This is a sermon I preached on Sunday, July 26, 2015 as pulpit supply at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE.
You may find a link to the audio here.
The scriptural reference for this message is:
On Sunday evenings my phone rang at nearly the same time each week with the same request from my Mama on the other end. When the call came, I’d hop in my car and drive the 4½ minute trip out of my neighborhood, through my elementary school neighborhood, and finally into her neighborhood making my way to her house for our time together. Mama would sit either on one end of the couch or in one of the two armchairs with her legs curled beneath her, and I would take my place either on the floor or on the ottoman, either way at her feet, depending on her locale each particular evening. We’d, of course, exchange kisses and hugs and “hellos” when I arrived, but soon we’d quickly get down to the business of the phone call. Mama wanted me to come pray with her each Sunday evening right before she headed to bed, in preparation of her Monday morning chemotherapy infusion treatments.
Now, I don’t consider myself a gifted prayer, and certainly nothing like the writer of Ephesians, but to Mama the prayers brought strength and hope. To me, the prayer time meant precious moments with my hero who was fighting for her life against a horrendous disease. For both of us the prayer time brought peace. We felt the presence of God in new ways as we held hands and opened ourselves up to the Spirit’s words each week, and we journeyed together, knowing that neither of us was alone in her battle against breast cancer.
The writer of the letter to Ephesians begins this portion of the epistle on his knees before God on behalf of the readers and hearers. Stepping back into earlier parts of chapter three we see the apostle is entrusted with the commission of God’s grace in verse two. Additionally, we, the recipients of the letter, can receive the prayer as words of boldness, confidence and access to God (verse 12), and be certain that God will grant the request of the one holding the grace commission. Similar to the other church epistles, Ephesians focuses on the Christian life and the role of the church’s ministry accordingly. However, this letter speaks to the plan of God’s salvation and uniting the Jew and the Gentile in the risen Christ. Scholars suggest that this letter was written not because of the church’s historical personal contact with the apostle, but rather because the growing numbers of Gentiles in the church have begun to depreciate the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith. The letter begins with encouraging worship and praise for salvation in Christ Jesus, ending with our verses today, and continues with encouragement in perseverance through social and personal life dimensions as new creations in Christ. The prayer in the middle exists as the rooting, centering, grounding point of this letter to the Ephesians.
First: Be thankful for your salvation.
Next: Allow me to pray for you, providing you a foundation.
Finally: Continue on as new members of the body of Christ.
My husband recently officiated a wedding ceremony for a Sudanese couple that have actually been married for more than 26 years but didn’t have any official documentation. He shared with me that the service was a traditional Sudanese wedding ceremony with him presiding over the scripture readings, homily, prayers and exchange of vows; his part was squished in the middle of native hymns, dancing and celebration. The couple had another minister assist in translation so that non-English speakers could participate more fully in the celebration. When time came for the prayers, my husband would say, “Let us pray,” and begin the prayers, but the Sudanese pastor refused to translate his words into their tongue. The reason for not interpreting prayers is simple: prayer is too holy to interpret. Their faith tradition understands that prayer is between the speaker and hearer; while we might not understand in our language what is being shared, God understands it fully and receives it joyfully on our behalf. The Spirit does the interpreting, for prayer is a holy act.
Prayer means existing in the dwelling place of God.
Life, though. Life tells us a different story. Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learnt to walk. Life often feels like God’s on one side of the terminal and we are running from the other only to find out that we’ve just missed our flight. Life tells us that we don’t have time to pray and thus dwell in God’s presence. Instead, we forge ahead under our own power, our own meager steam, hoping against all hope that someone will recognize that we are trying to be faithful and hear our plight. We cast pleas as if we are tossing pennies in a wishing well. We desire to rest in the peace and comfort of God’s love, but for some reason we just can’t seem to find where God is currently living. And the writer of Ephesians knows this praying: “I pray that…God 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.” The apostle desires that we exist in the one who came to exist with us, Immanuel.
This week has not been an easy one for Nebraska City. Lives have been upended through heinous actions, and healing seems impossible. And Lord, don’t even try to discuss love with us right now. How could we possibly think about loving someone or feeling loved when the world has betrayed us? Tragedy, horror and the human condition seem to be all over the news lately, here at home and abroad. Stabbings, mass shootings, hanging deaths – all of it make us feel as though God has left the room. Why would a man turn a gun on a movie theater of people? Why would a woman take her life in her jail cell over a traffic stop? Why would a young man – someone with so much life ahead of him – die at the hands of another right here in our own backyards? Where could God possibly be in the midst of what we’re going through? Does God really even care about us? Can the Spirit find us to moan words of prayer on our behalf?
“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 all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (vv. 18-19)
A cancer survivor myself, I completely understand why I had weekly prayer sessions with Mama – they kept her (and the rest of us) focused, rooted and grounded. Life is wild. Life is isolating. Chaos controls us all too often, especially when tragedy strikes close to our hearts. May Sarton says this: “In the country of pain we are each alone.” When pain, hurt, fear and the like take over, the important things fall to the wayside. Important things like, resting in God’s favor. In her devotional book Savor – which is chock full of love, from the cotton cover to the sweet encouraging words to the mouth-watering recipes strewn throughout – Shauna Niequist shares this story entitled On Seeing The Important Things:
One month in the fall, we hosted two showers and a rehearsal dinner. I made a job transition; a friend got married, another celebrated her 30th birthday, another found out she was pregnant, and another adopted a newborn; and my husband had his wisdom teeth removed.
Aaron needed more gauze. I flew out the door, and raced through the store, throwing things in the cart. When I got home, he told me that I bought the wrong gauze. I stomped out the door, and then I stopped in my tracks. Across the street, one of the tallest trees, twice as high as a two-story house, was the brightest, lit-from-within red I have ever seen. I had not noticed one step of its turning.
I had stopped seeing the important things. I saw the to-do list. I had gifts to buy and people to celebrate. But I wasn’t seeing the people or the celebrations. I wasn’t seeing anything beyond the chaos of my life.
“Chaos,” she continues, “has a way of drowning out the more important things from our awareness. What might you be missing today?” When life becomes chaos we forget to remain rooted and grounded in the love of God; we forget to hold onto how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. We forget to fall to our knees and pray, even asking the spirit to petition on our behalf when words are impossible. The apostle offers a prayer on our behalf asking for the love of Christ and the fullness of God to be ours. The apostle invokes the Spirit in holy communion with God for us. And Christ himself encourages us, when life uproots us and shakes our foundations leaving us ungrounded, to come to him in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Kneeling is submission. Scholars note that the apostle’s kneeling position in the prayer departs from the usual custom of standing to pray. They further mention that each time the New Testament scriptures refer to kneeling in prayer, with the exception of one instance in Acts, the scenes are associated with death. Kneeling implies begging for a favor. When the apostle kneels here in prayer to God, we experience the deep emotion expressed on our behalf. We don’t often think about what it means to kneel, so I did some research for us. Synonyms of kneel are: genuflect, grovel, cower, kowtow, beg, stoop, and respect. Kneeling brings us down to ground level – it brings us closer to a feeling of balance and safety. When tornadoes whirl we throw ourselves to the ground where we have a better chance of not being swept away with the winds. I imagine the apostle on his knees, begging God, pleading with every fiber of his being that we could experience not just a taste of what he possesses, but the full measure of God’s love. A full measure! Imagine, someone whom we’ve never met, kneeling for a begging, cowering prayer on our behalf that we might be filled with the power of the Spirit, a knowledge-surpassing love, and that in all of it, we are rooted and grounded in that love.
Mama only briefly expressed fear over her cancer diagnosis, but I more frequently talked about it because I felt I knew more of what she would endure since I’d been in her place before. But, Mama knows best. Mama chose to center herself on God, to be rooted and grounded in the love that surpassed her knowledge, and to rest in the peace of Christ knowing that the Spirit would give her the strength necessary to fight. And fight she did. When I feel like life just takes a little more out of me than I’m willing or able to give, I think back to those Sunday nights on the floor of Mama’s living room. I sat, semi-kneeling although not realizing my posture, on the navy blue carpet petitioning God. And on the times when I couldn’t quite find the words, we stat silently, holding hands, allowing the Spirit to groan in our place. … I get the feeling that’s where we are as a community right now. We may not have words, or the words we have are hurtful and angry. Except our God’s a God of a love that surpasses understanding that equips us with roots and wings simultaneously. If we ask for the power to comprehend that love, to strive to comprehend that love, we can begin to make strides toward healing. We can say to one another and to ourselves that we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, and once we believe it, we can begin to offer it to our brothers and sisters. We can see and experience the important things. We will exist in the dwelling place of God. That is our root and grounding. That is who we are. That is whose we are.
“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, for ever and ever. Amen.”