29 July 2012

Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost: "Unlearn What You Have Learned"

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3.14-21

I'm a child of the 70s and 80s. I was raised on Star Wars as much as I was raised on Sesame Street, summer baseball and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. I had the action figures (don't you EVER call them dolls!). I was Darth Vader for Halloween at least once that I can remember. My grandfather's Gleaner combine made for a pretty cool Millenium Falcon more than once. And if all that Star Wars taught me one thing, it was this: the "Force" is the power that connects all life, but it is also a tool to be wielded by good Jedi and evil Sith alike. Luke Skywalker stands on the edge of a knife: either he'll follow Yoda and Ben Kenobi to the light side of the Force and become a Jedi, or he'll fall to the dark side like his father. There is no middle ground, and it is all up to Luke.

One of the great scenes in all of cinema (at least, in MY mind) is in the middle of the movie The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker lands on the swamp planet Dagobah and mistakes the Jedi Master Yoda for a common swamp rat. As Luke sits and complains, loudly, about wasting his time eating soup when he could be looking for the great warrior he was expecting, Yoda looks to the heavens and says, "I cannot teach him. The boy has no patience." Later he says, "You must unlearn what you have learned."

I've had some unlearning of my own to do as a result of everything George Lucas created in those glorious years of my childhood. We all want life to be as dark and light as the Force, where evil and good stand in stark contrast to each other. But it just doesn't work. The bad guys in our lives, such as they are, don't come in black capes and breathing masks. The disheartening truth is that most of us, even the folks we don't like very much, are quite often trying to be as good as we can be without screwing up too much or making life too uncomfortable.

The thing that I've REALLY had to unlearn, though, is this: the thing that connects us all, the power from which all life draws its life, is not a tool to be used for good or evil - it is much, much, much bigger than anything our minds can imagine. It is this power to whom the writer prays in Ephesians 3, but it is not a prayer for unlearning: it is, it seems, a prayer for death and life.

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father," writes this unknown apostle. There's a definite statement being made here. Kneeling was not a mark of piety or a recommended position for prayer - most people prayed standing up in those times. Kneeling was a stance of submission, of death to self. You knelt before kings and lords and masters, humbling yourself and placing yourself in the hands of the one you addressed. In the New Testament, Jesus and Stephen are depicted as kneeling - just before they are killed. So when the writer of Ephesians writes that he is "kneeling in prayer" for the church in Ephesus, he's not just asking God to bless them; he's acknowledging his death that God may live through him. Any time we kneel to pray, we say the exact same thing - maybe we should kneel more often?

Kneeling in prayer - asking for glory. The apostle dies to himself that God might live more fully through him, and the apostle prays the same for his friends in Ephesus. Riches - of God's glory. Inner strength - with power through the Spirit. Faithful hearts - in which Christ dwells, rooting and grounding his servants in love. Power - to comprehend the unknowable love of Christ. These things do not come to those for whom God is a tool - these things come to those for whom God is everything. There is no room for anything but God in this prayer - so the author kneels in prayer and places his life and the life of his readers in the hands of the living God.

This is not a prayer for his readers to overcome evil, to dare great things, to leave the dusty sands of Tatooine behind and join the Rebel Alliance in their fight against the evil Galactic Empire. There's no lightsaber waiting at the end of the prayer, no blaster pistol, no X-Wing. It's actually the exact opposite: this is a prayer for emptiness and death to the dreams we might dream so that the fullness of God's dream might be realized in us. How that dream gets realized comes later - what the author is about here is one thing: the glory of God made manifest in the ordinary lives of the people gathered to hear this letter. And even though we don't live in Ephesus, the point of the letter still stands: the prayer goes out for all of us, that we might be filled to overflowing with the fulness of God so that God's glory might shine through us.

Here comes our unlearning: we need to unlearn what we've taught ourselves about life, faith and the God who gives us both. You see what we believe about life and faith all over the place if you know how to look for it. Drive down any highway in Iowa and you'll eventually come across billboards that paint clear pictures of good and evil in the eyes of those who put the signs up. Chick-Fil-A announces they've taken a political stand, and the CEO of amazon.com answers with one of his own. We look for churches that offer the programs and staff that meet our expectations of what faith should be.

This is not a new development. Way back in the days of the Reformation, it is rumored that even as he was translating scripture into the language of the people, Martin Luther said "individual interpretation of the Bible allows each man to carve his own path to hell." Simply put, faithful Christian life does not begin with what we do with what God has given us: faithful Christian life begins when God puts us to death in our sins so that we can be raised again in love. There is a time and a place to talk about the moral considerations of the day - but that is a secondary thing. The first thing is this: God. Before all things: God. Within all things: God. Above all things: God. The maker of all things: God. The redeemer of all things: God. The sustainer of all things: God.

So it's time to unlearn what it means to be a member of this family of faith. Dr. Pheme Perkins writes, "Ephesians does recognize the existence of evil forces in the cosmos that are defeated by God. (2.2 6.12) The existence of the church serves as evidence of God's power over evil. The teaching of individuals in the church is not a contest against mythological powers." (The New Interpreter's Bible: Ephesians, (c) 2000 by Abingdon Press, Nashvilli. P. 410) We're not playing at Star Wars here. You are not the Jedi, engaged in a centuries-long battle against the forces of evil. That co-worker you can't stand doesn't wear a black cape and carry a red lightsaber. Whatever your political outlook may be, rest assured: the other party's candidate is not Emperor Palpatine. This kind of thinking ought to serve as a warning for us: Anne Lamott says “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Time to listen to the author of the letter to the Ephesians again, to hear this message: we are here because of and for the glory of God - and if this isn't the first thing, everything else is nothing. All that we are - all that we have - all that was, is and ever will be comes from the gracious, loving, live-giving hand of God. Once we've unlearned what we have learned, been brought to death and then to new life in Jesus, the only thing left to do is sing praises. Amen.

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