August 2, 2015

Ephesians 4:1-16

“God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” Fredrick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking”

“Hello, Sinner!” Rev. Nadia Boltz Weber’s favorite greeting.

This reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus can be, well, a little discouraging. It is possible to hear these words and because of who we are and what we know of our limitations, to believe that surely, St. Paul must be talking about someone else.

One of the great paradoxes of this life of discipleship is that God chooses to work through feeble human beings. Paul’s language, Apostles, Evangelists, Prophets, may make us think about the miraculous; and so our thoughts turn to big events like Moses parting the Red Sea or when Peter and John, at the gate called ‘beautiful’ (because it lead to the temple), who healed a man who could not walk since birth. Big names. Big roles. Big events. Yet a closer observation of lives of these people, Moses, Peter, or John, reveals they were far from perfect and yet God found them worthy to be agents of God’s work in the world.

I was once visiting a church. It was summer, and you might be surprised to know that when I am on vacation I usually go to church. On that day they had some special music. They brought in this tenor to sing during the offertory. I overheard the buzz in the pews before worship. He was known to these folks for his beautiful voice. During the piece he sang, there were a series of high notes that I am quite sure he had sang perfectly a hundred times before. But on that day, well, they weren’t so good. I heard two people in an adjacent pew reviewing the offertory: “well, he really flopped today. But what do you expect? He’s only human.”

He’s only human? I wonder what people said in their comments all the other times he sang that same piece but hit every note. “Well, that was wonderful. But what do you expect, he’s only human.”

See there is something strange in our assignment of cause to every faux pas to the human condition. What about every success? What about all the times that the gathered community of faith is actually agents of God’s healing and reconciliation? Do we chalk it up to luck? Coincidence? What is going on here?

It is as if, because Jesus has ascended into heaven and so he cannot be assigned the task; it is as if God simply chooses somebody nearby who looks like they might just possibly do. God uses people to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and often these instruments are as surprised at their being chosen as anybody else. It was as if God “put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” (Buechner, Fredrick “Wishful Thinking”)

The church, at its best, is a rather ragged gathering of imperfect people who God has tapped on the shoulder for various kinds of service. This identification can easily be shrugged off because each of us know that at the moment we are hardly capable of fulfilling any such ‘high calling.’ But the miracle is that the service we are called to, to be Christ to each other and the world, is not and never has been accomplished by perfect people, save one.

What disciples of Jesus do, what any church does, in real life, is to
help us to believe that life can be abundant and free.  They encourage us to trust that we can always begin, or begin again, no matter what has happened to us, no matter what we have done, and no matter what we have failed to do. (Rev. Dr. Guy Sales, “In Repair,” Day One.)

ephesians4-1Some years ago I was part of an ecumenical program called the ‘weekday school of religious education.’ It was basically Sunday school, but it wasn’t on Sunday. We got permission from the school district to allow elementary students to ‘elect’ to be released for an hour in the school day and we put them on the bus and took them to one of our churches and taught them bible stories. The children left the elementary school building as if shot from a cannon. I suspect some saw this as another hour of recess. Some of the behavior was so bad that one day a Borough police officer was moved to pull the bus over, because there were screaming children hanging out the windows. So we began ‘chaperoning’ the bus. Adult volunteers rode the bus to and from the classes.

I was trying to manage the circus we called a bus ride one day. My strategy was to sit with the child who was acting out the most. They were usually sitting in the back. One day I sat down next to a child who for all purposes could have been ‘Dennis the Menace,’ or ‘Calvin,’ from the old ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon. I sat down next to him and albeit briefly, his antics stopped. I said, “my name is Jon Fogle, what’s yours?” He said, ‘Dickie Howser.’ I paused a moment. The name sounded familiar. I said, “Do you have a grandfather with the same name?” The boy hung his head and said, “yeah, the bishop.”

I asked him about his behavior. He said point blank: “everybody knows I am just a bad kid.” My heart broke. So I asked him another question, “is that what your grandfather, the bishop, says about you?” “No,” Dicky said, “he tells me I am a child of God. But I know better than that.” I told him, “I think your grandfather was right. You are a child of God.” And then I told him, “some expectations are easier to live up to than others.”

And so if you start to think that this person or that person is not worthy of inclusion in God’s family, think again. More importantly, remember even you, too, are included. When we say “all are welcome,” pause a moment and say to yourself ‘I am welcome.’ I am called. I am welcome here.  Paul begs the Ephesians to live up to his expectations for them. But this cannot be done if we believe they are too high, or mistakenly assigned. Our worthiness is not a product of our spiritual perfection. Our worthiness is not a consequence of hard work. Our worthiness is not an end, but rather what, when believed, allows us the freedom and grace to be the people that God has already created us to be. Each of us, are worthy servants of God, with our own particular and peculiar gifts that God has given us. No exceptions.

The poet Mary Oliver says it this way:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

This is the good news of the Gospel.