You can join this week’s worship serviceby visiting: https://youtu.be/GUey_Tt8wmc
Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and prayers for this week.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Ephesians 1: 3-14
Music: All Who Are Thirsty; Deep In Our Hearts
We were sitting in the grand old church, about 100 of us chatting in the pews as we waited for the day to start and the guest speaker to be introduced. It was the semi-annual Men’s Rally of the Maritime Conference this past April. It seemed unusual to have so many men gathered in one place, for something other than a hockey game or a fireman’s breakfast. It was good, though. I looked out and saw many of the men who had raised me in the church – old scout leaders, mentors, people I adopted as uncles, friends.
Our guest speaker was Rob Fennell, a colleague from back in seminary days and now Academic Dean at AST. When he was introduced, Rob got us to look around the church, noticing the intricately hand-carved wood, polished lovingly each week; the carefully pieced stained glass windows; all the work and dedication that had gone into that church. He said, “It’s amazing how much love has been poured into this place. Just imagine how much love went in to making you.”
During this past year and a half, my children have discovered all sorts of things they love to do that I’m not sure they would have without being at home all the time. For about three months, Jonathan did all the laundry in the house. We didn’t even ask him – he just started doing it one day. Margaret has learned how to bake – wonderful cookies and muffins, especially – and entirely on her own, from setting the oven to putting the dishes in the dishwasher.
The most interesting thing for us, though, was their desire to write and receive letters. It started with their Nana, who gave them envelopes with stamps to make it even easier for them to write to her. And from there, they started writing to their uncles and aunt, to their friends, and even to their cousins in Singapore. Jonathan found it amazing, that he could read and hold letters that people he knew had touched with their hands. It really is a kind of magic.
Do you remember receiving letters? It’s probably hard for us to remember what that’s like, so much of our communication has moved to phone, and email, and now texting. But think back to when you were a child, before you were responsible for taxes and phone bills and insurance. Can you remember how exciting it was to have your name printed on an envelope?
When we read that the community at Ephesus was waiting for a letter, they were really waitingfor a letter. Paul had visited them, had shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with them, and had started them on their way. He organized house gatherings, shared the meal of remembrance and the oil of anointing with them, and strengthened them for their journey. And then he had gone somewhere else. They were left to carry on by themselves.
In the meantime, other people had visited and complicated things. Religious authorities told them that, as Gentiles, they would never be a part of the promise of God. Someone had said that they were not chosen, not part of the history of God’s salvation. Paul had misspoken, they said. He was wrong.
The people of Ephesus began to lose hope. They weren’t sure anymore that they really believed what Paul had said. People were blaming each other for their worries, arguing about what to do. Some said they should put behind them the extraordinary story of Jesus and return to their old lives. Somehow it got back to Paul: they need to hear it again, that God loves them.
So Paul wrote to them. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing… and has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world… Who in Christ has adopted us as his children… who has redeemed us… who has blessed us with wisdom and insight into his will… who in the fullness of time will gather up all things in him – all things in heaven and all things on earth.”
There is no hesitation in Paul’s words: God has blessed you, chosen you, adopted you, redeemed you. Even before the foundation of the world, God loved you, and keeps on loving you, even when other voices seem to say otherwise.
A few nights ago I was taking apart a set of shelves I made a few years ago. They were a custom fit for our guest room. I had probably spent about 15 hours on them, though I should probably ask Jenny how long it was; time has a delightful way of slipping through my fingers when I’m in the wood shop. Anyway, they took a long time to build… and it took about an hour to take them apart. It’s always easier to tear down than to build up. And the same is true of people.
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we’re loved. It’s hard to believe that God intends love for us, and that we’re worthy of it. It’s much easier to hear the loud voices of the confident, or believe the negativity of the wounded. It’s easier to tear down, to despair, than it is to build up, to hope and dream. So how do we remain encouraged, and encourage others?
Gerry Shepard was a professor of mine at seminary who used to translate from the Hebrew as he read it out loud. He was known for examining one sentence of scripture at a time, sometimes for 20-30 minutes on just one sentence. And when he did, well, he was captivating. He involved us in study, yes, but also in wonder. His was a light that went out too soon.
Gerry used to say that the stories of the Bible are not about what people of faith have done, but about what God has done. What we normally call “our stories of faith”, when we read them and share them, actually become stories about what God is doing – God’s faith in us. Our stories of faith are like letters written to an anxious people in uncertain times – inspiration from a God who is always with us.
Our hope comes not from belief in ourselves, but the conviction that God – source of life and love – blesses us, adopts us, chooses us, redeems us, loves us – all of us. And this is the news we have to share with the world, about this God at work: that they are loved and worthy of love.
That is, of course, a monumental task. But as I think back to what my friend Rob said to that group gathered in a church years ago – a church lavished with the love and attention of generations – I believe we have our way forward. To proclaim God’s love is not always, or even best, declared in grand gestures, but in humble persistence: polishing the wood, practicing the anthem, setting up the lunch, teaching the Sunday School class. In short, we declare the love of God in our love for each other, here and wherever we care for others.
I think also of Paul, writing a letter of thanksgiving and encouragement to those who are, themselves, invited to lead. So, today, I invite you to consider: was there a time when you were encouraged, or loved, or guided in a caring way? Who was that person? Have you shared with that person the impact that had on your life?
I know from experience that some of you are experienced note writers; I treasure that small, yet profound gesture. I would invite all of you, whether you think it’s a gift you can share right now or not, to consider writing a brief note to someone who has meant a lot to you, or who has been supportive or helpful to you. Someone who’s care has reminded you that you are loved and worthy of love.
You don’t even have to send it. Maybe there will be a time when you feel brave enough to. But until then, it’s good for us even just to recall and give thanks for the love that has been lavished on us, and to imagine how much God has loved us. Amen.
Holy God, Giver of Life and Source of Love, we give you thanks for the many gifts which are part of your rich creation. We thank you for the growth of new life and the renewal of the old. For time to spend with family and friends, time to rest, reflect and replenish. We thank you for these gifts.
Today as we reflect on Paul’s words to the fledgling churches of the ancient world, we pray for our own United Church, as its commissioners and leaders meet together this week. The work to do is considerable, O God, and the needs are many. We pray for your wisdom and guidance, for the patience to listen and the courage to speak, for the freedom to disagree and the grace to do so compassionately. Help us to follow you, Holy One, in all we do.
We pray for our community of faith and for our wider community; for the brokenness we know about, and those we cannot see. Guide our hands and hearts to reach out – not out of a sense of obligation, but out of the joy of sharing life – that we might practice and experience your peace.
We pray for those who are ill in body or in spirit. For those in hospital and care home, at home and in transition to care. We pray for our families and friends. We pray for those who mourn this day
And we pray for ourselves, God of Mercy and of Hope; that you would grant us trust to know that you are always at work in us and others by your Spirit. Give us courage to consider the parts of our lives that need tending to, and to rejoice in the parts of our lives that give us life.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.