January 19, 2020

SERMON: Epiphany II (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Mount Whitney, California

SERMON: Epiphany II (Ephesians 2:1-10)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2.8-9)

The Lord be with you.

In California, within a relatively short span you can travel from the lowest elevation in North America to the highest elevation in the continental U.S. Badwater in Death Valley, is 280 feet below sea level. You can go from there in just 135 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney, which is 14,495 feet above sea level. The journey will take you from salt flats to snowy peaks, from the lowest place to the highest place.

Some people have hiked this path from lowest to highest. For about fifty years, a group called Summit Adventure has held a mountain bike race on this route called the Whitney Classic. There is even a race called the Badwater Ultramarathon, which describes itself as “the world’s toughest foot race.” People have expended a lot of energy to go from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney.

Today’s text from Ephesians also takes us from lowest to highest, in this case in terms of spiritual geography.

  • Ephesians 2:1 pictures us dead in sin. Ephesians 2:6 shows us seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
  • Ephesians 2:1-2 places us walking in trespasses and sins according to the course of this world. Ephesians 2:10 says we are now walking in the good works God has planned for us from before the world began.
  • Ephesians 2:3 portrays us as people who are experiencing the wrathful consequences of living in sinful disobedience. Ephesians 2:7 says we will forever enjoy the riches of God’s immeasurable kindness toward us in Christ.

And the summary of this journey from lowest to highest is found in verses 8-9.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

You will note right away that the journey Paul describes is quite different. The journey from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney is all about effort, and training, and sweat and toil. It’s something the hiker, the biker, or the runner achieves. It’s a great accomplishment, the result of an incredible amount of work and struggle.

The journey from death in sin to life in Christ, on the other hand, is by God’s grace alone and it comes to us when God gives us the gift of faith to trust in and follow Jesus.

  • It is about God’s work, not ours.
  • It is about what Jesus accomplished, not what we have achieved.
  • It is a journey for which we praise God, not something about which we can boast.

The journey from death in sin to life in Christ is due to God’s creative, life-giving action in Christ. As God created the heavens and the earth and called light out of darkness, so he created new life in us and called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We celebrate and enact this in our baptism. As Jesus died and was buried, then rose and ascended into heaven, even so, we die and are buried with Christ in baptism, then raised up to walk with Christ in newness of life, now and forever. From the lowest place to the highest, from death to life, from the grave to seated with Christ in heavenly places. All this is what God has done by grace for us and with us and in us.

But one of the greatest aspects of all of this is the way this passage ends. God raises us from death to life and then enters into a wonderful partnership with us.

When God created the first humans, God blessed them, then gave them a vocation to be fruitful and multiply, to exercise stewardship over creation, to subdue the powers of evil in the world and to bear God’s image in all of life.

Now, Ephesians tells us, God has recreated us in Christ, and he has done so that we too might walk in the good works he has prepared for us. In Christ, we not only have life but we also have a purpose, a calling, a destiny to fulfill. We are God’s image in the world.

The good works that God calls us to walk in are deeds that will bless our families, our neighbors, our communities, and our world. The vast majority of them are not big, spectacular projects but simple acts of kindness, generosity, respect, and love. The grace of God we have received is designed to make us grateful and gracious people. The faith God has given us is meant to help us be more faithful, more willing to believe the best and to encourage the best in others.

We have reached a transition point in Ephesians. Thus far, we have been meditating on the grace of God that has brought us salvation and has given us new life and new identity in Christ. We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, and we are called to rest in that, to rely on that, to rejoice in that. We sit with Christ, alive and new.

The next step, which this passage in Ephesians introduces, is that we are to get up and start walking. It says it very generally here — we are to walk in the good works God has planned for us. If we rest in Christ, we are also to walk with Christ and to walk as Christ himself walked.

From the lowest place to the highest place. From Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney. From the grave to seated with Christ in the heavenly places. One, a journey of incredible human effort. The other, a journey of grace from beginning to end. May God, in grace, continue with us on this journey.

May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: January 18, 2020

The small volcano south of the Philippine capital that draws many tourists for its picturesque setting in a lake erupted with a massive plume of ash and steam Sunday, prompting thousands of people to flee and officials to shut Manila’s international airport. (Domcar C. Lagto/Sipa USA via AP)

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: January 18, 2020

In 1868, Charles D. Blake took advantage of the interest in President Andrew Johnson’s  impeachment by writing a polka in honor of the occasion. Since he added no words, we don’t know how the composer felt about the POTUS or his trial. However, the fact that he wrote a dance tune might suggest either that he was in favor, or that he was delighted for a chance to cash in — the most American stance of all.

• • •

VIRGINIA IN THE NEWS…

Equal Rights Amendment. Both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly passed the Equal Rights Amendment this week, fulfilling a promise that helped Democrats win control of the legislature and marking a watershed moment in the nearly century-long effort to add protections for women to the U.S. Constitution. Virginia is the pivotal 38th state to pass the ERA, the final one necessary for ratification. Passed in 1972. U.S. lawmakers set a deadline of March 22, 1979, for three-quarters of the states (38) to ratify the ERA, which was later extended to 1982. But since the deadline was not in the original amendment, supporters say it is not constitutional. Several efforts are underway in Congress to either extend or restart the ratification process.

Brouhaha over Guns. A sense of crisis has been growing in Virginia’s capitol this week. In anticipation of a rally planned for Monday (Martin Luther King holiday) to protest proposed gun control legislation in the statea. When intelligence warned of white supremacist violence, Gov. Ralph Northrum declared a state of emergency and temporarily enacted a weapons ban on the grounds of the state capitol. Then the FBI announced it had arrested three men connected with a neo-Nazi group who had obtained weapons, including an assault weapon they fashioned, and planned on attending the rally. [Update: three more have been arrested]. Online groups have been fanning the flames by calling Monday’s event a “boogaloo,” a crisis event designed to accelerate the race war they anticipate. Militia members from across the U.S. have said they will attend the rally. Virginia’s now Democratic-controlled legislature is proposing sweeping new legislation that would place new regulations and restrictions in the state’s gun laws. Is this a foreshadowing of the kind of rancor we might expect in the political year ahead?

In other gun news: The TSA reports that 4,432 firearms were confiscated at U.S. airports last year. 87% of them were loaded. 278 airports were involved, led by Atlanta’s Hartsfield, where 323 guns were seized.

• • •

100 YEARS AGO — PROHIBITION

NY Times: A century ago Friday, the 18th Amendment came into effect, outlawing the production, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages. Ever since, that day has been celebrated — or mourned — for formally ushering in the Prohibition Era.

Except that it didn’t.

Contrary to popular imagination — including recent coverage of the amendment’s centennial — there was no mad dash for hooch on the night of Jan. 16, 1920, no “going out of business” liquor store sales on Prohibition Eve. The United States had already been “dry” for the previous half-year thanks to the Wartime Prohibition Act. And even before that, 32 of the 48 states had already enacted their own statewide prohibitions.

“With little that differed from normal wartime prohibition drinking habits, New York City entered at 12:01 o’clock this morning into the long dry spell,” this newspaper solemnly noted. A few restaurants and hotels held mock funerals for booze, but the city’s saloons had long since been shuttered, and “the spontaneous orgies of drink that were predicted failed in large part to occur.” What with debates over ratifying the Peace of Versailles and a war scare with Bolshevik Russia, the 18th Amendment was barely front-page news.

That the final triumph of prohibition was met with shrugs, rather than the outraged street protests we tend to imagine, says less about prohibition back then and more about our inability to understand it today. The entire idea of prohibition seems so hostile to Americans’ contemporary sensibilities of personal freedom that we struggle to comprehend how our ancestors could have possibly supported it.

For decades now, popular histories have concocted false stories that the majority of the public had never supported prohibition, or that prohibition was conceived by a “radical fringe” of Bible-thumping, rural evangelicals trying to codify their Puritan morality. We use the same language to vilify prohibitionists as we do to describe ISIS or Al Qaeda: calling them “deeply antidemocratic,” “extremists” and “zealots.”

But this portrayal of prohibition as some reactionary, cultural-religious movement runs into a bevy of uncomfortable historical questions. How could such an “ultra-conservative” prohibition movement win its greatest victory during the middle of the Progressive Era? How could organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union champion progressive issues like the expansion of suffrage and civil and labor rights alongside supposedly reactionary prohibition?

If the victory of prohibition was all about Bible-thumping morality, why was there no evangelical revivalism at the time? If prohibition never had popular support, how did the 18th Amendment pass with a 68 percent supermajority in the House of Representatives and 76 percent support in the Senate, and then get ratified by 46 of the 48 states, all in record time? None of this adds up.

In reality, the temperance movement was anything but pinky-raising Victorians forbidding society to drink. Temperance was the longest-running, most widely supported social movement in both American and global history. Its foe wasn’t the drink in the bottle or the drunk who drank it, but the drink traffic: powerful business interests — protected by a government reliant on liquor taxes — getting men addicted to booze, and then profiting handsomely by bleeding them and their families dry.

…One legislator called for prohibition “for the safety and redemption of the people from the social, political and moral curse of the saloon.” That zealot was Abraham Lincoln, rising to support Illinois’s statewide prohibition in 1855. Similar sentiments were expressed by Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other progressive leaders.

…For a better understanding of temperance and prohibition, forget Bible-thumping “thou shalt nots.” Think instead about a major industry making outlandish profits by getting people hooked on an addictive substance that could kill them. Maybe that industry uses some of those profits to buy corrupt political cover by currying favor with government and oversight bodies. Let’s call this substance “opioids,” and the industry, “Big Pharma.”

This is the same type of predatory capitalism that the temperance-cum-prohibition movement fought 100 years ago. Should big businesses be able to use addiction to reap tremendous profits from the poor? If your answer is no, and you were around 100 years ago, you likely would have joined the vast majority of Americans calling for the prohibition of liquor traffic.

For another look at a take Chaplain Mike had on Prohibition, read When Christians Won the Culture War.

• • •

MUSIC GOES TO THE DOGS

Spotify has launched playlists for dogs left home alone, after discovering that 74% of UK pet owners play music for their pets. According to Reuters, the streaming music service has also “launched a podcast featuring soothing music, “dog-directed praise”, stories, and messages of affirmation and reassurance narrated by actors to alleviate stress for dogs who are home alone.”

By the way, 4 in 10 owners say their pets have a favorite kind of music, and 25% report their pets dance to it.

In other music news: After reports that Nissan Motor boss Carlos Ghosn was smuggled out Japan by concealing himself in a musical instrument case, Yamaha Corporation tweeted: “We won’t mention the reason, but there have been many tweets about climbing inside large musical instrument cases. A warning after any unfortunate accident would be too late, so we ask everyone not to try it.” So there.

• • •

QUESTIONS OF THE WEEK

Are cat lovers less likely to go to church?

Should Christians kill animals for sport?

How do I respond to sexual dreams? (Hey! John Piper has biblical answers!)

Can a Christian smoke marijuana? (Refreshingly, no biblical answers here)

Should parsonages get more respect?

What do we learn from silence?

OK, God loves us but does God like us?

• • •

MY THOUGHTS ON CHEATING IN BASEBALL

Is baseball by nature a cheating enterprise? I don’t think so, but it seems to me that every competitive endeavor provides ample temptation to try and gain advantage over one’s opponent, within or without the rules. And, as in every realm of life, better technology always brings with it new and more devious ways to succumb to that temptation.

And so we’ve come to baseball’s latest cheaters (who got caught) — the Houston Astros. While their cheating comes nowhere close to a Black Sox scandal, a Pete Rose gambling transgression, or a steroids debacle, I’m glad MLB is addressing and punishing it.

I just wish I was young enough to drill a fastball into Alex Bregman’s ribs.

• • •

ON MY WINTER PLAYLIST

Don’t stop trying to find me here amidst the chaos
Though I know it’s blinding, there’s a way out
Say out loud we will not give up on love now
No fear, don’t you turn like Orpheus, just stay here
Hold me in the dark, and when the day appears
We’ll say we did not give up on love today

 

by Sara Bareilles

A blast from my so-called “biblical” past

The other day I had a reminder of my past evangelical life and the way I used to think and teach.

Watching an online sermon from a local conservative evangelical Bible-teaching church with which I am very familiar, I was struck at the implicit (and explicit) theme that pervaded the message. It wasn’t the specific content of the teaching that struck me as much as it was the approach that insisted — insisted, I say — over and over again that the most important thing about being a Christian is making sure you are thinking correctly, or as someone in this world might say, thinking biblically.

This is the world of biblicism. This wasn’t just a “Bible” sermon, it was a biblicist sermon. Its main message wasn’t the actual teaching of the Bible, as purported. Rather, it was a particular point of view about what the Bible is and how we as Christians should read the Bible and understand it. While allowance was made in the sermon for minor variations of interpretation, it was clear that I was watching a talk that was being held in a closed shop with no real space or encouragement to consider or discuss any perspectives other than the conservative evangelical approach.

In his book, Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith defined “biblicism” as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

That was the real message of that sermon I heard. In fact, the opening illustration was specifically designed to set that point of view in contrast with those who (I’m paraphrasing) “see the Bible as a book of myths and stories.”

Smith’s verdict about this approach? “What I say here is simply that the Biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”

When we read the Bible as it is, and not as we would like it to be, the biblicist approach simply doesn’t match up with what we find in this complex collection of writings.

Furthermore, biblicists want to take this book — this book they see as a self-sufficient, simple, universal guide to truth and living — and make it the authority over the church and our lives.

However, as Brian Zahnd says in plain terms: “What Christians are supposed to confess is that Christ alone is the head of the church. The risen Christ said to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.’ With his wry British wit, N.T. Wright reminds us that Jesus did not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given unto a book you chaps are going to write.’”

Pete Enns says that, in practice, “biblicism” works like this: “Biblicism is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”

Furthermore, Enns critiques biblicism by charging that it “sells the Bible short by taking the easy way out of reading the Bible like it’s a phone book or line-by-line instructional manual, rather than what it is: a complex, diverse, intermingling of wise reflections on life with God, written by the faithful for the faithful.”

For nearly 30 years of my adult life and ministry, I read and taught the Bible from the biblicist perspective, though I must say I often had nagging doubts about the validity of the approach. I have gradually moved away from biblicism (for example see HERE, and HERE, and HERE), not because I have less faith in the Bible as the sacred book for Christians, but because I have come to have more respect for its complexity and incarnational nature.

I love the Bible. It will always be a lamp to my feet and and light for my path. It is a sacrament of Christ to me. It is my family Story and I take my place in its continuing narrative. Beyond that, it is an ongoing conversation that invites me to take part — to listen, to read, to study, to meditate, to struggle, to question, to discuss and debate with my brothers and sisters.

But the Bible is not the authority. Christ is the authority. The Bible is the best witness to Christ we have. But our understanding of the Bible and how to approach it comes from something else by which the church has always judged the Bible. The Story that culminates in Christ, the gospel as narrated in the Creed — the Rule of Faith — is the authoritative summary which the church used to test and approve the writings that would make up the Bible. If there is a verbal authority, it is the authority of the kerygma, the gospel proclaimed by the first followers of Christ. That is what teaches us to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, as the Apostles did.

However, even with that, the Rule of Faith does not turn the Bible into a simple book that we can read as an instruction manual or systematic theological handbook.

  • The Bible is an icon of Christ that requires intense “seeing” with the eyes of our hearts through meditation.
  • The Bible is a sacrament of Christ that requires we partake, and chew, and drink deeply, and digest its nourishment.
  • The Bible is full of lively literature that requires us to use our imagination, to put ourselves in the Story, to re-imagine what the Story means for us and to enact it in our lives.
  • The Bible requires us to pray its words, to sing them, to read and chant them as the lifeblood of our worship and piety.
  • The Bible is a complex and diverse collection of writings that continually challenges our expectations — if we really read it as it is and not what we would like it to be.

The Bible puts to death our ideas of nice, bourgeois, respectable religion and confronts us with a God, a creation, a life, and a gospel more wild than tame, more surprising than familiar, more unconventional and shocking than we would ever write ourselves, more messy and even incomprehensible in places than we would ever expect. The Bible invites us to embrace its mystery, to engage in an ongoing wrestling match with God and one another for wisdom and understanding.

Put me down for that kind of journey. You can have the easy, straightforward paved path of the biblicists. Been there. Done that. It’s a dead end.

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