A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 5, 2011.
Psalm 93:1-5; Ephesians 1:15-23
Have you ever had someone give you a backhanded compliment? You know, something like, “For a fat person, you don’t sweat much.” That sort of thing? Or they say something pleasant to you, but then temper it with a remark that is not so nice, that has a veiled but not-so-subtle commentary to it?
The operative conjunction in such a situation is the word but. “I really like that suit, but it would look better with a nicer tie.” “You have such a pretty smile, but it would be even better if you got your teeth fixed.”
That appears to be what the Apostle Paul does when writing his letter to the church in Ephesus. He pays them a compliment. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” he says to them, “and your love toward all the saints...” Oh, how nice. He doesn’t use the word but. However, with the next movement of his pen he does say, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him...”
Does that mean that Paul thinks they are lacking in wisdom, and that they do not know God? Is Paul trying to be subtle while at the same time getting his message across that they have a long way to go in being the kind of church that he thinks they ought to be?
It just seems like Paul is never satisfied, not with the level of faith he finds in others, nor perhaps even in himself. Over the years biblical scholars have attempted to interpret the meaning behind Paul’s words (not just this passage but all his writings), and in doing so they can’t help but also perform psychological surgery in an attempt to figure him out. Virtually everyone of them would tell you that Paul, at the least, was a complicated, if not conflicted character, and you have to take this into account if you plan to take him at his word and determine the meanings behind what he has to say.
I would imagine the church folk over in Ephesus looked at him that way, though we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that they held Paul in high regard and had a deep affection for him. He may have felt the same toward them, but that doesn’t keep him from having high expectations of them and of their faith, expectations that are grounded in his understanding of who God is and what it is that God wants to accomplish through his people.
After all, listen to the language, to the words, Paul uses in describing God’s ultimate purpose. He speaks first of the hope to which God has called his saints, then refers to the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among those who would give their lives to him. He talks about the immeasurable greatness of God’s power – “for us who believe,” he says – which means, as I take it, that Paul believes God is willing to share his greatness and power with us. He tells of how God has endowed Christ with all these wonderful attributes and then he refers to the church as Christ’s body, “the fullness of him,” Paul says, “who fills all in all.”
And while you let these words rumble around in your mind and heart, you get the distinct feeling that Paul doesn’t think the folks in Ephesus have gotten there yet. They’re still a long way from that wisdom and revelation he is talking about. They’re not yet the kind of church he thinks they ought to be.
Paul is rather relentless, isn’t he? He has these high expectations for the church and for himself, and he’s never satisfied with what he sees.
We could argue all day long about who put Paul in charge of such things – which, I’m sure, not a few of the early church leaders wondered as well. But give Paul this much: he let the folks in those churches know what he expected, and in no uncertain language told them how to behave, and at the same time expected that kind of faith from himself... while all the time admitting that he fell just as short of the goal as did they.
He was the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), he admits, and while we might be tempted to think he is being overly or even dishonestly modest, we really must take him at his word. Only he knew what was really in his heart.
But if Paul were here today, watching, observing, listening – judging! – you and me and how we do church, I would probably be the most uncomfortable person in the house. Paul provides the church at Ephesus a vision of how he thinks things ought to be – of how God wants them to be – and we all fall short of it... by a long shot. The church in Ephesus did back in Paul’s day, and we do now in ours.
Which may be why some folk have given up on the church.
We’ve got five Saturdays under our belt with the Farmers Market. Have you been by yet? Even if you’re not into locally-grown, organic, healthy foods, and prefer all that preservative-laden stuff at the local supermarkets , you ought to be here just for the experience. I’ve met a number of our neighborhood residents who, without the market, would saunter by our doors unnoticed. Now, we have the means by which to engage them in conversation. Inevitably, in the conversation I’ll ask where they go to church. My very unscientific analysis is that at least seventy-five percent of those I’ve queried tell me they’re not going to church anywhere.
Does that surprise you? I admit it has surprised me.
It’s not that they don’t have church backgrounds. In fact, they represent just about every denomination known to humankind. But they’re not going to church, not now at least. Some have just re-located and haven’t gotten around to it. Others – and I’ve had plenty of these conversations, let me tell you – have been burned by the church, and though they’ve been nice about it, and have indulged me kindly and patiently, they either tell me or leave me with the impression that they wouldn’t be caught dead in church.
And do you know why? Because the church, in their experience, has not behaved like the body of Christ.
In fact, on at least two occasions I have had people describe themselves – now please don’t shoot the messenger; I’m just relaying what I’ve been told – as recovering Baptists.
If anybody around here is really and truly looking for a church, what kind of church do you think they’re looking for? I think I can tell you. I may not have the certainty of Paul, but from my experience I have a pretty good guess as to what people seek in a church, if they seek a church at all. Other than the obvious, they’re looking to have fellowship with, and to share life with, people who show some sign of having been changed by the experience. Not holier-than-thou, let me tell you, but who accept people as they are and not for what they’re expected to be, who love the unlovely and are even willing to be uncomfortable around some folk if necessary for the benefit of the kingdom. These folks I’ve talked with want to rub elbows with those who genuinely represent what and who they understand Jesus to be. And in their varied experiences with church, they just haven’t found it.
It’s not that they’re looking for God. They feel their level of faith to be as good as anybody’s. It’s that they’re looking for God’s people with whom they can genuinely and authentically share their lives and their faith.
So let us make our confession now. Like the church at Ephesus, we have not lived out a spirit of wisdom and revelation, we have not revealed the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. Like Paul readily admits, we have all fallen short. Paul has good reason not to be satisfied with the church, and if that is true of Paul, how do you think Jesus feels about it?
Are you familiar with Anne Lamott? She is a recovering alcoholic who writes books, mainly novels. She’s good enough that she’s become quite famous for her efforts. And she would fit right in, here in Hillcrest. Several years ago, Lamott re-discovered her Christian faith. In a 2003 Christianity Today article she refers to herself as being really Jesusy,1 though since that time she has openly and publicly struggled with her faith. Yet, her struggles are not so much with her faith as they are with church. It didn’t start that way...
She tells of walking into a Presbyterian church across the highway from where she lived in the San Francisco area. Hung over and desperate, she says, they didn’t try to get her to sign on the dotted line. They just let her sit there. “The air was nutritious,” she says, “because there were people who had put their money where their mouths were and they’d done the work of social justice and they were true believers.”
“I’m a terrible Christian,” she admits, “and meditating is very hard for me, and I do it. I do it badly, like I do a lot of things.”2 Does that sound familiar? If we were to be honest, that would be our testimony as well, wouldn’t it? Well, there are a lot of Christians out there who also do it badly, but are still seeking a place like ours in which to do it.
We can easily dismiss her as a radical, however, someone who obviously is addictive in her personality and can’t be satisfied with anything that is institutional in any way. But here’s the real truth, as I see it. We now live in a fast-paced world that thrives on Facebook and Twitter, for whom e-mail is just as archaic as what is referred to as “snail”-mail. The people who live in our neighborhood want information and they want it now, and they know how to get it. They are willing to give the church a try, but the church had better deliver and it better deliver fast or the church will lose a large number of these folks because they have short attention spans.
I know, I know, that cuts against our grain. It certainly does mine. After all, I feel like I’m just now getting the hang of e-mail. And building relationships, which is key to doing and being church, takes time and patience. But, folks, that is still the world we live in, the world we have created.
Which may be why Lamott is taken with a minister named David Roche and his Church of 80% Sincerity. Let me tell you his story. Now in his mid-to-late fifties, he was born with a huge benign tumor on the bottom left side of his face. Surgeons tried to remove it when he was very young. In the process, they removed his lower lip, and then gave him such extensive radiation that the lower part of his face stopped growing, leaving him disfigured and covered with plum-colored burns.
This created problems for him when he was young, and especially, as you can imagine, when he was a teenager, trying to fit in socially. He was once smitten with a girl named Carol. It took him months to get up the courage to ask her out, but when he finally did, much to his surprise, she said yes. They went to the movies and then sat on his front porch swing. He tried to put his arm around her, but just couldn’t do it. So they talked, and talked and talked. He wanted to kiss her, but was too shy to ask. He was afraid it would be like asking her to kiss a monster.
Finally, she said, “I need to go home now,” and he said, “Carol, I really want to kiss you.” And do you know what she said? She said, “David, I thought you’d never ask.”
For him, it was a moment of true grace. To cope, he developed a latent sense of humor and became an entertainer. This is the way Lamott explains it... “From this experience, he built a church inside of himself. There is no physical church, but his own life: both his performances and his work teaching people to tell their stories, their marvelous, screwed-up and often hilarious resurrection stories. Voilà: a church.”
And this is what Roche himself says, “Eighty percent sincerity is about as good as it’s going to get. So is eighty percent compassion... So twenty percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.”3
I wonder if Paul would be satisfied with eighty percent. Probably not, but perhaps Jesus would. And after all, the church is his presence, not Paul’s. There may even be times when Jesus will take twenty percent, when he will take anything good and worthy from us at all.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” Lamott says. So perhaps rather than seeking to be perfect, we should simply try to be as genuine as possible, understanding that no matter how hard we try in church, “we will always mess some things up.”4 It wouldn’t hurt, at the same time, however, to try to be just a little bit more like Jesus. After all, being Jesusy covers up a multitude of sins.
I’m convinced that every once in awhile – maybe even twenty percent of the time – we really are the presence of Christ. And if Jesus is willing to take what we give, in his hands that just may be all he needs to change this world in which we live.
Lord Jesus, be in us and with us everywhere we go. And help us, as well, never to be satisfied with our faith, so we might always hunger to be more like you. Amen.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (http://www.davidroche.com/anne-lamott/)
4Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 140.