Monday, August 3, 2009

Sermon for August 2, 2009

The Secret Plan
Ephesians 2:1-22
(based on a sermon at Kir Shalom:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. 4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) 6 For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. 7 So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. 8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

11 Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. 14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.

17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. 19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

It happened that in a particular village there was a man who was well known for his compassion for others. He was not a particularly wealthy man, nor was he a native of the village, nor did he attend the village church. In fact he was not even baptized, and he showed little interest in changing that situation. But if a stranger came to the village and needed a place to stay, this man would offer a cot in his little home. If a village family ran out of food, he was among the first to offer a loaf of bread or some flour from his meager supplies. When the Germans or the Russians swept the village to collect young men for imprisonment or forced military enlistment, he would help hide the men in the woods outside town. The villagers loved him very much.

The man eventually died from some cause or other. The villagers prepared his body for burial and proceeded to the village church where they asked the Priest to perform the burial service in the church cemetery. The priest, who knew and loved the man as much as the rest of the villagers, agreed that he would conduct the funeral service. However, he insisted that he could not bury the man inside the church cemetery because he was not baptized. “I cannot bury him in our cemetery”, the priest said, “It is hallowed ground. He must go where the un-baptized are buried. Those are the rules of the church and I cannot change them.”

The villagers appealed earnestly to the priest, saying that the man was a good person and surely loved by God as much as any of the baptized, perhaps even more on account of all the good that he had done. The priest agreed with them regarding the virtues of the man, but insisted that the rules of the faith were clear and could be not be broken. But he did make one compromise. The priest said, “In recognition of your love for him, and his love for you and all of God’s people in this village, I will bury him on church land, near to those who have gone before. But it will have to be beyond the fence that surrounds the consecrated ground of our cemetery.”

And so it was. On the appointed day a grave was prepared just outside the fence that surrounded the church cemetery. The villagers brought the man’s body his final resting place. That night, something very beautiful happened — something that became apparent when the priest went to the church next morning to conduct morning mass. The fence that surrounded the cemetery had been moved by some of the villagers. It now surrounded the grave in which the man had been buried.

For me, this story captures something of what the good news is all about. As the villagers expanded the fence which enclosed hallowed ground to include the grave of the man whom they loved, so God, through Christ, expands the boundaries of the sacred to include both those whom the rules of our religion might exclude, and those that the ways of this world
might exclude.

Consider our every day language. How often we call others “those people”, or use the term “they” and “their kind in our conversations. We say, “Those people come over to our country and expect . . .” or, “They just don’t appreciate hard work,” or, “Their kind always have their hand out,” and so forth. “They” most often are the strangers in our midst, people from another country, with accents, a different shade of skin, different foods and religious customs, and different ways of being family. Whoever “they” are, they are different than us.

But perhaps “They” are not from another country. Perhaps “They” live right next door to us. Perhaps “They” have visited our church. Perhaps they are gay. Or on welfare. Perhaps they are conservatives, or liberals; Catholics, or fundamentalists. Maybe they are environmentalists or loggers. Perhaps they are body piercers or people who think casual is loosening one’s tie when the weather is hot.

No matter. “They” are not us. We build different kids of emotional, spiritual, and moral barriers to keep them away, or at least to keep them in their place. We are all in need of the reconciliation spoken of in today’s reading. We are all in need of a fresh look at just who we are in the eyes of God, and where we fit in the family of God.

Let’s try to get into the culture of Paul’s audience. Ephesus was a seaport trade city with a population of about 300,000. It was a center of Greco-Roman culture that hosted the Temple of Artemis -- one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. All to say, the people in this city were thoroughly Gentile. They worshiped Greek gods and adhered to Greek culture. Early Christians like Paul came to Ephesus as missionaries and established churches. And because of their ministry, some Ephesian citizens turned from their gods and their culture and put their faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ. This caused some problems. Some Jewish Christians demanded that Gentile converts must follow a certain set of rules in order to achieve favor with God. They required Gentile Christians to follow the entire Jewish law. Eat certain foods. Wear certain clothes. Be circumcised. Then you will be a true Christian. Today we call this kind of thinking legalism. Don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t lie and cheat, don’t wear immodest clothing, don’t drink coffee, don’t pierce body parts, then you will be a real Christian. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Paul always had a problem with this kind of thinking. Even though he was a Jew, Paul realized that Jesus met people where they were, in the life-situations they were in. He knew that God’s showered love upon all people through Christ. It didn’t depend on who their parents were, what they looked like, how they dressed, what they ate, or where they were born.

We still struggle with the false belief that we must meet certain standards in order to please God and feel good about ourselves. Consider these laws that people hold themselves to:
  • Some people are caught under the law of church attendance. They say to themselves, “If I attend every worship service, and work diligently in the church, then God will be pleased with me. Those who do not go to church as faithfully are outsiders.”
  • Some are caught in the law of morality: “If I can just behave well enough I will be acceptable to God. Those who don’t behave according to my moral standards must be changed in order to be among us.”
  • Some people are captive to the law of perfectionism: “If only I can keep my house spotless, my family looking good, and my social life in order – if only I can keep tight charge over every area of my life, then God will smile upon me and I will be happy.”
In each of these situations, we try to earn find our place in God’s world be trying to attain a ridiculously high standard. We think that our happiness, freedom, and salvation depend solely upon what we can do to make our lives better. Consider the following essay, written by a student applying for admission to NYU in response to the question, “Are there any personal accomplishments or significant experiences you have had that helped define you as a person.” The student wrote:
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees. I write award-winning operas. I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single -handedly defended a small village in the Amazon basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play a bluegrass cello. I was scouted by the Mets. I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics world-wide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening, I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. When on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, and my bills are all paid. I participate in full contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life, but forgot to write it down. I have performed open heart surgery and I have met with Elvis, But I have not yet gone to college.
This young man went to great lengths to convince the admissions department at NYU that he was good enough for their school. This is not the Gospel we proclaim. Race, sex, culture, biblical knowledge, conservatism or liberalism, and heritage have no part in our salvation. All are chosen by God and all are loved by God.

This is God’s secret plan. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. No more basing our worth on what we do and don’t do. No more divisions in the church based on who people are or where they come from. God has made us one by offering salvation to each and every person. For the Christian, this happens when we put our faith in Christ, and accept the free gift of God’s love. We need to look again at those we call “strangers”. We need to see them not as different from us, but as essentially the same. Paul invites us to look at ourselves and others in a different light, a light created by God.

Think of the racial, economic and social barriers that mark the terrain of our daily lives and determine with whom we see, touch and share our lives. These walls direct our footsteps, where we go and whose terrain we avoid. Think of the gender barriers between us, how we think and talk about each other; how we relate to one another at work and at home. Think of the way we classify each other at church — the liberals and conservatives, the “old timers” who built the church and the newcomers — and let go of these things.

Instead of ignoring, dismissing, or labeling people because they are different, we need to offer a space of welcome in which “They” can be themselves. Hospitality means people don’t have to conform to our ways, but that they can be themselves in our presence. It doesn’t try to change people but enables them freedom and space to change at their own pace in their own way as God leads them.

Paul says something amazing in the passage from Ephesians. We are God’s masterpiece. Do you understand that? Imagine God painting a picture. God concentrates on the canvas, adding outlines, then colors, shadows and flourishes. Finally God steps back and gazes upon a phenomenal work of art. To look at its beauty would take your breathe away. And it’s a picture of you. You are God’s work of art. God loves you. God wants you. You are God’s masterpiece, and God won’t stop cherishing you.

Now imagine taking a step back. Your picture hangs on a wall in God’s art gallery. There are more pictures next to yours. Each is an original. Each is a carefully created masterpiece. God has about 6.5 billion of these masterpieces hanging in creation’s art gallery. Have you come to a place in your life where you know you are deeply loved, fully pleasing, totally forgiven, accepted, and complete in Christ? Have you come to a place where you realize that God shares that same grace with others? No matter who we are, no matter where we are on life’s journey, we are God’s masterpieces, and we are welcome here.

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