Ascension Sunday B, May 17, 2015

May 18, 2015

SRP (Sermon Ready to Preach)
Ephesians 1:15-23

1:15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

I’m going to do something this morning I’ve never done in my nearly 30 years of ministry. I’m going to preach someone else’s sermon. I saw some Meals Ready to Eat in the Food Pantry and the thought of opening a sermon ready to preach occurred to me. I guess I’m feeling some freedom to experiment in my final few Sunday’s here at QQUMC, but in talking to a peer about this I was reminded that the early Methodist preachers were encouraged to preach Wesley’s sermons – which is a tradition that goes back to the Anglican church which had official homilies that priests were to occasionally deliver. I guess the point is that it’s better to say the right thing than to say something original. But I’m not going to preach one of Wesley’s sermons – honestly, when I read his sermons I’m amazed that he was able to draw the numbers of people that turned out to hear him. He clearly didn’t have to compete with cable television.

The sermon I want to share with you this morning is one that was written by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor – who in my mind is a rockstar preacher. Rev. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, but she left parish work after about a decade and began teaching religion at a small college in Georgia. But she continues to preach and to write books.

I read one of her sermons almost every week, and back in February I wrote her a thank-you email for her work, and she actually responded to me which made me feel good. At any rate, I read her sermon on this Ephesians passage last Monday, and it’s so good I just decided I would share it with you. So here’s a sermon entitled, “He Who Fills All in All” by my email friend Barbara Brown Taylor:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a kingdom called Georgia – not the one down by Alabama, but the one tucked in to the Kachkar Mountains east of the Black Sea, between modern-day Turkey and Russia, where wild geraniums carpet alpine meadows and the sound of waterfalls is everywhere. A thousand years ago it was Camelot, rich in everything that mattered, including the love of God.

Under the patronage of benevolent kings and queens, artists were brought to Georgia from Constantinople to build huge churches out of local rock. Some of those artists must have come with that monumental structure, the Hagia Sophia in mind, because there was nothing modest about their work. Their Byzantine churches were monuments, full of exquisite arches, frescoes, and stone work, many of which survive today.

But only as ruins or museums, because the age of Christianity is over in Turkey. The Mongols conquered Georgia in the thirteenth century. Civilization moved west and east. The last baptisms in the Kachkar Mountains took place in the 1800s. Now the area is predominantly Muslim, as is the rest of Turkey. Meanwhile the ancestors of those ancient artists have become farmers, who still pluck old roof tiles and gargoyle parts out of their fields as they plow.

If you go there today, you can find the wrecks of the great churches deep in the countryside, with what is left of their high walls poking up through the canopy of trees like the masts of stranded ships. All the good carvings have been carried away, along with many of the building stones, which local people have quarried for their own houses.

The churches are multipurpose buildings now, serving as soccer fields, sheep pens, garbage dumps. The roofs are gone. So are the doors, the floors, the altars. All that is left are the walls, the graceful arches, and here and there the traces of an old fresco that has somehow survived the years – half a face, with one wide eye looking right at you – one raised arm, the fingers curled in that distinct constellation: it is Christ the still giving his blessing to a ruined church.

This, for me is the image hanging over Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, that triumphant letter in which he crowns Christ as the ruler of all creation and the church as Christ’s body – not two entities but one – God’s chosen instrument for the reconciliation of the world. The church shall be a colony of heaven on earth, Paul says, the divine gene pool from which the world shall be recreated in God’s image. From the heart of Christ’s body shall flow all the transforming love of God – bestowing riches, immeasurable greatness. As God is to Christ, so shall the church be to the world – the means of filling the whole cosmos with the glory of God.

Imagine a four-tiered fountain, if you will, in which God’s glory spills over into Christ, and Christ’s glory pours into the church, and the church’s glory drenches the whole universe. That is what Paul can see, as clear as day – the perfection of creation through the agency of the church. I have been using the future tense out of sheer disbelief, but Paul does not. He uses the past and present tense: And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Paul can see it, although as best anyone can tell he wrote this letter from a jail cell, the only light coming from a small square window above his head. His life was coming to a violent end, which he may also have seen, but none of that diminished his sense of God’s providence, or of God’s confidence in the church. Paul’s own experience didn’t count – at least not the hecklings, the beatings, or the arrests. All that counted was the power he felt billowing through his body when he spoke of Christ – the things he said, which surprised even him; the things that happened to those who heard him and believed. In the grip of that power, which turned him into a bolt of God’s own lightening. Paul had no doubt about God’s ultimate success. God would succeed. God had already succeeded. The world was simply slow to catch on.

I’ll say. Like most of you, I belong to a church that falls somewhat short of Paul’s vision. I do not know why Christians act surprised when we read about our declining number in the newspaper. While we argue amongst ourselves about everything from what kind of music we will sing in church to who may marry whom, the next generation walks right past our doors without even looking in. If they are searching at all, they are searching for more than we are offering them. They are looking for a colony of heaven, and they are not finding it with us.

In a recent interview in Common Boundary magazine, novelist Reynolds Price talked about why he, a devoted Christian, doesn’t go to church. Part of it, he says, is disillusionment dating from the civil rights era, when the white southern Christian church, he says, behaved about as badly as possible. But that is not the only reason.

The few times I’ve gone to church in recent years, he says, I’m immediately asked if I’ll coach the Little League team or give a talk on Wednesday night or come to the men’s bell-ringing class on Sunday afternoon. Church has become a full-service entertainment facility. It ought to be the place where God lives.

And yet, according to Saint Paul, it still is. The roof may be gone, and there may be sheep grazing in the nave, but Christ is still there – half a face, with one wide eye looking right at us, one hand raised in endless benediction – still giving his blessing to a ruined church. He cannot, or will not, be separated from his body. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

Say what you will about the arrogance of supposing that Christ needs the church as much as the church needs Christ. Paul says that we are his consummation, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Without us, his fullness is not full. Without him, we are as good as dead. He may not need us, but he is bound to us in love. We are his elect, Paul says, the executors of God’s will for the redemption of the cosmos.

How can we live with this paradox, this painful discontinuity between Paul’s vision of our divine nobility and the tawdry truth we know about ourselves? The easiest way, I suppose, would be to decide that Paul was dreaming. It was a glorious dream, but it was still a dream. Or we could decide that he was right – that the church really is Christ’s broker on earth – and the sooner we take over the world, the better.

Only I do not think we can afford either of those options, not without betraying our head, who was stuck with that same paradox. He was the ruler of the universe, born in a barn. He was the great high priest, despised by the priesthood of his day. He was the cosmic Christ, hung out on a cross to dry. On what grounds do we, as his body, expect more clarity than was given him?

The difference, of course, is that we have brought most of our problems on ourselves, while he suffered through no fault of his own. What we share with him – that fullness of his in which we take part – is the strenuous mystery of our mixed parentage. We are God’s own children, through our blood kinship with Christ. We are also the children of Adam and Eve, with a hereditary craving for forbidden fruit salad. Frisk us and you will find two passports on our persons – one says we are citizens of heaven, the other insists we are taxpayers on earth. It is no excuse for all the trouble we get into, but it does help to explain our spotty record.

What Paul asks us to believe is that our two-ness has already been healed in our oneness in Christ – not that it will be healed, but that it already has been healed – even if we cannot feel it yet, even if there is no startling evidence that it is so. We are still clumping around in a heavy plaster cast, knocking things over and stepping on the cat, but when the cast comes off we shall see for ourselves what has been true all along; that we have been made whole in him, that we are being made whole in him, that we shall be made whole in him who is above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Meanwhile, Paul says, he prays that the eyes of our hearts will be opened so that we can see the great power of God at work all around us. Based on my own experience, this is not the kind of stuff that makes headlines, not the way declining membership numbers do. It is just you’re your basic, raising-the-dead kind of stuff that happens in the church all the time.

Like the brain-damaged young man who shows up one Sunday and asks to become a member of the church. As carefully as he tries to hide it, it is clear that he is out of everything – out of food, out of money, out of family to take him in. No one makes a big fuss. Very quietly, someone takes him grocery shopping while someone else finds him a room. Someone else finds out what happened to his disability check while someone else makes an appointment to get his teeth fixed. And do you know what? Years later he is still there, in the front pew on the right, surrounded by his family, the church.

Or like the woman with a recurrent cancer who is told she has six months to live. The church gathers around her and her husband – laying hands on them, bringing them casseroles, cleaning their house. Someone comes up with the idea of giving the woman a foot massage and painting her toenails red, which does more for her spirits than any visit from the pastor. She gives her jewelry away, she lets her driver’s license expire, she starts writing poetry again. She prepares to die, but instead, she gets better.

On Christmas Eve she is back in church for the first time in months, with her oxygen tank slung over her shoulder and a clear plastic tube running under her nose. After the first hymn, she makes her way to the lectern to read the lesson from Isaiah. Her tank hisses every five seconds. Every candle in the place glitters in her eyes. Strengthen the weak hands, she reads, bending her body toward the words, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God’ When she sits down, the congregation knows they have not just heard the word of the Lord. They have seen it in action.

I could keep you here all morning, but you get the idea. No matter how hard we try in the church, we will always mess some things up. And no matter how badly we mess some things up in the church, other things will keep turning out right, because we are not, thank God, in charge. With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you can usually spot the one who is. Just search for any scrap of the church that is still standing – any place where God is still worshiped, any bunch of faces that are still turned toward the light – and you will see him there bending over them, his hand raised in endless blessing. It is he who fills all in all, whose fullness has spilled over into us. It is Christ the Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


One Response to “Ascension Sunday B, May 17, 2015”

  1. Says:

    Thompson, Good sermon. Good read. …..Love, Jack

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