A sermon given on July 25, 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily on Ephesians 3:14-21…
Proper 12, Year B – Ephesians 3:14-21
July 25, 2021
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Some things absolutely exceed our imagination. There’s the concept of infinity. We have symbols for it and mathematical descriptions of it – but let’s face it, our minds can’t grasp what infinity is in any real or concrete way. The core temperature of the earth is about 7,000 degrees Celsius. I know what 400 degrees Fahrenheit feels like when I put a frozen pizza in the oven, but that’s about as close as I get to imagining the core temperature of the earth. Although we can’t know the exact number for sure, it’s estimated that there are 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Try wrapping our minds around that. It’s hard.
Our imaginations may have been active enough when we were children. But by the time adulthood hits us, we’ve often given up even trying to imagine many things. Not just concepts like infinity, core temperature, and an astronomical number of stars – we’ve also given up trying to imagine possibilities for our own lives. We only set goals that seem reachable to us, our excitement level rarely reaches the red zone, and we stop expecting miracles. Instead, we stick to the facts in front of us, to reasoned judgments about things that are known to us.
More and more there’s the worry that even children are losing the art of imagination. With the proliferation of cell phones, easy digital access, and family schedules that hardly allow for even meals together, the time and space that imagination requires seems perilously endangered. And so a cry has gone out from many quarters for parents to intentionally nurture their child’s imagination with more reading, more unstructured time in nature, more involvement in their child’s imaginative play. Nurturing imagination is essentially what Paul’s doing in this morning’s passage from Ephesians. He’s stoking the embers of imagination in the minds of those saints living in Ephesus.
Now we don’t know if Paul really wrote the book of Ephesians. Some features of this letter suggest that it dates from the later part of the first century. And there are enough differences in style, perspective, and the use of certain phrases and language between Ephesians and other letters that are definitely thought to be written by Paul to call into question the authorship of this letter. Most likely, one of Paul’s disciples wrote Ephesians in Paul’s name after his death – a practice that was common in that time. But for the purposes of today’s sermon, we’ll call the author “Paul.”
Today’s reading from Ephesians is said to form a hinge in the book. Up until this point Paul has been laying out the theological and doctrinal claims about the work God has done in Christ Jesus – how God has bound up all things in Christ, joining Jews and Gentiles together, making known the plan that God has had for the world from its very creation. And after laying out God’s plan and how that’s been accomplished through Christ, in the second half of Ephesians Paul will go on to describe our response to the work God has done – how is it that God’s reconciling love changes the way we live. But right at the crux of this movement from one part of the argument to the other, we find a prayer.
It’s a prayer that perhaps any pastor would offer for his or her congregation, a parent would make for their child, that we would make for one another. It’s basically this: “May you find yourself strengthened through the Holy Spirit. Being rooted and grounded in God’s love, may Christ dwell in your hearts. May you somehow come to know how great God’s love is, even though it’s a love that surpasses all knowledge. And being filled with the fullness of God, may the power of God at work in you accomplish much more than you could ever ask or imagine.”
If we step back from this prayer, we see that Paul is asking the church in Ephesus to imagine or believe two things that are beyond the scope of rational thought. First, the vastness of Christ’s love. Second, the idea that this love working in us can help us do things we would never in a million years think were possible. And frankly, that’s just hard to imagine. Because it’s hard to think outside the range of normal possibilities. We pride ourselves on being realistic, and on making responsible decisions based on the facts.
But the truth is that for the Church to carry out its mission, we need to imagine what it might look like for God to work through us. We need to imagine what it might look like for our work to be more that the mere sum of our own talents, time, efforts, and resources – for our few loaves and fishes to feed a multitude. Otherwise, when we look out at the world and all there is to be done, we’ll be overwhelmed and we risk becoming paralyzed.
When I read this passage from Ephesians, two things came immediately to mind. The first one was General Convention in 2006. I was there as a seminary student, and I was standing in the House of Deputies waiting with everyone else to find out who would be the next Presiding Bishop. The name of Katharine Jefferts Schori was announced, and not too long afterwards she entered the great hall to explosive applause. Her acceptance speech was short, but what stands out in my mind was this simple statement of praise Bishop Katharine made as she looked out at the crowd: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.” It’s one of the concluding sentences for our service of Morning Prayer, it’s the doxology that ends our epistle reading for today, and it seemed the perfect thing to say. In a time of conflict in the Anglican Communion, looking out over a sea of Episcopalians, with the pressing need to respond to the poverty, loneliness, and violence in our society, what else could one do but give praise to God whose power working in us allows us to take on those tasks we would never dream of tackling on our own?
The second thing I thought of when I read today’s passage from Ephesians was this. I remember hearing Bishop Maze talk once about traveling around to many of the small Episcopal congregations in Arkansas. He said that he would look out at a congregation of eight to twelve people and say to them: “God has given you all you need to be the Body of Christ in this place.” What empowering words! A reminder that what we’re able to accomplish in the world is not merely the result of our own resources, efforts, talents, and numbers – because there’s a wildcard thrown into the mix. That wildcard is the power of God working through us, doing more than we could ever ask or imagine.
As we reflect on hese words of Paul, it’s worth wondering: do we at All Saints’ really believe that God has given us all we need to be the Body of Christ in this place? All we need to do the work God has given us to do? Do we believe that God’s power working in us makes us much more than the sum of our individual parts – more than our average Sunday attendance, more than our annual budget? When we look at all the poverty around us, at those in our community who are alone, at the increasing percentage of our population in prison, at those who don’t know when they will next have a hot meal to eat, at the members of our society who are demonized as a result of their ethnicity, socioeconomic standing or sexual orientation, at the children who need a safe place to be, at those whose life has been upended by the uncertainty Covid brings – when we look around us at all this, do we dare to believe that we can really make a difference?
And then the next question: in the midst of all the need that we see, how do we discern what is ours to do? A friend once told me about her experience visiting the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible church centered on lay mission to the neighborhoods around the church. Whenever someone would feel a strong pull towards a particular ministry, that person would stand up and sound a call to other members – basically, something along the lines of “I’m hearing a call to begin this type of ministry. Has anyone else been hearing a similar call?” This discernment in community sounds very much like the way Neighbors Table began here in our congregation. And the Holy Spirit is still at work in our midst, calling us forward and stirring up in us a hope for justice, abundance, and radical hospitality.
And so in this moment when Covid is once again spiking, let’s not be paralyzed by the need we and uncertainty we see all round us. Instead, let’s be inspired by the knowledge that God can do more in and through us than we could ever ask. And let’s stoke the embers of our collective imagination.