Sermon Archives

The Fullness of God

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jun 23

Texts: 

Psalm 1:1-3 and Ephesians 3:14-21

 

Ephesians 3:14-21

That is why I kneel before Abba God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. And I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God––whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine––to God be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.

--The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation

 

 

What strikes me about these verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is their warmth. They are full of beautiful, poetic language and lofty aspirations about God and Christ. But also, affection. Here is a pastor who really loves his congregation. What’s interesting is that we don’t know for sure that Paul himself wrote this letter. It was more likely someone who came later, following in Paul’s footsteps and styling himself after Paul. Neither are scholars sure that this epistle was directed to the church at Ephesus. Rather, it seems intended for a more general audience. And finally, it may not really be a letter at all, but rather simply, prayer and praise to God.

 

Don’t you just love biblical criticism? You deconstruct the thing—looking into form, style, linguistic structure—and suddenly, what do you have left? Pouf. Neither Paul, nor Ephesus, nor even a letter! But there is this shining text. Words of praise and a beautiful prayer that could be directed by any pastor to the congregation she loves.

 

Our author prays, “May Christ dwell in your hearts…so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have the power to comprehend…the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” To know what is beyond knowing. But how?

 

We know with the wisdom of the heart, which endures forever. We comprehend with the fullness of our very being.

 

Sometimes we must feel our way into an experiential understanding of what our minds cannot fully grasp. We come to know the fullness of life in Christ by opening wide our doors, gathering in community, daring to love passionately, and taking risks for the sake of others. Our First Church mission statement both proclaims and urges us to be “grounded in God, our hope and our healing, growing in community, with Jesus our center, acting in love, made bold by the Spirit.”

 

Perhaps this is the essence of church, and what it means to be filled with the fullness of God. Such a beautiful turn of phrase—filled with the fulness of God. Replete, round, complete, entire. One thinks of a bright full moon, pouring out light over all the earth. Or a community meal, where all are nourished. Or a sanctuary coalition gathering, where hearts come together in hope.

 

The fullness of God. The Greek word for fullness, can refer to a ship’s hold that is packed with cargo, but in New Testament usage, it commonly refers to “the body of believers, which is filled with the presence, power, agency and riches of God and of Christ.”[i] Here in Ephesians, it certainly conveys this sense of power and presence, as well as the unity diversity of God’s beloved community. The author writes, “I kneel before Abba God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” The sense here is that we are all kin—part of the family of God. In the fullness of God, we all recognize each other as family.

 

Thank you—First Church—for being my beloved community and my church family for these last five years. I have come to see so much of God, such heart and passion, faith and commitment in you. You have been an inspiration and I have cherished my time with you. Today, it is time for me to say goodbye. As I depart from First Church and move toward a new

chapter of my life and ministry, I am also stepping away from parish ministry, which has been my vocation for these last fifteen years.

 

Will you indulge me if I speak quite personally and autobiographically for a few minutes, and reflect on my years in parish ministry? You can trust that at the end of my sermon, I’ll return to our scriptural themes and this won’t be just about me ;)

 

I want to say—first—that I grew up in a church family where awe and wonder were encouraged, and I learned the values of love of neighbor and care for creation. For as long as I can recall I have perceived a sacred, non-ordinary dimension to the world around and within us—a spiritual realm that is greater than the material level of reality. I just seem to be built that way. Likewise, my sensibilities have always been keenly attuned to human suffering. Even in childhood I pondered things like the Viet Nam War, reproductive rights, and global food supply. (I know…I was a strange kid.)

 

By my early teens I developed a strong desire to devote my life and purpose to the service of God. I didn’t have a narrow sense of what that would mean. And I certainly was not thinking of parish ministry! Growing up in a university family, with ministers all around, I saw many rich models of Christian vocation. We knew agricultural missionaries in the Congo, seminary professors, foreign dignitaries, international students from far-away places. The common thread was service to God through service to humanity. I have come to understand this as the awakening of that Christian vocation we all share, as followers of Jesus.

 

The calling to ordained ministry and the particular calling to parish ministry came much later. In my young adulthood, I volunteered for Planned Parenthood, did community organizing with the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, served as a precinct-level delegate for the DFL—Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Laborer party. I experimented with radical church, and finally I caved and went to seminary. The world seemed like a pretty messed up place and the idea of being part of a community that is willing to hold itself accountable to Jesus’ ways of justice and mercy seemed like a good idea. Enter, stage left, the church

 

During seminary, even as I served a church, I fell in love with the life of the intellect and decided to pursue a Ph.D. with the goal of teaching at a college or seminary. I committed to the study of feminist theology and ethics, with a focus on racial justice, and attended Union Theological Seminary in New York where I learned from greats like Beverly Harrison, Delores Williams, James Cone, and Emilie Townes. And my academic commitment turned into a personal passion and life-long commitment to the work of racial justice. I was planning to teach.

 

And then came the inconvenient call to parish ministry. I was working on the final Field Exam for my Master of Philosophy and had an entire dissertation to go in order to complete my Ph.D. and this deep longing to simply be with people at their bedside, to break bread together, and to share the fullness of life. I completed my Ph.D. and answered the call to parish ministry.

 

Parish Ministry—what an extraordinary and privileged vocation. How brimming with meaning and purpose! It has been a very full fifteen years for me. Years of preaching and teaching, mission trips, service projects, Civil Rights pilgrimages, weddings and funerals, prayer, study and meditation. Time with toddlers, teens, college students, adults, and elders. Ministry has taken me to public schools, police precincts, prisons, hospital rooms, and psych units. We have shared the elements of communal worship—bread and juice, hymns, and Christ’s peace. And the joys of community life—retreats, climbing walls, beach walks. And of course, there are the admin policies and procedures and endless meetings!

 

And now, God seems to be calling me to new places and new ministries. I hope to turn back in the direction of teaching and racial justice work and some exciting ideas that, but no definite plans, as yet. I look forward to sharing more with you, when the time is right.

 

When a minister leaves a congregation she has served, there is a code of clergy ethics with some guidelines I want to share with you now. Ethics dictate that I step away completely from First Church and from the pastoral relationships we have cherished. This is not a random hardship to be endured. (Though it may feel hard.) It is a practice intended to create space for new relationships that are to come. At the end of the service today we will share some vows of release that will formally conclude our relationship as pastor and congregation.

 

I will continue living nearby in Somerville. I be active in the United Church of Christ and will continue next year as UCC chaplain at Harvard. I will continue my participation in the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition. Perhaps we will see each other again in the neighborhood.

 

I want to thank you, First Church, for sharing your lives with me. There is nothing I value more than what we have been for each other—the body of Christ, the fullness of God. Thank you for inviting me to participate in all the moments of your lives—birth and baptism, marriage, separation, loss, aging, illness, and dying. Thank you for sharing with me your growing and learning, joy and hope, questions and faith. I love you and have learned from you. And I am deeply grateful for the time we have shared.

 

In you, I have glimpsed the fullness of God.

 

May you—First Church—be like trees planted by streams of living water. Deeply rooted, nourished, stable, fruitful, and prospering. This is my prayer for you—that you may be filled with the fullness of God, the love of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, now and always.

 

Amen.

 

 

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