Called, then Equipped

 Inspired by Ephesians 4:1-16

So, we continue this four-week romp through the letter to the Ephesians, this being week three, and without giving you any spoilers, I’m really excited to get to next week because I don’t think anyone could have guessed where this is all headed. In week one we talked about our adopted identity as Christians. In week two, we talked about how that adopted identity levels the playing field for us. And right out of the gate, I’m just gonna tell you what today’s passage is about, it’s about being called and equipped. But I’m telling you, you’ll never guess what the author ends up doing with all that at the end of this letter.  

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, today is all about being called and equipped. I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately that have helped to shape this sermon, so thank you all for that. As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say about this passage, a flood of recent conversations came to mind, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this was not a coincidence. I’ll share a few with you today, don’t worry I’ll keep them anonymous and I won’t include any embarrassing details! 

My working title for this sermon was “Called, then Equipped.” And that seems backward doesn’t it! In our society we train first, we practice first, we learn first, we go to college, grad school, trade school, we do internships and apprenticeships, the equipping always seems to come first. Sometimes, we do all those things, and then decide if we are really called to whatever we were equipping ourselves for!  

But that is not what the author of Ephesians seems to be getting at here. In fact, if you read this carefully, the author assumes that we are called first, then equipped to do what we have been called to do. I find that both encouraging and terrifying all at the same time! It’s not very logical, is it? At least not to our human way of doing things. Why would you call on someone to do something without first knowing if they can even do it! That’s no way to run a business!  

But there’s the difference. We may not know, but God knows. God knows our qualifications because God is the one that gives them! That’s why I find this so encouraging. There’s so much grace in the fact that God already has faith in you to do what God has called you to do. But that doesn’t make it any less scary, does it! So, I overheard a conversation last week at coffee hour. Everyone’s now thinking, “Oh Lord, what did I say now?!” Either that or, “This is exactly why I don’t attend coffee hour!” I’m joking, I’m joking! The conversation was about protesting, going to a local protest. And one person said, “I’d go to one but I don’t know enough about the issue to feel comfortable going!” I kinda chuckled to myself because I’ve thought that exact same thing.  

Here’s another related conversation. Through my work with the synod, I have the honor of working with many of our seminarians. Being a support for them, an ear to vent with. And in a recent conversation with one of them, they were talking about their upcoming CPE. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, it’s a requirement for all our seminarians and is a three month full time experience as a chaplain usually in a hospital setting. It’s a mixture of classwork discussions, but most importantly, lots of visits with patients in their hospital rooms.  

And the issue that this particular seminarian was having was the fact that they don’t give you any training or instruction before visitations start. In fact, they start right away. This seminarian said, they just throw you in those rooms and hope for the best! As I sat there just nodding my head as if to say, “Yep! We all had to do it! Now it’s your turn!” I think they were hoping for a word of comfort or to tell them that it’s really not that bad. I had no such words. It really is that bad. 

What I could say though, is what I’m about to tell you now. Being called, and then being equipped, is how God has designed it. As illogical as it may seem, as scary as it may feel, as backwards as it may look, it’s designed that way, by God. And that in and of itself should give us hope and encouragement, and better yet, the bravery needed to say yes to whatever God is calling you to do. And that goes for everyone, not just those called to be pastors, but everyone.  

And it goes for no matter how big or small the task may be. Whether God is calling you to a protest or serving on council, whether God is calling you to feed a hungry family on the street or serve as an usher here at worship, whether God is calling you to professional ministry or volunteer ministry, the process is the same. We are called, then we are equipped. As one theologian put it, “True faith doesn’t know everything, but trusts the one who does.”  

Alright, so now that we have that down, the next question is, what are we being equipped for? This will be very clear next week but to set that up, let’s talk about what it is not. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that this chapter is about unity. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it’s probably not the kind of unity that you’d think. Biblical scholar, Thomas Slater, wisely wrote this about this passage, “We live in a world that has confused uniformity with unity.  

We live in a world that has confused uniformity with unity.” So, I’ve had two other conversations recently. The first was about a longing for local churches from different denominations to work together. And the other was about church splits. Both conversations are rooted in the same web that we humans get caught in all the time. When we don’t agree, we hit the road. When we don’t agree, we don’t work with each other.  

Whether that be within in one church, or across denominations, religions, or even international borders. It’s this common misbelief that we have to agree in the way that we believe or think or behave or practice or worship, and I haven’t even mentioned politics! The kind of unity that this author is talking about goes far beyond any of that. It’s not about uniformity of thought or doctrine or worship practices. It’s not about uniformity of political persuasion or tradition or even geography for that matter.  

It’s not a physical unity. It’s not an academic unity. It’s not an emotional unity, meaning it’s not a unity just to make us feel good and give ourselves a pat on our backs because we did something together without punching someone in the face. It’s a deeper unity that is at stake here. It’s a spiritual unity. And I don’t mean that in the hippy dippy we’re all one with the great spirit in the sky kind of way.  

I mean that if we have any chance at the kind of unity that this author is getting at, especially knowing where he is eventually going with all of this, then we are going to have to remember and reengage with our God-given connection that we have with all those around us, a connection that is deeper than the physical, academic, or emotional. It’s a spiritual connection that we will have to remember in order to find the unity that this author is calling us toward. Because when we do, so much of that other stuff, seems so much less important: the politics, the doctrines, the traditions, the rituals, the property, the building, and other such material things, it’s all just less important than we thought.  

Not unimportant. But certainly much less important. When we find the maturity, as the author calls it, the maturity to remember our spiritual connection with others, we find the ability to see the image of God in every single living being we encounter. And that is a game changer. When we can get to that point in our faith journeys, that’s when we can finally get to work on what we are called to at the end of this letter. Until then, know that you are all called to do God’s work in the world, but most importantly, know that since you are called, you will be equipped. And in that assurance, may you find the encouragement, boldness, and bravery to whatever it is that God is calling you to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Great Equalizer

Inspired by Ephesians 2:11-22

When Sara and I got married, our pastor asked us what ritual elements we would like to include in the service. As a pastor myself, I now know why he asked this. You never know what a couple wants to include in a service! I’m pretty open to any idea but I’d have to draw the line at asking me to dance just so they could make a funny YouTube video in the middle of the service! Lucky for him, we didn’t ask for anything crazy. One thing that was mentioned was a unity candle. For those of you not familiar with that ritual, a unity candle is a set of three candles, two small simple candles on either side of a large more elaborate candle. The idea is that at a certain point in the service, the couples light their own small candle, and then from those flames, the large candle is then lit, hence, a unity candle, a reference to that old Genesis passage, “and the two shall become one flesh.”  

Our pastor was perfectly fine with including that but he had one stipulation. He said, “I’m only comfortable including that if you don’t blow out the small candles at the end of the ritual.” We said ok, not thinking much about it and then during that part of the service, he pointed out to the those assembled that we had not blown out the small candles and the reason why was because, even though we were now joining ourselves to one another, and becoming a new entity, we were also still individuals, with individual gifts that we both bring to the table of our marriage.  

That even though we were making something new, we were still ourselves. It seems like a simple truth, but it had a profound effect on me as a new husband. It has been a constant reminder for me to not allow our marriage to hinder her ability to blossom into the amazing individual that she has been called to become. Now, how well I did with that I don’t know, you can ask her. But I do know that she has done a wonderful job allowing me to blossom as an individual. 

This passage from Ephesians is pretty darn convicting. Here the author gives us a vision of what we were to become, the original blueprint that was set out before us to follow; almost as if the author knew this was going to be a challenge for us, and I think the author probably did know that. It doesn’t take an anthropologist to pick up on human behavior, human patterns, and see what our strengths and weaknesses are. And speaking of weaknesses, the author spends a good chunk of time on community, and you can’t spell community without…unity, which the author spells out for us as well. It seems that, if you read between the lines here, that the early church was having a hard time with the concept of community. Even with Jesus still a very real memory in many of their minds, they still were struggling with finding unity among themselves.  

Last week we talked about adoption. The author used the metaphor of adoption to describe how God brings us into God’s family, to describe how God loves us into God’s family, and how that love stems from a choice to love us, when God doesn’t have to. Now, aside from being an absolute beautiful way to describe how God loves us and brings us into God’s own, there is something else this metaphor does for us. It levels the playing field. Have any of you see those videos on social media where a dog owner says to their dog, “Your adopted”, and then wait to see the dog’s reaction? Oh my gosh, they’re hilarious. Here’s one now!

So, the author of this letter wants there to be no confusion, no surprise, no shock, no disappointment, and goes out of the way to point out that we all are adopted. So before any of us get any ideas of superiority over any other group, before we get any ideas of having better credentials than anyone else, before any of us get any ideas of being in a better position, being favored, being entitled, being special in any way, just stop all that nonsense, cuz y’all are adopted, the author would remind us, y’all are adopted.  

It’s a great equalizer, putting us all on level ground, humble ground is the hope here. This letter was written to a group that was mostly gentile, mostly people without a Jewish background. And so, you’d think that a people like that, who had been welcomed in, adopted in, loved in, would have learned how to do that for others through that experience, that was the dream, that was the original blueprint, but apparently, they hadn’t figured that out, otherwise this author wouldn’t have felt the need to write this letter. 

And the author knew, that if they, we, were going to succeed in the work that we were called to do, we would have to figure this unity business out, we were going to have to figure out how to put aside our differences, and work together. Now, whether the author knew this or not, it’s interesting that this new religion, that we now know as Christianity, has become mostly a Gentile religion. Unfortunately, we forgot our adopted identity, and began operating like we were the originals!  

On Good Friday, we pray an ancient prayer called the Bidding Prayer. And in it we pray for all sorts of different groups of people. And at one point, we pray for “our Jewish siblings”, and the prayer refers to them as “the first to hear the word of God.” I’ve always loved that. It’s such a grounding, humbling recognition, especially in our U.S. American culture that seems to value being the first, being the greatest, above the things that really matter to God. 

And while we’re on the subject of U.S. American culture, this is a teaching of our own that we seem to have forgotten over the years. In 1782, congress approved the phrase E Pluribus Unum to be used on the Great Seal of the United States, which of course means, Out of Many, One. That was the original blueprint of our very own nation, that was the hope for us, that was the dream: Out of Many, One. Out of many cultures, nations, ethnicities, ideologies, religions, you name it, out of many, one. It’s simply a retelling of this ancient biblical truth that is so powerfully expressed in this letter we now know as Ephesians. And spoiler alert, it wasn’t a new concept then either but I digress. 

Now, before you get to down on yourselves, the author ends this chapter on a positive note, so don’t be too hard on yourselves. The author doesn’t want us to leave feeling like a bunch of failures. I mentioned last week just how centered on Christ this author is. True to form, the author ends this chapter by reminding us how, through Christ, God brings those that were far away, Gentiles, us, near to God. And at the end of the day, isn’t that all we really want, to be near to God? The author goes further to tell us that we have equal access to God through Christ, more good news, that we are not strangers to God, but citizens of God’s very own household, a household built with Christ as the cornerstone, the stone that all other stones are lined up with. More good news!  

And the whole building, us, is joined together in Christ, with the hope of growing up into a temple dedicated to God, reflecting who God is. But that’s not the best part. The best news comes at the end when the author says, “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.” Did you hear the present tense there? Building. Not built and now failed. But building. We are a work in progress and that is good news. No need to feel like failures here, as long as we keep at it, as long as we keep working on that original blueprint, thankful for our adopted identity, and ready and willing, to welcome others into the household in the same way that we have been, in the same way that we have been adopted in, loved in, to God’s household. All thanks to God through Christ, our very own unity candle in the flesh. Amen.


The Choice

 Inspired by Ephesians 1:1-14

Today we begin a four-week series in the letter to the Ephesians. These little series that we get to do in the summer months are nice because we get to dive a little deeper into so many books of the Bible that we really don’t get to spend much time on normally. And even when we do read them in worship, pastors rarely actually preach on them. This letter to the Ephesians is another example of these types of Bible books. 

So, before we dive in, let me give just a bit of context and background about this letter. I’ll try my hardest not to bore you to death. The letter begins with the two words, “From Paul.” I hope this doesn’t burst anyone’s bubble too badly but most scholars agree that this letter was not written by Paul. It was a common practice in that day to write a letter in the style and rhetoric of someone else, and even to put their name on it. It was a way to honor someone, not to plagiarize in the way that we would think of it today.  

Now, I won’t go into how they know that Paul didn’t write this, that would probably bore even a Bible nerd like myself. Suffice to say, it was probably written by a colleague or close follower of Paul. Similarly, scholars aren’t even convinced that this letter was really written to the Christians in the city of Ephesus! The oldest transcripts that we have do not contain the name Ephesus anywhere in them, but was added later for some unknown reason. 

Scholars believe that it had a more general audience rather than a specific city. Which actually will serve us quite well in the coming weeks, it will make this letter all the more applicable to us, even two thousand years later. Because, as you will see, the issues that are addressed in this letter are very timely. It will become clear that the issues of that day are the same issues that we struggle with today. That will give us both a sense of comradery with those early Christians, as well as a sense of sadness that we still haven’t figured these issues out, let alone solved them. 

We will address those issues in more detail in the next two weeks, leaving the fourth and final week for the, “so what” finale, so to speak, the, “what do we do with all this” finale. For this week however, the author wants to give us a firm foundation for the coming weeks. The author wants to give us a starting point, some basics of the faith, some biblical truths, that we will need to move forward through this letter with. These opening verses are chock full of biblical truths but there were three in particular that I wanted to point out to you. The first two are simple, profound but simple. It’s the third one that I’d like to spend a little more time on though.  

The first one is very straightforward, but it’s something that we often shy away from. The author begins by pointing out that we have been given every spiritual blessing that we need to do the work that we are called to do. But there’s a catch and think this is where we get tripped up. The author is not speaking to us as individuals, but as a collective group. Meaning, together we have been given all the spiritual gifts we need to do the work that God has called us to do together. Hopefully, if I do my job well, in the coming weeks you will see why this is a significant detail to point out.  

And the other simple but important point that I’d like to bring to your attention before we dive deeper into the last one is just how Christ-centered this author is. And that might seem a bit odd to say from a Christian text but what I mean by that is this, for the author, Christ was not only the core of our belief, but was the ultimate authority in our lives, and therefore should be the ultimate priority in our lives, even over ourselves. As we will see from the rest of this letter, Christians in that day had a habit of placing other things, including themselves, above Christ; placing their own priorities above Christ’s priorities. Kinda just sounds like being human, right! Like I said, I think this letter is going to turn out to be quite contemporary. 

But the main one I wanted to focus on, which I think gives us the most profound grounding as we move forward in this letter, is the author’s idea of what makes us children of God, particularly this God that was formerly only for the Jewish community. And to help us wrap our heads around this, the author uses the beautiful metaphor of adoption. I absolutely love the use of this metaphor. I don’t know why this has always touched me so. I wasn’t adopted. I don’t anyone really well that has been adopted. But there’s something about adoption that I have always found to be so sacred. And as I have thought about this over the years I think I know why. And it boils down to the choice, the choice to love someone. 

Loving someone in and of itself is a very special thing, don’t get me wrong, but choosing to love someone, when you don’t have to, that’s on a whole different plane. I was talking to my dad on Father’s Day and we were talking about the pain of losing a spouse. And I said that I could only imagine what that must be like. He looked at me kind of puzzled and said, “What do you mean? You lost your mom, so you know what loss is.” I said, well, yes, but we don’t get to choose our moms. And though the loss has been tremendous, there’s something very special about the bond between spouses. They didn’t have to spend the rest of their lives together. But they chose to do that. They chose each other. They chose to love one another, even though they don’t have to. That is a kind of love that is on a whole other plane of existence. 

It’s this same kind of love, this love based on a choice, that I think is what makes me so in awe of adoption, and the same could be said for someone who raises someone else’s child because of a divorce. It’s a love that is grounded in a choice to love that person. This is how the author of this letter wanted us to see our relationship with God, first and foremost. As being loved by God, not because we think God has to love us, not because we think we are somehow entitled to that love, not because we’ve been good enough for that love, not because of some legal agreement, not out of pity for us; no, we are loved out of pure grace, out of a desire of God’s to love us, by a choice to love us. That is a love on a whole different plane, that we get to see glimpses of, in the here and now, even if it’s in our fallible human kind of way.

Ok, so this sermon isn’t gonna end with a tidy neat little bow. And I think that’s because this has all been to set up what’s to come. And this kind of love, this love based on a choice to love, is going to be so crucial to what is coming from this author. So, stay tuned! Think of this as a multipart sermon if that helps! Or one of those infomercials that says, “But wait, there’s more!” Because isn’t that always the way, with God’s grace? There’s always more. So, until then, know that you are loved by a love deeper than you can possibly imagine, because God has chosen to love you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Gospel of Jeremiah

So, I’m not gonna lie, I was feeling a bit of pressure about today. Questions kept creeping up on me like, How rusty am I going to be? How much of a fool am I gonna make of myself? And then we were talking about the sermon during coffee hour last week and I thought, oh my gosh, the sermon! I’m gonna have to really wow them today! I’m gonna have to pull out all the stops! There’s some organ humor for ya Laura Ann.

I mean, I’m really gonna have to bring my A game! What if I can’t! What if I’m just not that inspired by today’s scripture reading? What if I disappoint our new members? This is the first time some of you have seen me in action! What if I, what if I…I…I…I…Did you hear all those I’s I’ve used so far? That’s when another voice came to me. And that voice, in the sound of my many seminary professors, that voice said, “How about you just stick to your training?” “How about you just stick to your training?” And I knew exactly what that meant.

Sticking to my training meant, sticking to the scripture that we have today. Be immersed in the scripture. And let it speak for itself. Let it do its magic. Because it’s not about me anyway. Once I remembered that, I felt so much better, so much more relaxed. But not too relaxed, because of course I was anxious about things running smoothly, anxious about this being a meaningful service for you all, and I’m still nervous about communion! Oh lordy. But once I recognized all the I statements I was fussing over, a weight was lifted off of me. I just needed a good divine slap upside the back of my head to remember that. So then I reread the scripture text, for the hundredth time, and bam! That’s when I realized that this was the lesson of this passage! Only instead of it not being about me, I heard, it’s not about us!

So, with that in mind, let’s dive into this beautiful passage from Jeremiah. And it couldn’t be a better passage for this day, and I can see why they chose this to be the finale of our six-week series in this book. It really is the pinnacle, the mountain top, of everything that Jeremiah passed on to God’s people, then and now. This passage completely changes everything they thought they knew about God. So much so, that even ol’ Jeremiah was surprised!

Now, scholars aren’t really sure when this was written. Some say it was written while God’s people were in exile. Some say that some of it was actually written after the exile was over. But narratively, in the text they are still in exile, and Jeremiah is still in prison, and I think that makes this passage all the more poignant. Because it’s easy to see good news when things are going well right! It would be easy to stand here and say, “And they went home and lived happily ever after! The end.”

But that’s not exactly how it ends. Oh, they eventually go home but, you may remember, it’s not exactly a happy ever after kind of ending! But that’s for another sermon. Here, in this book, they haven’t gone home yet, and still, God gives them the good news, the gospel, the greatest news, and urges them to let that sink in, deep inside their innermost being. Not on a scroll, not in a book, not on some stone tablets, not finger-painted on a wall, there’s a Bible joke for ya for all you Bible nerds, you know who you are.

No, it’s written on their hearts. Only this time, it’s not words that are written. It’s God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God’s very being is imprinted on our hearts, not a list of rules and regulations for us to follow, or else. Unlike previous covenants, this new covenant was unconditional, there was nothing for us to do or not do to get God’s love and forgiveness, because, truth be told, that didn’t work, did it! It never does.

And so, the focus of the relationship with God turns from us…to God—where the focus should have been all along. This was God’s way of saying to us, “This has never been about you! As hard as you’ve tried, it has never been about you!” God says to us through Jeremiah. Now, let me give you a real-world example of this in the here and now. These masks. The fits people have had and continue to have about these masks. Even from people who have never had a big problem wearing them!

If I had a dollar for every time I heard some form of, “Well, most of us are vaccinated so we should be ok without masks.” These masks are not about us! And they never have been! They have always been about keeping others safe, keep the vulnerable safe, keeping the unvaccinated safe, and it doesn’t matter why they are unvaccinated. If I hear one more person say that “It’s on them if they are not vaccinated” I’m gonna explode! But my goodness, how easy it is for us to make everything about us.

And in this reading from Jeremiah, God reminds us that, not only is it not about us, and never has been, but that this is good news! Because when we make it about us we are going to fail, each and every time. And nobody knows that better than God, and so, God lifts that off of our shoulders, God lifts that responsibility, the heavy responsibility, off of our shoulders.

And since it is not about us, and never has been, God’s unconditional love and forgiveness is not dependent on our circumstances that we find ourselves in, it is not dependent on whether or not God’s people are in exile, on whether or not God’s people are home, on whether or not God’s people have behaved! Since it is not about us, and never has been, God’s unconditional love and forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not we are in the throes of a pandemic, on whether or not we can gather in-person, on whether or not we can worship like we used to—all because it is not about us, and never has been.

It is about God, and what God is doing in the world, and about the profound honor of being invited to participate in what God is doing in the world. Now, as we continue to work at not making everything about us, we are freed to do one very important thing, and I will leave you with this final thought. Since it is not about us, and never has been, we are freed to focus on all those around us—not in judgment, not in condemnation, not to change people, not to change how people think, or who people love, or how people behave—but rather we are freed to focus, to reflect, God’s unconditional love and forgiveness to all that God places in our path, no matter their circumstances we find them in. That is pure grace, my friends. And lo and behold, found in Jeremiah, long before Jesus was a twinkle in God’s eye, long before Jesus perfected that grace in human form, with a bloody cross and an empty tomb. Thanks be to God. Amen.