters. Some of our kids will set it down in the ground for us after worship.

We’ve been celebrating our Centennial year all year ‘round, but now is the exciting part where we’re just a few weeks away from the actual date: November 16th. And at this, our 100th anniversary as church, planting a tree is a sign that even after all these years, God still has plenty of growth in store for us.

As we pack this tree in the ground today, and as the next months and years go by, its roots will begin growing outward and downward, sinking deeper into its new home and soaking up nourishment from the soil around it. And as the roots soak into the soil, the tree will grow stronger—more resilient to wind and rain, the coming snow and ice of winter—because it will find its nourishment underneath. This tree will grow from its roots up. It will grow strong because it will find something to connect to—something to attach itself to—and be ever fed by.

Trees seem to know that before they can grow upward, they first have to grow downward and outward—roots before branches. That’s the way to flourish. Roots before branches.

This Centennial Tree will be a sign for us of how God continues to create among us and promises to care for us, His people, all the days of our life as we continue growing together in sacred community.

As we continue growing here at Kuhn Memorial, right where God has planted us. As the roots of this tree grow underground, establishing a solid foundation for itself, so we too as God’s people need to know what’s happening in our root system. We need to tend to our roots or we too we be blown around by any wind or rainstorm that comes along.

You might say, “This church is 100 years old, we’ve spread our roots and they go deep and wide!”

But I’m not talking today about institutional roots—yes, those roots are deep.

This morning, I want you to think about your roots and my roots. How are you and I rooted in God? How far down do those roots go? And are they still growing?

What I’m asking is: How’s your relationship with God? Are you well connected to the Ground of All Being?

How is it with your root system?

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Paul encourages the Christians in Thessalonica to continue pursuing the call of God upon their lives. Paul tells them that God’s Word is alive and growing among them and in them. Paul assures the church in Thessalonica that God is still calling them into stronger relationship with God, and Paul is appealing to them to keep their eyes and ears open to the call of Christ upon their lives.

There’s more relationship yet to come, Paul is telling them.

God is speaking to you. Can you see that God is still working His Word into you?God’s Word continues to work in us who are believers, Paul writes.

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I have been guilty, many times, of making the mistake of thinking that God’s Word is old. When I read the bible, I have a tendency to approach it as if it is a historical artifact—something left over from 2,000 or more years ago. When I do that, I still learn much from it, but I also cut myself off from the life-giving root system of Christ who is the Living Word. I wonder if you’re like me.

Sometimes we have a tendency to kill scripture that way, by looking at it as a record of promises once made—to some people long ago, in a land far from our own. So, I have to remind myself, just as we as a community have to remind ourselves, that the promises we find in scripture are still alive—just as alive as they ever have been before. We follow a God who not only gave us this Word—this book—but a God who sent us Jesus, who is the Living Word. Capital L, capital W.

The Word is alive, friends! God’s Word continues to call to us.

Jesus wants a relationship with you and with me, to be in communication with us. Jesus is calling us into a stronger and deeper and fuller relationship with Him. Jesus wants to be the soil that we plant our own roots deep down into. Jesus is the Living Word in whom we grow, the One from whom we gain our nourishment and strength—roots fed from deep down so our branches can grow strong and we as individuals and as a faith community can flourish.

So, how can we build up our root system? The only way we can expect to grow in our faith is if we connect to God’s Word through devotion to scripture and prayer. Rooting ourselves in God’s Word—personal and daily devotion to scripture—and connecting to God through daily prayer, that’s what makes for a healthy root system. One that will keep us stable in our Christian faith.

Now, God’s Word is of course much bigger than the words we read in the bible, God’s Word, capital W, is the Holy Spirit that blows among us, opening our eyes and our ears to the glimmers of God that shine all around us. But it order to notice God’s Word unfolding in front of us, we need to train ourselves to see it, hear it—we need to be trained observers of God’s work in the world. And the best way to dig roots down that deep is through constant devotion to a life of prayer and reading scripture. That’s how we participate in God’s Word—that’s the way to hear God’s voice among us and in us.

To use Paul’s words, That’s how God’s message continues to work in us who are believers.

It is when we lay ourselves down into the soil of a prayer-filled and scripture-filled life that we will grow.

A root system nourished by prayer and scripture will spread out far and wide and keep us anchored to the rich soil of God’s Word, and connected to each other, the branches of our Christian family tree.

The Word of God is alive, friends! Be observant, be absorbent. God will feed you with it and you will grow stronger and be more rooted, and we as Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church will be also when we devote ourselves to knowing God’s Word through prayer and devotion to Scripture.

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Tonight we will gather together to break bread around tables at our annual Stewardship Dinner. The entire evening will about nourishment, really! As we eat our meal together, we will hear from Bruce Boone who is from ECCHO. He will talk to us about the ongoing food and clothing needs in our community. Bruce and others at ECCHO work hard to feed and clothe the undernourished and the underprivileged in our midst, and tonight will be a great occasion to learn more about the people ECCHO serves on a daily basis because they are also the people we serve here.

In essence, that is what stewardship is, it’s the daily awareness of how were are nourished and sustained by God, and a daily thanksgiving—a daily pouring out of gratitude as we respond to God’s goodness in our lives by caring for others.

Stewardship is about being rooted in the life of God, and paying careful attention to our root system, being grateful that we are the beneficiaries of the rich soil of God’s good news in Jesus Christ, the Source of all our living, the Continuously-Blessing Source of all of our blessing. Christ, our very Nourishment and Strength. That is the Ground from which we grow and are being fed. We will come tonight to dedicate our first fruits to the mission and service of this church. To double-down on our commitment to participate in the ongoing work of God’s Word in the world.

God’s Word is alive, friends!

So my question to you this morning is this: How do you expect God to continue to work inside of you? Will you connect yourself—will you put roots deep down into the rich soil of God’s Word, connecting yourself to the Ground of Being through prayer and the reading of scripture? And will you come this evening to our Stewardship Dinner to pledge a part of yourself and a part of your livelihood expecting God to grow something new in you?

God continues to work His Word into us and our life together as His church. God works with what we offer to God. May we come offering our very best to God, because it’s when we come offering the very best of ourselves that God will work in us and transform us into something even better. God will work His Word in us and transform us by it.

And the very best gift we give to God is the gift of ourselves, as we plant our roots deep down into God’s rich soil by devoting ourselves entirely to knowing God’s Living Word. That’s when God will grow something new in us.

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God wants us to be observant and absorbent people—observant in prayer and absorbing the Word. Growing our roots deeper into the rich soil of God’s Word.

If we commit ourselves to that kind of life of prayer and devotion—watching out and listening up for God’s Word in us and around us—we, just like that small sapling out there—will lay down deep and strong roots that will connect us to the Source of all our nourishment and strength. That’s how God will build you up. If we commit ourselves to that work, we will have a whole lot of growing to look forward to.

God’s Word is alive, friends! What do we expect God to do next and how will you participate in it?

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

Alleluia! Amen.