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.

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Choosing Sabbath: Re-creation

A sermon based on Genesis 2:1-4 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 preached on July 20th, 2014. The 2nd sermon in a 5-part sermon series on Choosing Sabbath.

Sermon audio

My brother is a graphic designer at a small firm in Charlottesville, VA called the Journey Group. He’s been with them for 7 years now. Journey Group is an employee-owned firm established 10 years ago by a duo of creative guys. Their office is an old Victorian style house right off the downtown Mall and it’s full of creative energy!

Many of its employees work in the same, open room. They each having their own desk space and monster-sized Apple computers, but they’re able to talk back and forth as they work. There’s a Ping-Pong table downstairs, a full kitchen, and a workspace on the back patio. My brother listens to his favorite bands on Rdio at his desk while he works on projects. This is not your typical office space.

He just got back from New York City where he studied design at 2 other firms for a couple of days. It’s a part of a month-long employer-paid sabbatical. Since he’s 7 years into his time at Journey Group he was given a month away to do anything he wanted. Relax, learn, vacation, whatever. He’s doing a little bit of each.

There’s an advertising and marketing firm in Boulder, Colorado called Trada who have established a culture of play for their employees. On a regular basis, in the middle of their workday, they set up a racetrack in the basement with bales of hay on either side. They duct tape pillows around each others’ torsos, and strap on helmets, and race each other around a track on scooters, tricycles, and skateboards. The winner is awarded a huge 4-foot-high trophy.

Another company in Colorado has a full gym and basketball court for their employees to use anytime they want. And everyone breaks away from their desks every 50 minutes to have a 10 minute, office-wide, no-holds-barred Nerf dartgun fight.

Conventional wisdom says that Ping-Pong tables, Nerf dartguns, and scooter races are more suitable for college dormitories than for office workspaces, but more and more companies are beginning to realize the importance of play—in fact these business owners and CEO’s encourage their employees take time away from their workspace to goof off. They say that affording their employees the space and time to play is a catalyst for innovation. Play relieves tension, it staves off employee burn-out, and raises company morale. A company that plays attracts and keeps great employees, and promotes a culture of openness and acceptance.

It’s been proven that companies who provide recreation for their employees during the workday actually produce more content, higher quality content, and are more financially successful than companies who don’t.

Play is a serious thing. Rest and recreation, as it turns out, is a vital part of the rhythm of work. But this isn’t a new idea. It’s a very ancient one that some are just now rediscovering.

The commandment to rest is the moral center of the 10 Commandments. The 4th Commandment is the hinge between the first set of commandments that tell us how to worship God and the last set that tells us how to treat others. Sabbath rest is the linchpin that holds together right worship of God and right relationship with our neighbors. And in Deuteronomy, the 4th Commandment is focused not only on the importance of our own rest, but the importance of behaving in a way that allows our neighbors to get their rest too.

 Don’t do any work on the Sabbath,

Moses relays to the Israelites.

Not you, your sons and daughters, your male or female slaves, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant living with you—so that male and female servants can rest just like you.

See, the commandment to rest is not simply a personal practice. There’s an interpersonal dimension to it. Sabbath is strongly tied to how we treat others. If we make no room in our lives to practice Sabbath then we are just one more person contributing to the greater restlessness and anxiety of our neighbors and our culture.

In Deuteronomy, Sabbath is understood to be communal—when we practice rest, we afford time and space for all those around us to do the same. Choosing Sabbath has a note of hospitality to it. The choices we make affect our neighbors’ ability to rest and play.

Last week we talked about Sabbath as a way to unplug from the productivity machine. Pharaoh was so hungry for more that he exploited the Israelites—demanding unreasonable amounts of work from them.

Here in Deuteronomy, Moses ties Sabbath back to that awful time in their lives—reminding them 40 years later that they shouldn’t do to others what Pharaoh once did to them. The people of Israel know how exploitation feels, and the command to keep Sabbath means making sure they never inflict the kind of hardship upon others as Pharaoh once inflicted upon them.

Sabbath is God’s way of saying that our lives should be lived in balance—in balance with God and with our neighbors. And our choice to practice Sabbath not only means seeking our own rest but also ensuring that others rest too. Choosing Sabbath is a way for us to show hospitality and care to those among us who are all-too-often exploited and worked to death.

The chaos of Black Friday is too much for me. You won’t see me stepping out of my house on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I don’t get it, but many people love to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and go Christmas shopping.

Just 2 or 3 years ago, big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kohl’s—many others—announced they would open up their doors on Thanksgiving evening. There’s no reason to wait til 3am on Friday any longer. Opening up on Thanksgiving evening answers the boredom and restlessness of extended families stuck in the same house with one another. It offers us a good excuse to get away from our annoying Aunt Selma.

But what about the ones who have to report to work on Thanksgiving Day, some said? Did anyone seem to care about their wellbeing?

Retail stores were closed only 3 days out of the year—on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas—the three sacred days out of 365. Now all the sudden this one day has been taken away from them.

Maybe this was inevitable. Perhaps these businesses are opening on Thanksgiving afternoon in response to consumer demand—they know that as long as their doors are open, we will come. But our desire to shop—that restlessness of our culture to always be on, affects our neighbors in very real ways. This is how the choices we make affect those around us: this is how our culture’s imbalance becomes the undoing of our neighbors. This is how our choices lead to the overwork, burnout, and exploitation of those who are forced by their greedy employers be on 24/7/almost 365.

Speaking from the experience of having worked 365 drugstore retail, that kind of work is destructive and death-dealing—it’s the very opposite of life-giving—the opposite of creation. There were a couple times when I went more than 3 weeks in a row without a day off. Retail culture knows nothing and cares nothing about Sabbath rest.

We may be way passed the tipping point where any of our individual choices could ever stop huge corporations like Wal-Mart or Kohl’s from ever rethinking their choice to open up on a Thanksgiving afternoon. We’re not that powerful. Sabbath isn’t something we can force upon people who don’t care to rest. But we can make the choice to practice Sabbath for ourselves and for those we are directly responsible for.

Choosing Sabbath is a way of living our lives that tells others a vitally important and still very relevant story—one that our culture has long forgotten: we are created by God not only for work, but also for rest; not only to produce but also to play; not to acquire more and more for tomorrow but to enjoy what we have right now.

See, there’s something wise and very practical about the ancient idea of Sabbath: Taking time to rest, play, and enjoy life changes how we approach work.

Practicing Sabbath is a way of giving equilibrium to our lives—of holding ourselves in right balance between work and rest and keeping ourselves in right relationship with our neighbors. And when we ignore Sabbath—when we don’t take the time to unplug and reconnect with ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, we become lesser versions of ourselves. Rest and play reset us, give our lives balance, set us in right rhythm. Recreation gives us the energy we need to return to our work refreshed and ready to create again.

Perhaps that’s why those companies who make time and space for their staff to play are as successful as they are. Play and rest are vital needs, and providing others time and space to do so honors their humanity and sets us in right relationship with them.

Practicing Sabbath is a way for us to stay in sync with all of God’s creation—to practice the same rhythm of work and rest that God practiced at the beginning of time. Choosing Sabbath is a way of life that continuously re-creates us in the image of our Creator.

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

Alleluia! Amen!