(a sermon for August 5, 2018, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16)
For every one of us, sooner or later there will come a moment in life – perhaps more than one moment (!) – in which all of a sudden you’ll pause, take a long look at everything that’s going on all around you, and then heave a sigh and wonder aloud, “How in the world did it ever come to this?”
Well, as you might imagine, I’m having one of those moments right about now!
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t say this in any kind of negative fashion; in fact, just the opposite: after all, in just two weeks, our beautiful daughter is getting married to a wonderful young man and they’re going to be building a life together; two months from tomorrow (!) our youngest son is doing the same “up in the county” with his bride; and you didn’t hear it from me, but I suspect it won’t be too much longer before our oldest son and his girlfriend follow suit! I’m pleased to report that by all indications all three of our adult children are leading happy lives, they have people they love and who love them, and they’ve each found vocations that they are passionate about; I ask you, how much more can a parent ask than that! So let me just say, emphatically and joyfully, that things are going great these days for the Lowry family; and yet, I can’t help but wonder, “How in the world did it ever come to this?”
I mean, what are the odds? Think of the variables involved here; consider what might or might not have happened had our circumstances had been different, even just a little? What if we hadn’t come here to Concord and to East Church six years ago, or what if Sarah didn’t take that job at the dance studio here in town after college; which would likely mean she wouldn’t have been been invited to that little get-together with her co-worker that was also attended by a nice young man from Loudon! For that matter, what if back on that fateful summer Zach hadn’t suddenly determined he really wanted to change his major to forest management and then, on what he now calls a whim, transfer to the University of Maine at Fort Kent, of all places! How then would he have met Jessica; never mind his coming to know pretty much the entirety of the Allagash wilderness while working up there? And while we’re on the subject, what if Jake had not gone out to Montana and met the love of his life? It staggers the imagination: you make one choice rather than the other; you take a right turn when you might have gone left; a simple twist of fate, as it were, and everything could have been very different indeed! (Oy veh, to think about this can give you such a headache!)
But that’s not the way it happened, and that’s the point, isn’t it? What was true for them is true for all of us, you know; life has a way of unfolding in special and unique ways that we can never fully anticipate or appreciate when it’s happening. Granted, there are choices to be made along the way, and there are moments when each one of us might well have chosen better or least more wisely (!); and yes, sometimes what happens can seem a whole lot like dumb luck! But more than merely being the end result of a random series of happenstances, ultimately there’s a reason that it all comes to this; a reason that you and I come to those places where everything in life, as busy and as crazily spinning aaround as it so often seems to be, nonetheless just seems to come together as it should.
And I’m here to tell you this morning that that reason is God!
It happens because of God; the same God who from the very beginning has given us life not because we have done anything to deserve it or have subsequently made all the right choices to put things in motion, but because God loves us and by grace wants us to have a life that is in line with his purposes for us and for all creation. And so, in that regard, it is as Elizabeth Newman, professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia, has written in an essay on Christian vocation, that we can no more decide “what to do” about our lives than we could have decided to be born. “Rather,” she says, “just as our birth into this world, our unique creation, was an incredible gift from God, so is our vocation as Christians not a decision but a gift.” In other words, all this “stuff” that constantly goes on all around us – the places where we dwell, the people who come into our lives, the challenges that we face and the blessings that make it all worthwhile – none of it happens because, accidentally or on purpose, we designed it to be that way; it all flows forth because we received it from the gracious hand of God who gave it all to us as a gift!
But lest we succumb to the notion that this is nothing but a matter of divinely inspired good fortune, understand there is great theological portent to this; in fact, at the very beginning of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul makes a point of saying that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love,” and that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” (1:4-5) In other words, what God has done for the cosmos, God has done for the church, and what God has done for the church he does for you and for me; from the moment of our very creation, beloved, the life that is given by God’s grace has always been God’s plan. And so then, even as we pause at the overwhelming wonder of it all, the question is not so much, “how did it come to this,” but rather, “what do we do about this?”
And that’s what our text this morning from Ephesians is all about.
We pick up our reading today in the 4th chapter of Paul’s epistle, which is actually quite a long way from those verses from the 1st chapter I just shared with you; in which Paul goes on in great detail as to the centrality of Christ not only to the life and mission of the church, but also its unity. Moreover, Paul says, our very identity – yours and mine – is rooted in the saving act of God in Jesus Christ. And the common thread that runs through all of it is this truth that this is God’s good gift; that all is given to us by grace, and that we as believer haven’t attained or reached or otherwise brought upon ourselves anything that God hasn’t already “accomplish[ed] abundantly [in us] far more than all we can ask or imagine” (3:20) Up till this point in the Epistle, there have been three chapters’ worth of exhortations regarding the fullness of God, “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (3:19) and the power that’s at work within us – that is, the power at work within you and within me – because of that love.
But now, with the beginning of the 4th chapter, Paul finally moves away from reflecting on how such things happen to what we ought to be doing about it; and in truth, what Paul has to say here to those early Christians, and to us, is really quite direct and to the point, and actually, pretty simple: “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” And what follows is a list of those qualities that are reflective of all that we’ve been given by God: to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another with love;” and to do that which maintains “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In addition, there’s a lot said here about being part of that “one body and one Spirit,” and of making use of the spiritual gifts that we’ve been given so that we might “equip the saints for the work of ministry [and] for building up the body of Christ.” And finally, there are very important words about staying true to our Christian doctrine and “speaking the truth in love” so that we might become “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ. [The Message]
There’s a lot there, to be sure; but ultimately it all hearkens back to what God has already given us in this life and what he intends for for all of creation, and so as such it’s a worthy response; a worthy life that’s in line with what God seeks in and through us. It’s one thing, after all, to sit back and marvel at all the many blessings of our lives or even to acknowledge the challenges that might come along with them; but it’s quite another to let those gifts and challenges be integrated into our calling as disciples of Christ; to have them nurture in us things like humility and gentleness, patience and forbearance, and above all love; to let what we’ve been given build up and bring forth unity, rather than tear down and divide.
Actually, you know, the word that Paul uses in regard to all this is that we need to “grow up,” or as it’s translated elsewhere, to be “fully mature adults.” Incidentally, The Message takes it one very large step further in its translation: “No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love – like Christ in everything.” A bit scolding, I’ll admit, but the point is a good one: that everything we’ve been given, all that we’re taught, every opportunity set before us is yet another way that we grow toward full spiritual maturity and move closer to truly living a life worthy of our calling as Christians; and the message here is that we really ought to get to it.
Understanding, of course, that what we’re talking about here is never a done deal; as Martin Luther once wrote, “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” In other words, slowly but ever so surely, it’s happening if we will only let it; our incredible growth into Christ.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, in our worship we usually refer to these summer Sundays as those “after Pentecost.” There are, however, many denominations and faith traditions that refer to these Sundays in the middle of the church year as being “in ordinary time.” Frankly, it was a reference that always seemed a bit overly liturgical and “high church” for my taste, but recently I came across a quote from Sister Joan Chittister that might have changed my mind: “It is in ‘ordinary time,’” Chittister writes, “that the really important things happen: our children grow up, our marriages and relationships grow older, our sense of life changes, our vision expands, our soul ripens;” this is, in fact, the season to simply marvel, give thanks for the gifts, and live our full lives out of this place of gratitude.
Well, I know what kind of “extra-ordinary” things the next couple of weeks of ordinary time is bringing our family; and I pray that you’ll have the same kind of experiences in your own lives as you live out these “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” May each of us truly marvel in the gifts of the Lord our God! But more than this – whether it’s a family gathering somewhere, an early evening trip to go get some ice cream, a chance to have a conversation with an old friend over a glass of iced tea, or simply enjoying a magnificent sunrise – I pray that we’ll know from whence those gifts come, and strive to live a life worthy of our calling as Children of God.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry