Our congregation is going through a time of great suffering right now. We need to remember that those who die with Christ will also rise with Christ, and that goes for congregations as well as individuals. As a church we are in the pain of dying and longing for the joy of rising.
Ephesians 3:14-21 is a pastor’s prayer for a church that needs help to take heart again. It is in the Revised Common Lectionary for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. Here is what I said to my flock from this text.
More Than We Can Imagine
A Sermon on Isaiah 43:16-21 and Ephesians 3:14-21
This time in prison could well be “it” for Paul. He knew it. The church knew it, too. It was only a matter of time before they’d be hearing sorrowful news.
Paul was concerned that his suffering and death might tempt the church to lose heart. The early church was in a vulnerable time. The apostles, the church’s towers of strength, were falling one by one. All of them experienced arrest and imprisonment, and all of them except John son of Zebedee were executed. The church was wrestling with the pain of rejection, and sometimes outright persecution. Could the church survive so much struggle and so many deaths? Paul very much wanted to help the church take heart.
Many of our families and the Morton Church family have been dealt a series of very painful blows. Towers of strength have fallen to illness and death or been taken away by other circumstances. They are all greatly missed. Some of us are coping with injury and illness ourselves. We can’t do all the things we used to do. We just can’t.
Like any family, faith families grieve, and recovery takes time. Our situation made me remember how another pastor described what happened in one of the churches he served. In his book Small Church Evangelism, Jim Cushman writes, “The memory of my third year at the Beverly Presbyterian Church in Beverly, West Virginia, remains fresh in my mind, although it occurred a decade ago. [Thirty plus years ago now, in 2012.] That fall was one of the most difficult periods I have endured as a pastor. The church had just begun to add some new members when disaster struck. In a period of three months several key members of the church and community died. As we approached the Advent season, usually the high point of the church year, the congregation seemed ready to dissolve. Worship attendance had fallen off drastically. Church members showed little willingness to attempt anything.
“As pastor,” he continues, “I was mentally drained and had fallen into a seemingly terminal depression. I was exhausted…
“What I had failed to grasp at the time was that we were in the midst of a deep grief cycle over the loss of some important and trusted members of the church. The grief basically immobilized the congregation…If any prospective members had ventured into the church during that period, they would have quickly turned away…” (Cushman, p. 16).
Our situation at Morton isn’t exactly like the situation at the Beverly Church, but I think it’s similar. We are grieving because of our many losses and because of all the hurt we see around us, and our tears keep coming.
Paul wanted to send the church some word to strengthen their hearts. As a Jew, he knew the long history of God’s covenant people with all its ups and downs, including the story of the most painful crisis they had yet experienced: the total destruction of their home, Jerusalem, and being exiled to Babylon. I am sure this story entered Paul’s reflections.
In Babylon, the community was in spiritual disarray. So far away from home, and with people drifting away from the community and becoming Babylonian, people wondered whether this was “it” for the covenant people. Was it any use to imagine going back home to Jerusalem and starting again? And don’t forget: a desert lay between Babylon and Jerusalem. Some concluded that this community was finished. They completely lost heart. Perhaps God didn’t love them any more. No, some were sure of it: God didn’t love this community any more.
In that situation, God spoke to the community through the prophet Isaiah, who told them, “Remember what God did when God parted the sea?” Isaiah reminded them of the story of the Exodus out of slavery in Egypt. “Remember that?” he said. “Well, forget that. You ain’t seen nothing yet! God is up to something! God is doing something new—don’t you see it? Even now God is working to move us out beyond our present circumstances. Even now God is working to take us home.” And God did make a way through the desert and a new life for the community of God’s people.
Here’s one way to put what Isaiah was getting at: you don’t never say never around God!
Paul knew the history of God’s dealings with the community of God’s people, and he knew this God was gracious and strong and trustworthy. Paul loved the community of Christ, and in Ephesians he let them in on his earnest prayers for them. Paul prayed that the church might be firmly rooted in God’s love and strengthened with God’s strength. He prayed that they might begin to grasp the un-graspable, to know the unknowable, namely, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
“Praise this God. To this God be glory in the church, this God who is able to accomplish far, far more than we can ask or even imagine,” Paul concluded.
Which is what God did for the exiles. God accomplished far more than they could have imagined before they saw it come to pass.
The very first sermon I preached here as your pastor was on this morning’s lesson from Isaiah. It was on August 12, 1990. I re-read that sermon yesterday. In that sermon I reflected on some of what God had done in my life up to that point, and I also reflected on your story, the Morton story, as I had learned it so far, and on how God had brought our stories together.
In one point in that sermon I zeroed in on the 1940s when this church was without a pastor for nine long years. Creative arrangements kept Morton together as a worshiping community. One thing that happened was that we realized that worship didn’t have to happen at 11:00 on Sunday morning. Worship could take place in the afternoon. So, after preaching to his congregation at home at First Presbyterian on Sunday mornings, Dr. Norman Johnson came out here to lead worship on Sunday afternoons. He is the first pastor that some you can remember. Others of you were young adults then. Sometimes there was just a handful of people. Folks would stay afterwards and visit in the same way they would at someone’s house. Some folks would wander over to the house next door where Mrs. Bette and Mr. Sam Davis lived and visit there. Those lean years then gave way to years when we had a very busy Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. God did more than we could have imagined before.
God certainly has done far more than we could have asked or imagined since I’ve been here. The building is certainly one of the tangible things God has done here. Before 2005 I don’t think any of us imagined how beautiful and useful our remodeled fellowship hall would be, and how it’s got excellent acoustics to boot. With what was left from that project we were able to add space to this end of the building. These certainly are blessings.
But as beautiful as that is, even more beautiful is what God has done in our hearts and in our lives. This week I have been assembling a collection of photographs showing our children, youth, and adults in worship, fellowship, and service together. These are going to become a slide show for a workshop that I am leading on August 18 in Durham. The topic is the gifts of the small church, and more specifically, it will focus on the gifts small congregations can offer children and youth. It is actually a blessing not to be able to offer big, exciting programs that separate young people from the rest of the church. Why? The church must live with generations together, and rich relationships can develop between young folks and many Christian adults in addition to their parents. One example of this is right behind me: Laura and Elizabeth have been singing with the adults in the choir for a long time now. It has been good for them. It has been good for the choir. And it has been good for our congregation.
Among the pictures I have one of Russell kneeling for his baptism. His parents are standing behind him. Not seen in the picture, but definitely behind him, that day, and through the years, was the congregation. Russell was about twelve or thirteen. I wish I had a picture from a few years later, the Youth Sunday when Russell was the preacher. The other day Russell published a reflection on facebook as he was thinking about what it was like to take [their two-month-old son} for his first shots. Russell wrote, “[My wife] and I could both feel our eyes watering up as he cried while the nurse gave the shots, but he did very well. Soon as the nurse was done I swooped him up, held him tight, and just as soon as the tears had came, they were gone. I love being a Dad. My thought for today is how this is life for a believer/knower of God. Sometimes we experience pain and suffering that we do not understand in this world. [My son] did not understand why he got those shots today. But in the end as Christians we know that our FATHER will be there to pick us up, put us in His arms…and all will be okay.” Amen.
Where did Russell meet this God? Right here, with his parents and all of us behind him. We and our children have met Jesus Christ in the embrace of Morton Church and we have experienced his love and heard his call to mission here. In so many ways, God has done even more for us than we could have asked or imagined.
Even now, when we miss our saints who have gone on so very, very much, even now when we are sad and feel insecure and uncertain about our future, and just plain tired, even now God is able to do far, far more than we could ever ask or imagine. Even now God is doing abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. Behold, God is doing a new thing.
Where is God going to take the new friendships we are developing? How will God use us to touch the lives of the children we have been getting to know on Tuesdays? How will God use them and their families to touch us?
Remember the Beverly Presbyterian Church that I told you about earlier? They didn’t dissolve. God brought healing, and the congregation became ready to try new things again, including reaching out to young people in the community. I looked the Beverly congregation up on the internet, and they’re still there, many years later.
Down on our knees in prayer with Paul is certainly the place to be: When we think of these things, to pray that from God’s glorious, unlimited resources, he may empower us with inner strength through his Spirit, and that Christ will make his home in our hearts as we trust in him, and may our roots grow down deep into God’s love, and that we may have the power to understand, with all the saints of God, how wide and how long and how high and how deep his love is. Down on our knees to pray that we may experience Christ’s love that goes beyond anything we can know, so we may be filled with God’s fullness.
Our Savior loves us, and loves this church, far more than we can ask, think, or imagine, and, behold, he is doing something new among us. Even now.
To Christ be glory!