“It Is All with God”
November 3, 2013
Last month my debate partner from high school died after a struggle with cancer. As often happens with high school friends, we’d lost touch with each other. But I have long remembered with appreciation and thanksgiving his words to me when, early in my senior year of high school, I decided to leave the debate team. Both of us, actually, had lost interest and he was glad that my decision paved a way out for him as well.
Now, I had been involved in the life of my church all through high school, but in those days I was undergoing some kind of adolescent spiritual awakening. One day at school I was talking with my now former debate partner about this and he looked at me directly and said with exasperation, “Lovin, if I knew you were quitting debate to become a Christian, I wouldn’t have let you do it!” We laughed, and even then I knew how good it was to have a friend who—what?—was looking out for me, would tell me to count the cost, had the courage to suggest that maybe I hadn’t made the wisest decision.
He was from a decidedly secular family with no church connections, not even very tenuous ones. So it surprised me to read that his funeral would be held at the church where he had been an active member for many years. We all know quite well, don’t we, that life can take us in many unexpected directions. We even dare to say that the Spirit of God can lead us in many unexpected directions, and sometimes much to our surprise we find ourselves among the saints of God—although our friends might find it puzzling, although we ourselves might find it puzzling to be in the midst of such people.
The Letter to the Ephesians was written to one such gathering of the “saints”—a word, as Lemony Snicket would say, a word used here to mean simply the members of a Christian community. “Saints”—literally in Greek, “holy ones”—was commonly used by early Christians in speaking of themselves. It didn’t mean that they were exceptional people—other than that they had in some way been seized by the overwhelming love of God shown in Jesus. They were simply, as the hymn says, just folk like us. And since many early manuscripts of the Letter to Ephesians make no reference to Ephesus, but only to the saints, perhaps we can understand that it is addressed not just to ancient people in the dead past but to those of us in the living present as well.
The author of this letter to everyday, living saints wants them to know some very grand things: “what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe, according to the working of God’s great power.” In this single sentence we hear a great riff on “what is:” what is the hope, what are the riches, what is the immeasurable greatness.
If we are to know any or all of these, it will not be from the brilliance of our own intellect or the depth of our emotions. It will come more as an answer to prayer. It will come through a spirit of wisdom and revelation that will enlighten the “eyes of our hearts.”
I know. That’s pretty obscure language. You can’t find that phrase anywhere else in the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures often speak of the heart as the location of understanding in the body. And Jesus reminded those who heard him that the eye could be either “healthy” or “unhealthy.” So we hear a prayer that our understanding and our vision might be clear and helpful. They aren’t always, we know that. Still, we pray—that is to say, we open ourselves to what God is doing in our lives and in our world, even if we don’t always understand it very well or see it very clearly.
What, then, is this hope to which God has called us?
Hope always has a future orientation. And the danger in speaking about “hope” on All Saints Sunday is that we will hear the word in the context of remembering those who have died and we will start to think about something called “going to heaven.”
But the Christian hope as we encounter it in scripture really has less to do with where we are going after the death that comes to each of us as it has to do with the New Creation that God is in the process of making. The hope is both that we are a part of this new creation and that we will be a part of it as God’s future unfolds.
Christians affirm that this New Creation began with the life, death, and yes, with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who went around saying things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the realm of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Blessed—that’s how we translate that Greek word for “happy.” But the word means more than that. It suggests people who are, by no merit of our own, the recipients of God’s special gifts. It is a word that says God is for you, not against you.
Do you hear the claim that Jesus makes? It’s a promise, not of heaven, but of an absolute change, of a reversal of fortune. Jesus doesn’t brush the sorrow or the suffering aside. Indeed he takes our sadness and grief most seriously and speaks of a future that God is even now bringing into being. Out of such hope, we can face our own sadness and the suffering of the world.
God is still at work. And, yes, sometimes God's goodness is shown in those terrifying reminders not to be so absolutely certain about riches or fullness or gleeful laughter.
These words of blessing come to us as words of hope. These words encourage us as we work to fulfill the promise of blessing to those who are poor, those who are hungry, and others who weep.
We are God’s new creation. This is the hope to which God has called us.
With the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we might also know the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Unlike hope, in which the future comes into the present, an inheritance is a place where the past enters the present. Go back and read the first part of this letter on your own this week. As it begins the author tells us “through Christ we have obtained an inheritance.” It is ours now.
Have you received an inheritance? It is somewhat like encountering grace—it comes unearned, freely given, perhaps unexpected or even unwelcomed. What the Christians in Ephesus had inherited, what we have received as well, is the forgiveness of God—the riches of God’s grace.
The psychiatrist Robert Coles recalls a conversation he had with Anna Freud about an elderly woman's long and troubled psychological history. Now Dr. Freud was certainly not a traditionally "religious" person. But near the end of their discussion, she paused and said: ‘What this woman needs is forgiveness. She needs to make peace with her soul, not talk about her mind. There must be a God somewhere, to help her, to hear her, to heal her.”
Forgiveness, Paul Tillich said, is an answer, the divine answer, to the question implied in our existence. It is grace—our sense of being forgiven, our own ability to forgive another human being.
When I talk with people about forgiveness what I often hear is this: Forgiving is hard. Being forgiven is hard. Sometimes I think we’d rather not talk about forgiveness because the subject brings up so many incidents of betrayal and guilt and hurt and disappointment—you know, the stuff we’d rather not bring up in polite company.
Fortunately, we are Christian congregation and therefore we are not polite company. When we are honest, we know ourselves as sinful people—alienated from God and others and the best in ourselves. Sometimes when we are honest the astonishing happens and we know ourselves as sinful people forgiven by the grace of God.
These are the riches that that we find among the saints.
I remember that wonderful story about St. Lawrence, an early deacon who was brought before the prefect of Rome in the third century. The prefect was convinced that the Christians were in possession of a number of gold objects and demanded that Lawrence bring out the treasures of the church. For several days he quietly went about gathering up the children and the elderly, the frail and the infirm. Bringing them before the prefect, Lawrence told him, “These are the treasures of the church. But you can have the gold.”
We are the treasures of the church—broken, hurting, sinful—and infinitely loved by the God who loves and renews all creation.
With the eyes of our hearts enlightened we can begin to see our inheritance among the saints. God is with us, forgiving and making a new creation.
But that’s not all that the author of this letter prays we will know with the eyes of our hearts enlightened.
There is, finally, the greatness of God’s power—the power of the resurrection.
This is either just empty religious talk or we are confronted here with the central reality of the Christian life.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act that comes from a faith—however small—that God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of that work and that creation. And because we are part of God’s new creation, the work that we do continues to matter.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act because in the resurrection we come to believe that even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice, as others have affirmed, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice. We can truly act “in faith,” that is, trusting that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.
The power of the resurrection comes not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. This power arises out of God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection, in which we see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith claiming that God continues to bring life out of death, hope out of despair today. This is the power that sets us free to love with abandon, to act even when fear presses in, to draw out the best in ourselves and other people.
We live in the power of the resurrection now. Even now with all of the struggles of living, we recognize that we move from despair to joy, from paralysis to action, from sickness to health, from death to life. The ability to do this comes from the hope and faith that we have because even when the leaves in their brilliant splendor start to fall from the trees against the November skies, we are Easter people. We live with the empowering awareness that in Christ God has conquered death and the sin that separates us from God, from one another, and from the best in ourselves.
It is with the eyes of our hearts enlightened to the hope, the inheritance, and the power that we have that we can speak with joy today of the saints of God—folks like you and me, who (the words of our final hymn again) “toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.”
This morning we remember in particular two members of our congregation, Russ Fate and Catherine Eckhart. We give thanks for their lives because in their time and in their way they joined with us and with others and with all the saints in seeking to make this world a little more like God’s just and loving and merciful realm. We give thanks that their lives were a part of our lives. And, no doubt, on this day you are also remembering and giving thanks for many others—that great cloud of witnesses—whose lives have touched and shaped your own life.
In our long tradition here we use jazz to accompany our remembrance and thanksgiving. The music reminds us that life is more improvisation than it is a set and orderly piece—we play off of one another and off of the events of our time, creating our unique melodies and harmonies that, even though they are short and ephemeral, endure in God’s eternity. The music reminds us once more, in the words of the great saxophonist, John Coltrane, in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain—it is all with God—in all ways and forever.