text : Ephesians 3:14-21
theme verse: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when we look at all the areas of need in God’s world: there is hunger, sickness, and injustice in so many communities. It is easy to feel that we are too small, too insignificant to make a difference, to believe that nothing we do can help. But – Christ is in the hope business – and we are to be that embodied hope in the world. On this day, all gathered will be invited to share special gifts to support the Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For more than three years running, HACC has been the largest contributor to this special offering of any congregation in North America. As Christ so often responded to life in front of him first and foremost with compassion, may we also be identified by others as people of compassion.
**This video is referenced in the sermon: https://vimeo.com/250694838 ... LEARN MORE about Week of Compassion.**
opening : 'My Hope is You' (Third Day) :: The Rising Band
reader : Roy Peters
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
anthem : 'When I Survey The Wondrous Cross' (arr. D.Forrest) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director; Elizabeth Palmieri, flute; Seth Wood, drums
“How was your day?” A little early to be asking, I know. Lots of day left. I’m not really asking as much as I’m noting the question itself: “How was your day?” A simple little question many ask of their loved ones at the end of most days. I heard one woman say that her husband often asked her that question when he came home from work. At that time, her primary daily work was tending to the needs of their young children at home. Husband walks in, “How was your day?” Writing about this she said, “That question was the most aggressive question he could ask me at that time.” Aggressive? Interesting. She explained. Any given day with the kids is chaotic. Some moments are the most beautiful experiences you’ll ever have – these are the moments that you imagined having when you once dreamed of bringing kids into the world. The next moment may be absolutely, brutally, horrific – the moments where you wonder how the human race still exists. “How was my day!?! How was my day!?!” Aggressive question. I get that. Most days are all over the map – full, busy, chaotic, trying, meaningful, beautiful, frustrating, heart-breaking, enlightening, endearing, etc, etc, etc. You know this because your days are like this too. You’ve probably seen a quote that some put at the end of every email – it says something like, “Always be kinder than you deem necessary; you never know what someone is going through.”
The mother I mentioned above is the same one who wrote this: “On Mother’s Day 2002, unwed and addicted, I found myself holding a positive pregnancy test. For the first time in my life – I wanted something more than I wanted to be numb. I decided to become a mother and vowed to never again have another drink, cigarette, drug, unhealthy relationship, or food binge. I found myself marrying my son’s father. Fourteen years later, I’m the mother to three kids, a couple of mutts, and two of the most majestic banyan trees you’ve ever seen. I’m a grateful member of this [blogging] community of truth tellers, a Sunday School teacher, a #1 New York Times bestselling author, speaker, activist, and the founder and president of Together Rising – a non-profit that has raised seven million dollars for vulnerable women and children. Underneath and on top of all that I’m a Recovering Everything. I’m prouder of that title than I am of any other. Every morning, I open my eyes and immediately understand that I am still that girl on the bathroom floor, holding that pregnancy test like a terrifying invitation, trying to decide whether to stay down on the cold floor or get up and show up for my life. Most days I decide to show up, because I was right when I was little. Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real.” Her life has found new paths even since she wrote that word. Unexpected twists and turns. The brutiful continues. Her name is Glennon Doyle – most notably author of the blog Momastery. Everybody’s got a story, don’t they. You’re living one right now. And so now, I will ask you that aggressive question.
How is your day going, my friends? How is your life going? Would you call it brutiful? Do you need a little compassion from the world and from the many who are doing their best to appear that they’ve got it all together? The truth is – they don’t have it all figured out – no matter how strongly they say they do. I’ve walked with enough people, and I’ve tried to be that person before myself. Turns out – brutiful it is. So let’s just all take a deep breath and let it out, okay? Let’s be kind to one another – we’re all fighting some battle tougher than we ever imagined and we’re probably not nailing it, handling it perfectly, or #winning all of the time. But – we are healing, we are overcoming, we are in some level of the process of recovery – you wouldn’t be here today if you weren’t taking some step forward – at minimum trying desperately hard to not take a step back. Can we be compassionate with one another in the process? That’s what we’re wondering today as we continue our Lenten series we’re calling, “Who Am I in Christ?” Last week we said, “In Christ we are restored.” We repent – which simply means we turn things around, we change our mind, our soul, our life in the direction of restoration – and we find a level of wholeness we could not otherwise find. Today – our answer to the question, “Who am I in Christ?” Compassionate.
We focus on compassion for a couple of reasons today. Compassion is certainly a telling characteristic of someone who’s in step with Jesus. Father Gregory Boyle who has worked to bring hope to the gang life in urban California for years simply said, “The answer is always compassion.” To be in Christ, we’ve got to be working on this identifier constantly. We also focus on compassion as today is the day we share a special offering with Week of Compassion – a fund of our denomination that works collectively with Disciples congregations and ecumenical partners to bring aid to those suffering from natural disasters, those who are displaced refugees from war-torn nations, and those in impoverished areas develop sustainable programs to generate work, self-worth, sustenance, and economy for themselves and their communities. It has long been considered one of the best things our denomination is doing. I’m in my last year on the Week of Compasison advisory committee – representing our congregation – seeing more closely, at times first hand, the extraordinary difference our dollars make around the world. For more than a few years now, our congregation has been the top giver to Week of Compassion’s special offering – $22,000-31,000 each year over the last few years; almost $60,000 last year as the devastating hurricanes and fires ravaged our own nation and neighbors and we rallied with extra gifts to make a direct impact on the recovery efforts. Extraordinary. This is something we don’t have to be unusually proud of because it is just who HACC has been – a heart of compassion for a world in need. And – sometimes need landing in our own back yard. When we’ve had storms, tornadoes, disasters come through our city, first call I get is from Week of Compassion – are we okay? Are our people affected? “How can we help?” And help is on the way. It’s a beautiful thing and I hope we all will be generous once again to this ministry that rises above the fray of politics and controversy and simply expresses the compassionate presence of Jesus to the world. Thank you in advance for your generosity today or this week as you share your gift to this effort.
The special offering theme this year is “More than We Can Imagine.” It’s grounded in this passage from Ephesians that has just been read to fill every space of this place – from the rafters who have held its words for decades to our daily realities which is where the faith meets the road. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus had this same goal – it wasn’t enough to believe certain things – those beliefs needed to partner with our behaviors. This is not as easy as it first seems. What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. We get too consumed with our own wants. We struggle for whatever reason and back-burner the faith that once held us steady. We get jaded by the world and lose our sense of compassion for others – after all – he, she, they, my family, that group, that whatever – didn’t have any compassion for me. First rule of compassion? It’s not about score keeping.
And so Paul goes to work – skillfully weaving the belief and the behavior as essential to one another as bone and muscle must work in tandem to move the body forward. He tells of Jesus – the work accomplished in his very life and the Spirit’s work in our own lives but also this invitation to be a part of the ongoing work ourselves. Once we claim the importance of both, knowing that the energy of reconciliation is the dynamo at the heart of the universe, then we begin to see that every detail in our lives contributes (or not) to what Paul describes as God’s plan worked out by Christ. And Paul lays out clearly to his audience his own life work – to help people understand and respond to this Message. He says, “I’m not really qualified to do this work.” That alone has given me encouragement throughout my life to keep going. For who am I? Who are we? I remember sitting in the old library in this church before we remodeled – a dozen HACCers sitting around the table, interviewing me for the role of Senior Minister. There wasn’t anything senior about me – I had only begun shaving a few months prior. “Can you lead this church?” Man, I thought to myself, probably not. I can’t remember what I said though I know it was as honest as I could be – “I’ll give my best.” “With God’s help, we can do it together.” Just before our text for today, I love what Paul says. He says, “And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels.”
And then this passage we hold today – “My response to it all is to get on my knees before God Almighty – to pray for strength that builds me from the inside out – grounded in love – that I may be a force for good in this world.” And maybe what you need to hear most plainly today is his word in the 19th verse: “May you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” This is the compassion piece. Our knowledge can mess with us sometimes. There’s a place for knowledge. It should partner with, and guide, our actions of course – the intent of this entire letter – but – the love of Christ surpasses even knowledge. That love trumps all and gives us the ability to be compassionate with those who live in our own homes, those who sit among us today, those with whom we work, and even those with whom we disagree or are complete and total strangers to us. If your knowledge, which may be biased – and most always is in some fashion – teaches you to be afraid, the love Christ, compassion – is to surpass that fear. Compassion says, “Come along side. Listen. Seek to understand.” When it comes to compassion, we may do well to hear the word companion. How can I companion that person in need – a friend who is emotionally spent, a student who lacks parental support, our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters still recovering from total hurricane devastation – Week of Compassion is still on the ground there now and will be the last to leave. Who are we in Christ? We are companions and we stick with it. You may think you can’t do much? Paul is the first to debunk that. “Nonsense,” he says. “The love of Christ at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Do you believe that? Perhaps one of the biggest challenges the church faces today is that we place limitations on what God can do in our church and in our world, with and through us. We box God up. We compartmentalize church life from the rest of our life. We say things like, “Let’s don’t mix faith and politics.” I get the sentiment. But the truth is, our faith should have the greatest effect on our politics though most days, it seems like the opposite is true. We align first with our political teams and try to wedge our faith into the back pocket of that box. Our faith will never fit well when we prioritize politics first.
But if we are to be compassionate… if we are to be in Christ… we’re going to have to work harder to companion one another along the way. “How was your day?” is going to have to be a real question not just a turn of phrase. And then we’re going to have to truly listen, being generous of spirit, time and resources to see each other thrive forward. Paul would say to us the same thing he did to the Ephesus Christians – “The love of Christ is where it’s at – I can’t fully fathom it’s depth but I know that it’s worth building our lives around… but…” he would say, “…but you have to own it. You have to respond to it.” Scott Colglaizer, ministerial colleague in Los Angeles said it this way: “God can encourage you. God can inspire you. God can love you, nudge you, pull you, invite you, lure you, beckon you, but God cannot make you treat your neighbor with respect, and God cannot stop you from saying a racist, sexist remark, and God cannot stop you from abusing drugs or alcohol, and God cannot stop you from making a terrible decision with your personal life. God’s power is the power of love. Our power is the power of response to that love…” How do you respond? How will you respond today? Tomorrow? When things are great? When things are tough? When life itself is on the line?
This week brought more tension and fear to the conversation about guns and violence and mass shootings. Several days this week, local schools were on lock-down due to threats made on social media. We have teachers and administrators and others employed at our schools in the house today who went through the horror of dealing with the threats – scared students, frustrated parents, and on and on. My own kid’s school was on lock-down on Friday. The news stories of the week covered town hall meetings and students being bold and somber funeral marches to remember the slain.
One of the bright news spots I saw this week involved 24-year old, first year teacher, Marissa Schimmoeller, who teaches ninth and tenth grade English at Jefferson High School in Delphos, Ohio. The day after the Parkland shooting in Florida, Marissa knew that it would be a tough day. She was sort of dreading one specific question. Soon after her first class began, a freshman asked her that very question. “Mrs. Schimmoeller,” she asked, “What will we do if a shooter comes in your room?” Marissa has more considerations than most when it comes to active shooter drills in her classroom. She was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. Her students are familiar with the day-to-day implications of her limitations. She said, “I began on the first day of school by talking about my disability. I told them that they may be asked to assist me in the classroom – by passing out papers or writing on the board for me – and I allowed them to ask me any questions they wanted to. Last week, however, was the first time that I had to share my limitations in terms of protecting them.”
When this student asked in front of the class what they should do in case of an attack, Marissa said she felt a bolt of fear and sadness run through her body. She knew she didn’t have all the answers but she certainly wanted them to feel safe. She said to her class, “I want you to know that I care deeply about each and everyone of you and that I will do everything I can to protect you. But – being in a wheelchair, I will not be able to protect you the way an able-bodied teacher will. And if there is a chance for you to escape, I want you to go. Do not worry about me. Your safety is my number one priority.” Her students had other plans. As the words were pondered by the students, another student raised her hand. She said, “Mrs. Schimmoeller, we already talked about it. If anything happens, we are going to carry you.”
That’s what it looks like to companion one another along the way. That’s compassion in action. It’s part of what makes life brutiful. The realities of life can be tough, disheartening, and at times, downright evil. Every day, you have the choice to show up to your life or perpetuate the numbness. Know this. Our response to the brutality we encounter can make known the beautiful, compassionate, knowledge-surpassing love of who we are, who we can be, in Christ. Have some compassion with yourself – give your heart room to heal from whatever pain may seem all consuming right now. Companion others around you and see if that won’t also lift your own spirit from daily breaking points. And when it comes to giving to Week of Compassion to reach the ends of the earth with the compassionate love of Christ, may your response be that of at least one Ohio teenager this week – “We’ve already talked about it. We are going to carry you.” May it be so…
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 Ephesus community background as found in Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message: Introduction to Ephesians. NavPress. Colorado Springs. 2002.