Blessed to be a Blessing – Ephesians 1.3-14

August 2, 2015 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

It was a Monday morning sometime after Easter. Phillip, Mark and I were sitting in the forum room for our weekly staff meeting and we started to talk about what we would preach this summer. For a number of summers now, we have departed from the lectionary in the summer choosing a theme or a particular book of the bible for the topic of our preaching.

In the summer we find ourselves in the season of Ordinary Time where the lectionary takes us through some of the big stories of the Old Testament and moves us through one of the gospels. It also typically takes us through one or two of the Epistles—the letters in the New Testament that follow the gospels and Acts.

This year, which is Year B in the lectionary, the gospel we read through is Mark—and we’ve been preaching from Mark in the early part of the summer. And this summer, the lectionary spends six weeks in the book of Ephesians. Neither Mark nor I preach much from the Epistles. In fact, neither one of us is particularly enamored with the Apostle Paul, who is considered the author of many of the Epistles. And precisely for those reasons we thought we would spend six weeks in Ephesians this summer. Our intention, you might say, is to wrestle a blessing out of this letter.

An advantage of the Epistles is they are generally short—Ephesians has a total of 155 verses—so it’s easy to read through the letter is one or two sittings. I encourage you to do that this summer. Pick up your bible, or download a copy on your electronic device, or print out the six small chapters and carry it with you to read on the bus or while you’re waiting for an appointment or whenever you have a few minutes. It makes the excerpts we get in the lectionary hold together so much better. You can see where the writer starts and where he’s headed. You’ll also pick up the language that gets repeated throughout the letter—adding to the writer’s emphasis. And you’ll probably notice, as I did, how many familiar religious phrases there are in this letter. Things like: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (2.8), “Christ is our peace” (2.14), “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2.19), “You are being rooted and grounded in love” (3.17) and one of my favorite blessings, “Now to the God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to this God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (3.20, 21).

Now, two disclaimers about this letter to the Ephesians from Paul. It probably wasn’t really to the Ephesians and it probably wasn’t really written by Paul. I’m sorry to let you down on both those counts. We’ll still call it the letter to the Ephesians but the earliest copies of this letter do not include the attribution “in Ephesus” in the first verse of chapter 1. Many scholars think this letter was meant to be circulated among a number of churches and not addressed to one particular congregation.

The second disclaimer about Ephesians is most scholars think the letter was not written by Paul but by an individual who followed Paul and kept his message about the Good News of Jesus Christ going after Paul’s death.

Because we don’t know precisely who the letter was written to and by whom, we’re not exactly sure what the context is for this letters—what the circumstance or the question or the disagreement was that this letter wanted to address.

This letter was probably written a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. People expected Jesus to return, sooner rather than later, and as the decades stretched on and there was no return, people began to wonder how they were supposed to live—now that what they thought was going to happen, didn’t seem to be happening. That may the context into which the writer pens this letter.

The letter has two major sections—the first, a theological foundation, setting the stage for the second part. The first part rehearses and celebrates what God has done in Christ on our behalf. And then the second section is a discussion of “because of what God has done, how then are we called to live?”

So here we are this morning in chapter 1 at the beginning of the theological foundations that the author sets out for us.

Ephesians begins with blessing and praise of God: Blessed be God who has blessed us in Christ and destined us for adoption as God’s children; God redeemed us through Christ and has given us an inheritance as God’s own people. That’s the cut and dried version of verses 3 through 14. But listen again to the exuberant language we find here: God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and chosen us in love to be adopted as God’s own children. Why? Because it is God’s good pleasure to do so. God has freely bestowed grace—glorious grace—on us in Christ, who is the Beloved. We are redeemed according to the riches of God’s grace that God has lavished on us. God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure. In Christ, we have an inheritance as God’s own people, and so we live a life of praise, giving glory to God for all this goodness.

As I read this passage again and again, I was taken by all the love and the grace and the pleasure of God it contains. Some Christian traditions frame talk about redemption with shameful and scolding words. Here, our redemption in Christ comes because of the rich grace of God that is lavished on us. Some Christian traditions emphasize the depth of our sinfulness and the debt we owe God. Here, it is God’s good pleasure to make us God’s own through adoption, freely bestowing grace upon grace upon grace.

That is something for us to take in and savor; to soak up this great love and lavish grace. To let ourselves take in that we, too, as God’s adopted children are the beloved of God.

More than just a letter, we might hear this set of verses as a hymn of praise, blessing God for all that God has done, praising God for the grace and blessing that fills our lives and for the inheritance that is ours because we are God’s children.

This is a joyful hymn, an invitation to praise and thanksgiving. “Blessed be God” begins this letter, a reminder “that the first movements of prayer [are] thanksgiving and praise directed to God.”[1] And likewise worship in a Presbyterian Church begins with praising with God. In chapter 2 the writer of this letter says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2.8)

A theological hallmark of the Presbyterian tradition is the rhythm of grace and gratitude. God offers us grace and we respond with gratitude. Even in our prayer of confession each week we begin with a reminder of God’s grace, then we admit our failings, and then we are assured again of God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s a “grace sandwich” I heard a worship professor say one time.[2] And we say “thank you,” we bless God in return. Professor of New Testament, Pheme Perkins, writes “The moments of asking, lament, or reaching out in the emptiness of despair, equally necessary to the life of prayer, make no sense without this framework” of beginning with “thanksgiving and blessing directed to God.”[3]

This glorious inheritance we have been given as the adopted daughters and sons of God asks one thing of us in return—that we “live for the praise of God’s glory” (v12). The Westminster Cathechism says it this way: The chief end of human kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

But it’s not all “Jesus and me.” The language of this opening passage is collective. We hear “we and us.” And then a subtle shift in verse 13: “In you also.” Pastor Karen Chakoian notes “the constant plural pronouns remind us that this gift is not an individual blessing but always for the community of Christ.”[4] And as we will see more clearly as we read farther into Ephesians, it is not just one group of people who make up the community of Christ, God intends to gather up all things—all people, all of creation—in the fullness of time.

We can—and should—soak up the grace and the love—savor our belovedness when we hear this letter. And remember this grace and belovedness is for all people. It is for us and it is for Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose. It is for African American teenagers at a swim party and Freddie Gray. It is for Walter Scott and Antonio Zambrano-Montes. It is for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.[5] It is for Clementa Pinckley and his eight church members.

As we give thanks for God’s grace and love so freely bestowed, we know that God’s grace and love comes in the middle of suffering and injustice, in the middle of trouble and terror. Remember how God blessed Abraham, way back in Genesis? God said, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.2-3) And so I wonder today what it looks like for us to deeply take in our belovedness by God and then for our belovedness to be a source of blessing and healing and justice for others?

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[1] Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 377.

[2] I think this was said by Fred Holper.

[3] Perkins.

[4] Karen Chakoian, “Ephesians 1.3-14 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 234.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003828834/the-videos-that-changed-policing.html?contentCollection=U.S.&contentPlacement=9&module=most-popular-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=most-popular-videos-click, accessed 1 August 2015, graphic video footage of the arrest or murder of each of the named individuals.

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Living Space – Psalm 19 & Exodus 20.1-17

March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent

This morning our scripture passages are all about the law. Lisa read Exodus 20—the ten commandments—and I read Psalm 19 which has that big section about the desirability and sweetness of the law.

That is probably not what most of us think about—gold or honey—when we think about the law.

We may think about “The Law” as police officers cracking down on criminals. I googled images for “the law” and many of the pictures that came up were of a court gavel—you can think of a judge banging the gavel and calling for, “Order in the court!” A lot of other pictures were of books of laws or of the scales of justice that weigh the pros and cons of a case.

Mostly, I think, we see the law as a set of rules—perhaps arbitrary, perhaps punitive. Maybe we think of the law as a list of rules about things we’re not supposed to do. Like the ten commandments: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lust after your neighbor’s possessions or spouse. For many of us, the law is probably not something we’re particularly interested in thinking about or having to deal with and if we have to it’s because we have bumped up—or been slammed up—against it.

But listen to how the psalmist describes the law of God. (If you were reading along in your bible, this is verses 7 through 10.) This is how the law is characterized: It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. And this is what the psalmist says the law does: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring and it is righteous.

I think most of those words are not words that we would use if asked to describe the law. So I wonder what is it about the law of God as it comes to us through the Hebrew scriptures—that is experienced by the biblical writers as life-giving and beneficial.

One thing that may help us is to know that the meaning of the Hebrew word torah that gets translated “law” is more about “instruction [than it is about] legal rules and stipulations.” (Mays, 41) And torah is not just the list of rules—like the ten commandments. Torah, says James Mays in his commentary on the Psalms, “is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and the will of [God] is given to Israel…It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight…because [God] reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.” (Mayes, 41-42)

So perhaps we really need to use a different English translation—not “law” but “instruction” or as Barbara Brown Taylor translates, “direction or teaching.” (Taylor, 75)

In the Godly Play class, children learn about the ten commandments as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” Hear what Professor Mays says again: “It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness.”

Perhaps there is a constitutional lawyer out there who would describe the U.S. constitution and laws as something like this but for the rest of us when we about the law of God in the Bible, we are talking about a very different thing than we typically think about when we think about the law in this country. So for this morning at least, let’s use the language of instruction and direction and teaching.

And catch again how the psalmist describes this instruction: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring, it is righteous and it is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.
So back to the idea that the instruction, the direction, the teaching of God is not just a list of dos and don’ts. You might think that’s contradicted by the ten commandments—because that, actually, is a list of dos and don’ts. But first, it is a story.

“I am the Holy One your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” begins the story. This is the story of a relationship between the One who created the universe, promised blessing to a nation of people, liberated them when they were enslaved, accompanied them in the wilderness providing food and drink. That’s a pretty big story that is full of difficulty and full of divine grace.

And out of the story comes an identity: We are the people of the One who made us, who freed us, who provided for us.

And out of that identity comes a way of life. Having been created, freed and accompanied by God, how do we then live? The decalogue (that’s another word for the ten commandments—it comes from deca which means ten and logue—like logos—which is related to words) describes how we live. Tom Long paraphrases the decalogue this way: “Because the [Holy One] is your God…you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land. The decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results.” (Long) That is, God frees us to live like this…

Isn’t that kind of an irony in the way we typically think of the law? The law of God, the torah, the instruction, direction, teaching, frees us. Frees us to love God and to love our neighbor—those are the two parts of the decalogue. In this freedom we have an identity and a purpose: we are God’s people, we belong to God and as God’s people we are freed to love God and to love our neighbor.

And so we hear—and might begin to feel—those characteristics the psalmist gives to God’s teaching: It revives the soul, generates wisdom, creates rejoicing, enlightens, endures, is righteous, is more to be sought after than riches and more to be desired than the sweetness of honey. Can you begin to feel that? To feel that freedom? Or maybe feel your own desire for this kind of freedom?

We are free not to chase after other gods. We are free to rest. We are freed from pursuing what does not lead to life. Freed by God, we are set free from treating other people in ways that kill and steal and covet. We are freed from the lies that tell us we do not belong to God. We are freed to become the people God created us to be; to live as God intends for us to live; to become truth about us—that we are the beloved of God.
Now think with me about the story of creation in Genesis 1. In the beginning the earth was a formless void. And God created light and held the light distinct from the dark. And then God separated the sky from the waters. And then God separated the dry land from the waters. In this story, God holds back the chaos so that life can flourish. God pushes back the chaos of nothingness—the formless void—and creates space for life to spring up and thrive. Out of the chaos, God creates living space. Space for life.

And that is what God does in the torah—in what we call the law—the instruction, direction, teaching—including, but not limited to, the specifics of the decalogue. God creates space. Living space. Space for life. God holds back the chaos of all that would tell us we do not belong to God. The chaos that obscures our belovedness. The chaos that persuades us to love only ourselves and not our neighbor. God holds back the chaos so that we might receive God’s instruction and in that direction find freedom. Freedom where there is space for life to flourish. Living space.

It seems to me this is particularly the invitation of Lent. To enter this space of time that we might become aware again (or perhaps for the first time) become aware of our belovedness, to let go of the clamoring chaos that tells us lies and let God’s truth sink deeply into us. The truth not only of our belovedness but the companion truth of the belovedness of our neighbor.

In this living space that God provides we experience freedom and we find again our identity as God’s people and find again our purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. And in that identity and purpose, we find our true life.

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works cited
Thomas G. Long “Dancing the Decalogue” in Christian Century, March 27, 2006, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/dancing-decalogue (accessed March 7, 2015)
James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Exodus 20:1-17” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.