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Sermon transcript for July 15, 2012

The Riches of God’s Grace
Ephesians 1:3-14
Belmont UMC—July 15, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

As I read and reread the Epistle lesson for today I found myself deeply moved by the beautiful brushstrokes set forth in these introductory words. And the sermon I began to imagine was not focused on these verses alone, but it swept through the words of this important little letter attributed to the Apostle Paul.

If there is any verse or phrase that caught my attention it was the phrase that spans verses seven and eight where Paul writes, “according to the riches of God’s grace that God has lavished on us.” This phrase seems to summarize all that Paul is writing. God has lavished grace on us. God has given grace freely and generously.  And there are beautiful images that describe the generous grace of God.

This passage of 11 verses is actually one long sentence in Greek and it has been broken up into sentences in many modern translations. This makes it easier to read. In its original it is a sentence that would have made William Faulkner proud. And read as one long sentence it reflects an enthusiasm, an overflow of praise and gratitude, a doxology, a flood of thanksgiving. It expresses how much God’s grace means to us in the Christian community. It made me think of the way a child, in her excitement and exuberance about a new discovery or experience, will overflow with long sentences and enthusiasm.

It expresses all that God has set in motion for our lives and for the world, in the grace of Jesus Christ. At the heart of our relationship with God is this grace—the love of God given freely and unconditionally. Grace is our identity as a people of God.  

Edwin Searcy suggests that the church must hear these words from Ephesians spoken in the thick accent of grace. He reminds us that while we hear Paul use the words of grace: blessed, chosen, beloved, adopted, many in the congregation may be more familiar with other words: fated, shameful, guilty, and rejected. We may find some tension between what we are experiencing in the real world and what God seeks to offer to us. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, pp. 231-233)

Grace is the bridge between God and us. This is God’s doing and we cannot do this ourselves. There are no self-made Christians!

It has been suggested that one of the chief differences between Christianity and other religions is that many other religions focus on how one can reach God, but we believe that our experience is about God reaching to us.

We use language that expresses the opposite. We say, “I found God!” We did not find God; God found us. God pursued us and lavished on us the riches of grace. God bridged the gap for us and in the generosity of grace we have entered a relationship with God.

A young man said to me, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to get my father to love me.” That was a very sad conversation indeed. But that is not our experience with God. God is constantly reaching out to us, loving us, and hoping that love will be returned.

Paul writes in Ephesians that by the grace of God we are no longer aliens or strangers, but fellow citizens. We are made to feel like we belong. This is God’s doing, this is God’s grace, that makes it possible.

It was mentioned earlier that Reverend Linda Johnson’s father died earlier in the week. Knowing that I would not be back in time for the celebration of his life, I called Linda on Tuesday and I reminded her of my favorite story about her dad, a story that she told in one of her sermons. Linda likes to dance and it was her father who passed on this love for dancing to her when she was young. He would put an album on the record player and take her hands in his. She would place her little feet on top of his and he would dance her around the living room. For her this became a metaphor for her relationship with God and the grace that teaches us to live in harmony with the movements of God.

God’s grace has the power to break down walls that divide us. In Ephesians this wall is the dividing wall of hostility. This wall is symbolized by the temple wall that divided the places where Jews and Gentiles could gather. Years ago I watched my Grandfather pulling weeds that had sprouted in the crevice of a foundation wall. He said, “A little seed gets in there, a plant grows, and before you know it the whole wall comes down.”

As we sow the seeds of God’s grace, that take root in the fissures of human walls, God has the power to bring down the walls that divide us from each other and from God.

Friends, we are called to be the bearers of this grace to the world. We give witness to the power of God to heal, to redeem, to bless, to unite, to love. This is how we respond because God has lavished us with the riches of grace.

Three years ago 23 of us had just returned from a trip to South Africa and Swaziland. In Johannesburg we had the privilege of spending time with the volunteers of Come Back Mission, whose work focuses on the needs of the poor and marginalized, mostly folks who live in shantytowns. One of those shantytowns has the surprising name, Heavenly Valley.  Heavenly Valley and many places like it were established by the apartheid government of relocation, when blacks were forced out of their homes and into segregated housing units. These government houses were considered temporary structures when they were erected 40 years ago, and they are still inhabited by  the poorest of the poor who have no place to go. The houses are essentially 20 X 15 foot sheds that reminded me of the storage buildings Americans erect in their backyards to hold their extra stuff. Some of the homes are made of cast off plywood and pieces of metal roofs. They have no running water or electricity.

The people of Heavenly Valley were marginalized, forgotten, left to fend for themselves, but for 20 years Come Back Mission has been offering a redemptive word to  the people of Heavenly Valley. They minister to those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug problems, and the poor. At Heavenly Valley we assisted in painting a preschool started by the Come Back Mission and we painted the home of the older couple living next to the preschool. We visited and prayed in the homes of the persons who lived there. The problems are so numerous—we wondered and asked if they felt like giving up. All of the volunteers were positive and hopeful. What we did on one day, these Christians have continued to do for 20 years.

Our guide on our visits was a small woman named Bernie, a woman who had grown up as an orphan, who had been mistreated under apartheid. She shared with us a story of being told by a white acquaintance that she was “no better than a dog” because of the color of her skin. Bernie is a compassionate fireball. In every home, Bernie, a Come Back Mission counselor, greeted each person with love and respect. She called them, “My sister” “My brother” “My child.” And then she asked us to pray for the persons in each home. It was important that we say the names of the persons to make them feel included. Everywhere Bernie goes she is a bearer of the grace of God.

As United Methodist we have the opportunity to be powerful witnesses to the grace of God, the grace that breaks down walls and welcomes all into God’s presence. We live in an increasingly polarized world, polarization that has built walls based on ideologies, prejudices and a kind of fundamentalism that says, “I’m right and you are wrong and therefore, I dismiss you and your ideas.” This wall building is exemplified by gridlock among our nation’s leaders.

There is ample evidence that the early church was a diverse group of people: rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, slave and free, male and female, from all over the Mediterranean World representing diverse points of view, diverse cultures and diverse ways of engaging the world.  

We gather here, week after week, a very diverse group of Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and everything in between, rich and poor and middle class, conservatives and liberals and everything in between. And yet we gather at one table and eat from one loaf of bread and share from one cup. We love each other and forgive each other.  We bear the grace of God to one another. We pass the peace of Christ among us as a sign that we are forgiven and forgiving people. And we work side by side to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. And in doing so we are reminded that this is not about us, but about something bigger than we could ever be. It is the grace of God that makes us who we are and our unity in the face of diversity is a powerful witness that God is at work among us and in the world.

And these are some of the ways we acknowledge that God has lavished us with grace. These are the ways we return love for love and say to this generous God, “We love you with heart, soul, mind and strength. Our lives are yours. This journey is not about us, but about you and about fulfilling your purposes in this world. Here we are, use us as bearers of your grace!”

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