A sermon based on Ephesians 1:3-14
Up until he was 9 years old, the only exposure that Rick Bragg had to church came on Sunday mornings when his momma would turn on the television and watch the revivalist preachers broadcast their sermons from auditoriums across the country. However, in his memoir, All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg describes what happened when his mother decided it was time to attend church in the flesh and took the family to Hollis Crossroads Baptist, a small congregation just outside of Possum Trot, Alabama. Bragg remembers meeting good people there; he remembers singing hymns with the congregation that didn't have a choir; he remembers that "the minister was a kind-looking older man who, instead of scaring the congregation spoke of the loveliness, the wonder, the bliss of salvation." Most of all, Bragg remembers what always came after the sermon. Bragg writes:
It happened at the end of every service, when the singing and the preaching was spent and the minister gave what was known as the call to the altar. The people in the congregation sang, softly, Just as I Am, as the old man in his sweat stained polyester sport coat begged them to come forward to kneel, to be Saved.... He saved them one by one, the young ones and the old ones and even the ones who had been saved noce or twice already... Every Sunday I waited. I waited for the invitation, the infusion, the joy. I waited for the Holy Ghost to slip inside my heart and my mind and, as He had done to those all around me, lift me out of the pew and up to that altar, Saving me. I waited like a boy waiting on a train. But while I felt wonder and maybe a little fear, I never felt what I had seen, or maybe sensed in the others. I was not refusing Him, rebuking Him. I wanted it, I wanted the strength of it, the joy of it, but mostly, I wanted the peace of it The preacher promised it. He promised. I just sat there. I could have pretended, - I think that some did pretend - but what good would that have done? I sat, as the Sundays drained away. I never felt so alone before. I don't think I ever have, since. I stopped going, after a while. I never went to church again, but I am not sorry I went then.
I don't know about you, but that story troubles me. It troubles me to picture that boy, waiting for a peace that never came. I think what troubles me most is his memory of "the loveliness, the wonder, and the bliss of salvation." If Rick Bragg had only ever heard a word of condemnation and fear I would not worry. I would simply say he never heard the good news. But to think that his memory is of the blessings of grace, and to think that he heard that message and wanted that grace and yet he walked away unsatisfied? That's what troubles me most. How painful it must be to see faith in the faces of other people, but to see it as if from the other side of a glass. The more you try to draw close, the more your face is pressed against the glass, distorted. Press too hard, and suddenly you realize you can't even breathe. I wonder if you have ever looked on in envy at someone's faith and wondered why you couldn't summon the same. I wonder if your heart has ever been troubled on behalf of someone on the other side of the glass.
A little later in the book of Ephesians, Paul will say: "You are saved by God’s grace throughfaith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of." To some of you this is good news - salvation and faith are a gift! You can't earn them. God doesn't love you because of what you've done or not done; God loves you just because! But to others of us, it is terrifying to think that this assurance we call faith is a gift. Because we cannot control a gift. I cannot make you give me a gift. A gift depends entirely on the giver. And if you, or a 9 year old boy can sit there, waiting for that gift that never seems to come - what does that say about the Giver?
Some churches will say that it means the Giver does whatever the Giver pleases, and its not for us to question. Some call it fate. Some call it destiny. Some really churchy people call it "predestination." Whatever you call it, the conviction is the same. If there is a God, then God must choose some folks for faith and not others. Some folks are just wired for faith, and others are not. When we look at the scriptures read today, they seem equally fatalistic about the prospects of faith: "God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love... we are destined by the plan of God." We are destined... Whoever "we" are does that mean some are destined for something else? Is God really so choosy.
And the answer is, of course, "Yes." God is incredibly choosy. The nation of Israel was God's chosen people. King David was their chosen king. Every prophet was specially chosen by God. Jesus made a point of telling his disciples "you did not choose me, I chose you." Today's scripture comes from a preacher named Paul, and maybe you've heard the story of how Paul was chosen on the road to Damascus. Paul was dead set on killing Christians and throwing them in jail until God intervened and said, "I've chosen something better for you." God chose Paul to become the greatest missionary of the early church. God is incredibly, relentlessly choosy. If you read any part of the Bible for very long, you get a quick answer to the question "Does God choose people?" but don't stop there. Don't stop asking questions.
It is perfectly healthy to ask the obvious next question: "Why?" Why does God choose? What is God choosing for?
Because thank God, in today's passage, the answer to that question comes just as quickly: "This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth." God's plan is to bring all things together. God has chosen some, to be a sign and a witness that God chooses all, that God is bringing all things together. Let me repeat that. God has chosen some, to be a sign that God chooses all.
This is strange and this is complicated. In verse 9, Paul calls it "God's mystery." So let me see if I can put it in more every day terms. Don't think of salvation or grace or even the Holy Spirit as if they were invisible concepts. Imagine for a moment that the grace of God was something you could see and touch and taste. Imagine what it would be like if grace was like food. And imagine if God had chosen to give that food to a particular group of people; imagine God gave it to them as a special gift. God said, "Here, I have this beautiful meal, and I choose to share it with you, and I choose to share it at this particular time, and this particular place." Then imagine that every time this group of people got together to receive this meal, some strangers showed up at the same time, and the same place. What do God's chosen people do? Do they say "God chose us for this meal, not you"? Or do they say "Oh! That's why God chose to give us this meal! So that we would have enough to share!"
You don't have to imagine. This is what happens every time we take communion. We believe it is a gift that God gives especially to the church, so that we can offer it to all.
As we go through the book of Ephesians, the title of this series is How to Church, and Why. We will spend most of our time on the how. As we look at Paul's letter to the Ephesians, we will take some comfort in discovering that being the church has never been simple; it's never come naturally. The church has always had its challenges and it's obstacles. The church has always needed instruction. But before we can talk too much about how to be church, we have to talk about why God bothers to have a church at all. Why has God chosen to have a people called "church"? We better get this answer right: God has chosen us to be a sign that God chooses all.
Every month, I hold our "Coffee With the Pastor," which is where anyone who is interested can learn what it means to become a member of this church. And when I host that I often say that joining the church is like the opposite of joining American Express. American Express used to advertise its credit cards by saying "membership has its privileges." Well, that's not the church. You don't need to be a member of this church for us to visit you in the hospital, or pray for you. You don't have to be a member to join a small group or worship in your favorite seat or come join us in this holy meal or for us to teach your kids on kids street. No. When you become a part of this church, the only privilege you get is a mission and a calling. You accept that God has chosen you to share all these gifts with the world. You accept that God has chosen you to be a part of God's plan to "bring all things together in Christ."
And when we say all things, we mean all things. When you accept that God is calling you, you accept responsibility for all sorts of things that weren't your problem before. If God has chosen us to "bring all things together in heaven and on earth" then we are chosen to be a sign for how God wants all people to treat the earth. We are chosen to be a sign of unity and peace, and in a week like this last one that saw at least 3 black churches burned by arson, we don't get to say "not my problem." When we see injustice and evil in the world, we are responsible for calling it out. And if we are chosen to "bring all things together" then when we move among people who are disconnected, we cannot stand at a safe distance from them. I guess that's what troubles me most about Rick Bragg's story. I can accept that he wanted to wait for a true conviction in his heart. I can accept that he refused to pretend. That seems well and good and honest to me. What I cannot accept is him saying "I've never felt so alone." If all those people were being chosen to "bring all things together," then somebody was chosen to make sure a 9 year old boy didn't wait alone. I can't help thinking that somebody's calling was not to go forward. God had chosen someone to wait with the lonely boy and be a sign that he was not forgotten. I have to believe God had chosen someone for that purpose, and someone chose not to accept that responsibility.
Isn't that strange? After all this talk about who God chooses, isn't it odd to think how much God entrusts to what the church chooses? It is only after God chooses us that we can choose to be faithful or not. That is more freedom than we know what to do with. We are more familiar with the freedoms that we defend by force or buy on the open market. The only freedom the church has is the freedom that comes by a gift; we aren't called to waste our time defending or buying it. We're called to spend our time on using it.
God has chosen the church to be a sign that God chooses all. And since I assume that all sorts of folks are gathered here, I have a different word for all those God has united in this place.
To the chosen people of God, let me say do not forget why you are church. Choose this day to be faithful to the call you have received. Choose to take responsibility for mission God has given you. Let us choose to freely share every crumb and every drop of the grace God has chosen to give us.
And to those who do not yet know that God has chosen you: To those who are pleading with God for the gift of peace, and those who are waiting for the wonder that you felt so deeply. To you I say, we are here to make sure you do not wait alone. There's no need to pretend. There's no need to settle. We will wait with you. And if God has not yet given you the faith you are looking for, take comfort in this. We have plenty of faith to share. You may not yet know that God has chosen you. But we do. We are sure of it. We know that you are God's child, and we will share our assurance with you until it is your own. Remember, Paul said "we were the first to find hope in Christ." I take that to mean that we will not be the last.
And finally, I have a word for those who are just beginning right now to realize that God has chosen you, forgiven you, and called you. For you who this morning have just realized that you can choose with all integrity to say "I will follow Jesus." To you, I say: Welcome. Don't wait any longer. We've got work to do.