Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: The Just Reward of Labor

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 5, 2021, Pentecost 15B

Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; James 5:1-6

The Just Reward of Labor

Over the course of the pandemic and shutdown time we were introduced to a new phrase: “essential worker.” The term caught up everything from health-care workers to teachers to supermarket employees to delivery personnel of all kinds, persons who were performing services deemed essential during the period when going out for basic things was no longer a given. People made signs and banners to celebrate “essential workers”; official proclamations were made; all manner of public acknowledgment was given. Oddly, though, some things didn’t change; working conditions, salaries, or basically anything that made the doing of those jobs easier and less horrifying to do. Aside from the brief public outcry, nothing about working at those jobs improved.

Labor Day doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention from many churches these days, in the way that other non-religious holidays like Independence Day or Mother’s Day do. If anything, it might mark the time of the year for certain church programs that may have gone dormant over the summer months to get fired back up again. 

That hasn’t always been the case in this country. There was a time when “Labor Sunday” was a thing in certain, mostly mainline US churches. Especially in parts of the 1910s and 1920s the day before Labor Day was marked with messages on the subject of scripture and labor in the US, seeking to bring understanding and reconciliation at a time of strife between workers and those who held power over them. [Nota bene: for further background on the relationship of church and labor in those years and before, I recommend Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford, 2015).]

The emphasis hasn’t maintained a presence in church life, for the most part. For the most part I’m actually OK with that, since typically I’m not big on giving over the hour of worship to secular pursuits. Every now and then, though, it’s a good idea to make an exception. The holiday itself may not be a religious occasion, but that doesn’t mean that scripture and the church have nothing to say on the subject of labor, work, and the relationship between labor and power. Far from it.

I could have, perhaps most easily, chosen Jesus’s words of instruction to his disciples as he was about to send them out on their first independent “mission trips.” Jesus is particular that they “pack light” for their travels, and instructs them not to move about from house to house as they are in a particular location, but to remain with one host and eat and drink whatever that host provides. Luke 10:7 sums up that instruction with the note that “the laborer deserves to be paid”; Matthew 10:10 gets even more to the point with the summation “laborers deserve their food.” This same idea gets cited in 1 Timothy 5:18 as well, credited as scripture. Note that Jesus is, at the same time, designating the disciples as “laborers” – not elevating them to some lofty status or handing out titles like “evangelist” – and also insisting that they as laborers deserve to be paid – or at minimum fed. The work should be rewarded. One might also cite the interesting parable in Matthew 20 about the landlord who hired laborers to work his land for the day, who chose to be rather generous with some of them.

I could also have gone back to the legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which the Hebrew people are instructed several times over about how to treat those laborers in their employ. Apparently it had to be repeated that one was not to withhold the wages of those who work for you, particularly the poor and needy – both Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14 have to give that instruction, with the latter also noting that it did not matter whether those laborers were local or “aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” Hmm, that sounds relevant to today all of a sudden. 

The idea of one’s labor being a source of pleasure rather than drudgery is one that comes up in Ecclesiastes, rather uniquely in scripture. The reading we heard earlier is relatively typical of what that book has to say on the subject; namely, that there is truly nothing better in life than to take pleasure in one’s work and to enjoy the fruits of one’s toil. It’s not clear that  Qoheleth, the author of the volume, ever had the experience of wages being withheld by a crooked overseer, though. 

We could also remember that curious passage from a few weeks ago in Ephesians 4, in which we are told that thieves must give up stealing, but work honestly so that they might have “something to share with the needy.” Our work is not just for ourselves, but for those who have need. 

Perhaps the most shocking passage on the subject of labor and work is today’s reading from the epistle of James. One doesn’t expect to be reading an epistle and suddenly feel like you’re been catapulted into one of the saltier Hebrew prophets like Amos. Those first three verses are fierce in their denunciation, promising great torment and miseries to these rich people being addressed here. For James’s audience, which probably did not actually contain many rich people at all, the denunciation might have come across as a kind of reassurance; the ones who have exploited and oppressed me aren’t going to get away with it in the end

It is in verse 4, though, that the provocation for this denunciation is revealed, and again, we are taken back to Jesus’s statement about how the worker should get paid. Those rich employers have been withholding their workers’ wages again – and this time the word “fraud” is invoked. The Lord hears those cries, as James puts it, and will not deal kindly with those who engage in such fraud.

One passage that some folks like to pounce upon comes from 2 Thessalonians 3, in which the author rather famously asserts that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” That line crosses over into politics a lot, I’ve noticed. Interestingly that seems to have been addressed to a subset among the Thessalonians who had stopped all work and basically all interaction and were waiting for an imminent return of Christ. And even in the face of this remembering to interrogate scripture with scripture, we have already been reminded that the one who works had better be able to eat. Scripture has this nasty habit of being on the side of the oppressed, over and over again.

We live in a world where that basic fact is too often not true; too many who work can’t eat. I’ve never been involved in serving meals at a homeless shelter or any other such setting, whether in Lawrence or Richmond or here in Gainesville, where the group serving has not been asked to set aside one or more plates for guests of the shelter who were still at work. The disconnect between work and wages hasn’t necessarily gotten better since those “Labor Sundays” of the 1910s and 1920s, or if it ever did get better, it has gotten worse again. 

One challenge for us to keep in mind is that the labor that goes into so much of what we enjoy – as the fruits of our own labor, you might even say – has often been removed far, far from our sight. We are, compared to previous generations, far less aware as a whole of where our food comes from, for example. Did you have a cup of coffee this morning? Do you know where it was came from? How about who picked those beans from which the coffee came? Did they make enough to live on? In many parts of the coffee-growing world, probably not. You might remember that sermon from about a month ago, in which we learned that according to a report from Heifer International, the beans grown to make an average grande latte, selling for about $3.65, might earn the workers who actually grew the coffee beans themselves $.02 or $.03, less than the cost of the paper sleeve that comes on the cup. That habit of ours is tied to an awful lot of injustice in the world. (I’m primarily a tea drinker, and that habit doesn’t do any better by those who do the work to make it happen.)

Or are you a fan of tomatoes, for example? We’ve gotten accustomed to being able to have them any time of year, but they don’t really grow well in most of the US during the wintertime. One of the few places they can grow in winter is in south Florida, particularly in the area around Immokalee. For years workers in the fields around Immokalee worked under some of the most grinding conditions out there with less-than-starvation wages as their “reward.” In a rare example of workers taking action to improve their own lot, the Immokalee workers launched a public campaign to provoke fast-food chains – some of the biggest consumers of those winter tomatoes – to pay one penny per pound more for tomatoes purchased from Immokalee growers. Over time, most such chains have gone along with that increase, which has made already a striking difference in conditions for Immokalee workers. Other businesses, though, have been less cooperative; supermarket chains, including those just down the street from here in either direction, choose instead to get winter tomatoes from Mexico, where workers live and work in conditions little different from slave labor. Or we could get into accounts about working conditions in meat-processing facilities right here in the United States – you don’t have to go far to find horror stories.

We mostly don’t know such things. There are horror stories to be told about worker conditions and wages in the garment industry, for example, or numerous other industries. And not all of those horror stories take place overseas, either. We tend to be blissfully unaware, and in the end that doesn’t put us on the good side of scripture, at least where labor is addressed in it.

The last hymn we’ll sing this morning contains a striking line in its second stanza: “In the just reward of labor, God’s will be done.” Another hymn, by John L. Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community, opens with a starker statement of the injustice that oppresses far too many of those who labor:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,

Informed of God’s own bias, we ponder once again: 

How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind? 

How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?

The laborer deserves to be paid,” said Jesus. And yet, “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” What will it take for us not to be the reason for those cries? We may have a lot to learn.

For the just reward of labor, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #26, Earth and All Stars!; #515, I Come With Joy; #36, For the Fruit of All Creation

Sermon: The Part We Skipped

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 29, 2021, Pentecost 14B

2 Samuel 11:14-25; Ephesians 5:21-33

The Part We Skipped

We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” I’m pretty sure that was another one of those passages I had to memorize back when I was doing “Bible drill” in my youth.

Note that while scripture is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training, nowhere is it said that all scripture is good for emulation. We don’t want to take every part of scripture as a model for how to live. I would hope, for example, that we can agree that this horrifying portion Russ just read from 2 Samuel, in which David conspires to get Uriah the Hittite killed in battle so his taking of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba won’t get called out, is not something we are called to emulate. Hopefully we can agree that no part of that story at all is one we are called to emulate. The only part of that whole sordid story that might be worthy of emulation is that of the prophet Nathan, who under God’s guidance calls David out to his face for his crimes. David may be a hero in other parts of Hebrew Scripture, but he’s not at all worthy of imitation here. 

I submit to you that the same thing can be said of today’s reading from Ephesians. It is not that all of what is said in this passage, and the following material in Ephesians 6 that together comprise what is known as a “household code,” is wrong or bad instruction – some of it is quite good and worth keeping. Rather, what fails here is the very existence of this passage.

This passage comprises one of three identified “household codes” found in the epistles; the others are in Colossians 3:12-4:6 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:2. Household codes like these were not Christian ideas or inventions at all; these codes found in the scriptures here are clearly modeled after such tables of hierarchy commonly found in Greco-Roman culture. No less a figure than Aristotle had put forth one such code that was widely adopted and regarded in his time. One might think of these codes as an expression of “family values,” Roman-Empire style.

Roman society in particular, the setting in which the Ephesians letter was written, had as one of its utmost concerns the preservation of power by those who already had it, and the suppression of those “underneath” who might pose any threat at all to that power. The household codes represented the extension of that power structure down into the family unit, which was in Roman society highly exalted and esteemed as a basic unit of Roman society and culture. In those Roman codes the power of the paterfamilias was ultimate and unlimited, and all manner of means to preserve that power and authority (including violence against wife, children, or slaves) were approved in such household codes. Unless the wife was of extremely important family, there was nothing the husband couldn’t do to preserve his authority and power over her. And since most Roman marriages could be summarized by the old Tina Turner song “What’s love got to do with it?”, the husband frankly owed the wife nothing at all. 

When seen against the starkness of the Greco-Roman codes, the one found here in Ephesians may seem altogether milder, and indeed some have viewed the code found here as an attempt to subvert or undermine those codes. It does indeed place strong emphasis on the husband loving his wife (again, not typical of arranged Roman marriages, which were as much business transactions as anything). Still, after the spectacular opening verse of this code, the unbalanced and unequal binds placed on husband and wife stick out in glaring fashion.

Indeed, if the author had stuck with 5:21, perhaps as a concluding thought to the instruction covered in 5:15-20, so much would be better. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is nothing less than an amazing summary of how Christians should live with and among one another. That it is followed by instruction that does notfollow up consistently – submission is mandated for the wife, but never for the husband – undermines the effectiveness of verse 21. The husband has an “out” as a result, and all manner of abusiveness and mistreatment can be passed off as “tough love” (and you know it happens). 

The first nine verses of chapter six continue the household code, first addressing the relation of children to parents in a fairly benign fashion. A familiar quote from the Ten Commandments is followed by a mild rebuke to parents to “not provoke your children to anger,” a phrase which could also be translated as “not exasperate your children.” Everyone who has ever been a child of a parent could relate to that one, I suspect. 

The last four verses of the household code are the reason this passage was extremely popular in, shall we say, some pulpits in the nineteenth-century United States. Indeed the code addressing slaves and masters offers very little recourse to the slave, and was preached in countless pulpits to justify the continuation of chattel slavery in the US and, after secession, its establishment as a principal feature of the Confederacy. While one might think that this portion of the code can be safely dismissed as irrelevant, but maybe not. A man of Sierra Leone ancestry reported in an interview that the president of a seminary operated by a Minneapolis megachurch stated that it would not be sinful for that pastor to own him, as long as he (the pastor) behaved according to the instruction in this code. This man’s statement was not included in the article for which the interview was consulted, itself a disappointing result.

Much of my foundation for approaching this subject was laid in a book by one of my seminary professors, Frances Taylor Gench of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Her book Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts includes today’s passage among a number of readings that have a history of being used for oppressive purposes. Dr. Gench describes her own struggles coming to terms with such passages and formulates some basic guidelines for approaching them. The first of those guidelines was this: remember that “the difficult text is worthy of charity,” of generosity, from its interpreters.”[1]

In case Dr. Gench somehow sees this service or reads the text of the sermon, I want to make this clear: I tried. I really tried. Perhaps I am too limited a pastor, but I am really struggling to be charitable or generous with this passage, mostly because of the 1900 or so years of history that has followed in its wake. 

We’re talking about a passage here that has been the primary instrument of suppressing women called by God to proclaim the gospel. In every age this suppression takes a different form: the demeaning of women as “inferior” characteristic of the Middle Ages, the strictures of enforced gender roles popularized during the Reformation; the writing-out of women in biblical translations such as the King James Bible, even going so far (for example) as to change the name “Junia” to “Junias” in Romans 16 because obviously a woman couldn’t be an apostle. This is a small sampling of how those who like having power have used the household code of Ephesians as justification to hold on to that power. 

Perhaps most exasperating is how the household code of chapters 5-6 in Ephesians is in stark contradiction to, frankly, most of the New Testament up to this point. Paul’s unflinching statement in Galatians 3:28 – “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – simply can’t be reconciled in what is written into this code without humiliating oneself. Romans 16 includes not just the apostle Junia, but also the deacon Phoebe, another victim of old translation shenanigans; the word translated as “deacon” back in Acts is suddenly translated “servant” here. And to be frank, there’s not really much way to square the confining gender roles of this code with much of anything Jesus ever said or did in any of the gospels. It doesn’t even read well with the rest of Ephesians, where Christ is the only one to whom any human should be subject. (To explore this more I recommend another book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Baylor University professor Dr. Beth Allison Barr.[2]

Apparently it still needs to be said. Wheh abused wives still get told by pastors, by seminary presidents, by religious authority figures of any kind to stay with abusive husbands, to avoid calling the police when beaten, to seek help only from the church (the same church to which the husband belongs, most likely), and too many women end up dead as a result; when the sexual abuse of multiple priests and pastors in differing traditions gets covered up unless a skillful outside reporter happens to uncover the story; in which such pastors caught in abuse can simply lay low for a while and pop up again in another pulpit accumulating more power and authority, all shielded by exactly this reading…my apologies again, Dr. Gench, if you ever see or read this; my capacity for charity or generosity for this passage is just not there.

That said, there is still “teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training” that can be done even from this reading. We can learn from 5:21 indeed to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, a teaching which has a lot of application in our current situation in the world in which some folks (including a whole lot of self-proclaimed “Christians”) are quite willing to abuse and sicken and harm others in the name of “freedom.” We can use this passage for reproof and correction when we are tempted to let the standards of the society around us lead us away from submission to Christ as our one and only model and guide. We can learn that compromise with the culture around us has consequences that are long-term and damaging, even deadly. We can learn that accommodating the sins of the world around us damages our own witness in ways that can take centuries to repair. 

We can learn from this passage. We can use it for instruction or correction or for a lot of things. What we cannot do, except maybe for that part about parents not exasperating their children, is to try to make it our rule for living – at least not if we’re truly going to take the rest of the New Testament, especially the life of Jesus, seriously. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #324, For All the Faithful Women; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #451, Open My Eyes, That I May See.

[1] Frances Taylor Gench, Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 19.

[2] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood; How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

Sermon: Defensive Measures

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 22, 2021, Pentecost 13B

Ephesians 6:10-20

Defensive Measures

On Wednesday, the 11th of August, a Santa Barbara, CA man was charged with “foreign murder of US nationals.” The man, upon admitting to the murders, claimed to have been “enlightened by the extremist group QAnon and the Illuminati.” According to the man, he had received “visions and signs” telling him that his wife “possessed serpent DNA,” and that the same DNA had been passed to their children. He had therefore taken the two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 10-month-old daughter, driven them across the border into Mexico, and shot them in the chest with a spearfishing gun. In doing so, he claimed, he was “saving the world from monsters.”

In a time like this, when such a story with such seemingly fantastical and unbelievable details ends up in the very mainstream Washington Post[i], perhaps we enlightened modern intellectual types should be, perhaps, a little less dismissive when a scripture like today’s reading from Ephesians speaks of standing against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” I have no interest in speaking pro or con on the literal existence of devils, demons, or any other such thing. This scripture’s primary interest is not in reveling or indulging in thoughts about such rulers or cosmic powers or spiritual forces of evil; this scripture’s primary interest is in what follows – being prepared in mind and soul and spirit to withstand the attacks and lies and fears that seek to engage us in deeds of evil, however one defines their sources, and to stand fast in Christ. Thus, we are called to take up “the whole armor of God.”

In and of itself the passage is one of those that really ought to be basic to our understanding of the Christian life. Take another look at the attributes that are celebrated here: truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God. How are these bad things? How are these anything but essentials of the Christian life? 

In this combination as presented here, these become a kind of discipline or rubric for life. Being grounded in the truth God gives, we live with righteousness among one another, proclaim the good news as God gives opportunity, live in faith and trust in our salvation, all supported and rooted in the word of God. That’s one way to put it; you might express it differently, but the key is to grasp that these are not individual achievements to be checked off some list of virtues; these are woven together as like a fabric, or to use this author’s metaphor, assembled as armor, for our defense in a world that is not welcoming to the gospel.

That last statement, about a world not welcoming the gospel, shouldn’t shock us by now. This is something Jesus told his disciples, more than once. In Matthew 10, Jesus probably shocks those followers with his statement “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” As Jesus explains, those who live into Jesus’s call and become his followers will be estranged from even one’s own family – “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” as Matthew 10:36 puts it. The world will not be sweetness and light for those who truly follow Jesus. Jesus said it himself, and the author of Ephesians knows it, and would encourage the readers of this letter to be prepared for the hostility they would face or maybe were already facing – perhaps knowing that the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” sometimes got help from our friends and family. 

With this in mind, our author exhorts his hearers to take up truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God as defenses against that in the world which would oppose our discipleship. It’s a list that should be right up there with the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, or the “think on these things” attributes listed in Philippians. Instead, this has become one of the more abused passages in all the New Testament. 

One part of this abuse of scripture hinges around that early language about the “wiles of the devil” and rulers and authorities and cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. Some corners of the church have a bad habit of obsessing over those things. Whether it is in drawing out elaborate cosmologies of darkness or concocting fear fiction such as the Left Behind books – or for that matter the series that was initiated by a novel with the title “This Present Darkness” in a clear nod to this scripture reading – such self-claimed Christians engage little at all in proclaiming good news; rather they become peddlers of fear. And fear is the very stuff of those rulers and authorities and cosmic powers, however you define them. Fear is the opposite of gospel. Fear is the stuff that drives a man to kill his children because some conspiracy theorist has convinced him they’re going to destroy the world. 

The other common abuse of this passage is to get obsessed with the armor imagery and forget those attributes to which the armor metaphor points. Such readers get led into reading such a passage as a call to holy war. 

It is one of the more curse-worthy tendencies of the church across its history to look for excuses to go on the attack. How many crusades marred the Middle Ages? How much violence marked the Reformation era? And lest we forget, this year practically began with an attack on the US Capitol building populated by way too many self-proclaimed Christians bearing Bibles and crosses and Christian flags; more holy warriors looking for enemies to attack in the name of God.

Indeed, this “warrior mentality” and the invention of a “warrior Christ” to justify it is far more pervasive in many corners of the modern church than it’s comfortable to admit. You can scan years’ worth of Christian book bestseller lists and see books designed to foster exactly this kind of mindset among readers, and some of those authors might turn out to be on your bookshelves. Lest this message get derailed by listing all of those titles, I’ll simply refer you to a different book, by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University, that lays out in stark detail how the church in this country got ito its current fractious position. While figures such as Oliver North and William Wallace (the figure played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart) are often promoted as ideals of the “Christian warrior,” Du Mez’s main title gives you a pretty good idea of the “role model” cultivated by the promoters of this “warrior mentality”: the title is Jesus and John Wayne.[ii]

Friends, this armor talk in Ephesians is not about forming “warriors for Christ.” It has one point, spelled out in verse 13: “…so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” When “the sword” comes as Jesus describes back in Matthew 10, our job is … to stand. There’s no plan of attack, no glorious charge, no smiting our foes, none of that. We stand together, in truth and righteousness and gospel and faith and salvation and the word of God; we withstand all the evil that the world (and sometimes our fellow “Christians”) throw at us; and in the end, we stand firm. Conflict will come, indeed, if we’re truly following Jesus and truly proclaiming the gospel as Jesus did. We don’t need to go looking for it.

The final verses of this reading perhaps make the point above more wrenchingly than any amount of exposition can hope. The author, again most likely a follower or assistant of Paul’s seeking to preserve and transmit his mentor’s teaching, appears to have emulated his mentor in at least one way: being imprisoned. That reference has come up a few times in this letter, and here it appears clearly again near the letter’s close as the writer describes himself as “an ambassador in chains.” The indirect call to prayer found in last week’s reading becomes direct here, as the writer urges his readers to pray “at all times” for the Spirit, and “for all the saints,” and especially for himself so that when he speaks, he may be given a message to speak boldly and declare “the mystery of the gospel.” (Yes, I’m presuming the author of this letter is a male. Next week’s message will explain why.) Our author is called to speak, to proclaim. That’s all the “offensive action” that is invoked here. 

We’re not here to go to war. We are here to proclaim, and not incidentally to live out what we proclaim. We are given this “whole armor of God” for our defense as we proclaim. We bear this armor to withstand and to stand. In a world of conflict that will inevitably oppose what devoted Christ-followers are bound to say and to do, we are given defensive measures to preserve us so that we may speak boldly, so that we may withstand, and so that, having done all these things, we may stand.

For defensive measures, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #838, Standing on the Promises; #275, A Mighty Fortress is Our God; #307, God of Grace and God of Glory

[i] Jonathan Edwards, “A QAnon-obsessed father thought his kids would destroy the world, so he killed them with a spear gun, FBI says.” Washington Post, 12 August 2021, 19 August 2021).

[ii]Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright, 2020.

Sermon: Making the Most of the Time

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 15, 2021, Pentecost 12B

Ephesians 5:15-20

Making the Most of the Time

I believe it is time for a deep, dark confession.

I have been drunk in my lifetime. Twice.

I did the deed on two consecutive Friday nights almost thirty-eight years ago, during my first semester away from home, at the noted hotbed of decadence known as Wake Forest University, where I spent my first year and a half of college. A girl I had gotten really interested in chose the rich sophomore from an important family over the poor freshman nobody from way out of state, and I was upset. Being “set free” from my teetotaler Southern Baptist upbringing (and not having fully realized just how much I had been damaged by my own father’s alcoholism), I reacted the way I figured I was supposed to do. Even in this, I was still a bit cautious: I chose two Fridays when any potential hangover wouldn’t affect any marching band responsibilities the next day. I found the parties where I could do it, and I did it.

I hated it. Hated every second of it.

I hated the beer itself. I hated the noise. I hated the dim lights at the party. I especially hated, after the second time, waking up in a place I didn’t recognize.

But most of all, I hated the dissipation, the dysfunction.

I hated my body not doing what I was trying to do. I hated my brain not working right. I despised it all, and so I never did it again. These days I’m on enough medications that don’t work well with alcohol that I can’t drink, period, but even before that it was something that really didn’t appeal to me, ever since that night, and I’ve never done anything that put me at all within range of being drunk.

You can guess which part of the scripture for today brought on this memory.

Rather like last week’s seemingly out-of-nowhere injunction against stealing, here our author drops in a seeming non sequitir about drunkenness in the midst of the lesson. In this case, the “don’t do this” part of the exhortation is followed by the “do this” answer “but be filled with the Spirit.” 

This isn’t the first time Ephesians has touched on the imagery of “being filled.” Way back in 1:23 is the indirect suggestion of being filled with Christ; 3:19 speaks of being filled “with all the fullness of God”; and 4:10 returns to Christ, the one who ascended and descended “so that he might fill all things.” With today’s passage we have completed the Trinity of being filled. 

This is what is to be preferred to being drunk on wine, which the author calls “debauchery” as the NRSV translates it. Greek words, like our own English words, are sometimes capable of a range of meanings, and the word so translated here is one of those. I am struck by one of those alternate translations here, namely the word “dissipation.” There’s a different force to this word, one that goes beyond the mere moral corruption of “debauchery” to suggest the dysfunction and lack of control and even erosion of self that tends to accompany drunkenness (the part I so hated thirty-eight years ago). 

And this leads us to why this seeming diversion actually fits extremely well into this short bit of exhortation. We began this passage with the encouragement to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Again, shades of meaning matter here; the point isn’t to encourage fear and trembling, but to encourage us to live deliberately, precisely, to be diligent about how we live, to pay close and careful attention to our lives and what we do with them. We live with care and precision. We are attentive to how we proceed in life in all ways. 

This is a matter not merely of our own personal life, but that life as it is lived among others, perhaps especially among the church. To borrow a phrase from Richard Carlson of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA, “wise living is personal but never private.” It is precisely not for the sake of our own private privilege that we are precise or deliberate or careful about our lives; it is the opposite. Carlson continues: 

“Living wisely, especially as it entails discerning the will of Christ, means active engagement and involvement in all of life’s circumstances so that the reality of our new self is continually manifested in and through the light of our new conduct “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).”[1]

That last phrase jumps ahead to the end of this passage, but I want to jump back to one vitally important phrase back in v. 16. The whole business about living carefully or diligently or precisely, as wise and not unwise, points to the phrase “making the most of the time.” Now that sounds like something we modern types can relate to, right? Living in a world that’s all about being “efficient” with our time? Or that encouragement to “work smarter, not harder”? We who live in the age of “efficiency experts” are certainly all about being able to respond to this exhortation, right?

Martin Luther once offered this observation on how busy he was: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” The importance or urgency of the tasks before Luther did not deter him from spending the most necessary time of all, time in prayer. One can also remember Jesus’s own proclivity to disappear into the hills to pray, even when the crowds following him were at their most urgent and demanding. 

Making the most of the time” doesn’t happen without a part, and not a small part, of that time devoted to prayer. How else are we to live “not as unwise people but as wise”? How else can we possibly “understand what the will of the Lord is”? How else can we possibly hope to be “filled with the Spirit”?

Going on, what are we doing when we “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” among ourselves, “singing and making melody to the Lord” in our hearts? What are we speaking to one another in those psalms and hymns and spiritual songs if it is not some kind of prayer itself, or at least rooted in or formed by or inspired by prayer?

The last stanza seems to make it all explicit as it speaks of “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While it makes a good stirring finish to the last really encouraging portion of this letter, it also offers another instruction that can leave us shaking our heads and saying “wait, what?” Giving thanks for everything? Reading a book like this in the broader context of scripture remains a necessary and important discipline.

So as this close of the practical moral instruction section of this letter, we are left with the call to seek God’s wisdom, make the most of the time we are given, and to do so in prayer and song, as much as possible. We’ve learned over the past year that there are times not to sing to each other. Still, the instruction and prayer holds and matters. And we don’t do it to help us to make the most of the time; it is in doing so that we are making the most of the time. And that’s how the Spirit is then able to lead us. That’s how we are able at all to be filled with the Spirit, with the fullness of Christ, with the fullness of God. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On

[1] Richard Carlson, Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20, Working Preacher (accessed 12 August 2021)

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Sermon: What to Put Away, What to Keep

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 8, 2021, Pentecost 11B

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

What to Put Away, What to Keep

Do you renounce all evil, and powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?

I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?

I do. 

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love, to your life’s end?

I will, with God’s help.

These words are found in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Common Worship as part of the recommended liturgy for a baptism, as part of the liturgy known as the “renunciations.” The questions are asked by the minister presiding at the baptism, and then answered either by the one being baptized or the parents or guardians of the one being brought for baptism. Presbyterians are hardly unique in this; some version of this is found in the baptismal rite of pretty much all the churches that have baptismal rites or liturgies. 

The very idea of renunciation of evil and sin is what is at the heart of today’s scripture reading, as the author of Ephesians continues with the practical instruction portion of this epistle. 

In all honesty there are portions of this passage that leave one wondering just what is going on in the churches to which this letter is addressed. The instruction about “putting away falsehood” is strong enough. The instruction about anger is actually useful (more about it later). The instructions about “evil talk,” “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” coming in a run-list like this, begins to raise the eyebrows and provoke wonder about a possible reality show about the church in question. But really: “Thieves must give up stealing”??? Is theft a major problem in this congregation? Has “thou shalt not steal” not come up by this time? Or was that regarded as a regulation from the Jewish side of the Jewish-Gentile split in this congregation and therefore to be disregarded by the Gentile converts? Seriously, what is with this?

As curious as this insertion may seem, what is even more remarkable about it is how it is used as an instructional point. “Thieves must give up stealing,” not because it violates the Ten Commandments or because it’s against the law or because it’s not nice; instead, the correction is “rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” “You need to stop stealing so that you can make money to give to the poor.” If you’re thinking that this sounds a little bit nuts, you’re not alone. It’s been a head scratcher for centuries.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, though. Maybe our definition of “stealing” is too narrow. I was reminded this week of an article I had first found a year ago, a report produced by Heifer International (the same group we support with those aluminum cans we collect and other offerings) on the worldwide coffee industry. (Yes, Heifer International does more than provide animals for families in need.) By the calculations of this report, the coffee industry internationally is worth over 200 billion dollars. (I can’t even fit that number onto my calculator on my phone.) Those peoples around the world who grow the beans that make the whole idea of coffee possible see maybe 5% or (if they’re lucky) 7% of that. To put it another way, say you by a Grande Latte later today as a treat. You might spend around $3.65 (that’s a rough average for such a drink). Of that $3.65, the farmer who grew those beans might receive $0.02, maybe $0.03. To add insult to injury, the sleeve likely to be sheathed around your cup costs about $0.05. That piece of cardboard is valued more than the labor required to grow the beans that make your latte even possible.[1] And this is only one of dozens of possible examples of the exploitative nature of our economy.

Indeed, perhaps our definition of “stealing” is too narrow.

Anyway, while we have no idea how Robin Hood – the “steal from the rich, give to the poor” character of English lore – would respond to this bit of instruction, we can at least draw from it a lesson that applies across this instructional fragment. In this episode of “don’t do this, do that” across these passages, the “do that” responses have a very clear purpose. The hearers and readers of this letter are being taught what it looks like to live in Christ, just as much of the previous part of the book calls us to do. 

We put away falsehood; we speak truth.

We are angry, but we do not sin. 

We give up stealing, if that’s been a thing; we work to care for the needy.

We don’t talk evil; we use our words to build up and give grace.

We don’t “grieve the Holy Spirit,” we are brought together and marked for redemption by the Spirit.

We lay aside bitterness and wrath and anger and all those things; we are kind and tenderhearted and forgiving with one another (the way God has, in Christ, forgiven us, in case we’ve forgotten).

Now as if these instructions weren’t provocative enough, not to mention plenty challenging, the first verses of chapter 5 drops the bombshell: “Therefore, be imitators of Christ, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us  and gave himself up for us…”. Once again, it all comes back around to love, in some way or other. And again, all of the instruction of this mini-lesson is at the last caught up into this main point. To live in love is not to talk evil or to engage in lies or to steal or to do the things that grieve the Spirit that is all about holding us together. To live in love is to speak truth (even when it’s not all that pleasant to do so); to live in love is to keep your anger (which will happen, and even should happen sometimes) from leading you into sin, and not to let that anger fester and divide us; to live in love is not to steal, but to do honest work so that you have something to share with those in need; to live in love is to lay aside speech and action that tears us apart, and to take up the words and deeds that hold us together. 

There is challenge here, in that (for example) sometimes it is really, destructively wrong not to be angry. To be indifferent to the injustice that runs rampant in the world around us (think of that example from the coffee industry, for instance), or even to seek to profit from it or take comfort in it or otherwise to justify its existence, is literally damnable. It is the stuff of Hell. And yet we see an awful lot of “Christians” doing exactly that in the headlines every day, do we not?

And yet, we are charged here not to let that anger lead us into sin, nor to let it fester and wreck relationships within the body. 

Part of the answer is easy enough to figure out: fight against that injustice, resist the prejudice against race or gender or orientation or anything that dehumanizes and demeans any of God’s creation. But even then, there will be those within the body – or at least calling themselves “Christians” – who resist that fight tooth and nail. Where, then, would our author direct us; to do God’s will and resist the injustice at hand, or to make peace? 

The tricky part about moral instruction, such as the author of Ephesians has undertaken, is that sometimes it leaves you in a quandary like this. At such a time we’re called to remember that Ephesians, or any such part of scripture, is not the whole of scripture; more than a few words of Jesus, for example, should answer this quandary for us without too much difficulty: fight the injustice, do unto “the least of these” as Jesus says in Matthew 25. 

Nonetheless, the basic theme of this lesson holds: put away those things that do harm, keep those things that build up. Leave behind the destructive; continue with the constructive. Lay aside what harms, take up what heals. 

Sometimes, I guess, the challenge is to know which is which.

And I still don’t know what Robin Hood would say about this.

For the guidance of the Spirit in learning these things, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #739, O for a Closer Walk with God; #444, Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive; #729, Lord, I Want to Be a Christian

[1] Statistics from Cory Gilman, “Rooted in Racism: Dark Profits in the Coffee Industry,”, 3 August 2020  (accessed 5 August 2021).

Sermon: Grow Up

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 1, 2021, Pentecost 10B

Ephesians 4:1-16

Grow Up

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (that is, I’m pretty sure I have), but back in my youth I competed in what was at the time known as “Bible drill.” I think it used to be called “sword drill,” after words that crop up later in this book of Ephesians. (Remember, I grew up in another denomination.) Anyway, when I participated in it the competition involved being able to look up books of the Bible, and later specific verses, really really quickly. To cap it off there was also a portion of the event that involved being able to recite memorized verses. I was pretty good at it – enough so, in fact, that the summer after ninth grade I was in the statewide Bible drill championship. I finished second. By one stinkin’ point.

Preparing this sermon reminded me of Bible drill because a portion of today’s reading was one of those memorized passages I had to learn. Because I grew up in that other denomination, all the reading and searching and memorizing involved the King James Version. So my response, when called upon, came out like this (I will not attempt to duplicate my fifteen-year-old voice; it wasn’t pretty):

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.

I had it memorized, all right, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you had asked fifteen-year-old me what exactly all of that meant, I’d have probably looked at you blankly and given you a clear “I have no idea” shrug. 

After a theological discourse that takes up the first three chapters of Ephesians as we have it, the author turns now to what might be called “boots on the ground” instruction, of which those verses are a part. This isn’t atypical of the letters of Paul upon which our author bases and models this volume: lay out the theology, then talk about putting it into practice in your location. Since this letter (despite its modern name) was probably meant to be distributed across many churches, the specifics of instruction might be somewhat less specific. The nature of the instruction is general, applicable across frankly all of these churches strung out across the Roman Empire, particularly that region sometimes called Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). 

Paul certainly did some letter-writing from prison, and so our author (again, likely a student or associate of Paul’s working to consolidate his teaching and reputation) evokes Paul’s imprisonments in the instruction to his readers. The initial verses point to a call towards unity. Notice that is “towards” unity; even if not spoken, the author seems to glimpse that unity is not possible in all situations, and the instruction to come in the later verses of this reading will sometimes be exactly why it’s not possible to be in unity with everyone or everything. But here the challenge is to “make every effort” towards preserving the unity of the Spirit, and sometimes that means the ones with whom you can’t be at unity with any integrity at all are those who are outside the Spirit. Verses 7-10 seem to be an odd diversion that could be about the importance of the Ascension, the old theological claim (still reflected in the Apostles’ Creed) that Jesus descended into Hell, or who knows what else.

Still, though, these opening verses do introduce the important idea of grace given to us as a result of “Christ’s gift,” and the result of gifts being bestowed upon us, which in turn sets up a brief list of some of those gifts given among the people of God. Unlike other such lists in the epistles, this one speaks of specific roles played in the church by specific people, without necessarily implying that these are the only gifts the church needs to function. (The specificity of this list is one of those reasons scholars have for believing this letter to be written much later than Paul’s output, as these roles seem to be more formalized than in the mid-century span in which Paul worked.) 

The reasons for which these gifts are given are where “the rubber hits the road” in this reading. Note that while unity of the faith makes an appearance again, a lot more ink is consumed on the other listed aim of these gifts and their exercise among the body of Christ: an aim that might be best summed up as spiritual maturity

This is where the language gets rather twisted up in the KJV rendering that still lives in my head to some degree, and even the NRSV can be a bit difficult to untangle. Last week’s sermon made a quick reference to the modern-day, scholarly yet accessible-language Common English Bible (CEB), and it might be useful in wading through these verses as well; first verses 12-13:

His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of the faith and knowledge of God’s son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.

OK, that helps somewhat. All those offices help build up the body of Christ by building up those within it, and that is where the unity of the faith arrives. And the measure towards which that building-up points is nothing less than Christ in all completeness and wholeness and fullness. Nothing less is really enough.

Now hear verses 14-16:

As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. 

We could, of course, put an even more vernacular spin on this instruction.

Don’t be babies.

Don’t fall for everything you see on the internet. Or some “news” channel. Or from some televangelist’s megachurch

Don’t be misled so easily.

And perhaps the harshest of all:

Grow up.

That’s not a phrase we use these days as a form of encouragement. Typically it’s spoken in a tone that makes clear the speaker’s exasperation (or worse) with the one to whom the statement is directed. To get the full force of this reading we need to divorce the phrase from the commonly sarcastic tone we often apply to it and hear it as not only a form of encouragement, but the principal charge or calling that is laid before us – even more so than all that pursuing-unity talk, because that true unity in the Spirit only happens when we are growing towards that spiritual unity, that living into the measure of Christ’s wholeness and completeness and fullness. 

To top it off, verse 16 reminds us that all of this happens in Christ. Again, to borrow from the CEB:

The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.

The growing and maturing and moving towards unity all happens in Christ. This is one of those cases where the instruction given really is directed at the individuals reading or hearing the letter. Most of the time such instruction in the New Testament, gospels or letters, is corporate – directed at the whole of the church to do together. In this case, the responsibility of this instruction to seek unity and grow up is upon each individual, so that the whole church can grow and do and be what it is meant to be under Christ, the head of the church. 

Clearly, we aren’t there. It’s not just the too-many so-called “Christians” who crowd into each day’s headlines clearly demonstrating that they have not grasped the instruction of verses 14-15 about not being easily led astray and tossed about and fooled by deceivers. It’s all of us. Seriously, do we look like we measure up to Christ in all his fullness and completeness and wholeness? No, we’re not there. The point is to be on the way. And no matter how old we are, no matter how much hard-won wisdom we have earned, how much we have seen or experienced, we’re still on the journey. 

It is in the process of this journey that we learn to live lives worthy of our calling, to bear with one another in love, to build up the body of Christ, and yes, to grow up.

For growing up, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #—, Live Lives Worthy of Your Calling; #529, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether

Sermon: Rooted in Love

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 25, 2021, Pentecost 9B

Ephesians 3:14-21

Rooted in Love

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

This portion of a discourse from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov captures one of the central contradictions of the human condition, particularly under God’s command of love. The sentiment is also captured in much more pithy fashion in words spoken by the character Linus in the ever-popular comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. Responding to Lucy’s taunt that he could never be a doctor because he doesn’t “love mankind,” Linus answers with a classic line, one so classic that social media mistakenly attributes it to the likes of Albert Einstein or Marilyn Monroe: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!

While one never wants to dismiss any portion of any particular scripture passage, the core of this reading is found in verses 17-19. While verses 14-16 offer up the beginning of a benediction, and verses 20-21 rightly give honor to God, these central verses point to the root of the message found in this first half of Ephesians. One could also argue that the practical instruction that makes up the remainder of the book also has its roots in the encouragement of love found here (or at least most of the remainder of the book; we’ll get to the possible exception in a few weeks).

Ephesians can be divided into two parts: the first half consists of theological exposition, and the second of more practical instruction. It’s not an accident that the Revised Common Lectionary leans toward that second half of the book, devoting four Sundays to it compared to the three given to the first half, including the book’s introduction two weeks ago and this summarizing blessing we heard a few moments ago. 

Even those portions of the first half that seem to address other issues are written more with theological aims in mind than anything else. For example, the first thirteen verses of the chapter purport to describe Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles. (Mandatory reminder here that most likely the book was written by a student or coworker of Paul’s who was seeking to consolidate his teaching and preserve his reputation after his death.) These verses, however, contain little of actual detailed description of what Paul did among churches in Ephesus or Galatia or Thessalonica or any of those places Paul visited on all those missionary journeys that showed up in the map section in the back of Bibles years ago. What is described, however, is the mystery Paul proclaimed; the opening up of the good news to the Gentiles; Paul’s role as servant of God in proclaiming this mystery; and the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Paul’s work. It is, in effect, the conclusion of the theological discourse, which is formally wrapped up in and by the blessing prayer of today’s reading. 

Our author here indulgences in language that is almost paradoxical, to make a point, in verses 18 and 19. To help illustrate this, hear a different reading of those verses:

I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.

That reading, from the modern scholarly translation known as the Common English Bible, hopefully clears the thicket of words just a bit so that we can get the full impact of what’s being prayed here. I want you to know just how great, how large, how expansive love is. I want you to know love that you can’t comprehend. I want you to be filled – completely, entirely full – just with all that God is. That next verse is almost mild by comparison (again from the CEB): “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us…

Sometimes, as a preacher, the best thing to do is to find a way to let the scripture itself do the heavy lifting, so hear those three verses again, back in our usual NRSV this time:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to *know* the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…

It is eloquent and beautiful language, to be sure, with images that overwhelm and leave us in wondering awe, if we really hear it and take it to heart. 

I wonder how often we do that.

Do we, really, take in just what it would mean to understand love in all its height and depth and length and width? 

Are we capable of being open to so much that we cannot comprehend?

Are we willing to be open to so much that we cannot comprehend or measure?

Can we even begin to grasp what it would mean to know God’s love so fully, so completely as this? Can we begin to grasp what this would change for us or about us or in us?

Or, perhaps, does such a thought make us uncomfortable? 

Does such a love, such unmeasurable and incomprehensible love actually leave us with something like fear? Fear of what it might ask of us? Fear of how it might change us? 

In verse 17 the author prays that the readers might be “rooted and grounded in love,” and then goes on to describe the kind of love in which they might be rooted and grounded. You have to wonder how this treatise’s original readers must have reacted to this, living as they most likely were in a time when the still-nascent church was beginning to face a different world than before, one that increasingly viewed the followers of this Jesus as something of a threat, as people who didn’t play along with the mores and folkways of getting by in the Roman Empire. 

Peter Marty, editor of The Christian Century, writes in the most recent issue that “for life to be good and beautiful and true, we have to find a way to make God central to our lives, not peripheral…God has zero interest in being relegated to the outer edges of our lives.[1] I wonder if part of this overwhelming experience of the knowing God’s unknowable love is tied to this, to our lives being centered solely and completely on God, with nothing else competing for our loyalty or allegiance or love. Perhaps it is only then that the incomprehensible love of God can begin to be our root and ground, and to be all that in which we “live and move and have our being.”

For love we cannot comprehend, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #188, Jesus Loves Me!, #833, O Love that Will Not Let Me Go

[1] Peter Marty, “At the center,” The Christian Century, July 28, 2021, 3.

Sermon: Remember What You Were; Remember Who You Are

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 18, 2021, Pentecost 8B

Ephesians 2:11-22

Remember What You Were; Remember Who You Are

One thing that was mentioned in last week’s sermon, introducing this little trip through the book of Ephesians, is that this letter seems to have been addressed to a situation in which the church or churches being addressed consist more of Gentile converts to Christianity than of those who were of Jewish background. This differs from most of the letters of Paul, which address church groups that seem to be more evenly divided. The content of chapter 2, of which we just heard a portion, suggests that this shift did not occur without some measure of conflict or at least stress between the two parties. 

Here the author (again, most likely an associate or student of Paul’s trying to consolidate his teaching some years after Paul’s death) seeks to address this particular strain in the body of Christ. What is left unmentioned, however, is how this particular shift came to be. We don’t actually know why the church had come to consist of more Gentile converts than Jewish. It could be simply that more folks of non-Jewish background were welcoming to the gospel as it was proclaimed across the Roman realm. 

On the other hand, we see in other epistles situations where such conflict could have been triggered. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, addresses a situation in which that church had succumbed to a handful of teachers who insisted that to be “really Christian,” the Gentile converts in the church needed to undergo the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Paul had firmly opposed that teaching at the time, and upon learning that the Christians there had been swayed by this teaching he frankly blew a gasket, chastising the “foolish Galatians!” and asking “who has bewitched you?” (3:1)

Whatever the source of this conflict, the author of Ephesians takes pains to sort out the division. We are reminded here that the author (like Paul) was of Jewish background. The Gentiles are addressed as “you” as early as verse 11; by verse 14 the author is giving away his (or her) own status by speaking of “the hostility between us” in verse 14. 

The thrust of the author’s argument is to remind those of Gentile background that, for all their apparent superiority of numbers and status in the church now, they had originally been the “outsiders” – being “without Christ,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” and “having no hope and without God in the world.” They had plenty of false gods, to be sure, but in that previous state they were cut off from the one true God. 

To be sure, the Jewish Christians aren’t let totally off the hook. This chastisement is more backhanded, however, and refers to the conflict previously mentioned from the letter to the Galatians. The reference in verse 11 to Gentile followers as “called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called the ‘circumcision’” seems perhaps a bit clunky until the author drops the next line: “a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.” Nobody gets off the hook here; whatever the division was, both sides have culpability.

Into this division comes the good news of verse 14: “in his (that is, Christ’s) flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” By referring to Christ doing so “in his flesh” – in his bodily crucifixion – the author contrasts the new condition of Gentile and Jewish converts with the division that had come before through another act upon the flesh, the act of circumcision. The one act unites those whom the other separates.

Much of the rest of this passage elaborates upon and even celebrates this act of Christ, culminating in verse 19 with the joyful declaration “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Finally, the metaphor of building is introduced to suggest how, “upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone,” we all – no matter where we came from – are built together into nothing less than the dwelling place of God.

While this passage is vitally important for understanding what unity in Christ looks like and the degree to which any unity we have is Christ’s doing, it can be difficult for moderns to take in or understand its application to us. After all, for many of us in these pews at appropriate social distance, we find it difficult to see ourselves in the author’s description of strangers or aliens or those on the outside. We’ve been good church folk all our lives, haven’t we? When you’ve grown up in the church, it can be hard to process this bit of instruction.

There are two ways to work through this conundrum, one of which is a historical acknowledgment. Most folks who you might find on the pews of Christian churches of whatever variety this morning did not come to Christianity via Judaism. In the language of the time of this writing, we would just about all have been “Gentiles.” It is this act of transcending divisions that enables us even to be here in the first place. Even after nearly two thousand years, this is no small thing to remember.

The second way of understanding our situation requires us to remember one inconvenient fact: your presence on a church pew does not automatically render you as being in unity with Christ and with God’s household. There are churches out there this morning full of zealous devotees whose true allegiances, whose ultimate loyalties and passions and beliefs and behaviors, place them squarely in opposition to Jesus Christ and his gospel, no matter how much they (and their ministers, to be sure) try to bathe those allegiances and loyalties and passions and beliefs in churchy talk. We would all do well, in light of this scripture, to examine our own lives and histories to discern whether we have at times pursued such loyalties and allegiances and beliefs that placed stumbling stones in front of other seekers, or brought disrepute to the gospel, or sought to drive out or exclude those whose lives or beliefs or faith somehow failed to match up squarely with our own, or tried to pass off our petty hatreds and prejudices as somehow Christlike. None of such things build us up into a dwelling place for God.

We, even we lifelong churchgoers, need to remember what this passage teaches us here. We didn’t earn this. We really don’t need to be strutting around the Church Universal as if we own the place. It is God’s grace alone that even allows for us to be the church that we are. And we would also do well to remember that the same grace of God that brings us into God’s household brings in all of those who would come into that household, even if they’re not our favorite people. God is the one who breaks down the barriers; God is the one who invites; God is the one who welcomes. It is only God’s doing that we are no longer strangers or aliens or outsiders, but citizens and members of the household of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #761, Called as Partners in Christ’s Service; #—, Remember There Was Once A Day

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Sermon: One Great Big Run-On Acclamation

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 11, 2021, Pentecost 7B

Ephesians 1:3-14

One Great Big Run-On Acclamation

It was a chart-topping song back in 1981, and then it became a ubiquitous presence at almost any kind of celebration, particularly the kind that followed big emotional sports triumphs. You’ve heard it:

[singing] Celebrate good times, come on! …let’s celebrate…Celebrate good times, come on!…There’s a party goin’ right here…a celebration to last throughout the year…

Even forty years later, that song still manages to show up after a big win of whatever kind, and why not? It’s an absolutely infectious song (in the good way we speak of songs being “infectious”) and there’s really nothing about it to give offense; it’s just fun.

While the song isn’t terribly specific about what it’s celebrating (other than the pretty general “good times” of that opening), our scripture reading for today carries a pretty celebratory tone itself but with something quite specific to celebrate.

As we jump into a series of readings from the book of Ephesians that will take us through July and August, a little stage-setting is in order. While the book claims Paul’s name at its opening and has often been attributed to that apostle, it is incredibly unlikely that Paul himself actually wrote this book. For one thing, its apparent time of writing, based on content and context, would have been well after Paul was dead; for another, it is inconceivable that Paul himself would have written such a generic and impersonal letter to the church at Ephesus, which he loved dearly as described in Acts (a feeling that was most definitely reciprocated). For that matter, the designation of Ephesus isn’t even on most of the earliest manuscripts, so that part is doubtful also.

The far more likely case is that a follower or student or assistant of Paul’s, some years later, compiled a compendium of Paul’s teaching as the apostle’s posthumous influence began to wane, possibly sending it as a circular letter (one meant to be passed around from church to church, likely including Ephesus), and putting Paul’s name on it to indicate its authority, an unfortunate but not-uncommon practice of the time. Imagine an old follower or associate of John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, say, taking up pen to write a faux-editorial with his or her mentor’s name on it as a kind of letter to America in its current troubled times. Something similar is going on here.

That said, the theme of this opening statement is one that Paul did indeed turn to in his own writings: the idea of adoption. Especially in the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, Paul did speak of adoption as how we know ourselves to be children of God:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba!’ Father!, 

it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 

and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ

(Rom. 8:14-17)

From this Pauline starting point, our adoption or being chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world,” our Ephesians author pours forth quite a flood of acclamation of God for this gift; for the redemption and forgiveness that comes to us in this gift; for the mystery of God being revealed in this adoption; for the inheritance that is ours in this adoption (shades of the Romans reading above); for the hope in which we live because of all of this.

The fun part for those who try to read this in the Greek is that our author has done all of this in one sentence. It’s true; everything in today’s reading is one sentence in the Greek, all linked together with linking participles piled one on top of the other. Be grateful for the work of biblical translators, friends (especially the grammar-sticklers among you). 

Still, though, that seems like part of the charm of this passage. We do this, really, when we get all excited about something we’re trying to describe. “And then we saw…and it was so cool and it was amazing and then this happened and then…and then…” We do run on when we get excited; it’s nice to imagine our author here being so caught up in the joys of this adoption that the words just pour forth in the rush of joy. It’s fair, after all, to be excited about being gathered up and taken in by God.

The other challenging part of this passage is its apparent audience. Most of Paul’s writings were directed at churches somewhat split between those who had come to follow Christ from a Jewish background and those from Gentile backgrounds. By the time of this letter, however, the audience seems to be mostly Gentile. The author, on the other hand, is apparently of Jewish background if verse 2 is any indication. Yet God’s adoption was not limited to one group or the other; all of them – Jew and Gentile alike – were caught up in God’s choosing. God is not choosy; God will not be pinned down to choosing one or the other; God chooses everybody. How human beings respond to that choice may be all over the map, but God chooses everybody.

While trying to get this sermon going this week, after a wonderful week away last week and oh, yes, a tropical storm passing near our area, I came across a news item that feels relevant here. A sweeping survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute between 2013 and 2019 found that, among other things; the percentage of the population identifying as “none” (including atheists, agnostics, and those who might claim some sort of religious belief but no affiliation) had declined slightly; the percentage of white folks claiming some variety of evangelical affiliation had declined a lot; and the percentage of white folks claiming some mainline Protestant affiliation – mostly Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) among others – had…risen a little bit.[1] (For the record, this tracks with this denomination’s own findings that after years of decline the membership of PC(USA) had leveled off from that decline and, in the last reporting period, had taken a slight uptick.)

One doesn’t want to get too giddy about freshly reported surveys like this, but I think there’s something to this result that resonates with the exuberant celebration of this Ephesians passage. After years of membership decline and sometimes even derision from other precincts of Christianity, the churches of the so-called mainline (a terrible name for a religious affiliation) found themselves pressed to be, frankly, more welcoming. Churches of those denominations that couldn’t get away from the somewhat exclusive or elitist bearing of, say, the 1950s found themselves shrunken dramatically or closed altogether. Welcoming all much more broadly, taking to heart the sense of generous adoption marked in today’s reading, became a survival mechanism if nothing else. Maybe that survival mechanism works. 

Before the pandemic shut things down, we were working on learning and singing a short song as a sign of welcome near the beginning of our services. It goes simply, 

God welcomes all, strangers and friends;

God’s love is strong and it never ends.[2]

(We’re gonna get back to singing that as soon as safely possible, I promise that.)

It does seem that recognizing the graciousness, the unmerited favor of God’s adoption of us, would compel us to be in turn welcoming of all of those who are part of that generous act of adoption, even if they don’t realize it yet. 

Maybe Kool and the Gang had it right. There is a party goin’ on ‘round here, a celebration to last throughout the years. Come on and celebrate.

For the generousness of God choosing us, Thanks be to God.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #839, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!”

[1] Jack Jenkins, “White mainline Protestants outnumber white evangelicals, while ‘nones’ shrink,” Religion News Service (accessed 7/8/21).

[2] “God Welcomes All,” text by John L. Bell, music South African, transcribed John L. Bell. Copyright 2008 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.) All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A

Sermon: Who Then Is This?

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 20, 2021, Pentecost 4B

Mark 4:35-41

Who Then Is This?

Who then is this, that winds and sea obey?

Who is this one who swirling storm can sway?

See how the danger now has passed away! 

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s possible that the polished language of this NRSV translation of Mark 4:41’s climactic exclamation is just a little too tame, a little too composed-sounding to capture the moment fully. The Common English Bible goes with “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” The exclamation point as a finisher helps, but that first phrase – “Who then is this…” – just seems…awfully formal for having just seen Jesus turn a raging storm into dead clam with just a few words. It’s regrettable that Clarence Jordan, the creator of the especially vivid Cotton Patch Gospel renderings of selected books of the New Testament, did not include Mark in his selection. You just know he would have found a way to get it across.

It’s worth noting that there’s another word in v. 41 upon which we should cast a skeptical eye. The NRSV speaks of the disciples being “overcome with awe,” but that is a characterization of those disciples that would most kindly be called generous. In just the previous verse Jesus had called them out for being “afraid” (NRSV) or “frightened” (CEB) in v. 40; a more literal translation of v. 41a acknowledges this as it speaks of the disciples being “fearful with a great fear.”

This is not unprecedented behavior. Think of Isaiah, in chapter 6 of that prophetic book, exclaiming “woe is me!” at the sight of the Lord in the heavenly temple surrounded by all the heavenly beings at worship. You could also stick with this gospel, for that matter, and skip ahead to its ending. When the women who had come to the tomb are confronted with an open, empty tomb and a man in white giving them a message to go ahead to Galilee where Jesus will meet them, we are told that they “fled from the tomb with terror and amazement” (the CEB says they’re “overcome with terror and dread”). 

So yeah, “who then is this” seems too calm. These people, fearful and overcome, just aren’t going to sound that composed. Something like “who in the world is this?” or even stronger, depending on your tolerance of the idea of one of Jesus’s disciples letting loose with a first-century Aramaic expletive.

Who then is this, so calm amidst the waves?

Who takes his rest, while tempest ‘round him raves?

Awake at last, with his own word he saves!

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Let’s be fair to the disciples. What they’ve just seen defies all logic and comprehension. It wasn’t just that they survived the storm or are preserved through the storm, the way that the singer of Psalm 107 describes in the reading we heard earlier; it wasn’t just that the storm subsided really quickly, as we can see storms do in these parts. Imagine a powerful hurricane coming ashore at Cedar Key, waves ratcheting up and winds pounding and rain pouring, and then, all out of nowhere, the wind has stopped, and the sea is absolutely still – a “dead calm” as v. 39 says. And no, it’s not just the eye of the hurricane; the storm is gone

You’re going to tell me that, no matter how much we’re all celebrating and rejoicing, there isn’t going to be just some chill of fear about witnessing such a thing? 

So yeah, even if I feel like the NRSV’s phrasing is a little stiff and bland, I can absolutely understand the disciples wondering who this is. 

Who then is this, whom crowds have flocked to see? 

This teacher, healer, from whom demons flee; 

What is his call? What can his mission be?

Alleluia! Alleluia!

It’s not as if the disciples haven’t seen some things, even in the relatively brief time they’ve spent with Jesus. These first chapters of Mark routinely depict massive crowds of people pressing in to be healed by Jesus, and Jesus, well, healing them. We also see accounts of demons not even waiting around for Jesus to spot them. They’re terrified just by his showing up. 

Thing is, though, this kind of thing wasn’t necessarily considered that out of the way or bizarre or non-credible. If we were to hear of such a “healer” coming to town we’d scoff and make jokes about it, and the very mention of casting out demons would bring up even more jokes about Linda Blair’s head spinning around in The Exorcist or similar Hollywood treatments. But in first-century Palestine, while this wasn’t necessarily commonplace, neither was it  unheard of. Remember elsewhere when the Pharisees start challenging Jesus, it isn’t over the act of casting out demons itself, it was over by what authority he does so – the act itself apparently wasn’t all that shocking. 

So while the disciples have seen some stuff so far, we can’t necessarily presume that what they’ve already seen would have prepared them for this. This is a different order of power. Great storms being stopped dead in their tracks compares with healings and exorcisms in the first-century Judean mind the way that the one thing doesn’t fit in that little childhood song about how “one of these things is not like the others…”. 

So yes, it’s believable for the disciples to ask “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

But here’s where we have the advantage over the disciples; we’ve been able to read Mark’s first chapter, the stuff that happens before the disciples have fully joined up with Jesus. We are able to see how Jesus confronted Satan out in the wilderness, and came away proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We saw the baptism of Jesus, with the heavens torn open and the Spirit crashing down on him from on high. And for all the challenging stuff that this gospel writer puts before us, not just here but for all that is to come, we have the very first sentence of this gospel lingering over us and in us through every part of this book we read: 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is the Christ, the Son of God most high! 

Baptized and tested, hear his calling cry:

“See how the kingdom of our God is nigh!”

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #830, Jesus, Priceless Treasure.