I have been very preoccupied this week with the news coming out of South Dakota of the Standing Rock protest. Those of you who are not on my Facebook feed or who have not seen it in the news, the Standing Rock protest is the largest group of Native Americans who have gathered in the history of the United States and they have gathered to protest the placement of an oil pipeline through their lands and to protect the waters of the Missouri which provides clean drinking water to thousands of people.
I have been aching to do something, to give, to participate to be a part of and support the brave men and women who are fighting for the health of our nation. I believe that those who call themselves water protectors are fighting for the spiritual health of our nation just as much as they are fighting for our physical health, our environmental health so it is no accident that the tools they are using are song and prayer, and it is no accident that they are confronting worldly powers, powers which threaten them with physical harm, with shame and humiliation, which seeks to break their spirit with unwarranted strip searches and physical violence.
I want to stand beside them and acknowledge that I, like the rest of America, am addicted to oil and gas and I know it isn’t good for me, it isn’t good for us. Our dealers, those big oil CEO’s and big oil companies might punish us for supporting Standing Rock and raise the price of gas, but in my heart of hearts I feel called, impelled to give to Standing Rock, to support them in any way I can. I want to send them warm blankets and cold weather gear because I know the cold of winter they will face in their tents and tipis. ,I want to visit and stand with them if only for a few days. I want to purchase water filters so they will always have access to clean drinking water, and when those who serve and protect big oil come at them with weapons and mace, I want to stand in front of them.
I am a little fired up and impassioned about this. So it is no accident that I feel called to give and to be in action. The fruit I long to see ripen in my lifetime is one of justice and equality. It is one which will lead a cultural shift away from consumerism and our addictive lifestyle to a life of purpose and meaning. Recently at a Madison’s pastors gathering I listened as one pastor expressed a longing to bring community to all of those young professionals living in their high rise condos who struggle with finding any meaning or purpose in their lives beyond consumerism. I could hear how fired up and passionate he was about reaching those people, how called he felt to give of himself, his time, his energy and resources. The fruit he was longing for was healing, was meaning and purpose in shared community.
The fruit we want to ripen in our life, what we want for our life, can’t be bought in a store, no matter how often consumerism promises us it can. We are a very addicted society and our addictions tell us that we don’t have to give anything up or work hard to get what we want, that there are quick fixes out there, but in our heart of hearts, we know better. In our heart of hearts we know that we must dig deep and prepare the soil, we must plant the seeds and tend them with loving care, we must nurture the crop through all the seasons if we want the fruit. We don’t get to jump ahead and forgo the work, and still get the fruit. It just doesn’t work that way, not that we don’t tend to try. We cannot reap what we do not sow, no matter how much we might want it.
The question I want to ask you today, is what fruit is your soul longing for, burning for, calling out for? What injustice, pain, lack of connection, poverty, loss, is pulling at your heart, pulling you into action and into outrageous acts of love and giving? Is it nearby? Very close even, perhaps in the loneliness of elders at nursing homes, those who are feeling forgotten and who so need a visitor, who so need to know that they are loved even when they can’t do anything for you? Is it the youth who we keep so preoccupied with one activity after another who you long to see find purpose and meaning in their lives? Who you long to see grow spiritually? Are you called by those who have little opportunity, who live in poverty or who lack schools, such as the young people of the Yucatan? Or the young people in Kokomo? What fruit is your soul longing for? Is it justice? Is it peace? Is it community?
God will not leave us alone, but continues to extend these invitations to our heart’s longing. We are not forced to give of ourselves, we are not required to give, but we are not free from the consequences of not giving. We are not free from the bitterness and hardness that results when we close ourselves off and God wants so much more for us! God urges us to be generous not because God wants something from us, but because God wants something for us. God takes even the smallest gift we give and uses it to transform our lives. God calls us into deeper, fuller, richer lives, resplendent with healthy relationships and freedom from fear and addiction.
I hope that you aren’t hearing me say that I am not as involved in systems of addiction and consumerism as anyone else. Every time I contemplate my giving I have to face how much I want to be comfortable, how much I want the next newest thing, and I love, I really love my truck! I love hopping in it and being able to go anywhere I want at any given moment. I love being able to haul what I need from point a to point b and sometimes it makes me feel that I am able to contribute more so I tend to justify having a truck and driving myself instead of carpooling.
I know that standing with the people of Standing Rock might impact my driving around and the freedom I feel in being able to do that relatively cheaply. If I really want change, if I want spiritual fruits to bloom in my life, I must see how I am implicated in the very systems that would prevent it. I must see how I am captured by sinful systems, systems of addiction and consumerism, systems that promise me comfort if I would only, please, not challenge them. “Bow before me and I will grant all your wishes,” This is the invitation Satan gave Jesus and which is still proffered to us.
I, like everyone else, will reap what I sow. And I, like everyone else, am a total mixed bag of good and bad and I wish I could be better and I’m really trying to work up the effort and courage to do so. Please understand that a significant part of my stewardship process myself is becoming aware of what a grasping, frightened person I can be and discovering that healthy, good stewardship is a journey of increasing freedom as I go. I’m not there yet, but I’m on the path, just like all of you.
What fruit do you want to see in your life? What seeds are you planting? The good news is that God takes even our meager gifts, our messy efforts and makes great things happen through them.
Being freed from the flesh, from worldly concerns, frees us to recognize the connection we share with one another, it frees us to live for God and live lives of love and freely giving of ourselves and our things without regard for what the world thinks, without regard for our social standing and our keeping up with the Joneses.
We don’t have to accomplish this freedom from fear all by ourselves. We don’t have to transform and can’t, by ourselves, but God will work with us, to the extent that we are able to step forward in faith, God moves us further than our own efforts can.
God does not force us, but does extend an invitation, an invitation to a broader, richer, fuller life than we can possibly imagine! It is God who turns the tiniest seed planted in the largesse of trees which give shelter to birds and animals, which bear fruit in abundance.
If we live our lives in fear and in grasping for ourselves we come to see others as rivals for limited resources, hence the grasping and biting, the fighting one another off, the getting while the getting is good. But we are called to so much more! We are called to a greater freedom!
We are called to be freed from a center of gravity around our needs, wants, desires, freed for community. Our text today is not about a personal salvation, a solitary, individual sense of salvation, but about a community. It is about who we are together and how we can live out lives of love and promise right here, right now!
The vices and virtues that Paul lists in this letter are those that impact the community. It is not about the self but about us. This is about God’s Spirit that creates community, that is pentecostal. We were created in relationship for relationship. We belong to one another, and trusting in this we are moved body and spirit, our hearts are pulled, and we give because we long for the fruit of the spirit.
In our text today flesh is our insecurity through which we are led astray. It is our anxiety and our indulgence. It is our tendency to go through life half asleep and unseeing. What is our ultimate good? Imagine a different kind of living out of a freedom to love and serve others for the good of the whole body of Christ
Those whose way of life is characterized by these the vices Paul lists are inherently separated from the way of God. They are not evil, they are separated from love, from community, from God. And to a certain extent all of us feel this separation ourselves and it is for this reason that we are called to give of ourselves and all that we are. We give to be a blessing to others, in order to grow spiritually which is God’s delight.
This is not about flesh-spirit dualism, remember we have a faith that was brought to us by God being incarnated, God enfleshed. We do not have a God who hates the
flesh but one who lived into it. Flesh, in this instance, is that urge to self preservation, that urge to get mine even at the expense of your wellbeing.
What marvelous seeds we have been given to sow, and how sad it would be to see our future compromised by our caution. We have stories to tell, seeds to sow, stories of a God who has called us into this beloved community, that draws us into the lives of people all around the world, that fills our hearts to overflowing with love, with compassion! We have stories of a church which welcomes all people, which shares community and reaches out to others, which is an abundant expression of love.
If we do not plant seed, we will have no growth, but if we do plant the seed God has given us, it will grow, inch by inch—mustard seed becomes a tree.
Giving sparingly, whether out of fear or any other cause, results in spare growth. We are asked to give faithfully, trusting that God will use what we give. If we do not plant seed, there will be no growth, but if we sow what we have generously, it will grow and God will do great things with it.
We are freed from requirements of the law and I do not want to place any new requirements on you. God asks that we give not as a requirement that we be loved or be worthy, but that we can experience even greater freedom. Some of you might be thinking what more can I give? I’m tapped out!
But we can give, and we need to give! We need to give if this means dedicating 15 minutes a day to earnest prayer. We need to give if it means joining a committee and holding that committee to prayerfully fulfilling its purpose. We need to give if this means finding one person in this community or another community and supporting them with friendship, love, and compassion. We need to give because our soul needs it. God doesn’t need it and God won’t love us any less if we don’t give. We need it. We need it because we need to be freed from our addictions and our consumerism, from our anxieties and our fears.
God invites us to give of ourselves that we might know freedom, that we might be released from anxiety and fear, that we might be transformed and made new. God does not ask us to give for God’s sake, but for ours. We are freed to a new way of life, don’t pick up the old, imagine new, great possibilities, and live into them!
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I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.
And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:
Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name
I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge
Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
Is the love of the Father
A love which has no height
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.
(can you not feel it?)
An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,
But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.
(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
Love says yes
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now
(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)
Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.
It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.
Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”
In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-
Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!
This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.
But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.
I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.
When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!
God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?
Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.
But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.
This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.
Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:
Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen
This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.