Sunday, March 11, 2018

Created for Good Works -- A Sermon for Lent 4B

2017 Ramadan Iftar Dinner Program

Ephesians 2:1-10

Why do we do the things we do? Is it nature or is it nurture? St. Augustine didn’t know anything about genetics, but he stood on the nature side of the equation. John Locke might not have known about genetics either, but he believed we are blank slates on which society writes. To be honest, they’re probably both correct. Whichever side we choose, we all know that bad stuff happens. This is our world, but does this world define who we are? 

The word we hear in the Ephesian letter tells us that once we were subjects of the “ruler of the power of the air,” but now we are seated with Jesus in the heavenly places. Because we’re seated with Jesus, we are recipients of God’s “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” 

This morning, as we continue our Lenten journey, we hear a word about God’s grace and what it means to live a transformed life as a follower of Jesus. While there is debate about the identity of the author of Ephesians, for our purposes, I will follow tradition and call him Paul. You may have found some of the words in Ephesians 2 off-putting and confusing. Words about “children of wrath” and the “ruler of the power of the air” don’t fit well with our modern view of things. Yet, we need to take them into account as we consider our identity in Christ and the works that God has set out for us as an expression of grace.

This word of grace comes to us as we live in a world that doesn’t always reflect God’s vision for creation. There are forces in our midst that resist God’s vision. Jesus faced those forces in the wilderness as he spent forty days forty nights fasting. In other words, when Jesus was in the wilderness he came face to face with the “ruler of the power of the air.” That reference may sound odd to our ears, because we tend to see the world through the lens of a “disenchanted age” that looks with skepticism at anything that can’t be tested by science. While I am pro-science, and have defended it in print, I believe there is more to reality than meets the eye, and that includes the spiritual realm that Paul describes here.  

Richard Beck has written a book for our age called Reviving Old Scratch. Old Scratch is the name given to the devil by inmates at the prison where he teaches a bible study. Whether you believe that Satan is symbolic or a supernatural person, Beck writes that “for our purposes we simply need to agree on the biblical vision of Satan and the Devil. Biblically, Satan names that which is working against God and God’s kingdom in the world” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 8]. 

Biblical scholar Walter Wink takes a similar view of things as Beck, but he calls this spiritual resistance to God’s realm the “Domination System.”  Whether we recognize it or not, we are influenced by our culture, and not all of it is good. We may not speak of Old Scratch, but there are spiritual forces out there that are creating havoc in our midst. These forces take different forms—violence, racism, homophobia, human trafficking, just to name a few. The question is, how do we break free of this system that is spiritual in nature, and which surrounds us and informs the way we live in the world?

I believe that Paul offers us a way out. He speaks of grace, which is received through faith. It is the gift of God, if we’re ready to take hold of it. This grace, received through faith, leads to a transformed life that is expressed through good works. It is this grace that frees us from the spiritual forces that seek to control us. William Robinson was a British Disciples theologian who wrote about The Devil and God during World War II. He pointed out that an earlier age of optimism may have brought western society freedom, liberty and justice, but that all came to an end with World War I. Writing in the midst of World War II, he spoke of the barbarism that was trying take hold of the world. He pointed to “the gangster spirit [that] is enthroned in high places.” [Robinson, The Devil and God, pp. 10-11]. I think that’s what Paul has in mind here. There is a gangster spirit enthroned in high places that opposes God’s realm, and desires to take hold of our lives.

Think of Parkland, Florida. A young man takes a gun and kills students and school staff. We ask why. We form opinions. We try to come up with solutions. Yet nothing seems to change. There is a system, a gangster spirit, that takes hold of us. It expresses itself in different ways, including violence. It also expresses itself in fear, which leads to hate and exclusion. 

As Richard Beck puts it, he would “love to have a Christianity full of rainbows and daisies, full of love and inclusion. But there are forces working against love and inclusion in the world, and some of those forces are at work in my own heart and mind. We call those forces hate and exclusion, to say nothing about everything else that is tearing the world to shreds, pushing the loving and gracious rule of God out of the world.” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 10]. I wish it were not so, but I think Beck is correct in his assessment.  

I had a conversation the other evening with one of our friends from the Turkish American Society. We talked about scheduling another Iftar Dinner during Ramadan. Last year’s dinner sat about seventy people. While we provided the space, they provided the dinner and the program. Ramadan will come earlier this year, so we’re thinking of a date in May. While we talked about the dinner, we also talked about the continued oppression of people living in Turkey under an increasingly autocratic ruler. Our friends, and I believe they are our friends, live in fear. They’re afraid that if they say anything that is deemed critical of the Turkish president, even from the safety of this country, their relatives at home could get in trouble. Some of our friends already have family members who are in prison, because they’re connected to a movement of peace that the Turkish president has labeled a terrorist organization. That means, we are friends with terrorists who believe in freedom, compassion, and justice.  

We are seeing similar autocratic regimes popping up all over the world. In China, the ruling body got rid of term limits for the President, allowing the current president to consolidate absolute power. In Hungary and Poland, autocratic leaders have emerged, who crack down on opponents. We know about the President of Russia, who suppresses the press, murders opponents, and meddles in foreign elections. We see some of these autocratic tendencies emerging here at home. Yes, the “domination system” is making itself felt, as fear, violence, hate, and exclusion are on the rise.  

There is good news, however. If we are in Christ, we are recipients of God’s grace, which saves us. This is not of our own doing. We don’t earn God’s love.  We simply receive it. By receiving God’s grace and mercy, we become the people God intends us to be. We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Those good works were “prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  

More than a decade ago, this congregation embraced the idea of becoming a missional congregation. That was the calling that drew me here from California, so I could share in the good works that God had in store for this congregation. Over the past decade, we helped launch the Metro Coalition of Congregations and pushed for housing relief and regional transit, combated human trafficking and encouraged the state to make affordable health care available to all residents. We helped launch Rippling Hope, working to bring hope to communities in Detroit that are often neglected. We pursued the process of becoming an Open and Affirming Congregation, offering welcome to all people. We have been engaged in various forms of interfaith relationships, pursuing inclusion rather than exclusion. There is no better expression of this than our hosting of the Iftar Dinners, which is a rather unique occurrence for a Christian congregation. These are the good works that God has prepared for us, and which express God’s missional vision for this congregation.  

As we engage in these good works, we are interrupting the domination system with love. Turning again to Richard Beck, he writes: “Beyond interrupting the world through resistance and solidarity, we can also interrupt the world with acts of inclusion and kindness. If Jesus had a favorite tactic, it was his practice of table fellowship, breaking bread with the outcasts of society.” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 183]. This Table before us is a Table of inclusion, even as the table we set with the Turkish American Society is a table of inclusion. As we set the table we join Jesus in interrupting the gangster spirit that seeks to take hold of our world.  So, I invite you to join me at the Table, so we might share in the good words that God has prepared for us.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 11, 2018
Lent 4B

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