[I'm a little late. This is the sermon for March 18]
The mess is much greater than we want to admit. I’m not talking about any particular mess, although I could easily name a few, from news reports to the very personal. The mess is much greater than we want to admit, because admitting it is so hard. In general, we much prefer blaming somebody else for the things we ought to face. We blame our parents, we blame the poor or the rich, we blame the other voters, we blame the media or China. And if we can’t find anyone else to blame, we much prefer living in denial. Why face reality when you can avoid it?
Her friends have been telling her they are worried about her drinking, and she just laughs, “Oh, I just have a little wine to help me relax, but it’s all under control. I could quit tomorrow if I wanted.”
His sister tells him she’s concerned about the toll his travel schedule is taking on his family, and he just smiles, “Oh, it’s OK, they’re used to it, and in the summer, I’ll take a week off.”
The mess is much greater than we want to admit. Admitting it is hard, because it means admitting to ourselves that we are not who we like to think we are.
Tom Long was watching a talk show on tv, where a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story. He talked about growing up in a warm and loving Christian family and how he discovered in high school that he was blessed with a vibrant faith and also with a rare musical gift. Eventually shaking off the dust of his little town, he took his faith and his guitar and headed off toward the bright lights of Nashville, aiming at a career in gospel music. And here in Music City, he found some success, but, unfortunately, he also found drugs—lots of them. Soon his once young and hopeful life spiraled out of control; his vibrant faith all but vanished. One night, he came completely apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God in despair. “I woke up the next day,” he said, “and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I just give credit to the Lord,” he said, reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity. “I think God rescued me.” [See Thomas G. Long, Just as I Am, The Christian Century, March 21, 2006, p. 18]
The mess is much greater than we want to admit, and sometimes it takes getting this very close look of the kitchen floor, before we can cry for help. Now Tom Long is a theologian and a professor who teaches preaching, and before he even started telling this story, he let his readers know that he doesn’t want to hear this kind of story from the pulpit. And after he told it, he went on to name all the good reasons why a story like that shouldn’t be told from the pulpit. “It seems simplistic,” he writes, “theologically naïve; it belongs in the Christian tabloids.” Turns out, this kind of story is very much part of the world he grew up in as a southern Protestant. It reminds him of the sweaty revivalist culture of his youth and the personal testimonies with their recurring plot of “I was sinking deep in sin.”
Tom Long doesn’t like stories that come with the smell of sawdust. But he’s old enough and wise enough to question his own discomfort with stories of sin and salvation. Perhaps these stories just get too close to the core, he wonders. Perhaps this desire to make the faith about spiritual enlightenment or ethical ideals or the broad love of God that inspires tolerance, perhaps that desire is about keeping things orderly, reasonable, and under control, much like the rest of our lives.
But there’s no denying that the gospel is at root a rescue story, a story about people face down on the kitchen floor. “You were dead,” is the opening line of the second chapter of Ephesians, “but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. … By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Talk about a rescue story! We weren’t just picked up from the kitchen floor, we were snatched from the jaws of the lion, and we barely knew even half the trouble we were in. The mess is much greater than we want to admit. We want to hold on as long as we possibly can to the illusion that everything’s fine and we don’t need anyone’s help. We cannot admit that we are trapped, that we are captive to destructive forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or work or crawl our way free. We cannot admit that we need saving.
Ephesians was written in a world very different from our own, and the letter’s first audience had no trouble imagining a demonic ruler of the power of the air. We do not commonly describe that which drives us to destructive behavior against each other and against ourselves as an independent power; but we know that people can be trapped and not know it. We can be trapped in death and be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that; our whole life can be twisted around a lie and we’re convinced it’s the truth, because it’s all we’ve ever heard.
The gospel is a rescue story, the story of an ongoing rescue operation. We need saving because we live in a world that is estranged from its maker, and we don’t realize that we live in a broken relationship until we get a taste of God’s faithfulness, a taste of the redeemed life. In Ephesians, this is spelled out in powerful images of overcoming. Estranged from God, we become confused about the purpose of life and who we are, and we lead lives that are destructive – for others, for ourselves, and ultimately for all of life. We may not know it, but we follow the course of the world; we follow our own passions and desires, and even they are not our own because we don’t know who we are.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.
In the cosmology of this letter and of the people to whom it was first addressed, the powers that confuse us about who we are and what life is, inhabit the air between earth and the moon, hence the name, ruler of the power of the air. But Christ has been raised and seated beyond them – and we with him. This doesn’t mean we’ve been taken out of the world – obviously we haven’t. But with Christ we know who we are as God’s own, and with Christ we gain a better perspective of our lives and how to live as God’s own rather than as slaves to oppressive powers.
The cosmology of the ancient world is very strange to me, but I love the contrast between two images: one of a man lying face down on the kitchen floor, crying out for help, and another of that same man sitting next to Christ on high, redeemed by the loyal love of God. Few of us imagine the world the way people in antiquity did, but this image has lost nothing of its power: the love of God is greater than the powers that rob us of life, and in the company of Christ, we are who we were meant to be: human beings in relationship with God, and therefore truly alive.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Perhaps you were still wondering if being seated with Christ in the heavenly places might mean something like being removed from he world, spiritually or otherwise. To me, this verse makes it very clear that the redeemed life is not about being rescued out of the world, but about being in the world and walking the path that has been prepared for us, be it individually or as a community of God’s people. Every human life has good works as its purpose, which means every person has a divine calling: to follow a way of life that reflects the loyal love and mercy of God, that is to walk with Christ, to work with Christ, to be alive with Christ.
We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning; it is a song with a recurring refrain, calling on the redeemed to thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. The psalm sings of people wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, their souls fainting within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town.
At first glance, that straight way is simply the shortest way out of the desert. But at second glance, we recognize that straight way as the way of life God has prepared for us to lead us from the desert wastes to the community where life flourishes. The psalm goes on to sing of some that sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons; they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.”
At first glance, that verse is about getting out of prison. But at second glance, it is about all of us who are trapped in lives that are neither our own, nor God’s—until God breaks our bonds.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.