“There are times in our lives – scary, unsettling times – when we know that we need help or answers but we’re not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is. We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch, and we come up empty-handed,”
... writes theologian and author Anne Lamott in her book Hallelujah Anyway. “Where do I look for answers when I am afraid, or confused, or numb,” she asks. For her it is often, maybe most critically to the Old Testament prophet Micah, who reminds her (and us!) of her path and purpose. “What doth God require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
“How can you not love mercy – kindness, compassion, forgiveness?” she asks. When we love people, serve people, care for people we end up feeling loving feelings within ourselves, so why, then, do we not do it more? We are afraid, she says. We are afraid of exposure, of death, that we will lose those who we love most, that we will lose whatever advantage we have, and whatever meager gains we’ve made. And so we put mercy away.
Lamott says that she, “came into this world with mercy for nearly everyone, everywhere, and for all cats and dogs at the pound.” But as a small child, just five, Lamott began putting her mercy away. The adults in her life told her to. “My parents, teachers and the culture I grew up in showed me a drawer in which to stuff my merciful nature, because mercy made me look vulnerable and foolish, and it made me less productive.” And so, she put mercy away.
Lamott’s personal experience may be one that we can identify with as individuals. It also speaks volumes to the reality and worry of the church; be it the church all the way back in the time of the letter to the Ephesians, or the church right now.
How do we live in and do mercy, mercy that is so beautiful, mercy when received and delivered makes us feel happier and more full than anything else we can imagine, mercy commanded by God through Micah and Jesus. How do we live in and do mercy, even as beautiful and wonderful as it is, when we are so afraid?
The churches receiving this letter to the Ephesians were likely churches who were afraid. Chapters three and four get to the heart of their fear.
We remember that this letter may have been written by the Apostle Paul, but that scholars more commonly today believe that the writer was a student of Paul’s due to a number of distinct differences in the way the letter was written and the use of some words that are not used elsewhere. The Letter notes the community of Ephesus, a community in Turkey near the coast; but more than being directed to a church or churches in a particular place, Ephesians seems to be a letter directed to churches in times of change, churches who needed to be reminded who and whose they were.
We need this too, don’t we? For we are often also afraid.
This reminder of who and whose they were began in Chapter 1 which paints a beautiful picture of God as God of the heavens and earth; as no place or space being apart from God; of God as bigger than and more all-encompassing than we might be able to comprehend. We will be okay because our God is not just a God of the earth but the stars.
Chapter 2 then reminds the church of the incredible gifts that the church - - and each individual one within the church - - has received. We hear the good, good, good news that we are saved by grace and not by faith or works (2:8). And we are reminded of the incredible gift that we have been given in Jesus Christ (2:12-13): “remember that you were at the time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Our fear and anxiety was more relevant before Jesus, right? In the time that we were without Christ, and had no hope and were without God in the world. But now, by the grace of God, we have been brought in and near and are not alone.
Good news in Chapter 1. Good news in Chapter 2. But Chapter 3 starts front and center with something that made the churches reading this letter tremble. Something that still makes the church today tremble. Paul was in jail. And the churches, naturally, were afraid.
Again, not knowing exactly about the authorship, a number of things may be happening. Depending on the authorship of the letter, it may be Paul writing from prison; it may be his student writing for him while he was in prison; some even think this may have been written post-Paul’s death assuming that Paul’s imprisonment and martyrdom were probably common knowledge among the communities of believers. Whatever the specific details, were the bottom line was the same. The most prominent apostle and teacher and missionary of the early church was in prison! He was not going to be released, but would die. The one who had shared the good news, spoken hope, filled them with courage when their knees were knocking in fear had fallen! Now, what were these churches going to do?
The momentum of the early church movement hit a huge pocket of anxiety and fear - - not that they had not been there before, but this time it was different. The Apostle Paul, and other early church leaders, were dying; some as martyrs, some due to natural factors. And the loss of these church building and growing giants made the early Christian community very aware of one thing - - that life for them individually and collectively was tentative. The young churches who had developed and thrived in significant part due to the ministry of Paul and others like him did not know how they were going to live into tomorrow without these great leaders. And too, they wondered if as the world had turned on Paul it just might also turn on them too.
Chapter 3 ends with a beautiful prayer of courage and strength for these trembling churches; seeking to encourage them and fortify them. I’ll be closing us with that prayer in the benediction so I hope you will listen for those words.
But chapter 4, our text for today, does not stay in the fear. Instead of dwelling in that time and space and place where mercy gets put away, and the church hunkers down in fright over how tentative life is, chapter 4 says GO. “Lead a life worthy of your calling.” Go.
What? Lead a life worthy of our calling? But we are afraid! We are afraid!
We are often times afraid, aren’t we? Afraid of so many things. Of what is in the news and what isn’t. And of the constant reminders to us of how tentative life is. What do we do about that, particularly in the times when we feel frozen? When we are too afraid to do much of anything?
A long-time pastor in this presbytery, Rev. Bob Foster, when he was in his final few years, would tell anyone who would listen how every day he got up and looked at the paper each morning. “If I’m not in the obituaries,” he’s say, “then I figure I’ve got the day!” And in that day, he’d do all that he could to live a life worthy of his calling.
We have the day. It doesn’t mean we aren’t ever afraid. We are because we are human. We are afraid when we are not in control. We are afraid when our community changes and at times seems unfamiliar. We are afraid when the headlines are wracked with problems that seem far too big to do anything about. And we are afraid at the knowledge that life is tentative. We are afraid.
Ephesians doesn’t gloss over the fear. But it doesn’t leave us there either. Live a life worthy of your calling. We’ve got the day! And that means being a community of faith that builds up; and a community of faith that overflows.
Our call is to be the community of faith, the church, and to build one another up not for our own sake but so that we might go. Go and spread mercy. The mercy of Almighty God; we are starving for it and the whole world is too. Go!
But there are the usual excuses that we humans come up with. We don’t have the skills, or the talent, or the people, or the courage quite frankly. But Ephesians 4 reminds us that we each are given a different gift, that they all are important, and that used together they will enable us to build one another up, to build up this body as a living sacrifice to Jesus Christ who is our head, and equip us for ministry and mission - - for bringing mercy - - to the world. Stop fussing. Stop worrying, Ephesians tells its hearers. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind . . . . but speaking the truth in love we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from the whole body,” (v. 15, 16).
Lead a life worthy of your calling, starting now. There’s no waiting around.
* * * *
We’ve been working our way through the mission statement of this church as we have been working our way through Ephesians. I want to read that to you yet again: the mission of this church is to be a people who are actively, “embracing the community with God’s love; providing a home for spiritual nurture and worship; reaching out to those in need; and growing through service to others.”
We’ve got the day. And Ephesians 4 and the command to “lead a life worthy of our calling” fits well with the third line of this mission statement, “reaching out to those in need”. As a church, as the people of God, we are called to be a community where we build one another up, where we knit something together that is glorifying of God, where together we live in unity in Jesus Christ. But the church, as all of that, does not exist for itself. The fundamental purpose of the church is to be a mission to the world - - to go out and dispense mercy in the name of Christ.
Sometimes that means to go-go. Ron and Nancy just returned from a mission trip to West Virginia. They went. Sometimes mission takes us out of our community.
But often mission is something we do right in our community. I want to share with you a story that Alice told about one of her students when she was a teacher. It is a story of her mission and her ministry. She shared that she had a class of mostly 8 year olds one year. And in that class was a little boy and each time that she passed that little boy as she walked up and down the isle he would say sort of under his breath, but loud enough that she could hear, “I hate you”.
As a teacher, Alice had options, right? She could have sent the child to the principal. She could have called his parents and told them that their son was not very nice. She could have had him stand in the corner or something of the sort. But what did she do? After several passes by the child and a number of “I hate you’s” Alice stopped and bent down in a nice teacher sort of manner. She said in a low voice so as not to alert the other children, but firmly, “If you say that one more time, I’m going to take you to the front of the classroom and cover you with kisses.” Mercy! The child ceased to say “I hate you” and Alice won with kindness! Mercy! Cover you in kisses! Mercy! Mercy to the world!
“Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the un-absolvable, forgiving the unforgiveable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten,” writes Lamott. “Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess,” like our deep fear and worry, like those things outside our door that seem too big and wide and difficult to overcome.
But we are people of a God of earth and the universe. We are a people who were far away and now have been brought near and into the community and love of God. And sometimes we are a people who are afraid, who are overwhelmed at the tentativeness of life, who worry about our future as individuals and as the church just as the Christians of Ephesus did so many, many years ago.
But we do not need to be afraid, because the cross reminds us that there is nothing too big or wide or difficult to overcome. Lead a life worthy of your calling. Go. Go.
Next Sunday in worship and in the Bellringer this month you will find some information on how we as The Bellbrook Presbyterian Church might live into this calling of ours, might lead our communal lives worthy of that calling together as we reach out to those in need. In the wise words of Winnie the Pooh, “You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” (A.A. Milne). And those words could not be truer for the church. If we are going to lead a life worthy of our calling, then we reach out of these doors and our comfort zones and our pews and dump mercy by the bucket-full on this community.
Might we still be afraid? Maybe. Some days for sure. “But there is grace, and hope and Hallelujah Anyway. Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love.” There is nothing – no height, no depth, not even a prison cell – that can separate us from the love of God. And while the details aren’t always worked out, and we feel pushed out of our comfort zones, and life seems tentative, we can lead lives worthy of our calling knowing that as the church that is what we are called to do, to be bringers of hope and good news and mercy to the world. Jesus said Go.
Grant us courage and hope, O God.
All glory be to you. Amen.