Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 5); September 26, 2021

The “In Crowd”

“For the one who is not over against us is for us” (Mark 9:40, my translation). If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That seems to be the plain sense of this verse and of the verses surrounding it. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus tend to exercise the reverse of this statement – whoever is not for us is against us.

Before I get too far down the line, we need to acknowledge that Jesus says precisely that – “The one who is not with me is over against me, and the one who does not gather together with me disperses” (Matthew 12:30, my translation). It hasn’t happened often in my ministry, but on a few occasions an alert parishioner has caught these diametrically opposed statements and asked about them. Those have been precious ministry moments.

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So, Beloved Preacher, which is it? Does Jesus call us to welcome all comers unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise? Or does Jesus call us to screen out the interlopers for flaws and only to let in the Chosen Few? Matthew’s account, after all, is the one that reminds us that the way to Life is narrow (Matthew 7), and that many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22).

Yes, there are differences in these gospel accounts because there are differences in the audiences and issues addressed. In the Markan composition, Jesus is speaking about an outsider who is doing the work of God’s Kin(g)dom apart from the “normal channels.” Good for him, Jesus says. Keep up the good work.

In Matthew 12, the context is the Beelzebul controversy. The “sides” here are not insiders and outsiders doing the same blessed work. Instead, the “sides” are the “Kingdom” of Satan versus the Kin(g)dom of God. Those accuse Jesus of casting out Satan by the power of Satan are aligning themselves with Satan, Jesus declares. That continuing alignment is the one sin which cannot be forgiven since it is the ongoing choice to align oneself against God and to ally oneself to the Enemy.

In addition, the words in Matthew’s account are addressed to the powerful, the positioned, the privileged, and the propertied. In this case, they are represented by the Pharisees. Here the Pharisees seek to adjudicate whether Jesus himself is “in” or “out.” The case Jesus makes here is that he is the One who will do the adjudicating, thank you very much.

The vocabulary used in these accounts matters as well. In Matthew, the phrase “with me” has the sense of “being in company with” or “on the same side as.” That language fits well with the battle lines being drawn in the context. The verb that the NRSV translates as “gather” is the Greek word, “sunago,” which means to gather together or assemble. It is the root of the word we know as “synagogue.”

Matthew’s verse has an underlying Hebrew parallelism which results in a “rhyming” of ideas. “The one who is not with me” is paired with “The one who is not gathering together with me.” In the same way, “is over against me” is paired with “scatters.” Again, Matthew’s statement has to do with real alliance and identification with Jesus, not merely doing the same work. The result of opposition to this alliance and identification is to be “scattered.” Scattering is a code word for what happens to the people of God when they rebel (such as the time leading up to the Babylonian Exile).

There are, therefore, good textual reasons for drawing a fairly strong distinction between the two statements in question. They aren’t contradictions except in a woodenly literal sense. Instead, each is appropriate (at least in literary terms) to its setting and does not impact the use of the other.

That discussion seeks to answer the question of the (hypothetical) alert and curious parishioner. But it can help us with more than that. The power of the statement has something to do with who is being addressed and how. In Matthew, it is the representatives of the religious and political establishment who are seeking to exclude Jesus rather than to “gather with” him. He is only welcome on their terms, and he won’t agree to those terms.

In the Markan composition, it is the disciples who are acting as the representatives of an “establishment.” They are operating in the same way as the Pharisees in Matthew 12. John and the other disciples assume that anyone who is not “with” them in the most literal of senses is over against them and must be regulated. That may be all well and good for the powers of the establishment, Jesus replies, but it shall not be so among us.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

The language in the Markan composition has another striking feature. The one who is not over against us is “huper” us (to quote the Greek). The Greek preposition often has the meaning of “for the sake of” or “on behalf of.” There is the sense that the one who is not over against us is actually favorably disposed toward us and is acting for our benefit or improvement. I find that interesting.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Mindscape podcast with Dr. Sean Carroll. You can find links to the podcast at Carroll’s web page, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/. Carroll is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, investigator of complex systems, and amateur philosopher. He is bright, curious, entertaining, and relentlessly in pursuit of the Truth – whatever that ultimately means. The breadth of topics on the podcast is marvelous, and Carroll’s grasp of a variety of subjects is impressive.

It would be fair to say that Carroll is no adherent to a religion. He is a philosophical atheist, a naturalist and materialist, a determinist (at least in the way that quantum mechanics allows determinism), a many-worlds cosmologist, and an eternalist when it comes to an understanding of the nature of time. While he does not go out of his way to hammer religions, he does not shy away from the opportunities when they present themselves.

I imagine that many people of faith would find Carroll irritating and offensive on these occasions. I do not. While we do not share the same perspectives on metaphysics and ontology, I value his work and his views. I find that Carroll is “for” me and other religious folks because he is pursuing the Truth. Whether he accepts the description or not, I believe Carroll is working for the benefit of all who seek to know the essential nature of Reality.

And I think that if Dr. Carroll met me and discovered that I needed a cup of water, he would provide that as well.

When I think of Sean Carroll, I am reminded of the story of Emeth in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia volume, The Last Battle. Emeth (whose name is the Hebrew word for “truth”) was on the opposing side, that of the Calormenes. The last battle is concluded, and the forces of Aslan have triumphed. Now they are entering the true Narnia, the deep Reality behind all reality.

As they enter, they discover Emeth reclining against a tree in a state of bemusement. Emeth fully expected, once he realized how things turned out, that he would be punished and likely destroyed. As Aslan approached, he awaited his fate. He confessed that he was on the “wrong” side and was glad to at least know the Truth.

Aslan bends down and touches Emeth on the forehead. “Son, thou art welcome,” the Lion growls. Aslan then explains that because Emeth has been devoted to the Truth, even in a vain cause, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy].” The Great Lion is not limited by our human perceptions of who is “in” and who is “out.” We do not determine the bounds of God’s Truth, nor can we be sure we know precisely who is “over against” Jesus and who is “for the sake of” Jesus.

Carroll might find this patronizing or even offensive. I certainly intend neither. Instead, our text demands great humility on the part of Jesus followers. What we think we know is not all there is to know. What we think is Real is surely not all that is Real. The Truth sought by science – even when resolutely opposed to the existence and working of God – is still a Truth being sought. As Luther might remind us, the First Commandment is still in effect. God is God, and I am not.

And that’s the Good News.

No one who earnestly seeks the Truth can remain unaffected by that seeking. When Dr. Carroll shares with me a cup of the water of Truth in his work, I am enriched. And he is drawn (from my perspective), like it or not, more deeply into the Truth that I would call God. While the Church deserves all the recrimination we receive in the atheist discussion groups I sometimes haunt, the pursuit of the Truth often brings the very same people closer to Jesus.

That means something. For example, it means that we must be very careful in how we respond – lest we create trip hazards for these earnest Truth seekers. How much better the world would be if we faith folks could see someone like Carroll more often as a Friend of the Truth than as an Enemy of the Church.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

“Suit Up and Stand Up!” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 6:10-17

We stood in line at the outfitters shop on the Taylor River in southwest Colorado. As a family we were preparing to ride the rapids in a big rubber raft. We rented wet suits, boots and gloves, life vests and oars. Our guide—a confident woman who was, I thought, younger than some of my sweat socks—helped us into our gear.

Just as we got on the bus to head for the river, another party arrived. In those years, people could decline the equipment. That’s what they did in order to save expense and time. The guides tried to persuade them to suit up, but they declined. Off we went.

The un-suited party got their raft into the water first and headed downstream. Soon we were in the boat as well, pitching and rolling in the aggressive water. It was all great fun. Great fun, that is, until we rounded a bend and found a raft pinned against a big rock.

The group ahead of us had taken a bad turn and hit the water. One of the un-suited party was clinging to the raft. We pulled him into ours. Another was floating face up near the bank. We got him in as well. A third member clung to a rock downstream and was rescued by another raft.

It was a a sobering lesson for all of us. We were so very glad we had taken the advice of our guide and suited up for the journey. Paul gives his readers similar advice here at the end of his letter. “Put on the whole armor of God,” he warns them, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” It’s time to suit up!

Paul uses a descriptive Greek word that we translate as “the whole armor.” It is the word panoplia, from which we get our English word “panoply.” Imagine a cohort of Roman soldiers, armed with spears and swords and protected by shields. When the cohort came under attack or advanced into battle, the soldiers could lock those shields together into a nearly impenetrable shell. If they stayed together, they were nearly impossible to defeat.

These Roman infantrymen were called “hoplites,” and they marched in this formation, called a “phalanx.” When Paul uses his term, his listeners would see that phalanx of locked shields united in common cause for the sake of the Empire. So it’s important to read these verses as addressed primarily to a group of Christians rather than to us as individuals.

There’s another element in this description. It’s the “stance” we adopt for the battle. Four times Paul uses a word that means “stand” or “withstand” or “stand firm.” If our stance is right, we can, as the old commercial used to say, “take a licking and keep on ticking.” It’s time to suit up! And it’s time to stand up!

I was a poor wrestler, but I liked to try. The first thing you learn is how to stand: feet about shoulder width apart, knees bent, shoulders forward, center of gravity, well, in the center, head up, eyes forward, hands ready to engage the opponent. One of the most important things in wrestling was to keep a good “base” under you. If you did that, lots of other things would go better. It’s time to stand up!

That’s Paul’s point here. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. The right stance and the right suit are necessary for dealing with the attacks and challenges the forces of evil will launch against us. It’s time to suit up and stand up!

For a third time in Ephesians, Paul reminds us about the nature of the enemy we face. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” he declares, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

These are the same rulers and authorities and powers Paul describes in chapter four. Paul urged his readers to speak truth to those powers through the united voice of Church in the name of the Messiah and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here he reminds us that the battle continues.

How do we suit up and stand up? We take the battle seriously. Church is not a weird kind of card club. Christianity is not a hobby. Congregations are not museums or memorial societies. This is about the meaning and purpose of life. This is about the direction and destiny of history. This is about whether death wins or life triumphs. If we’re not that serious, we should stay home. Paul witnessed to his faith by dying. Will we witness to our faith by living?

How do we suit up and stand up? We live for the praise of God’s glory. We express that praise in regular worship. We welcome the gift of faith as the Holy Spirit equips us to be God’s works of art. We live in the unity of that Spirit as people who are no longer strangers to one another. We trust the Spirit to expand our imagination and energize our prayers to ask for what we need for mission and service.

How do we suit up and stand up? We celebrate the gifts given to the church for ministry and leadership. We live by the power of God’s love as one people in all our relationships. We submit to one another in love to show the world what the kingdom of God really looks like. We speak truth to the rulers and authorities of this world and remind them that they are temporary and answer to a higher authority. We rely on God’s word in Scripture and sacraments to fill us and form us for the fight.

It’s time to suit up and stand up! One weapon remains—prayer. Next time we will stand up with Paul as he comes to the end of this letter.

Servant Power — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:15-33

We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. The power of love is always “servant power.” Servant power is always FOR others. That’s today’s main thought.

About a hundred miles inland from Ephesus was the little town of Colossae. There you’d find a local businessman named Philemon. Philemon was married to Apphia. They had an adult son named Aristarchus. Philemon, Apphia and Aristarchus hosted the new Christian congregation at Colossae in their home. They must have been fairly well off. They had a house big enough for such gatherings. And as a family they owned slaves.

We know about Philemon and his family in a brief New Testament letter from Paul written to Philemon. Philemon may have met Paul on a business trip to Ephesus. Philemon came home an enthusiastic Jesus follower. Soon his wife and son joined him in this new way of life.

There was a problem. One of the household slaves, Onesimus, had escaped from his master. Onesimus may have stolen some household money to fund his fleeing. Onesimus headed down the Lycus River valley to Ephesus. Maybe he planned to hop a ship and skip town before he could be caught.

Then Onesimus met Paul. Paul was under arrest in Ephesus, but he was still free to receive visitors and to teach the faith. Maybe Onesimus knew Paul from a previous encounter. Maybe it was what some would call coincidence. Either way, Onesimus became a Christian. It must have been a magnificent conversion. Paul referred to Onesimus as his adopted son and valued his assistance in the ministry of the Gospel.

Now to the problem. Following Jesus changes everything. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power.  Onesimus had unfinished business in Colossae. “Thieves must give up stealing,” Paul wrote, “rather, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so at to have something to share with the needy.” I wonder if Onesimus thought about the tidy little stash he had lifted from his master’s purse.

More than that, Onesimus and Philemon were now brothers in the Messiah. Paul challenged Onesimus to do something about the rupture in this relationship. Paul asked Onesimus to carry two letters back to the congregation in Colossae. One letter was for the congregation. The other was for Philemon. It’s likely that Onesimus read the letters out loud at worship. In the personal letter, Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus.

I don’t know if it happened this way, but something like this took place. I share this story because of the directions we find in Ephesians 5:15-33. Paul addresses the relationships between wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. Philemon fits all three of the latter categories. Paul urges him to re-work each relationship based on the power of love rather than the love of power. “Be subject to one another,” Paul writes, “out of reverence for Christ.” If we want a model for servant power, we can look to Jesus. Servant power is always power FOR others.

First century Greco-Roman culture assumed that only freeborn adult men could be fully and truly human. One first century Greek philosopher wrote, “The man has the rule of the household by nature. For the deliberative faculty of the woman is inferior, in children does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent.” Men in this culture assumed that women had limited brain power, children were a work in progress, and slaves were too brainless to be fully and truly human ever at all.

We Jesus followers reject this view. What makes someone a fully and truly human person is God’s image that we bear as a gift and calling from God. We receive that gift and calling in our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Messiah’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s presence restore God’s image in us. Living in the Messiah by the power of the Spirit makes us fully and truly human. Anyone can embrace God’s gifts—men, women, children and slaves. Maleness does not open the door to full humanity. Baptism does.

In this first century culture, the master of the house life and death power over spouse, children and slaves. Any talk of limiting that power with love was revolutionary. That is precisely what Paul does in Ephesians. Paul places special responsibility on those with power over others. Servant power is always FOR others.

Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to husbands are disappointing. Requiring women to “submit” to their husbands creates a dynamic where the love of power reigns supreme. Last week Paul reminded us that what we feed is what grows. Too often the church has cooperated in feeding the system of male dominance that is strong in our culture. As the whole church we must repent of that sin.

The wrong emphasis has created ongoing abusive situations in millions of homes. That love of power produces verbal, emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse. Worse yet, the blame for the situation is placed on the victims. Paul travels a little way down the road toward loving treatment of women. We have come farther, but we have not come nearly as far as we thought. We know that “submission theology” endangers women—even in Christian communities. Systems of male dominance produce abuse.

I need to say this as clearly as possible. Emanuel Lutheran Church is a safe place for anyone who needs to escape from Intimate Partner Abuse. We will hear your story. We will believe you. We will support you in your decisions. Women are not responsible for the emotional issues of men.

Systems of male dominance have no place here. We submit to one another out of reverence for the Messiah. We embrace full partnership between men and women. We reject the view that holds women subject to the authority of men.

We know what we need to do. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. Servant power is always FOR others. The power of love must shape our most intimate relationships. It will be important to keep in mind Paul’s strategy with Philemon as we continue next week. Let’s pray…

What You Feed Grows — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:1-14

Pastor Bud Christensen is one of my heroes in the pastor biz. He was the Director of Nebraska Synod prison ministries when I served in Lincoln. He touched the lives of hundreds of men during his decade of service there. One of the slogans he gave his guys was, “What you feed grows.” It was wise counsel then, and it’s wise counsel now. What you feed grows. That’s the main thought for today.

We’ve come to another “therefore” in the Letter to the Ephesians. Here we have a summary of the way of life Paul is describing, the way of life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called. Are we heavy enough believers? We are by the power of the Spirit within us! So get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.We are called to imitate the kindness of God rather than the brutality of the world.

What you feed grows.  It helps to know what this life looks like. Let me illustrate. It was one of those “grandpa” things. We were giving our granddaughter a desk for her birthday. Of course, some assembly was required. The instructions could just as well have been written in Babylonian as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. “Let me see the box,” I said in frustration. On the carton was a picture of the desk, fully assembled. Fortunately, it was at just the right angle for the insight I needed. After that, the desk went together in minutes and all was well.

It’s good to see what we’re supposed to be doing before we do it. We get just such a picture here at the beginning of Ephesians five. After some pretty specific instructions in the second half of chapter four, we get more of the big picture at the launch of this chapter. In fact, we get the biggest picture of all. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul writes. Look to God’s kindness and love for the picture of how to live your life in the Messiah. If you want more detail, then live as the Messiah loved us and gave himself up for us. That is a pleasing offering to God.

It’s important to catch the “therefores” in Paul’s letters. And it’s imperative to notice the “buts” as well. The fact that this line probably made you giggle is a support of Paul’s argument here. What you feed grows

Our thinking, language, even our jokes can fill us up with darkness where there should be light. Edmund Gwenn played the character of Santa Claus in the movie, Miracle on 34th Street. George Seaton visited Gwenn, whom he called Teddy, while Gwenn was on his death bed.

“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy,” Seaton said. Gwenn smiled. “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy,” he answered cheerfully. It’s from that exchange that we get the quip, “Dying is easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Most humor these days bounces between stupid and mean. It wasn’t much different in Paul’s time. The language in his world was obscene, silly and vulgar. Words were used to tear down, not to build up. What you feed grows

Talk that turns women into sex objects encourages a culture of harassment and abuse. Talk that uses racial or ethnic or sexual stereotypes encourages a culture of prejudice and bigotry. Talk that demeans the disabled encourages a culture of cruelty. Talk that reduces humans to animals encourages a culture of genocide. Talk that reduces people to commodities encourages a culture of trafficking and slavery. Talk that threatens war increases the likelihood of war.

This is the native language of darkness. There’s no place for such talk among grown-up followers of the Messiah. It’s not that we are opposed to fun and laughter in the church. Were you here for Holy Humor Sunday? We have fun pretty much every Sunday here in one way or another. What you feed grows.

The pastor here has even been known to tell a joke or two. For example, a man always fell asleep in church because the preacher was so long-winded. The pastor gave one of the deacons a stick to hit the man over the head every time he fell asleep. Once the man dozed off, the deacon tapped him on the head and woke him up.

A few minutes later, he starting dozing again. This time the deacon hit him a little harder, again waking him up, but only temporarily. When he fell asleep the third time, the deacon hit him so hard he knocked him out of the pew and onto the floor. The church member was heard to say, “Hit me again; I can still hear him preaching!” If any of you requires that service, please raise your hands so the ushers can help you.

In fact, we are called to be wide awake Messiah followers. We use our language “to live for the praise of God’s glory.” We are to be conscious of our words as well as our actions. Paul quotes a hymn verse that early Christians used in their worship. Maybe he gave them an “ear worm” to remind them of the best way to use language.

What you feed grows. Worship is a way to feed the best in us. “Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul concludes, “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves…” We are dedicating additional hymnals today so we can do just that. We are picking out some of our favorite hymns today. We have been chanting the appointed psalms this summer. In addition I hope at various times during the week you get a piece of liturgy or a hymn in your head. We do our best to fill your heads and hearts with light and life. Our call is to use the power of words for the power of love.

Next week we begin to tackle the most contested parts of Ephesians—words on wives, children and slaves. Stay tuned! Let’s pray…

“The Living Tapestry” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:1-13

 “My life has been a tapestry,” sang Carole King. I first heard that song as a college freshman. A dear friend introduced me to the magic of King’s artistry, and I treasure the song (and the album) to this day.

A tapestry is a good picture of Ephesians three. God pulls it all together in Jesus. In love and by grace we are the one people of the one God.The church filled with the Holy Spirit is now the “holy temple in the Lord.” Through us, this good news confronts the powers of this world. We do that by living as God’s work(s) of art. We see the purpose of that artistic work in these verses from chapter three. We are God’s living tapestry.

The mysterious message of God’s inclusive love comes “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The phrase “rich variety” translates a wonderful Greek word–“polupoikilos.” It’s fun to say! It means “many-colored” or “variegated.”

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Pexels.com

Including everyone was always God’s plan. God’s one big family shows the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places who’s in charge. These rulers and authorities “in the heavenly places” represent the powers which stand against God in the cosmos. And these powers are done for.

We confront the rulers and authorities when we are one in the Messiah. In Jesus’ name and through his Spirit, we tell the powers that Jesus is Lord and no one else is. We speak truth to power by being an authentic community, united by the Spirit rather than by a common enemy or by using one another to deal with our own self-interests.

We are the Church—the one people of the one God. We are the Church—filled with color and diversity. The very existence of such a community is fair warning to the rulers and authorities that something new is on the way. Our young people are experiencing that in a powerful way this week at the churchwide youth gathering. We are God’s living tapestry.

Here’s an example. Recently, we partnered with Mosaic in Western Iowa to hold a Mental Health Awareness Sunday. The highlight of the day was called “Kicking the Stigma of Mental Health.” We used our church parking lot to hold a game of kickball. If you didn’t stick around to kick around, you missed something special.

Youth and adults from our congregation, people from our neighborhood and community, people served by Mosaic, and Mosaic staff spent an hour of kicking and catching (or not), laughing and teasing, and just being God’s people together for all the world to see. We resisted a culture that wants to hide people away and ignore our needs for quality mental health services and support. As we played together, we gave evidence of another way to live and love.

I watched our young people enjoy being church together in many-splendored diversity. I was a bit teary as some of our younger folks also learned how to use the experience to serve and learn, to grow and mature in the context of Christian community. This was just one example of the variegated vitality that Paul urges upon us. We are expanding that welcome as we begin a support group for those who wrestle with issues related to mental health.

We are God’s living tapestry.

We are at our best as church when we are multi-colored, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-talented. Because we are God’s work(s) of art, we live out the beauty of this tapestry in our witness and work as the Church. We do this as well in our lives as individual followers of the Messiah. We do it to be a sign of what God wants for all of Creation.

It’s important that we make that radical inclusion real in our own congregation and denomination. It’s hard to call the world to account if we can’t even make it happen in our own house. That’s why we are practicing inclusion here.

Start small. Sit next to someone at worship you don’t know well. Talk to someone at coffee you don’t know well. We don’t do this on our own. The Holy Spirit equips you and me to be the church. “This was in accordance,” Paul reminds us, “with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

We know all human beings bear the image of God. We celebrate diversity as God’s gift to us and not a threat to our own existence. We rejoice to be part of a country whose ideal includes welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse” of distant teeming shores. We are called to raise questions when the values of radical inclusion are suppressed.

The church lives as an alternative to fear and exclusion. By our very existence as an inclusive community, we remind the rulers and authorities that they answer to a higher power. Sometimes we will suffer as a result. We are not going to be protected from persecution, nor should we expect that. But when we live as God’s one big family, embraced by grace and empowered by love, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s God’s work of art.

In early June, 2018, our churchwide Bishop Eaton issued a letter along with twenty other religious leaders urging the current administration to stop the forced separation of migrant families at our borders. I’m grateful for that statement and to be part of a brave and relevant church. It’s hard to be a sign of God’s love for all people and to be silent in the face of such practices. Our bishop spoke up for us, and I’m thankful.

We are God’s living tapestry. Next time we’ll hear about God’s abundant power to get the job done in us, among us and through us.

“Now That’s a Prayer” — Throwback Thursday, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:14-21

In the 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays TV reporter Bruce Nolan. Bruce takes over for God while God (played by Morgan Freeman) enjoys a vacation. Bruce fails in his omnipotent role. Worst of all, he damages his relationship with Grace, his sweet fiancé (played by Jennifer Aniston).

Just when Bruce gets his faith act together, he kneels down in the middle of a highway and gets hit by a truck. He finds himself in “heaven” with God. God wants one thing from Bruce—a real prayer. Bruce’s first effort is filled with clichés and boilerplate lines. God presses Bruce for what Bruce really wants. Bruce says, “Grace.”

“Grace,” God replies. “You want her back?” “No,” Bruce says. “I want her to be happy, no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now, through Your eyes.” God is the one who smiles. “Now THAT’S a prayer.”

In Ephesians three, verses fourteen to twenty-one, Paul prays for his readers. He starts with the riches of God’s glory and asks that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God.” That’s a pretty good prayer. Paul finishes with the best benediction in the Bible. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, THAT’S a prayer! God’s abundance is astonishing! That’s the main thought today, so let’s hear it again. God’s abundance is astonishing!

Abundance is not the world’s way. The world’s way is scarcity. In scarcity there is power. I can control you by withholding or dispensing something. If there is enough for all, I lose my power over you. Paul’s prayer subverts our political and economic and emotional assumptions about life.

I love the pointed description of our culture offered by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. We live. Williams says, in “a prosperous culture in love with the fantasy of absolute individual security and protection against anything that might frustrate the projects of the solitary self.” In other words, we live in a culture that celebrates selfishness and idolizes individual privilege.

Scarcity sustains privilege. Privilege manages and distributes scarce resources to the advantage of the privileged. Then the privileged experience material abundance, use it to ignore the needs of others, and do everything possible to defend that privilege.

It’s no accident that at times of economic uncertainty, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan reappear in force. Whenever white male privilege is threatened, hate groups become popular again. Living from God’s abundance is a form of countercultural resistance. If God is the provider, then humans can’t control us.

God’s abundance is astonishing! God is the Owner. God does not transfer ownership to us. There is a delegation of authority, not a transfer of title. It all belongs to God. We are created to be stewards of God’s abundance.

Good stewardship makes us truly and fully human. Good stewardship equips us to be what God has created us to be. In the course of this study, we have been reminded that God’s gifts always come with a vocation. So stewardship is how we respond to our call to follow Jesus with our whole lives.

We think we can rely on our own resources. But that’s such a narrow life, such a finite resource, such a shallow well. Jesus leads us to an enlarged and abundant world. God offers far MORE than we can ask for and imagine—not less. God calls us to use our gifts for the power of love, not the love of power.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

Why does Paul pray for his readers? He knows they are discouraged because he’s in jail. Paul’s fate (execution) seemed like a certainty (which it was). How could his readers be anything but discouraged? They are sinking into a scarcity mindset.

Paul reminds them of their vocation. The church speaks the variegated wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities. The rulers and authorities don’t respond well. But it’s all part of God’s plan. So we can speak for God “in boldness and confidence through faith” in the Messiah.

Paul expects his readers to suffer for being Jesus followers. He does not pray for them to be protected from such threats. He prays for them to see beyond the suffering, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” He prays for them not to be spared but rather strengthened. He invites them to ask and dream big.

Paul invites us to ask and to dream big. Even though God can and will do more than we can ask for or imagine, that shouldn’t keep us from either asking or imagining. Often, we fail to make changes because we simply cannot believe that such a thing could ever happen. My experience is that big things are often resting right under the surface if we have enough patience and trust to see them.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

For example, I didn’t whip up the idea of a child care center or the notion that we could have walking paths and a labyrinth and a retreat center or the idea that we should support mental health issues. Those things were sitting here waiting to be noticed. What is sitting there, waiting to be noticed in your life? What is it that is more than you could ask for or imagine that God wants to do for you, in you, through you by the power of the Holy Spirit?

God’s abundance is astonishing! Next week we will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit God gives to the church for our mission in and for the life of the world.

“God’s Work of Art” — Throwback Thursdays

Ephesians 2:1-10

Michelangelo is perhaps the greatest sculptor the world has ever known. “Every block of stone,” he once said, “has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo could see the statue inside the stone. His genius was to free that living work of art from the cold, dead marble.

In Ephesians two, verse ten, Paul says, “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The translation, “what God has made us” is too tame.

Paul uses the Greek word, “poiema.” It’s the root of our words “poem” and “poetry.” The best translation says that we are God’s “work of art.” You are God’s work of art. That’s the main thought for today.

Last week Paul reminded us that all Christian power is Resurrection power. God’s love looks like a cross. God’s power looks like an empty tomb. God’s justice looks a mighty wind blowing through the Church and into the world. We live, as Paul says, “for the praise of [God’s] glory.”

God gives us Resurrection life with Jesus the Messiah. That new life is a free gift of pure love. “But God, who is rich in mercy,” Paul writes in verses four and five of chapter two, “out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.

Through Jesus, God can see the beautiful work of art that you are. Out of the dead stone of sin, God makes you alive with the Messiah. You are God’s work of art.

Faith is the first gift of the Resurrection life. The Holy Spirit fills us with that gift. Faith is not just intellectual agreement that a doctrine is true. Faith is trust in God’s goodness, mercy and love in life and in death. Let me illustrate with a favorite sermon story.

One night a house caught fire. A young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” All the boy could see was flame, smoke, and blackness. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” The boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “I can see you and that’s all that matters.” The boy jumped and lived. The boy had faith in his father.

For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul declares, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” We are created in the Messiah as God’s work of art. Faith is the first gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift empowers us to trust God in life and in death. That gift equips us to live for the praise of [God’s glory].

Faith is a gift with a purpose. We are made alive for good works. God has always meant for us to live this way. It’s what we’re made for! You are God’s work of art.

We are part of the “advance notice” of God’s New Creation. “So if anyone is in Christ,” Paul writes in Second Corinthians five, verse seventeen, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” My new life—and yours—shows that God’s New Creation has been launched among us, in us and through us.

You are God’s work of art. You are a sign that God intends this for all of Creation. This is why God made it all in the first place. God is an artist. All great art has love at its core. God made the cosmos as the great Divine work of art. Sin, death and evil deface this work of art. But God will not toss it out. God is remaking the cosmos, and we are part of that remaking!

God loves beauty. We don’t think about beauty often enough. We have wonderful painters, visual artists and graphic designers. We have poets and essayists. We have craftspeople who work in wood and metal. We have marvelous gardeners and florists. We have geniuses working with fabric and fiber. We have gifted and talented and passionate musicians. That’s only a partial list of the creative artists in this place.

Beauty does not feed the hungry or clothe the naked—not directly anyway. But it does make us more of what God intends us to be. When we experience real art, we become more fully and truly human. Art is a form of worship!

So, let’s have more of that beauty in our sanctuary. Let’s have more color in this space week in and week out. I know there are always complications about where to place things and how to hang them and what to do with them after a while. Let’s figure all that out so that more of God’s art work will be visible here.

You are God’s work of art. God has made you alive together with Christ and gifted you with the faith that sets you right with God. In the power of the Holy Spirit you are now freed and empowered to be the work of art God has always intended you to be. I invite you to live that way this week.

God is pulling the whole cosmos together in Jesus. God fills up that cosmos with the Holy Spirit of love. God uses that Spirit within us to point toward the beauty of God’s love in all of Creation. In all of this we live for the praise of [God’s] glory. You are God’s work of art.

Love always unites. Next time we will hear about the power of that love to break down walls of human division and to build up Christ’s body as the new temple of God. Our unity in the Messiah is a sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s greatest work of art. Let’s pray…

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

“From Preaching to Meddling” — Throwback Thursday Books

Ephesians 2:11-22

Two elderly Southern men sat in the front pew of church listening to a fiery preacher. When this preacher condemned the sin of stealing, they cried out at the tops of their lungs, “AMEN, BROTHER!” When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “PREACH IT, REVEREND!” But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preaching and now he’s meddling’.”

That’s where we are in Ephesians. Paul has moved from preaching to meddling.

Do you remember Paul’s overall theme in Ephesians? God pulls it all together in Jesus. In that process, God pulls all people together in Jesus. We are the one people of the one God. That is today’s focus, so I’ll repeat it.  We are the one people of the one God.

Jesus the Messiah is the focus, the sign and the means of this unity. The cross of Jesus overcomes all human dividing walls of hostility. We should not be surprised at this. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”

How does this connect to last week’s words about justification by faith? The Holy Spirit makes us members of the one body of the Messiah. The Spirit empowers us to trust the one God in life and in death. This gift is for any and every person, regardless of background.

God is one and desires a single family. God’s love always unites. This is not the mere tolerance of our secular age. We settle for tolerance when we refuse to embrace one another in love. Tolerance is self-defense intended to minimize combat. We can do better. We are the one people of the one God.

So we invite, welcome and include newcomers in our church family. We invite, welcome and include newcomers in our church family because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. All are invited, welcomed and included. If all are not invited, welcomed and included, then Jesus is not our Lord.

That’s why you find these words on the tables in our Community Room:

As Christ’s church, we value the richness of God’s creation and offer a radical welcome to all people, appreciating our common humanity and our differences. We are a church that does not view diversity as a barrier to unity. We recognize and will challenge dynamics of power and privilege that create barriers to participation and equity in this church and society – for women, people of color, minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, people who are marginalized or living in poverty, and the LGBTQ community.

We are the one people of the one God. When we say “all are welcome” we mean “all.” Inviting, welcoming and including are not limited to people we know and like. Inviting, welcoming and including are not limited to people like us. Inviting, welcoming and including aren’t just for the sanctuary and then forgotten in the Community Room. Inviting, welcoming and including don’t require everyone to be just fine all the time. God loves us as we are and calls us to love one another the same way. We are the one people of the one God.

God overcomes our human divisions. That begins in our baptism. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ” Paul writes in Galatians three, verses twenty-seven and twenty-eight, “have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

God is rescuing all of Creation from sin, death and the devil. Those forces disrupt, divide and destroy God’s good Creation. God’s love always brings together. The Church is a sign, instrument and foretaste of that love. We are the one people of the one God.

In the Messiah, we are made whole together, and we are made holy together. This is temple language. Paul uses the image of the Jerusalem temple to illustrate this reality. So we need to discuss the nature of the Jerusalem temple for Christians. “Do you not know,” Paul writes in First Corinthians three, verse sixteen, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

Paul echoes those words in Ephesians two. We are one body through the cross. We are no longer strangers but rather members together of the household of God. We are God’s temple, the dwelling place of God in the world.

For Christians there’s no connection between ancient, biblical Israel and modern, political Israel. There is no place for the prayers and blessings of American Christian pastors at government sites in Israel. The alliance between fundamentalist American Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews is cynical in both directions.

The Christians involved want the Jerusalem temple rebuilt because they believe this will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. They believe the Second Coming requires the destruction of that very same temple. They want to build it up to tear it down.

The Jews involved care nothing about that fundamentalist Christian vision. They wish to restore the Temple to its greatness during the time of King Solomon. They are happy to take Christian money and political influence to accomplish their goals.

Christians have no stake in rebuilding a temple in Jerusalem. The New Testament clearly and strongly asserts that the need for such a temple is past. The church filled with the Holy Spirit is now the “holy temple in the Lord.” In Christ we are built together into God’s dwelling-place. We are the one people of the one God.

As God’s new temple, we welcome men, women, people of color, minority ethnic groups, migrants and refugees, people with disabilities, people who are marginalized or living in poverty, and the LGBTQ community. We’ve moved from preaching to meddling, thank God! Next week we will talk about how this good news moves into the world and confronts the powers of this world. Let us pray…

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

On Bullshit and the Baptizer — Throwback Thursday Books

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” writes philosopher Harry Frankfurt. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.” Frankfurt’s slim volume, entitled On Bullshit, is one of those few works that makes me proud to have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. At least one of us in the guild has produced something useful and of substance.

Harry Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. He wrote this little gem in 2005.

Frankfurt is convinced that most of us think we can recognize bullshit when we see it, and that we are quite mistaken. As a result, most of us are routinely taken in by some variety of BS or another in our daily lives. He sets out to define and describe bullshit in such a way that people in general can be equipped to both recognize and reject bullshit when it is placed in our path.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something,” Frankfurt writes. “There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline” (page 23). Frankfurt notes that BS is analogous to shoddy, knock-off merchandise that the seller knowingly offers as the real deal.

The counterfeit character of BS is one mark of the substance. In addition, Frankfurt suggests, bullshit tends to claim more authority for itself than can be warranted. It has the character of exaggeration, hyperbole, and some measure of fabrication to support whatever has been asserted.

This is not, Frankfurt notes, intentional lying. It is, rather, a sort of mindless expression which the speaker assumes (consciously or not) that the listener will simply let slide because it’s too much work to track down the excesses. The bullshitter’s fault is not so much the failure to get things right but rather the failure to even try to get things right (page 32).

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” Frankfurt concludes, “that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (pages 33-34).

Bullshit is language emptied of meaning and truth just as “excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed,” Frankfurt notes. “Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted” (page 43). BS is language from which the vital elements of meaning and truth have been removed – and are not missed!

So, to summarize, bullshit is not necessarily true or false. Rather, it is rhetoric which is simply unconcerned with whether truth matters. “What bullshit essentially misrepresents,” Frankfurt continues, “is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs” (page 53).  Rather, “the fact abut himself that bullshitter hides,” Frankfurt argues, “is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him” (page 54).

In essence, Frankfurt proposes, the bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out,” Frankfurt observes, “or makes them up, to suit his purpose” (page 56).

Therefore, Frankfurt concludes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are” (page 61). I would add that the greatest friend the bullshitter has is the rest of us who believe to one degree or another that truth still exists. Part of the power asymmetry which the bullshitter exploits is precisely that differential approach to whether or not truth matters. This describes to some degree, I think, the difference between the major American political parties at this point in history.

The application of Frankfurt’s work to the rhetoric associated with Donald Trump and the current Republican party is both transparent and apparent. Frankfurt speaks “prophetically” about the precise rhetorical strategy which is the beating heart of Trumpism. Bullshit is what we get when truth is subservient to the acquisition and maintenance of power. In the hands of the powerful, positioned, and privileged, bullshit is a deadly substance. Such people have the capacity to insist that bullshit is Reality and to penalize anyone who dares to differ.

Why is this a useful discussion in the study of the beheading of John the Baptizer? I would suggest that a definition of the role of the biblical prophets, including John (and Jesus) is to name publicly, identify, and oppose the bullshit of the powerful, positioned, and privileged. When prophets do such a thing, they often pay for that behavior with their property, their liberty, and (often enough) their lives.

John names what everyone knows – that Antipas has broken the law and violated cultural and religious norms. More than that, Antipas, and his household, assert that this arrangement is normal and good. Nothing to see here, they say. Move along and tend your business. Everything is fine.

But John declares that everything is not fine. No amount of power, position, and privilege can change the facts of the case. John is, therefore, faced with a choice. Be quiet or be killed. By the time we get to our narrative, that choice no longer exists for John. The question is not if he will die but only when and how.

One of the hallmarks of bullshit is that when it is called out, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the bullshit going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Anti-bullshit artists have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.

I want to connect this to current conversations about anti-racism, critical race theory, history, and the like. We can, I think, leave the details of critical race theory aside. The real issue is that CRT is an anti-bullshit methodology. It simply asks, “What really happened? How did things get this way?” It is, like many academic disciplines, an attempt to get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.”

Therefore, we should not be surprised when the response is white rage, verging on homicidal insanity. Certain commentators have mused that perhaps critical race theorists should be erased from the conversation somehow. And certain of those commentators are not all that choosy about how the erasure happens. Short of that, state legislatures are erasing the conversation itself from school curricula in order to sustain the overarching bullshit narrative of white supremacy and innocence.

This strategy is the essential strategy of white supremacy. Kaitlin Curtice puts it this way in Native. “A thread runs through the history of America, a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness,” Curtice argues, “of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity.” (page 13).

“You shall know the Truth,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “and the Truth shall make you free.” We church people should be determined, deliberate, dauntless friends of Truth, wherever it takes us. That is, we Jesus followers should be implacable enemies of bullshit. Yet, in my experience, white churches have been and continue to be revered repositories of all sorts of bullshit – especially of the supremacist kind. We need only observe the theological self-cannibalism society called the Southern Baptist Convention to note the truth of the previous statement.

My own theological tribe, however, is not about to cast the first stone in this matter. We draft social statements, messages, policies, and letters. They have some impact in a few places. But for the most part, we are just as white, upper-middle-class, and insular as we were forty years ago. The quality of the bullshit is perhaps more refined, but the substance has changed very little.

Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain the bullshit, or we can die in opposition to it.

There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?

References and Resources

https://headtopics.com/us/i-want-his-head-on-a-platter-kentucky-mom-tells-911-dispatcher-of-suspect-who-took-her-baby-in-ca-10235366.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-3.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Noegel, Scott B. “CORPSES, CANNIBALS, AND COMMENSALITY: A LITERARY AND ARTISTIC SHAMING CONVENTION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.” Journal of Religion and Violence, vol. 4, no. 3, 2016, pp. 255–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26671507. Accessed 1 July 2021.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-5.

Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Ritual (De)Construction of Masculinity in Mark 6: A Methodological Exploration on the Interface of Gender and Ritual Studies.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 327–352. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26417640. Accessed 1 July 2021.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

“Pull It Together” — Throwback Thursday Books (Sort of)

On Throwback Thursday this summer, I’m going to share a sermon series I wrote on the Letter to the Ephesians in 2018 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I hope you find it helpful while I take a few days off here and there from writing. LRH

Ephesians 1:1-14

It seems like everything is falling apart. Race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, party—take your pick. In a time when we seem to be more connected than ever, we are retreating into ever smaller cliques and cocoons. As the world widens, our vision narrows. We are headed toward eight billion individual empires—all at war with one another.

Life these days seems like a washer tied to the end of a string. As you swing that washer in a circle, you can feel it tugging to escape. The faster you twirl it, the harder the washer pulls. If you spin it fast enough, the washer and string may fly right out of your hand. The results can be destructive and even painful.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Physicists call that tugging “centrifugal” force. If you are interested, centrifugal force is defined as “the apparent force…drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation…” If you were alert, you noticed something in that definition. Centrifugal force—that urge to come apart—is only an “apparent” force. Something else is at work.

Physicists call that something else “centripetal” force. This is the actual force “acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or the axis of rotation.” No matter how it feels, the force holding things together is real.

Why in the world have I given this lesson in basic physics? I want to focus on Ephesians one, verse ten—“gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.God pulls it all together in Jesus. That’s the main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ll come back to that theme many times this summer. So it’s worth saying again. God pulls it all together in Jesus. When it seems like everything is falling apart, that’s some pretty good news.

Honest preachers will tell you that we are often preaching to ourselves. The rest of you get to listen in. I imagine that was true for Paul as he wrote this letter. In chapter three, verse one, he reminds us of his situation. He is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” He’s not exaggerating. Paul is under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. He is accused of treason because he obeys Jesus rather than Caesar. In a few months, an executioner will separate Paul’s head from his body during the persecution of Christians in Rome.

Paul has every reason to think everything is falling apart. He sits in jail while Christians are hounded from pillar to post. His churches in the eastern Mediterranean roil with conflict and division. The Roman Empire reels under the rule of Nero the Narcissistic Bully. During Nero’s persecution, for example, Christians were covered with tar, tied to poles and used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties. It was hard to make sense of anything.

And yet…Paul launches this letter with a magnificent prayer of blessing. How can he do this? Let’s review our little physics lesson. This feeling of flying apart is not the real force in the universe. The real force is that which holds all things together. God pulls it all together in Jesus.

God’s plan has always been to fill this good Creation to overflowing with God’s unending love. That’s the power that holds it all together. God has always planned “to bless us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” God has always planned to make Creation flourish. We know this plan was delayed by sin, death and the devil. But delay is not defeat.

In his prayer, Paul rehearses God’s strategy. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God rescues all of Creation from sin, death and the devil. That rescue operation comes to a head in Jesus. The fake forces of division and destruction are defeated. That rescue operation continues in and through us, the body of Christ.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. Jesus pulls it all together through us. God has chosen us in Jesus by grace to be part of that rescue plan. “We aren’t chosen for our own sake,” says Tom Wright, “but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us.”

How does this happen? Our part of God’s plan begins in worship. Twice in these opening verses, Paul identifies our primary purpose in life. We are made, he says, “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” We are most truly human when we live for the praise of God’s glory. That kind of worship makes us more of what God created us to be.

We have a great variety of fans here—black and gold, scarlet and cream, cardinal and gold, purple and gold, and more. Sundays in the fall are always interesting here. Even if I don’t hear the scores, I can tell who has won just by how some of you walk in the door. If my team has won, I stand taller, smile bigger laugh louder. That victory makes us more than we are in defeat.

That’s what worship does for us when we live for the praise of God’s glory. “When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made,” Tom Wright reminds us, “you do indeed grow. You discover what it means to be fully alive.”

Jesus leads us to that point in the Gospel reading as well. The Sabbath was made for human flourishing, not in order to fulfill some legal requirement. Worship makes us truly human. Rest makes us truly whole. God longs for us to live for the praise of God’s glory because it is good for us.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Next time we will talk more about that power for living and loving.

Pastor Lowell Hennigs