I think introductory sermons at new churches are about as fraught as sophomore album efforts by bands. There’s no good way to do it and there’s way too many balls in the air to thread into a single sermon. Anyways, I kicked off a series on Ephesians at my new congregation today.
The text is Ephesians 1.3-14. I was happy to get to use slides as part of the sermon, something I’ve not been able to do in a while. Here it is:
I’ve done a lot of guest preaching this past year- all over the country- and I discovered that I hate guest preaching.
The listeners don’t know me, don’t know whether I’m serious or sarcastic, and I don’t know them, neither the doubts that shame them nor the sins that keep them up at night.
“With guest preaching, it’s a miracle they hear anything at all,” I griped several times this year to friends.
And then last night, I expressed a little anxiety to Ali about starting here at Annandale and Ali kissed me on the cheek and said “Don’t worry, honey, just think of it as one of your guest preaching gigs.”
I guess that’s how its going to be for both of us, you and me, for a while.
I served at my last church for 13 years. I haven’t transitioned to a new church since 2005- it was a completely different world.
Back then, in 2005, an animated movie called the Incredibles was killing at the box office.
America was up in arms over illegal immigration and a vacancy on the Supreme Court; meanwhile, the White House was engulfed in scandal surrounding a President who had lost the popular vote.
On the religious front, the United Methodist Church was embroiled in controversy over issues of sexuality.
It was a completely different world back then the last time I transitioned to a new congregation.
So a few weeks ago, I asked Clarence for advice on how to survive you all and, after he stopped laughing- belly laughing, giggling really, for like 20 minutes- we took this picture together with your other two previous pastors.
They were laughing at me too, like the bishop had stuck a kick-me sign on my rear end.
Pastor Jack Martin showed us the picture and Clarence whispered to me: “I don’t which of you or me sticks out more.”
“That’s where I got you, Clarence,” I replied, “not only am I young, I’ve got the soul of a black man.”
And Clarence shot me a dubious look like I was crazy so then, to make my case, I showed him my dance moves.
“Check mate,” he conceded.
Looking at that picture of me dancing the white man overbite with a man of my own gender, I know what you’re thinking.
“I didn’t vote for you.”
I didn’t choose you.
And just as an aside, if you’re sitting there saying to yourself that you’re not young enough to get my pop culture references, realize that Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out 2 years before my mother gave birth to me, wrapped me in bands of cloth, and laid me in a manger.
Anyways, I don’t blame you- I bet you’re looking at me this morning and like those Monty Python peasants to King Arthur you’re thinking I didn’t choose you.
Even though the United Methodist system of compulsory speed-dating between pastor and parish makes farcical aquatic ceremonies seem prudent, we’re thrilled to be here and we’re touched by your warm welcome.
My boys are thrilled to be in a church where one of the pastors, Peter, is the same age as them.
And I, for one, am excited to be in a church where one of the other pastors manages to make me look less controversial. As far as I’m concerned, Chenda is like respite care.
But still, if I were you, I’d be thinking I didn’t choose you.
And not having chosen me, my guess is, you want to know more about me.
You want to know about my wife, Ali the attorney, and her undying affection for me.
You want to know how, as my soul mate, she takes everything I say with seriousness and sincerity.
You probably want to know how long we’ve been together and if we’ve always dressed as sharp as we do today (not so much).
You didn’t choose me.
So you probably want to know about me.
And since you’re not just getting me, you’re getting new youth for Trish’s program, you’re probably wondering if my kids have a positive attitude and a teachable spirit.
If you’ve trolled me on social media, you might be wondering into what Hogwarts House the Sorting Hat would put me. Slytherin.
This far into the sermon you’re probably wondering if I’ve always been this cynical and world weary.
As your pastor now, forced to take punches and deal with congregational conflict (not that you have any of that), you may want to know that I’ve not got a fragile ego.
As your priest, you should want to know how close I am with JC.
If you’ve read my book, then you’re likely wondering how much time I have before I get in trouble with the bishop. Fair question.
And if you’ve read my book, then you might also wonder how much time I have.
In an Amazon Prime world where you can choose anything you want and have it droned to your house in hours (though I like to think I’m a package) you didn’t choose me.
So naturally you want to know about me.
But also, you want to know what I’m going to do.
You want to know what we’re going to do, how we’re going to serve our neighbors and how we’re going to grow, how we’re going to reach new people with the promise of the Gospel.
The bad news though-
Our scripture text today doesn’t afford me much permission to talk about myself or, even, to talk about what we are going to do together for God.
Today’s passage is instead entirely (and impolitely so) about God’s choosing and doing.
Paul didn’t plant the church at Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila, disciples of John the Baptist did.
So when this preacher named Paul shows up in the Book of Acts having been sent to them, they were strangers to each other.
They didn’t choose him.
And so to begin his ministry with these strangers, Paul does a funny thing at the outset of his epistle.
He doesn’t avoid the awkward subject of choosing; he doubles down on it and reframes it.
He talks about God’s choosing and doing.
And he does so by here in the introduction of his letter by trading out the formal, traditional thanksgiving you could expect at the top of every ancient epistle, the thanksgiving where the author commends his audience for all of their good and faithful doings, and instead he inserts a traditional Hebrew blessing.
A berakah– a blessing that the Christians who had been Jews would’ve prayed 3 times a day.
Paul changes the berakah too.
He changes it from a blessing to the Creator for creation, for the sun and the moon and the stars, a blessing for what can be known to anyone and everyone on their own.
He changes the berakah to a blessing of what can only be made known, that which requires revelation from beyond us to know: the Gospel.
He has blessed us, Paul says, not with the sun and the moon and the stars.
He has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ.
And note the past perfect tense there- he has blessed us.
His choosing us in Jesus Christ-it’s complete.
There’s no not yet about his choosing us.
He has blessed us in Jesus Christ with everything that matters.
He has made us holy and blameless, Paul says.
Blameless, by bringing us out of bondage to the Pharaoh called Sin by the purchase price of his blood. That’s what the word redemption means.
And he has made us holy, by giving to us, reckoning to us as our own, Christ’s own righteousness. Christ’s own perfect score under the Law of God is credited to us as our own permanent, perfect score.
He has made us holy and blameless, Paul says, and he has made us his children.
Children by adoption.
Adoption, that which is done entirely by the decree of a Judge.
All of this, all of this ‘lavish’ blessing, Paul says is our inheritance.
He doesn’t say all of this is your wage, something you must earn by your doing.
He says it’s your inheritance, something gifted to you unconditionally and irrevocably, by way of another’s death.
Just so you understand that there’s no work you must to do to merit this blessing- and just so you don’t misunderstand and think there’s some way you can backslide your way out of it- the Apostle Paul unspools this blessing all the way back to before the foundation of the world.
Think about that-
Before God said ‘Let there be light,’ Paul says, God’s first words were ‘Let there be Gospel.’
Before God said ‘Let there be sun and moon and stars, God said ‘Let there be this unthwartable promise of the light of Jesus Christ despite our dark hearts and dark doings.’
God’s grace is older than the galaxy’s DNA.
St. Paul uses the word ‘predestined’ there to talk about God choosing us in Christ, but he doesn’t mean that every moment of your life has been predetermined from the get-go.
He means that even before any of us showed up on the scene God had preveniently determined to count you as his forgiven and redeemed child by his own Son’s bleeding and dying, sealed for you by the Holy Spirit in your baptism.
The reason St. Paul can preach that nothing- no sin you’ve done, no grudge stuck in your craw, no doubt hidden underneath your mattress- in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because God’s love for you in Christ Jesus antedates- precedes- even creation itself.
The Father’s grace to you in the Son was true before was was.
And even now, Paul says, the mystery, older than creation, revealed by Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls the firstborn of creation, is that God is still at work in the world.
To make good on his choosing.
What’s unveiled in Christ is that God is at work in the world- mysteriously so- extending this undeserved, one-way love called grace in order to change us, one-by-one, from the inside out.
And just so you don’t miss this point about choosing and doing, this point that God is the active agent, the Doer behind all the doings, Paul unwinds our passage today as one long, run-on sentence in the Greek.
It’s 204 words.
It’s the longest sentence in the New Testament.
And God is the subject of all of its verbs.
We are but hidden away here as the objects of God’s every verb.
A few weeks ago I was driving to Richmond to visit my mom, and, because I was on Interstate 95, I figured I had about 14 hours to kill so I listened to an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia.
The episode told the true story of 2 cops named Allan and Thorleif, in the city of Aarhus in Denmark. Back in 2012 the officers Allan and Thorleif received a phone call from distraught parents- distraught Muslim parents- that their teenage son had gone missing.
As Allan and Thorleif began investigating, other calls from other parents began to cascade into the police station until eventually over 30 teenage sons of 30 sets of parents were missing.
When Allan and Thorleif scratched the surface, asking questions and interviewing people in the community, they began to hear rumors.
About how these teenage boys had been radicalized without their parents realizing.
About how they’d fled to join ISIS and take up jihad.
For whatever reason, these two ordinary, unimpressive cops, who don’t even have sexy cop jobs- they work in neighborhood crime prevention, they took it upon themselves to determine what they were going to do about these missing boys whenever they returned to Aarhus.
For all the cops knew, when these boys came back their town would be receiving dozens of angry terrorists.
And again, this was 2012 when other countries were pulling no punches when it came to potential threats, pulling out all the stops to detain and prosecute anyone suspected of affiliation with ISIS.
And in 2012, the city of Aarhus was second on the list of European countries with a homegrown terrorist problem.
But what Allan and Thorleif chose to do-
They chose beforehand–
Before any of these teens even returned back from Syria
Before a one of them ever fessed up, expressed remorse, or repented
Before Allan and Thorleif found out what they’d done and what they deserved
They chose beforehand, before any of them showed up on the scene, they predetermined to show them love, one-way, undeserved love.
Before a one of these would-be jihadists appeared back in Aarhus, these two ordinary cops chose to impute to them a goodness wasn’t even there.
They chose beforehand to call these teens what they were not- not terrorists; they chose to call them ‘Syrian Volunteers.’
They chose beforehand to treat them, no matter what they may have done or likely did do, as though they’d been volunteering in hospitals and orphanages.
They chose to credit to them a righteousness that was not theirs, and they chose not require them to do anything to earn it.
And so as these missing jihadi teens trickled back home, Allan and Thorleif didn’t meet them at the airport and arrest them.
They welcomed them home.
Later, they’d invite them over to chat.
They connected them with mentors.
They got them back in school and back into jobs.
Of the 34 Aarhus teens who first went missing in 2012, 6 were killed in Syria and 10 went missing. The remaining 18 who returned home were all de-radicalized by those 2 ordinary men.
They’ve done the same for over 300 teens since then.
“We didn’t wait for them to find their way back into the light; we chose not to let them leave themselves in the dark,” Allan says.
“We decided to fight radicalism with love…” Thorleif told the Invisibilia host, and then he paused and you can imagine him smiling before he added…”love paid for by the State.”
When the Invisibilia host asked the cops how they came up with this idea, Thorleif just shrugged and said: “I dunno. At first my partner thought I was crazy.”
And then he said- pay attention now people. There’s an unseen agency at work here, which NPR does not name because TO NAME IT IS THE CHURCH’S JOB.
“It just came to me,” Thorleif confessed.
“The idea just came upon me…a miracle I guess.”
For now at least, I’m just your guest preacher.
You don’t yet know how to listen to me.
So let me make plain what I am saying and what I am NOT saying.
I’m not exhorting you that you must go and do like Allan and Thorleif.
I’m not saying that you ought to go and show risky, undeserved, one-way love to every enemy in the world and each antagonist in your life.
Such an exhortation would be what Martin Luther called preaching the Law (not the Gospel) and, because it’s a burden you couldn’t possibly fulfill, it would only frustrate you until you began to hear the exhortation as an accusation.
Go and do like Thorleif.
Maybe not today but, eventually, you would not experience that as good news.
And it would not be the Good News.
It would not be the Gospel because, notice, it makes us the subject of the sentence, but the Gospel is that we are the objects of God’s verbs.
God’s past, future, and present verbs.
Let’s be honest about ourselves, shall we?
The good news in the good news is that we are not the good news.
We are the objects of it.
Were it otherwise, you’d have every reason to be anxious about a new pastor and every reason to be torqued off that you didn’t get to choose any of the three of us.
Of course, were it otherwise-
If it was all on us
If we were the subjects of all the church’s verbs, then you wouldn’t need to worry about a pastor at all.
Because there’d be no need for the Church at all.
But as it is-
What makes the Church different from a political party or a kiwanis or country club, distinct from a social justice agency or a corporate organization- what makes us unique from any other religion even- is the Gospel.
And the Gospel is not about what we choose to do in the world.
The Gospel is what God has chosen to do. From before time.
For us by his cross.
And through us by his Holy Spirit.
On the night we betray him, Jesus tells us at the table: “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
In fact, unlike in the Old, in the New Testament there is next to nothing about our choosing to serve the Lord (or choosing to do much of anything else for that matter).
Instead the New Testament emphasizes that God has chosen you and chosen to do through you, and, I’ve been a pastor long enough to know, most of the time, that looks for us as mysterious and surprising as it did for Allan and Torleif.
It looks like what we do at this table.
We do not bring anything to this table but our sin and an open hand willing to trust whatever God chooses to put in it.
The sacraments are not simply signs to us they are signs of us.
Signs that, in a world addicted to having our own agency, like water and wine and bread we are ordinary, unwitting creatures of his choosing and doing.
Such that, if we do Christ’s work at all it’s a miracle.
What will God do with us?