I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 12th, 2015, at Beverly Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY. The Scripture readings for the morning were Psalm 85 and Ephesians 1:3-14.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I want to thank you for inviting me to worship with you this morning. You see, I love worship. Y’all, I really love worship. I love the gathering of the people from north and south, from east and west, to meet at the table of our Lord.
To tell the story of God, which is also our story. To sing praise; to lift our hearts and voices in prayer for the healing and reconciliation of the world; to share the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation with one another; to remember God’s promises to us in the flowing waters of our baptism.
And though there is never a moment when we are not Christians, there is something particularly special to me about our public worship on Sunday mornings. I sometimes say that it’s real hard to be a Christian all by yourself. I say that mostly to folks who have stopped coming to church, for one reason or another.
We are meant to be Christians together, I say. It is when we do our best work, and it is when we are at our best, too. Oh, OK, I sometimes don’t mention that the church is the place where we can be at our worst, too. No truth in my advertising, I guess…
Church can be messy, for sure. And the meetings are long. And there are arguments, and hurtful things get said and done. I mean, we aren’t God, even though we sometimes wear our righteousness on our sleeve and pretend to be… We are sinners, all, and in just as in need of God’s salvation work as anybody else. But church is also the place where we try to handout forgiveness and grace and mercy and compassion as if we had an everlasting supply (which we do!).
On Sunday mornings, like this one, I like to imagine that the walls of the church expand outward, or draw upward, like the arms of someone you love reaching out for a hug after a long absence. It is our time to be embraced, in celebration and in sorrow, in pain and in consolation. It is our time to hold one another to account for the ways in which we have advanced the cause of the Gospel, or not… It is our time to rage against the ways in which violence and hatred still ravage our communities. It is our time to contemplate the promises of God. Like the promises of the Psalm we heard this morning…
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.
What a prayer! With what confidence and assurance the Psalmist prays, as if there is a red phone on the writing desk with a dedicated line going straight to God. ‘Ok, God, I’m gonna use the simple future tense for this one, so I’m counting on you to come through for us. I’m not gonna hedge.’
It just doesn’t have the same impact if it reads like this:
Steadfast love and faithfulness might meet…
Righteousness and peace will probably kiss each other…
Faithfulness is likely to spring up from the ground…
The Lord may decide to give what is good…’
The Psalmist writes with certainty; these things WILL happen. It is a forgone conclusion that love and faithfulness will greet one another, that righteousness will give peace a kiss on the cheek. God is absolutely, definitely going to give what is good. The Psalmist knows this is true because it’s happened before. At some distant point in the past landscape of the community’s shared life, God had restored their fortunes, forgiven their iniquities, and pardoned their sins.
But at the present moment, things have gone sour again, and the people cry out in a communal prayer for help…
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
They are suffering. They are in a terrible time, and they are having trouble seeing a future brighter than their presently dim circumstances. They aren’t sure God’s promises are to be trusted for a second time. They wonder if God is angry with them. If God has the instinct and desire to restore them again. God’s done it before, but will God do it again? Will God scoop the people up in his arms and console them in their anguish. Will God repair the breach? Will God restore justice in the gates? Will God show favor and faithfulness? Will God be reliable, unrelenting in love and concern for God’s people? These are the laments of the people. This is their communal prayer.
This is a community we know well. Or, more accurately, these are communities we know well. Oh, we know communities who have experienced immeasurable tragedy. We know communities who have seen the calculating violence of human hatred. We know communities who have known God’s restoration in the past but are brought to their knees by ever-new devastations.
We know Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston. We hear and share their prayers of lament, their prayers for God’s help. We know other communities that have suffered from racially-motivated violence– physical violence, structural violence, psychic violence– by white supremacists with a mission of hate; by police officers and politicians motivated by bias, and ignorance, and arrogance. By a country that claims a Christian heritage, but a government that largely fails to govern by Christian values. In South Carolina. In Georgia. In Maryland. In Missouri. In New York.
These are communities we know well. Communities subject to violence and insecurity, to persecution and internal division. From the Israelites enslaved in Egypt; to the early Christian communities under the thumb of the Roman Empire; to religious minorities in Asia and Africa and the Middle East.
These are prayers we know well. Prayers of lament. Prayers for help. Prayers for God’s protection and restoration; prayers for peace and unity; prayers for safety. In every place where violence and hatred threaten to have the final word, there is a community praying for God’s help.
And so, too, do we also know these communities whose prayers for help express, simultaneously, confidence that the help prayed for will indeed come. Communities whose hope is in the Lord, even in the midst of anguish. Communities whose willingness to turn to the Lord exceeds any instincts to hide and take cover, or take up the sword. Communities for whom forgiveness is not conditioned on the restoration of what has been lost, but a response to God’s promises, both revealed and not yet revealed. We know these communities and their prayers, too.
Prayers of mercy and forgiveness for the perpetrator. Prayers of confidence that God’s will is for wholeness, not division. For restoration, not fracture. Prayers of keening sadness edged in hope as a delicate border. Prayers reverberating with the conviction that what is asked for will be granted, what is sought after will be found, what is behind closed doors will be opened to the light.
And the Psalmist responds… to all these communities… ours included:
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for God will speak peace to the people,
to God’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely, God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God,
that God’s glory may dwell in our land.
God will do these things, the Psalmist says, and God is already at hand. These ‘salvation powers’- steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace- will be observed on the ground and in the sky, on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is much more than an individualized experience of inner contentment.
Our salvation is part of God’s work to reconcile ALL of creation to God’s self. Not just our little sliver of creation, not just the parts of creation that are nice-smelling and innocuous. Salvation is a communal event, experienced in the gathering of God’s people together and all-encompassing..
The community laments together; experiences anguish together; expresses confidence in God’s promises together; receives the power of salvation together; experiences healing and restoration together.
It’s why we can’t be Christians all by ourselves. It is why we are a ‘community’ faith.
God’s promises are for the present and the future. There are gifts for us to open now. Can’t you remember being a kid and seeing those first Christmas presents from your aunts and uncles show up under the tree? All tied-up with silver ribbon and a tag with YOUR name on it? And mom says, it’s not Christmas yet; you can’t open the presents. And you are devastated and impatient, and you wonder if Christmas will ever actually come or maybe it’s going to be cancelled this year and you will never, ever get to open that gift with the silver ribbon that you are SURE holds exactly the toy that you most desire.
That’s not how salvation works. There are gifts, a table full of gifts, prepared for us by a loving God and given to us by Jesus Christ, for us to open together NOW. Right now. Don’t wait even another minute before opening these gifts. Open them; enjoy them; give thanks for them; share them.
Paul got so excited telling this to the congregations in Ephesus that verses 3-14 in our text today are actually a single, run-on sentence. One gift upon another upon another, lavished on us by a God who has adopted us as children, according to God’s own good pleasure!!! Promises, these gifts. Every one. On land and in the sky. On earth as it is in heaven.
One after the other, we open these gifts together-
We are promised redemption, the forgiveness of our trespasses, individual and communal, according to the riches of God’s grace.
With all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ– a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL THINGS, in heaven and on earth.
We have received as a gift the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation.
All of these gifts, all of these promises, marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. All of this our inheritance, for now and forever.
These are promises that God keeps. We know because we have received them already. We have known, as a community, the hope that conquers despair, God’s faithfulness that restores us from brokenness, God’s peace that heals us from our divisions, God’s steadfast love that endures.
And so… as recipients of so great an inheritance as this, we have the confidence to pray for God’s help; to lift up the source of our anguish; to live in a community that is broken and whole at the same time. Knowing, all along, that we are never far from God’s promises, even when they seem distant and unreachable from the depths of our own heartache.
When we gather at the table this morning, we will receive another gift, wrapped in silver ribbons, for us to unwrap together. We will take the top off the box and reach in for the bread of heaven and cup of salvation, the gift of Christ himself, for us now and as a promise of that great banquet that awaits us at the consummation of time. But we don’t have to wait. We can pull it out of the box, lift it up for all to see, pass it around, touching it, tasting it, enjoying it.
Friends, it is time to receive this gift, to rest in God’s promises. To feast together as God’s beloved community.
Come, let us gather.