15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2021b
Old Testament – 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
New Testament – Ephesians 1:3-14
INTRODUCTION: So I can’t tell you how happy I am to be serving a congregation with assorted engineers. Or, more specifically, engineers who are also good at writing technical proposals in pursuit of big contracts.
As many of you will recall, a few years ago I sat down with several engineers from the congregation, as well as some other experienced folks, to write a grant proposal for the Lilly Foundation. The goal was to secure the needed funds to allow me to go on a three month sabbatical.
But ya see, here is the thing. As someone who is used to writing with flowery and descriptive language, I learned quickly from my seasoned engineers that proposal writing is a whole different animal. While my first draft of the grant proposal was well received, I also quickly gathered from the various strikethroughs in the document that proposals of the nature I was after needed to be clear and succinct.
My descriptive writing style, in other words, needed to go. “Be direct and clear,” was the message. Along with, “Lose the adjectives, adverbs, and all the conjunctions. Just keep it simple.”
Besides, as I was reminded, there was a word limit. And so I dutifully obeyed. My flowery language was replaced with clear, simple, and (boring!) sentences full of first a noun and then a verb. Noun, verb; noun, verb; noun verb, again and again.
And so I will admit, when we sent the final grant proposal to Lilly, I was a bit worried. For while I am certainly no Flannery O'Connor, I do like to think that I am a passable writer. And the grant request we sent to Lilly sounded, well, so sparse and rough to me.
Why, it almost seemed to border on caveman talk as far as I was concerned. “Family trip to Scotland, good.” “Time to write and read, wanted.” “Long motorcycle rides, awesome.”
But fortunately, my fears were misplaced and the grant proposal, thanks to my able guides and mentors, was approved. Now if we just get COVID-19 fully under control so I can actually take the sabbatical, well, that would be marvelous!
And so, hopefully, in the summer of 2022, two years after I was actually supposed to go on sabbatical, it will actually happen. “Family trip to Scotland, good.”
ONE: Well, the Apostle Paul probably needed his own grant writing team. After all, his opening remarks in his letter to the Ephesians could have also benefited from some heavy editing and trimming.
After a brief salutation to begin Ephesians, Paul quickly slides into an extended doxology praising God. Full of joy and wonder over the freely given grace extended to us in Jesus Christ, Paul blissfully and radiantly flows from one idea to another.
Prefiguring the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Paul’s writing, though, is like an early form of stream of consciousness as he strings together a series of thoughts with little to no break between them. In fact, in the Greek text, our entire reading for today, all 11 verses, well, it’s one big run-on sentence. There isn’t a period to be found in the entire passage until the end of verse 14.
Instead, Paul lines up a bunch of clauses in a cascading series of ideas: “Give thanks to God,” says Paul, “in Christ he has adopted us, we are to be holy and blameless, he chose us before the foundations of the world, according to his own good pleasure, in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness, the mystery of God’s will has been revealed to us, and we have obtained an inheritance.”
And so Paul probably needed his own grant writing team. “Nice sentiments,” I can see them saying to Paul. “But how about you throw in a few periods and clean some of this language up. There is a word limit, after all.”
TWO: Of course, there is good reason Paul is so effervescent and effusive with his words.
You see, as far as Paul is concerned, the salvation worked by God in Jesus Christ is way more than just some personal and private matter. While we modern people like to sing about taking intimate walks with God In the Garden “while the dew is still on the roses,” Paul’s understanding of salvation is actually much, much wider and more expansive.
Yep. For Paul, salvation also has a cosmic and broad sweeping quality to it. All of creation, in Paul’s estimation, is actually in the process of being saved by God.
There is a famous bit about Karl Barth, who was one of the most important theologians of the 20th Century. A man who wrote thousands of pages, Barth was often asked his views about salvation. And reportedly, Barth’s favorite reply was to simply quote 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself.” And then he would go quiet and just smile.
And so Paul can’t help but prattle on about the amazing and wonderful thing God has done in Jesus Christ. Like some Pentecostal preacher overcome by the Holy Spirit, Paul can’t get his words of joy and praise and thanksgiving out fast enough as he contemplates the wide ranging scope of God’s salvation.
Or as he likes to put it in our reading this morning: “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
There is a neat story about a woman who raised 12 children, 11 of them foster kids with assorted special needs she eventually just adopted. A reporter came to interview her and asked why she had decided to raise so many kids. It was just her, after all, and she was hardly rich. Replied the woman without even thinking about it, “I saw a new world a’comin’.”
Well, surely that explains why Paul can write so boisterously and breathlessly. For he too he sees a new and better world “a’comin.’” And understandably so, he just can’t contain his joy and excitement.
THREE: So do you see how “conversion” is always more than just deciding to embrace certain beliefs about Jesus in order to punch our individual tickets to heaven?
No. Conversion to the Christian faith, in its deepest and fullest sense, is to come to the same realization Paul did - that all of creation is being restored by God through Jesus Christ. It’s to believe that a new world is indeed a’comin’, and then to serve as its emissaries and representatives.
No wonder Paul in his assorted letters likes to encourage people to stop living as if they are members of the old world with all its failings and brokenness, and to get busy living as members of God’s new world. “In Christ, God has begun a whole new creation,” Paul seems to be saying, “and all of us, therefore, need to act accordingly.”
There is a story about a young boy that ended up in a small town in South Carolina after World War II. From the war torn and ravaged country of Poland, the boy and his family were looking for a new start.
And while the boy seemed nice enough, his classmates all quickly realized he had a stealing habit. Food from lunches was his favorite target. Even though he usually brought his own lunch to school with him, bits and pieces from other people’s lunches went missing regularly. Clearly things in Poland must have been hard following the war.
Well, one day after a tearful report from one little girl that two cookies had gone missing from her lunch, the teacher called the young boy up before the class to discipline him. “Young man,” said the teacher, “you don’t live in Poland anymore. The war is over. You live in a new land. You don’t need to steal food here. If you ever need food, you just need to tell me and we will get you some.”
And suddenly, it was as if a light finally turned on for the little boy. For he seemed to realize for the first time that the old world he was used to living in was gone, and that he was now living in a new one. And after that, the stealing stopped. (Adapted from Pulpit Resource, Vol. 40, No. 3)
CONCLUSION: And so it goes for all of us, right? For we too live in a new land.
For as followers of Jesus Christ, for those who have been converted, we are now citizens of a new world. Our membership in that old and worn out world with all its failings has been officially transferred into God’s new one - that new one begun in Jesus Christ.
And thankfully, we don’t have to worry about lugging around passports or other paperwork to prove our citizenship. Instead, we can simply show people we are citizens of God’s new world - we can show people by living as its loving, merciful, forgiving, and gracious emissaries.
For the best way to prove you are a citizen of God’s new world, well, it’s to live as one.
To the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.