15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I don’t know if I can describe how important this Scripture lesson has been for me this week. I’m going to try, but this reading hit me in a very personal way.
I’m not bashful about my issues: among them is an ongoing battle with depression. I know I’m not alone in having issues, so I’m honest about things like that so we might all be honest about things like that, and thus bear those things together. I try not to let my issues be the topic of every conversation, but sometimes it needs to be. And to be honest, I’ve been going through a rather rough patch for a while there.
I remember telling my wife a little while ago, “I am just so tired of being sad all the time.” And as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I thought, “You know, there is something you haven’t tried for a while.” Beyond eating right, getting better sleep, and going outside once in a while, I remembered I could pray about it; even better, have someone pray with me about it. So I did. I prayed for what I know has lifted me before: I prayed that God would remind me how deeply I am loved. I know I’m loved, intellectually; but the depression won’t let me feel like I’m loved sometimes. So I prayed, had a friend pray with me, and then I took to preparing this message.
Talk about your God sightings. I experienced a genuine healing this week; I don’t think I’m cured, but I know I’m healed. I read this lesson and the clouds lifted and I was reminded of something only God’s Spirit can remind me: I am loved; lavishly, recklessly, and abundantly. My prayer for all of us this morning is that the words and sentiment that Paul speaks to us today, by the grace of God’s Spirit, might make a home in your heart too. May we receive this extravagant grace as the gift it is. And better still, when we leave this place, may that boundless grace be a rewrapped gift we bring to bless all those around us.
Today we begin a brief series on the first part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; because we are in particular need to hear what Paul has to say in the Book of Ephesians. We need to hear it personally, but we also need to hear it as a church; the world around us so desperately needs us to hear and embrace these words as a church.
Ephesians is somewhat unique among Paul’s letters, in that there doesn’t seem to be a problem to solve. He’s writing to a church that is just simply trying to be the church. It’s worth noting, by the way, that this was way before the Emperor Constantine. Paul is writing to the church before it was institutionalized, back when it was just a movement. And in a world that, increasingly, doesn’t seem to trust or even like the institutionalized church, remembering how to be the church as a movement, I think might be a helpful thing for us to remember.
So that’s one reason we’re looking at Ephesians. The other is this: the fact that Paul is not writing to a church in crisis, makes me feel like he’s writing directly to us. I mean, as far as I know, no one is preaching some heresy; no one is preaching a “Jesus and” religion, where his work is not enough somehow; we are still grounded in Scripture and put our trust in Jesus alone. Also, as far as I know, we are not fighting about anything. In fact, we seem pretty united to me. I mentioned our upcoming congregational meeting. I am certain that, by the end of that longer conversation, someone will be disappointed by the decision we come to. I am also certain that, in spite of that, we will remain united. We are a people whose unity is not dependent on our ability to agree; that’s important. We were just talking about that at our Friday morning group: that the unity we share is really a remarkable thing. We don’t always think about it much, but we all know by our experiences in churches, that unity isn’t always the rule. We should celebrate it; we should brag about it; it’s a very good thing.
So Paul is writing to a church like us about being the church like the church that we are trying to be: beyond the building and the business, we want to be a community that seeks and serves Jesus. So where does Paul begin this lesson? Exactly where you should: with unbridled praise. These opening words give praise to God because that is where all of our conversations should start. Notice that this is all about what God has done. It is God, who has blessed us in Jesus with every spiritual blessing. It is God, who has had a plan for you specifically for adoption and redemption, from the beginning of creation. You have a destiny; God’s plan for you for today and all of eternity! And to top all that off, you have been given the Spirit of God to guide you and to provide proof that you are loved by God forever. And it’s all God’s doing; you didn’t have to lift a finger.
As we consider together what it means to be the church, this is where we have to start. The word that comes to mind is “lavish.” We have to start by remembering together the lavish good news that we have received. We have to remind one another of the lavish love of God that we know and share. We have to make room, here in this place, for the Spirit of God to let this lavish grace lift us from despair. We have to, because if you think we sometimes know despair around here, just imagine what they feel out there. Just imagine the despair they feel, who have never even heard. We have to remember the lavish gospel that we have received, that we might lavish it on this world.
As you might have noticed, I like this word “lavish.” There is no negative way to use it. One can only “lavish” good things. “I was lavished with criticism,” it doesn’t work. No, you can only be lavished with praise. “I got a parking ticket and was lavished with court fees.” No, it’s more like, “It was my birthday and I was lavished with gifts.” The lavish love that God has shown us is a love beyond any other; it’s a love that will change the world.
One of the high points of our vacation was a gift from my brother-in-law. He took us for an overnight stay at a resort in Palos Verdes, right on the coast. This place was swanky (“swanky” is a good word too). We only stayed there overnight, but we made the most of it. We got there in the early afternoon left in the early evening of the next day. In between, we made proficient use of the resort’s many pools, walking trails along the beach, restaurants, and fancy rooms. All of that was wonderful, but I think my favorite part was a man named Luis.
When we first arrived, we walked into the lobby and Luis sauntered up to welcome us. He engaged us in small talk: where we were from and how long we were staying (by the way, he seemed genuinely sad for us that we were only staying one night). And then Luis said, “Hey, do you guys want some Champaign? Let me get you some Champaign.” And the next thing I knew, I had a glass of Champaign in my hand. I didn’t notice where it came from, I didn’t hear a cork pop, it seemed to just magically appear from the hand of Luis.
I observed Luis over the next thirty hours or so, and as far as I could tell, that was his job. He didn’t seem to serve in any managerial function; he didn’t work the registration; he didn’t help anyone with their bags; there were other people for those things. It just seemed like his job was to hang out in the lobby, be welcoming, and hand out Champaign and any hour of the day.
Now, I have two thoughts from that experience that I think relate to our Scripture lesson today. First, the lavish luxury that we experienced at that resort is comparable to the Gospel we proclaim. It is vast and extravagant, it meets our needs and more, and best of all: someone else has paid for it! This is the lavish church we have been called to be… but we think of ourselves as a Motel 6. Motel 6 is fine and all. If you are traveling and all you need or expect is a place to sleep, it’s fine, I guess. But that is not the church our Savior conquered death for us to be.
Which leads me to my other thought: when I met Luis, I thought, “Luis’ job needs to be the church’s job.” Maybe not the Champaign exactly, but things like that. Things that convey the lavish, extravagant love that it is our job to share. As we go out into this world, remembering the lavish grace that we have received, let us seek equally lavish ways to share it. And when you do, wear your shirt.