Text: Ephesian 1:15-23
During my chaplaincy internship, there was a woman in my cohort – a short, Italian woman from New Jersey in her mid-forties, with big hair, big heels, big nails, and an even bigger personality, by the name of Adriana. Adriana had this peculiar and rather unorthodox way of approaching any pastoral care situation – whether it was a patient undergoing full resuscitation or receiving a terminal diagnosis. The first thing Adriana would always say to the loved one in the room or the patient was, “Hi. I’m Adriana. I’m the chaplain. And it’s gonna’ be okay.”
I was always appalled that she would say this. She doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know if the patient will survive being resuscitated. She doesn’t know how this terminal diagnosis is going to turn out. Hell…it’s TERMINAL! That means the patient is going to die! That it’s NOT going to be okay. And yet, every time she said it, the patient or loved one would immediately calm down. I couldn’t believe it. That was the kind of thing we were taught NOT to say in pastoral care classes. So, I thought to myself, “Well, if it worked for her. Surely it can work for me.”
So, one day I went to the room of a woman who had just received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her daughter and son-in-law were there in the room with her. I went into the room, introduced myself to the patient and family, and sat down next to the daughter on the couch. As the daughter told me about the diagnosis, I parroted Adriana: “It’s all going to be okay.” And the daughter snapped her head around, looked at me incredulously, and said, “NO IT’S NOT! IT’S NOT GOING TO BE OKAY!” I was at a complete loss for words.
The problem was, I offered words of future hope to a present crisis – words that I did not believe myself. The daughter – because of her faith tradition – knew that everything was going to be okay in the long run. But she didn’t need me to address future hope, she needed me to address the hope in the midst of the present crisis that she was experiencing. The sudden realization that everything was about to change. But how do you do that? How do you speak to hope in the midst of a present crisis?
Hope is typically understood as something in the future. In Christianity, this is traditionally interpreted as two things: One, the future day when Christ returns, renews all things, and sets the creation right again. Or two, the day when we die, go to heaven, and finally escape all the pain, suffering, and evil we endured in this world. But hope is more than an idealized future caused by either Christ’s return or our death. Because in our Ephesians text today, we also see that Christian hope is also a present hope. As Ephesians says: “God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything.” And so, Christian hope is one in which we live in the present moment, while simultaneously knowing we are already claimed by God’s future. And what does that look like at both a the individual and the church level?
On an individual level, one commentator speaks about the sudden death of her husband and how “hope” was unknowingly misused only in the future sense by well-meaning people, saying things like: “It’s all part of God’s bigger plan. A mystery that we don’t understand now but will someday.” Yet the commentator argues, “It’s not that I’m uninterested in the bigger mystery…It’s just that someday is not… sufficient to get me through this day, to move me from one moment to the next in this world where [my husband] is not.”
Instead, the commentator argues for understanding present hope. That stubborn muscle within each of us that “keeps reaching and stretching” even when we cannot do it any longer. Present hope is that which breathes for us – which keeps us alive – when we believe that all is lost. Present hope is that inner voice that speaks in the face of tragedy, saying, “There’s always room for one more.” One more day. One more breath. One more step. One more bite of food. One more cry. One more person to enter your life. Present hope keeps us alive, showing us that there is still room, as we push into that frightening mystery that lies before us. God knows that, if left to our own devices, we would rather hold on to the past, stay in the safety of the box that we know – even if it’s limitations are the cause of all our pain and suffering. Or as my seminary professor told us, “People prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know.”
And that is why, in Ephesians Paul is NOT saying “Chin-up! It’s all going to be okay! Even though your life sucks now and your being persecuted from all sides, God’s going to make it okay in the end.” Because Paul knows that saying “everything is going to be okay in the future” does NOTHING to help someone who is being persecuted right now! When we focus only on future hope, we ignore the difficult realities of the here and now. We distract ourselves from the discomfort of the pain and suffering of our lives by creating an idealized, utopian delusion where all of that no longer exists. In doing so, in distracting ourselves from our present suffering – thus avoiding the hard reality of present hope – we lose that idealized future we hope for.
Present hope is not always comforting. Present hope forces us to be vulnerable to the pain and suffering of this world, to enter into it more fully instead of removing ourselves from it. Only by embracing our present pain and suffering can we leave behind the present misery we know and enter the future mystery we don’t know. Present hope pushes us to pray for illumination, for discernment, of what God is doing right now, in the face of this present challenge of life. As Paul prays for the Ephesians, “I ask…God…to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing God personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is God is calling you to do…” Paul is NOT praying for them to understand what is happening someday. Paul is praying for God to help the church – and those of us in difficult situations – to understand right now what is happening today. To have just enough energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to see the present hope of God in the midst of the chaos.
Present hope is important for the Church to embrace as it evolves in the face of our rapidly changing culture. As we – as the people of God, the priesthood of all believers – develop new and innovative ways to share the Gospel with a world that is so desperate for Good News. Yet sometimes, our present situation as a church can feel hopeless, as we watch the Church as a whole decline in numbers, in status, and in priority. When you see such a lack of present hope, you retreat to the memories of the past, the things you once knew, and as a result, cannot see any possible future hope.
Just look at the current state of our congregation here at Grace Presbyterian Church. It is true that our present worship attendance and overall giving are down. However, that does NOT mean that the future hope of Grace Presbyterian Church is lost. Because, a congregation’s vitality – its “present hope” – can no longer be measured by worship and offering plate numbers alone. It USED to be – back in the day when church was a sign of status and a personal priority of people. But today – and according to the scriptures – the vitality of a church is measured by its faithfulness to the calling of God’s mission in its community. The problem is, faithfulness to God’s mission doesn’t always look like vitality according to the way our culture understands vitality.
If we are following Jesus Christ, we should know that when Jesus came to serve God’s mission in the world, it got him crucified. Therefore, since the Church is the Body of Christ in the world today, any church that is faithful to God’s mission – that actually follows in the footsteps of Christ by serving others instead of following the ways of our culture by achieving success, popularity, and status – those faithful churches always be at risk of death. The PCUSA Book of Order states that, as the Body of Christ, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” Listen to that last phrase again: “…even at the risk of losing its life.” Why? Why would any church be so faithful to God’s mission that it closes down? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Aren’t enough churches closing already? Won’t spending much needed resources of time, talent, and treasure on God’s mission keep the church from paying the bills, having a pastor, or keeping the building? Is that why so many churches are closing? OR Are so many churches closing because they are focused only on their survival instead of the survival of the community they are called by God to serve? Because they are more focused on paying the bills, having a pastor, or keeping the building instead of serving God’s mission in the world. And how do you tell that a church is thriving instead of just surviving? How do you discern “present hope” within a congregation?
Recently, our denomination started a new initiative focused on developing vital congregations. The program materials outline and describe Seven Marks of Vital Congregations and takes churches through a process by which they can discern both their vitality and ways they can grow in vitality. Paul prays that the Ephesian church will experience such discernment, saying, “I ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…to make you intelligent and discerning…so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do… because in doing so, the congregation will experience “…the utter extravagance of God’s work in us who trust God – endless energy, boundless strength!” The Seven Marks of Vital Congregations are outlined in comparison to typical assumptions and/or practices of congregations. The Seven Marks are:
LIFELONG Discipleship Formation VS. Complacent “Christian” piety, simply teaching good morals, or offering the latest programs.
Grace growing in its Discipleship Formation through the significant growth in Sally Borgerson’s morning bible study. The strong turn out at our previous seasonal bible studies, especially our Making Sense of the Bible course. More and more members studying the bible on their own and asking me challenging questions about the bible. Members using their understanding of scripture to interpret their views on social issues such as immigration, poverty, sexuality, gender identity, and healthcare. More and more people willing to lead group prayers and/or pray with others. More and more people willing to work with the children, and thus show them what Discipleship is by their example. More and more people engaging in acts of hands and feet mission with our neighbors throughout the community. ALL of these are steps forward as we all grow as Disciples of Jesus Christ. Thank you God, for inspiring the members of race to grow as Disciples of Christ instead of Pharisees of old time religion.
Intentional Authentic Evangelism VS. “Jesus freaks”; “Christian” Hypocrisy; a committee.
Grace is growing in its Evangelism by realizing that hospitality is more than saying “Hello!” and offering a cookie after worship. It’s about forming relationships. More members are stepping out of their comfort zones and spending intentional time with visitors and guest – both during worship and at any of our ministry/mission programs. Developing relationships with children at Clyde’s Buddies, thus helping the children understand the love of Christ through the church. Emails and Facebook messages from all around the world come to my inbox, thanking the Church for it’s amazing Facebook ministry – for the way it inspires their faith, helps them grow in their faith, and helps them struggle with their questions and doubts. Thank you God, for giving this congregation the strength to step out of their comfort zones, and build relationships with people of all ages and stages of life.
Outward Incarnational Focus VS. Inward Institutional Survival; Closed communities of assimilation/exclusion.
Our congregation’s reputation is transforming in the community. One community member recently said to me that, Grace is a church, “that gets things done!” That’s because she sees Grace addressing actual needs within our community. And the rest of the community is starting to see it. And they are starting to see it, because we are doing missions and ministry face to face – in flesh and blood – instead of with disembodied donations. Our Welcome Table ministry is growing not only in terms of those who attend, but also in terms of those who volunteer their time. I am so proud to say that this past Tuesday, not only did we have 53 people who received a meal, but there were 11 volunteers from this congregation, several of which were volunteering for the first time. Not only did these volunteers work in the kitchen, they were also sitting among the guests – talking with them, listening to their struggles, and forming relationships with them. As Paul says to the Ephesians, “…when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Lord Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you – every time I prayed.” That night, after the Welcome Table, I did the same. I prayed to God, “Thank you! Thank you for the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiring this congregation to be an incarnational witness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Thank you for inspiring them, O Lord, to bring the Gospel of food to hungry bellies. Thank you, O God, for giving the congregation the eyes to see the calling you have for them and this church.” That night made me thankful to be the pastor of this congregation – and I hope to see even more of you answering this call to incarnational witness on future Tuesdays. So again I pray: Thank you God, for giving this congregation the energy to move outside themselves and become an incarnational witness – the hands and feet of Christ – to this community you called us to serve.
Empower Servant Leadership VS. the Pastor’s job; monopolized leadership; hiring the young energetic pastor; burning out good volunteers.
In terms of Empowering Servant Leadership, the Session is doing a great job of empowering other leaders. For example, the work of the Seasonal Teams provides a greater diversity of voices – especially newer members – in leadership, which offers fresh ideas for worship, ministry, and mission – instead of relying totally on the pastor, programs, or the same volunteers (many of whom were about to burn out). We’ve ordained many new Elders and Deacons – thus empowering more servant leaders. The Deacons are doing an amazing job of seeing to the ongoing pastoral care of the congregation and the congregation is becoming more receptive to the Deacons doing the job they are ordained to do. Thank you for that openness. Thank you God, for empowering the members of this congregation as they grow as servant leaders.
Spirit-Inspired Worship VS. Self-gratifying worship, stale ritual divorced of meaning, or consumer entertainment worship
Thanks to the empowering of new voices through the Seasonal Teams, we are experiencing new and inspirational ways of worship. Ways that are not a passive reception of worship, but active participation in worship. We are growing in our understanding that worship is not for our comfort, our preferences, or our entertainment. Worship is for glorifying God. God is the audience. We are the performers. I am the director. The Seasonal Teams are the producers. In keeping our worship fresh – by incorporating new elements, rituals, and practices – we stop “going through the motions” and avoid losing the meaning of what we do during worship. By paying closer attention to what we do in worship, we can comprehend the greater mystery of God and discern what God is doing, here and now, thus experiencing present hope. Worship is inspiring us to serve the incarnational mission of God – thus the increasing volunteerism in our programs. And worship is inspiring us to be more generous – because even though overall financial giving is down because of those who chose to leave, individual financial generosity keeps going up. Thank you God, that this congregation is embracing and appreciating the diversity of worship here at Grace. And thank you Holy Spirit that through our worship, you are inspiring the growth of this congregation’s love and generosity.
Caring Relationships VS. Any other Social Club; façades, hypocrisy, and judgment of “church” and “religion.”
We are becoming truthful when we say, “ALL are welcome” here at Grace. In the past, we might have said, “ALL are welcome, but…” Now, we are embracing all who walk through our doors, without concern for their race, age, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender, faith, or doubts. And though some have left because of this openness, we have gained many new members because of this openness. And knowledge of that openness is beginning to spread throughout our community in positive ways. We are developing relationships with each other through the development of new small groups and Clyde’s buddies. Cliques and closed groups within our congregation are breaking up and/or allowing others in. We are developing and growing in our relationships with organizations in our community, including: the Jefferson County Homeless Youth Initiative, Mercy-Jefferson, Jefferson College, Crystal City Schools, and so forth. We are rebuilding our relationship with the Presbytery, as they gained all new leadership in the past few years, by hosting presbytery events and participating in presbytery and denominational programs. And we are building relationships with people in need of Good News through our Welcome Table mission and other outreach ministries – where Grace members are not just serving food, they are also serving the love of Christ by sitting life with our neighbors. I feel like every night of the Welcome Table is a tiny glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven will look like once it is completely here. Thank you God for the relationships we are building here, and for the continued work of the Holy Spirit who works in us, with us, between us, and among us to be the tie that binds those relationships together.
Ecclesial Health VS. Unhealthy dysfunction; toxic environments; obsolete and irrelevant buildings
Finally, Ecclesial Health is the mark that causes the most growing pains, but one of the most important areas to focus growth – because a basic principle of life is that healthy things grow. Unhealthy things either do NOT grow, because they are not properly nourished, or grow uncontrollably for the wrong reasons, like cancer. And eventually unhealthy things will experience an untimely death. These are the changes that are the MOST unpopular with those who do not want ecclesial health because it prevents them from using their personal sphere of influence to manipulate decisions while allowing the church to progress forward instead of keeping things “the way it used to be.” We are growing in our ecclesial health for several reasons: We are understanding that the authority and responsibility for the church’s mission and ministry lies not on the pastor, but on the entire congregation who has the responsibility to elect the Elders who have ALL the ordained authority to make decisions in the church. As pastor, my responsibility is to lift up the congregation’s vision before you, using my ordained authority as a teacher of scripture, so that we always know where we are going. The Session has embraced their ordained authority and is doing the difficult work of basing their decisions upon the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading and God’s mission for the church instead of the preferences or protests of people in the congregation. Otherwise the Session is not leading this church, those few protesters are. And while the Session’s work is not always popular, it is critical to the health of the congregation in the long run. It is critical to Grace’s future hope.
We are shifting our understanding of what “church” is. That church is NOT just what that happens for one hour on Sunday in this room, but church is also something that happens the other 167 hours of the week in all areas of our lives. That’s because we stopped doing church and started being the church. We’ve clarified our mission, vision, and values and are using those to help us know WHO we are, WHOSE we are, WHAT we are called to do, WHERE we are called to do it, WHEN we are to do it, and WHY we are called to do it. Our mission, vision, and values are the lens through which we discern all our ministries and the compass that keeps us moving towards our vision that everyone will “experience grace.” As a result, our various committees have made difficult but good decisions – decisions that may not have been popular in the short term but are important to the congregation’s health in the long term. And, this congregation – especially the Session of Elders – has been supportive of my work here, respectful of me by approaching me with their concerns instead of gossiping behind my back, accepting and encouraging of the necessity for me to have sabbath time, and generous with your financial support. I cannot thank you enough for voting to give me a 5% raise for 2019 instead of the proposed 2.5% cost of living adjustment. Thank you God for this community of faith and for giving them the courage to do the difficult work of becoming healthy for the sake of the whole congregation and community instead of bending to the desires of a few individuals.
There are still a LOT of areas where we can grow – I think we all know that. We can all see that as we continue to grow in the number of children here at the Grace, we are going to need some volunteers to step up and become leaders so that our Clyde’s Buddies program can be weekly and eventually grow into a youth group. But for right now, like Paul to the Ephesians, I want to give thanks to God for Grace Presbyterian Church. And so, I rewrote our scripture in terms of my speaking to this congregation, here at Grace.
My dear beloved friends at Grace Presbyterian, as I watch you grow in trusting our Lord Jesus and in your outpouring of love to all the Children of God, I can’t stop thanking God for you. Every time I pray, I’d think of you and give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve this community of growing Disciples of Christ. But I do more than just give thanks. I also ask the triune God to continue to help you grow in energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, so that you may come to know God personally and communally, that your eyes are focused and clear, so that you can see exactly the mission that God is calling you to. And in embracing this mission, you grasp the vastness of this glorious way of life God has for Christ’s followers. To see how wondrously beautiful – yet hard – this work is. But, for we who trust in God there will be plenty of energy, unlimited strength, and profound courage!
Because this energy, strength, and courage comes from Christ himself. And because God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at God’s own right hand, Jesus is in charge of running the entire universe: everything from galaxies to governments. Even this church. There is no name and no power who can defy Christ’s authority – no upset church member, no Deacon, no Elder, no Pastor. And the hope of Christ’s power is not only for this present moment of anxiety and struggle, but it will be forever. Jesus is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. Even if others try to undermine us, try to threaten us, try to protest us. Even if the church closes or we have to sell the building – as long as we are faithful to the mission of God to this community – the Body of Christ, the Church, will continue to exist. Because, ultimately, Christ is the head of the church. The Holy Spirit is the animating energy of the church. And God gives the church its calling. And that mission is NOT for the church to be an island of safety from those outside of us. The church’s mission is to be an oasis for those outside of us who are thirsty for Good News. God is not within the church. The church is within God – and represents only a small part of what God is doing in this world. To know the rest, you must step outside the walls of the church. Because as Christ’s Body in the world, the church is how Jesus speaks and acts. The church is the way in which Christ fills everything with his presence. And because of all of this, despite all the present anxiety and struggles, everything is going to be okay. AMEN.