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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A Rich Imagination

A sermon based on Psalm 119:105-112 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached September 11th, 2016

Sermon audio

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

The first sentence of any story is the most important one of all. Every good storyteller knows this. A good first sentence either captivates and keeps us, or it bores and repulses us. A storyteller can lose her audience in a moment’s notice. We’re fickle that way. Bookstores are full of novels with half-bent covers because we open each one, and we turn to the first few pages and we decide what all the other pages hold based on that very first page. Forget judging books by their covers. We judge books by their first few paragraphs. The most enthralling novels there are have iconic first lines…

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin’s’ Pride and Prejudice

“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell’s 1984

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451

“Once upon a time…”

“In the beginning…”

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Last week we looked at God the Artist. The Divine Potter, taking hand to clay and shaping all that has been and will be made—including us—over and over again. So is it any wonder that when God made footprints upon the earth, across the sandy surfaces of Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem, He came not with the sort of wisdom one can glean from textbooks or instruction manuals? He came not with lectures fit for college classrooms. No, Jesus came telling stories. Jesus was a story painter, a yarn spinner. He couldn’t tell a straight story. Ask any of his disciples! Everything Jesus had to say came in sideways. In parables.

The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is Jesus’ very first parable. A crowd was gathered around him. So big actually, that Jesus had to climb into a boat a few feet off shore to address everyone. He sat down, just like any good storyteller would do, and he tells his first story. Everything that Jesus has to say, everything he did (and still does), every act of healing, every act of defiance, and every parable he told, shares one message. It was his main message: The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were meant to captivate. To draw us in. To make us wonder about greater things, ask bigger questions, ponder larger truths. The first line of the story Jesus told:

The Kingdom of God is like…

Whenever we hear those 6 words we know a parable’s coming. And at once, we should gather around—sit on the floor Indian-style—and stare up at the One who says those words because if we listen close, we might just get a glimpse of God!

I have to imagine that if what the Kingdom of God is like or what God himself is like could be explained to us mathematically, scientifically, methodically, Jesus would have done so. He would have gathered his disciples around a chalkboard—a chart, a graph. He would have given them a formula or a few bullet points to memorize. But he did no such thing, because that’s not the way God works, that’s not the nature of God. An infinite God cannot be understood by finite minds like ours through the memorizing of facts and formulas, textbooks or explanations, maps or models. All of that is way too small! If we want to come anywhere close to understanding who our God is, we need to summon the poets and the artists among us.

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I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams’ character Professor Keating, begins his career teaching English by asking all of his students to rip out the entire introduction from their poetry textbooks. It was good only for the trashcan because it encouraged the measuring of poetry. Every poem, it said, could be plotted on a graph based upon its degree of perfection on the X axis and its degree of importance on the Y axis. And by that, one could evaluate the measure of its greatness.

“Excrement!” Professor Keating, declares, to the surprise of his students. Poetry can never be reduced to plots on a graph. Art can never be reduced to arithmetic. It’s too large for that. What is made for the heart cannot be understood by the intellect. It can only be destroyed or belittled by it. Art, poetry, craft, gospel—these are the sorts of things we cannot understand. We merely behold them. And we must be okay with that.

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So, here we stand with the disciples, beholding the very first of Jesus’ parables. It would be best if we simply let the story of the Sower softly rest in our hands. Parables don’t like being gripped in our tight fists. All the life will be squeezed out of it if try to grasp it like that. Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no code to be broken, no answer key to consult. This is an image to ponder, a first sentence to wow us, a picture that Jesus paints, and the only right response is wonder.

It’s when we look at it that way that we will begin to see that the Parable of the Sower is about reception. If Jesus is the Sower, he’s gracious enough—even wasteful in his graciousness—to scatter seed on both the receptive and the non-receptive. Both on pavement and on good soil. But it’s only the receptive, those who have their hearts and lives, ears and eyes open, who will make good use of what Jesus has for them.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

This parable is about how we hear. What kind of ears do we have? Do we have pavement ears? Ears full of rocks? Shallow soil ears where no seed can sink its roots? Thorny ears? Or do we have good soil ears? Those are the kind of ears we need. How good is your soil—the soil of your ears?

Good soil ears have room inside of them for new things to grow. They’re open enough for something new. They accommodate new growth. The roots can then sink in deep. Jesus wants us to be good soil.

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Once in a while, whenever the disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about inside one or another of his parables, He went out to find the closest child, and he brought the child to them, and he said

Be like this little one. Listen like a child listens. Encounter everything like a child encounters everything. With astonishment! Wonder like a 4-year-old does! Re-grow your child-like imagination. Whoever told you to grow out of it in the first place?

These stories about what the kingdom of God is like—these parables—would be much easier for us to understand if we came to them with a childlike wonder!

The reason why Jesus’ stories have a hard time sinking in is because we’ve become wonder-blind. We’ve lost our ability to become enchanted. We’re trying to measure poetry, and poetry, by its very nature, refuses to be measured. Instead, we should come to Jesus’ parables ready to enter into their world and lose ourselves there. Just like the disciples, we try to understand our faith from the neck up when all the while God is trying to speak into our hearts.

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Jesus begrudgingly explains the meaning of his parable to his disciples. Anytime we have to explain anything to others—a joke or an anecdote, the magic of it fades away. And until we truly know the difference between head-faith and heart-faith, until we irrigate our stony ears and begin perceiving the story of God with the rich imagination of a child—from the shoulders-down—we will never see the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus wants us to. These things are not for us to comprehend or understand. They’re for us to be amazed by—to simply behold with the bright eyes, and open ears, and rich imagination of a child. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus should always be prepared to be astonished!

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So, what kind of soil are you?

This week, we began our Christian Education year. We started with our Squares and Circle Bible studies, and earlier this morning, our Sunday School classes met for the first time.

There are a few ways we can understand Christian Education. Some understandings are better than others. Sunday School has gotten a bad rap throughout the decades—maybe even throughout the centuries—for being a place where teachers download biblical information into people’s heads. Surely, that mistake has been made many times by many teachers and many churches. Children went to Sunday School for the sole purpose of memorizing bible verses and many other pieces of information.

These days, I hope, we’re growing our kids in the faith in much more imaginative ways. In fact, calling Sunday School, “school,” makes me kind of uneasy. I’d much rather call what we do together from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings, “faith-building.” What we’re really there to do is expand faith’s imagination. We come ready to rework the soil of our faith, so that the seeds that God is always scattering among us have a better chance of falling on good soil. And when the soil is ready for the seeds, there will be growth. Abundant growth. We all grow stronger together and something wonderful and nourishing builds and builds, and in the words of our passage for today, that’s when we start yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I want to urge you to be a part of this growing. For, God does wonderful things inside of those who are ready and willing to behold, who are open and receptive to the scattered seeds of faith!

All praises to the One who spoke the first sentence of our story, and continues to speak our story—to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.