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.

The World-Shaping Word

A sermon based on Psalm 15 and James 1:17-27 preached on August 30th, 2015

Sermon audio

The news will break your heart, and this week it did. There was the shooting in Roanoke where yet another individual with mental disorders and a gun has killed the innocent. And also the news that 37 million wives got this week when their husbands’ names came to light after an infidelity website was hacked. We don’t have to leave our houses to find that our world is full of disordered and broken relationships—that there are people out there who don’t know how to regard others, even their loved ones, with dignity and respect.

It’s in moments like these—in the wake of senseless shootings and reminders of our tendency to destroy relationships by physically and emotionally hurting one another—that these words from James can speak to us and teach us something about whole and redeeming relationship, and how to confront in a Christ-like way all the images of marred relationship we encounter as we stare out into the world—watching our TV sets or opening our morning paper.

On the lighter side of the news this week was the 12 year-old Taiwanese boy who was strolling through an art gallery with a drink in his hand. If you haven’t seen the video, the boy stumbles over a platform in front of a 350-year-old Paolo Porpora oil painting called Flowers, valued at $1.5 million, falls over the rope divider, and punches a hole in the painting—a fist-sized gash in the lower center of the masterpiece—it’s news of a completely different marring of image, but a marring nonetheless.

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The epistle of James takes the Gospel and gives it legs. This letter from James stands out as the active news of God given to the world through Jesus Christ. Much of the New Testament is filled with Paul’s thoughts and letters that are more descriptive—they’re full of adjectives—ways to describe who Jesus is, why God sent him to us, and who we should be because of Jesus. The apostle James, though, is more about verbs. James would say that we can spend all of our time talking about the good news of Jesus—we could, if we wanted to, gather into circles and wax theological all we want—but that’s not what God wants from us.

James would say that you could take the time to memorize verses from the bible, you could show up to church every Sunday from the day you were born to the day you die, you could say your prayers morning, noon, and night, and any time in between, but it doesn’t matter at all if we never act out our faith by practicing kindness, seeking out justice, and caring for the most vulnerable among us. James wants our lives and the way we live them to be shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh who still dwells among us, and he urges us to shape the world with this Word, with this Good News, by devoting ourselves hands and feet and mind and heart to the work of shaping the world with the Word—the Word who is Jesus.

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Words are a dime a dozen these days. They’re spilled or spewed in our direction everywhere and at all times. 24-hour news, radio, websites, you name it. We are inundated with information and it’s so easy for us to lose ourselves in it. And it’s only gonna get worse now that we have about 300 men and women running for President. They’re going to spend the next 14 months shouting words at each other, everyone of them with microphones, and we’re going to know about every single thing they say. It will be our task, as it is every day, to sift through the phony jargon and try our best to discern where the truth lies. Most of the words we will hear from these candidates will be destructive words—their words will be like wrecking balls hurled in each other’s direction, meant to clobber one another so, in the end, the only one left standing can be declared winner. Such is the way of the world.

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James has something to say about the danger of loose words. It’s surprising to me how important the words we say to one another is to James. In verse 19, he writes,

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters.

With those words our ears perk up, we sit straighter in our chairs—we think he’s about to share a major point, drop some huge eternal truth on us that will leave us in awe of his wisdom and insight. But what comes next isn’t like that at all. It actually seems quite ordinary, even. He writes,

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.

That’s it. According to James, that’s our purpose as Christians. Less talking. More listening. Keep calm. James knows the power of words. He knows they have the constructive potential to build up and devastating potential to tear down. The thing about words is that they’re so easy to say. Sometimes, they leak from our lips before we know it or can help it, and it’s impossible to unsay them. Speech is so easy, so immediate, so hard to control. So mighty. The words we say shape us. And the words other folks hear from us go a long way to tell them about who we are. We are what comes out of our mouths. As ancient Sufi poet, Hafiz has written:

The words you speak become the house you live in.

Words matter deeply. They shape our reality.

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James also knew that we have a tendency to speak more than we listen, and this too separates us from one another, causes divisions among us, and lends itself to misunderstandings between us. If James had his way, we would practice our faith in Christ by doing a lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.

Think back to the last time you felt truly listened to? When someone else just simply sat beside you and let you speak whatever it was that was on your mind and heart. When is the last time you felt like someone afforded you the safe space to say whatever you needed to say, and you knew the only agenda they had was to simply listen to you? It’s a rare occurrence. There’s really nothing more empowering than those moments when we know we’re being heard and honored—when we know that we’re being understood by another.

The God who created the world with words has given us the gift of speech and the gift of listening to others as they speak, and both in our speaking and in our hearing, we create worlds for one another. We have that potential—that capacity—to become world-creators, world-shapers for others. We also have the capacity, on the other hand, to be world-destroyers. And that happens, James would say, when we’re slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger. We are the architects of our relationships. We need to take responsibility for the constructive and destructive potential of our words and our actions.

James goes on to talk about anger. He says an angry person doesn’t produce righteousness. I think there is healthy anger—anger that demands justice and wants truth. So, rather than dismissing anger outright, I imagine what he means is that whoever acts on their anger can do nothing good. Acting on our anger never makes things right. As Presbyterian peace activist, David LaMotte has written in his book Worldchanging 101,

Anger is an important place to visit from time to time, but a pretty rotten place to live.

No one’s ever solved a thing by lashing out in anger. It only creates more problems. Destructive acts can never be the means of God’s presence, and they cannot produce God’s righteousness. This is the way we practice our faith. Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. That’s the scaffolding we need to build up for ourselves a faith that honors God and one another, for we are the architects of our relationships. And these small acts of paying attention to—practicing good relationship—are the bricks and mortar of the Christian life: they come together to be the house we live in.

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James wants us to be builders of our faith—to take our hands and use them, to flesh-out the Kingdom of God with our lives—to make it known to others with our words and through our actions.

We are enticed to treat our faith like a pricey painting hanging on the wall. It’s something nice to look at, observe, admire once in a while, to gather around God’s Word and hear it only. As if simply in its hearing and understanding we are doing what God wants. There are some who think of faith as a series of truth claims—something conceptual—limited to their heads. To that, James says no. Our faith is not like an art museum we stroll through—with ropes and platforms dividing us from it, to keep us from touching it, interacting with it. Faith like that is just mere theory—a museum exhibit of ancient artifacts. Faith like that is nothing but a head trip.

James would say that our faith is more like a pottery workshop. We create our faith by spinning it around, sculpting out every side of it with the touch of our hands. It takes its shape only when we give it some elbow grease—leaning into it with our bodies and coming up with something that we can use for and in the world, in our everyday lives. Our faith is nothing if we don’t create something with it—if we don’t do something with it.

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The word Christian, means little Christ. That’s what you are. That’s what I am. We’re little Christs running everywhere, going where others are going, encountering strangers, neighbors, family, and friends right where they are. Words shape worlds. Names shape us. The word Christian not only identifies our faith, it names who we are. We’re little Christs everywhere we go. Jesus wants you and I to be Christ to others—not merely a representative of Jesus, not just an image of him, not just a 1-dimensional painting on the wall that make others think of him, but something they can reach out to, touch, grab a hold of, share themselves with.

May we do our Lord the honor of bringing him to life in us so that others may know who He is. May we be quick to listen, and listen to others well, when they speak so they may feel heard and understood.

May we be slow to speak (and whenever we do speak, to speak with kindness) so that others may feel important, honored, and uplifted. And may we be slow to anger, so that others may know that we are safe space—that our desire is never to tear down but always to build up. That, my friends, is the how the Word will transform the world.

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

Alleluia! Amen.