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Grounded in God

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 13

Text -- Ephesians 3:14-21

In late September 2001, soon after 9/11, the New Yorker ran a poem on its back page, a rare departure from the cartoons and parodies that usually fill that space.  It was by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. He could have just easily written it this week. Hear it now:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
What resonates so deeply about that poem is not so much the blunt honesty of describing our world as mutilated, true as it may be, or that it was written just days after 9/11 and may be all the more true today -  refugees heading nowhere, executioners singing joyfully, an earth that is increasingly scarred.  Its not so much that chilling word mutilated as it is the profound need for, and the paradox of, trying to praise at such a moment, then as now. It's the need for praise and the paradox of praise at such a time as this that resonates.  Praise, as in an alternative to bleak apathy or despair.  Praise, as in mindfulness and gratitude for the small and gentle things. Praise, as in what keeps us tethered to our souls and to God. Praise, as in what is at the heart of what we are doing here, right now in this very hour of worship, showing humble reverence for the mystery and grandeur of the universe and our parts in it, for better and worse. Praise is, or should be, the first language of a community of faith. Praise is what we do even and especially at times when it seems like the world is burning around us. Praise doesn't turn away from what is hard, but turns into it with unflinching resilience, and hope and faith. I realize I didn’t give y’all much of a warm-up for that particular mouthful, but I’m gonna trust you’re with me so far.

Still, let’s back up to the scripture. It’s what got me started on this whole praise kick, and it’s what gave me some of the sense of urgency you may be picking up! You see, here we have a stunning example and lesson in this kind of praise. It comes in the form of prayer attributed to Paul and it’s part of letter to the saints at Ephesus. Ephesus still sits on the coast of the Aegean Sea in Turkey, about a 7 hours drive south of Istanbul. It boasts the worlds’ largest collection of Roman ruins.

Well, in this letter -- you all remember what a letter is, right? -- Paul is writing with urgent and genuine concern about spiritual condition of the community of early Jesus followers that was gathered there. Though Ephesus in Paul’s day was a relatively well-off town, it was still under Roman occupation and a minority of early Christians were still being persecuted. At one point, Paul himself was imprisoned there. The concern was that this community be strengthened in their innermost beings, that their conviction and commitment and motivation be firmly established, for God’s sake, for their own sake, and for the sake of the world around them. Whether they know it or not, God’s power is at work in them and through them. Like the words of our sung confession, Paul wants them to be a sanctuary -- holy and tried and true -- in which God in Christ can dwell. Let Christ dwell in your hearts, and then he adds “as you are being rooted and grounded in love”! What a powerful image for a way of life – to be rooted and grounded in love. Of course he means the love of God and so love of self and love of one another. Rooted and grounded in that deep, agape kind of love. I want to come back to his image in a minute.

Did you catch the next part of Paul’s prayer? We are told he prays these things when he is bowed down on his knees.  He prays, and I can only imagine how profoundly and deeply Paul could pray… He prays that they will understand and know God’s “four dimensional love” – the height, breadth, length and depth of it!  He’s trying to say that when we do understand that is God’s love is the very ground of being itself, as the theologian Paul Tillich would say, God’s love is everywhere, there’s no space that’s not touched by it.  The goal here is nothing less than having this community fully embody the presence and love of God in the way that Jesus did!  A very tall order but Paul is so convinced that with God this, and infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, is possible!   (Paul is not messin’ around here!)  Paul is full of urgent praise for this community, and paradoxical praise given the world in which they are living, near the heart and at the height of empire! Even more, he’s full of praise to God in whom we can accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. To God be the praise, he says, as in not Augustus! not Rome!  Paul’s enthusiasm and hope in God is almost contagious here. Kinda makes you wonder what the guy was eating for breakfast! Paul’s enthusiasm and hope in God must have been contagious to that community which is why they preserved his words for the ages, and I hope we can catch that enthusiasm and faith some 2000 years later.

I don’t often share two poems in a sermon but I can’t resist. Though it was published in 1991, it also has a remarkable resonance with this moment which somehow seems all the more urgent. It’s called "The Cure at Troy " by Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first half (and know that are copies of the full versions of both of these poems waiting for you at the Regathering Lunch after church): Heaney writes:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols [jails]
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

First Church, we are called by our God to praise our mutilated world. We are called by Jesus to believe in and be part of that tidal wave of justice until hope and history rhyme!  Its our to be grounded in faith, sustained by God’s grace manifest in this community, and to resist those voices that say “don’t hope” or “don't care” or “your life doesn’t matter”.  
I remember hearing a story about my dad who was also a minister. He was a great guy. We had a loving relationships. I’m blessed. But he did have a temper. Do you know those large pieces of glass that cover wooden desks? Rumor had it that my dad was once talking to a parishioner and he got so frustrated with the person sitting across from him in his office he raised his fist and brought it down on top of his desk and accidentally shattered the glass. You can imagine how shocked they both were. I eventually asked him about it. It was clear he regretted the moment. I asked what this person said that angered him so much. He confessed that it was a kid in his late teens. He was being apathetic, and he just kept saying to my dad over and over again, “I don't care.” No matter what encouragement or options my dad offered, his come back was the same: “I don’t care” “I don’t care!” “I don't care!” Finally, my dad snapped. I know he snapped in love for this poor kid and my sense is that he broke through more than that piece of glass. What came through in the end was the fact that my dad did care. He cared greatly about this kid and saw his apathy as stumbling block to his own growth and development. He also knew his bones and in the fire in his belly that this apathy was anathema to the values of the church that teaches us that all of life matters. Church and faith communities are where we learn we learn to be rooted and grounded in love, its where we find our centers amidst the chaos of lives, its where we can hold each other accountable to live our lives according to shared values of compassion, healing, justice and joy. Its where we come, after 9/11, after Katrina, after Newtowne, after Charleston, the list is so long these its too many to number. Its where we find the resilience, together, to continue to hope for and work for a better world. Its where we find sustenance and sanctuary! Its where we come home when our homes feel too big or too small or where we don’t have a place to call home. Its where we praise our mutilated world, and praise our God who hears our cries and grounds our hope and breaks through our seemingly perpetual temptations to isolate ourselves in denial which urges us to find ways to build community and to act boldly for the common good.

Ultimately, Paul’s letter leads us to reclaim with enthusiasm and confidence why our faith matters, why communities like these matter, why what we say and do as people of faith matters, for God’s sake, for our own sake and for the sake of the world.

As we begin a new year here at First Church, my prayer is that we can also bring this sense of urgency and purpose to our life together. Its a time when too many are tuning out, building up walls, succumbing to their ego’s drive for security and competitive advantage and surface gratification. People are tuning out because they are believing what history is telling them – don’t hope, don’t care, your black or brown life doesn't matter! We can and must do better. We can and must be committed to strengthening ourselves in our souls, in our nnermost beings for such a time as this.

To close, I want to share some words of vision that have been emerging from within our community. These words aren’t mine so much as they've grown from recent retreats and small group conversations. This a communal work in progress and there will be chances to respond to it in the coming weeks. Its still cooking but I’d like give you a taste and I’m going to take a page from Paul and say this in the form of a prayer.

My prayer is that First Church will hear and heed God’s calling for us to be a community of grounding, of grace and of growing resistance…

My prayer is that we will be Grounded in God—our hope and our healing. Grounded in God whom we know and experience, who draws us to wonder and awe and beauty and love, in the God who is within and between us, in the God of nature’s grandeur and creation’s splendor,
in the God of our ancestors, whom we know from generation to generation. To that God be all glory and praise, especially in our mutilated world!

My prayer is that that we will be ever-growing in community, with Jesus our center, growing together in this community of grace, where we know and honor each other’s joys and sorrows, 
where we are vulnerable about our weakness and failures, where we hold each other accountable, where we are called to love ourselves and one another across differences.

My prayer is that we will continuing to be always acting in love, made bold by the Spirit, acting together with people of all faiths and conscience, acting together with urgency for our beautiful yet broken world, acting as a community of love and resistance to systems that perpetuate injustice, acting boldly with the Spirit as our courage and solace.

Grounded in God. Growing in community. Acting in Love.

First Church, it is Regathering Sunday in a year when the history books will likely look back and say the world was burning, literally and figuratively.  But we have found our way here this morning, to this sanctuary, to this community that is rooted and grounded in love. What better, what more urgent, what more grave a time than this to re-gather and reground ourselves, to renew and replenish our souls in humble reverence and praise to God! Let’s begin to embody this even now. Look around. And feel your feet on the ground. Feel yourself as part of something larger, part of this community with a deep past and a bold future. Sense God’s gifts of love and grace and healing and hope. God’s love triumphs over even the most challenging moments in history, and calls people to respond to those moments with grace that inspires us years and generations and millennia later. With that once in a lifetime tidal wave of justice let us too rise, that hope and history may once again rhyme. Amen.

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