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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Welcome Home, My Beloved"

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Proper 10B ~ July 12, 2009
Ephesians 1.3-14

Sooo...that was a weird Gospel selection. When I sat down to take a look at the readings appointed for this morning I was confronted with David dancing with all his might before the ark of God (which gave me an idea for a sermon that best remains theoretical) and with the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod (a Gospel lection that only indirectly mentions Jesus). I was, of course, instantly struck by the irony of having to preach about the death of John the Baptist on this my last Sunday here with you at Saint Mark's, but then thought better of that no small part because I'm leaving here with my head set firmly on my shoulders and, unlike Herod, you all have played a crucial role in helping make sure that both my head and heart are rather more intact, rather more well formed and well placed than they were when I got, right off the bat, I must say thank you to you all...thank you...okay, alright we'll come back to that in a bit.

Thanks to the technological miracle that is Facebook, I can assure you that quite a few Episcopal clergy were scratching their heads as it came to the readings appointed for this morning. I can also assure you, and this is a good thing, that over the last week quite a bit of creative theological reflection has occurred in the digital ether and that shared enterprise has produced a truly wonderful variety of sermons being preached from Altadena to Alabama, Boston to Austin. One popular solution to this mornings peculiar readings (and it is good every once in a while to remember how peculiar the Word of God can seem to us, lest we think we have it all figured out) is to preach the epistle!

Paul writes: How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He's the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. (Peterson, The Message)

Now, as a jumping off point for reflecting on the message Paul presents in the letter to the Ephesians, it might seem strange to note that the consensus view of New Testament scholars is that Paul probably did not write the letter to the Ephesians...and the letter may not have even been originally addressed to the good folks of Ephesus. The traditional view holds that Paul wrote this letter from his prison cell in Rome close to the time of his execution by the Roman authorities, but for a whole host of reasons, most of which are technical and exceedingly tedious, it is probably much more likely that this letter was composed shortly after Paul's death by his followers, representing a school of Pauline theological reflection and discourse. The students of Paul write in his name, borrowing his authority, in order to share and expand his witness to the apostolic faith for which he labored generously and, ultimately, sacrificially.

In fact, the most important feature of Paul's epistles is not their authorship (though incidentally, at least seven of the thirteen Pauline letters are iron-clad, authentically Paul's) but that they point beyond their author to a greater, and more important truth. Though it sometimes seems to the contrary, it is the case, by design, that we find out very little about Paul himself from the letters. They are not autobiographical, they are, rather, theo-biographical (I think I may have invented that word just now), that is they are about the God-life. Paul is always pointing away from himself, even when he sets himself up as an example for his correspondents, to the bigger picture, the bigger purpose. Paul is always working to ground his ministry, his theology, his missionary endeavors, his whole life in the life of Christ to which he witnesses.

Indeed, the selection we have from Ephesians this morning, is nothing other than a blessing pronounced upon the audience of the letter. The author greets us and prepares us to hear a trustworthy message about what it is to live the Christian life by offering as words of blessing a dramatic statement of God's purpose to redeem and reconcile the created order. In eleven rich, joyful verses we hear the whole sweeping arc of God's plan; we have the whole story of the Bible: creation, covenant, Christ, church, and consummation. It's all there, and you know what? It is a supreme gift, given by God, in delight, to you and me for no other reason than God's overflowing, really rather unreasonable, and always, eternally available love. It's kind of frightening, actually, when you think about it...

Paul and his followers lived in a world that was no less complicated than our own, and one a great deal more savage. What they clearly saw, and what we so often struggle with, is that despite the sheer obvious brokenness of our world there is a reason to rejoice, to sing praises, to live fully and freely beyond the grasp of sin and suffering, beyond the reach of the grave, and to even be so bold as to reach out to others with an open hand and heart. It does not always make sense to us how the victory of God is being realized, but Paul's conviction, his communities' conviction and thus our conviction is that in the life, death and rising to life again of Jesus Christ there is an event, an activity which is the climax of history, the very center of gravity of the entire universe. That event, that activity is nothing other than reconciliation, re-creation: nothing other than God meeting us face to face and uttering the words 'Welcome home, my beloved'.

Paul writes: It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

God has had his eye on us, there is no other explanation. That statement is surely cosmological, it describes the big picture. But also it describes, I think, the particular. How else could it be that Saint Mark's would not simply survive but thrive following the retirement of a seasoned rector and the advent of a nearly hopelessly green priest-in-charge?

Of course, God's having his eye on us is realized not in God moving us all around like pieces on a cosmic chess board, but in our living faithfully as a community called together in Christ's name, gathering to hear God's word and to share God's grace in the sacraments, so that we might live in the world as God's own Welcome. Of this I am certain, my time here with you has been, and will always be, a gift unmerited, but deeply and profoundly appreciated. And so, we bring this sermon full circle (and with head still attached):

Thank you for showing me what it is to take your faith seriously, yet with unreserved joy and good humor. Thank you for sharing your lives with me these last two years, thank you for that singular privilege of walking alongside you in the highs and lows. Thank you for giving me the space to grow into a new role, to learn the ropes of parish leadership, and for being gentle. Thank you for all the love and concern that you have shared with me in the last several weeks. Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for reminding me why I love being a priest, thank you for shaping me and forming me and sending me out.

Paul is undoubtedly correct, It is in Christ that we find out who we are and for what we are living. But that statement has to be more than abstract, it has to be real, incarnated, lived out in our own flesh and blood...and so thank you, Saint Mark's Parish, for being the face, hands and heart of Christ to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


~The Rev'd Andrew T. O'Connor

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