Lectionary Year B
July 30, 2000
Ephesians 3:14-21

Step VI: Contemporary Address



Last week as I was driving down I35 toward Georgetown, I listened to NPR--National Public Radio--because I was bored with all the other music stations, or better yet, "commercial" stations. Every time I turn on the radio in the car, I never hear any music but rather am bombarded with some sort of advertising. Anyway, NPR was broadcasting a feature report on the resurgence of minor league baseball in the United States. Not the kind of baseball that is played in the Majors these days, which is focused on the cult of personality and big money, but the kind of baseball like it used to be played in the good ol' days. The kind of baseball that used to be a family affair, to which you could take your kids on a Sunday afternoon. The kind of baseball that allowed you to bring your own food to the ballpark, to have a picnic, talk to your wife, your kids, neighbors and friends, and watch some ball on the side, so to speak. In short, the kind of baseball that was affordable for the whole family and fun at the same time. According to the NPR report, this is the kind of baseball that is making a huge come-back right now.

Having grown up in Germany, I really cannot say much that is very profound about this favorite American pastime. Unlike any other popular professional sport, such as hockey, basketball or football, baseball seems to be less focused on action and more on accuracy and communication. This is really fascinating. There is the pitcher, standing on the mound, his cap pulled deeply into his poker face, staring intently at the catcher behind home plate. The catcher, kneeling down, communicates with the pitcher as to how he should throw the ball by signaling various patterns with his fingers against his thigh. The pitcher nods, looks down, rolls the ball that is hidden in his glove into the right position, looks up, takes position and aim, and puts all of his body weight into the throw as he hurls the tiny ball toward home plate.

Strike! Or ball, for that matter. Watching these guys throw, I wonder how much of their success is accuracy and how much plain luck. More often than hearing the umpire's desired yell "Strike!," it seems to me they get to hear the bummer word - ball. Hours and hours of practice, sore arms and shoulders amount to a mere mixture between having a great day with a "no hitter" or simply being the goat. All knowledge about curve-balls and fast-balls might be no saving grace if the pitcher just has a bad day. The batter has to dodge stray balls in order not to get hit in the head, the catcher must eat loads of dust as the ball hits the dirt right in front of him, and even the audience is not entirely safe behind home plate. But as success in baseball is not only dependent on the pitcher but on team effort as well, even a bad day for the guy with the great arm can turn into a triumph.

At least for the team. The statistics are not quite as kind. Every strike, every ball, is recorded meticulously in the annals of sports history. There, every devoted fan can read everything about ERAs, batting averages and what not. And according to these statistics, written down in black and white, the cash value and net worth of every player is determined down to the penny. If you have a bad season and overthrow a few balls too many, your bank account will decrease accordingly.

It seems to me, however, that the most important aspect of being a good pitcher, a good professional athlete, a good professional--be it lawyer, doctor, baker, student or home-maker-- is being gifted. Hundreds and thousands of hours of practice do not amount to much of anything if one is not gifted. And even luck will only get you so far if you are not gifted.

Now, living the Christian life has quite a few things in common with being a good pitcher or being a good professional. One has to practice it hundreds and thousands of hours, day by day, month by month, year after year. One has to be "lucky," or in Christian terms "under the providence of God." And most important of all, one has to be gifted, as the writer of Ephesians already reminded us in chapter 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."

What kind of gift, though, is it that God bestows upon the Christ people, those who believe in Jesus Christ and confess Him as Savior and Lord? The apostle Paul tells us that he received the good news by the grace of God, which was God's gift to him. He knows that he does not deserve this gift, as he perceives himself to be the "very least of the saints." And he also appears to know that he is not supposed to keep this gift for himself but to hand it on, to "bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ." And as he hands this gift on, eyes that were shut are opened and the plan of the Creator for all creation that was hidden for a long time is now revealed. How all of this works, precisely, even the gifted Paul does not know. Even by practicing this gift over and over again, even under the assurance of God's providence, the gifted apostle Paul does not fully understand his gift. It is a mystery. A mystery that he handed on to the church and that the church--you and I--as paradoxical as it is, must now hand on in order to make God's wisdom known to all generations in the name of Jesus Christ. And the goal of the tradition of the mystery is to glorify God as a servant of God's people.

This almost reads like spiritual stretching exercises, don't you think? Like a pitcher who has to train his arm in strength, accuracy and endurance, we, as followers of Christ, as the gifted ones of God, must do something that is very similar. However, we don't practice like a pitcher in a standing-up position, but by prostrating ourselves. If we do our spiritual stretching and practice exercises right, if we live our Christian life "professionally" so to speak, we continually bow our knees before the Father for receiving the gifts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. This is pretty exciting stuff. God has equipped each and every one of us with a special gift. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, some of us are gifted with uttering wisdom, others with knowledge, others with faith, with healing, with discernment, with hospitality, etc. But no gift is worth more than another, for all gifts come from God. The purpose of the variety of the gifts that we have, that Louise has, that Jim, Joe, Peggy, Sue, Res, Toothie, Bob, all of us have who are assembled here this morning, is one purpose only: "It is the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, the length, the height and the depth" of this mystery that we have received. Perhaps it was a personal experience that led most of us to Christ, but it is the communal experience as church, as the congregation of Sunrise Beach, that helps us grow in our understanding of what it means to follow the One who has called us by name.

By practicing our individual gifts and the gift of togetherness over and over again, we will strengthen and hone our particular gifts like a pitcher will strengthen his arm and hone his accuracy. And as every good pitcher is proud of his achievements, we too take pleasure in flexing our Christian muscles and are pleased with the progress that our Christian life is taking as we continue to grow in Christ. But this is only part of the story. Getting better and better at what one does has a trap door built in that opens and pulls the rug out from underneath our feet when it is least expected. Getting better and better at how we handle our gifts, and to be exceedingly proud of our achievements, has a theological name that is almost forgotten in our day and age: it is called the sin of pride. To be proud is fashionable these days: we are Austin proud, gay proud, proud parents of our honor students, and on and on. And to sin is more associated with eating one sugar cookie too many, thus committing the unforgivable sin of the nineties: high-calorie-intake. But to sin is to miss the mark, to throw curve-balls and 90 mile an hour fast-balls and miss the catcher behind home plate.

I am sure you have seen many a person in your lifetime who was proud in a similar fashion, or "full of it" as they say, who was full of him or herself. And I am sure that you can also remember a time in your life, as I can in mine, when we joined the ranks of the "full-of themselves-ones." Teenagers in general have a tendency to think that they are invincible, that they will live forever. Grown-ups in our society have learned that it is necessary to work themselves half to death in order to provide for themselves and their families. Work-out schedules demand the daily trips to the fitness studio in order to stay in shape and shape the body. People read the Bible feverishly and with such devotion that they end up worshipping Scripture instead of the One who gave us the good news as a gift. We are all "full of it." And all the time that we spend in practice, hundreds and thousands of hours, we do it with pride, we do it standing up. And not as Paul advised us in the first verse of the passage that we read today, on our knees before the Father.

As much as we try to perfect the gifts that have been given to us, we still miss the mark. We might become semi-professional pitchers, but we will still hit others with the balls we throw, we will still throw balls in the dirt or throw it into the stands. We are simply not capable of throwing the perfect pitch. Not with all the practice in the world, and not even on an extremely lucky day. This is why we need to be continually on our knees before God the Father and before nobody else. If Bill Clinton, and with him our society in general, were our judge, we would be thoroughly out of luck. Three strikes, you're out! This is today's motto of our political leaders when it comes to judging criminal actions. I bet--and I wager that it is a safe bet--that all of us have committed more than three sinful acts in our lives, and I am not talking about eating too many "sinful" cookies either. Three strikes against us on our spiritual account and we're out! Boy, if that were God's policy, we'd all be in big trouble. How good it is to hear God's good news and to receive it as a gift that we are forgiven in Jesus Christ: not seven times, not seventy times seven times--with God there are no ERAs or batting average statistics. We are forgiven, period.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God." What a gift this is. It is a gift of "immeasurable greatness of God's power" according to the "immeasurable riches of God's grace." The writer of Ephesians does not seem to be able to find any words big enough to even come remotely close in describing this gift. For this reason, on account of this gift, Paul is continuously on his knees and implores us to be on ours with him and all the saints of all times and places. To know about God's great gift given to us in Jesus Christ, to know that through Him we have received our name, should be enough. We do not need to surpass anything for Christ has already surpassed everything for us. It is Christ who strengthens us in our inner being. It is Christ who dwells in our hearts and in whom we are grounded and rooted in love. And it is this love that is the perfect pitch, which never misses the mark of our hearts. It is this love that is thrown over us so as to cover all our pretentiousness, all our highly esteemed human knowledge so that we are not full of ourselves anymore, but in order that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Perhaps this is a thought or a feeling that disturbs us so deeply. To be filled with all the fullness of God. How can God, who is so holy, so pure, so good, so anything unlike us, desire to fill us with this fullness, we, who are so unholy, so impure, so unlike God? Most of us are pretty inept when it comes to receiving a gift graciously. We like to give presents because giving presents is under our control. But we do not like to receive gifts because we cannot reciprocate, because receiving is beyond our control. But that is exactly what God's love is: a gift for which we cannot reciprocate, a gift beyond our control.

A few years ago my grandmother on my father's side died at the blessed age of 85. The last two or three months before her death we spent a lot of time talking together. She told me that she missed her husband, that she was looking forward to seeing her parents again, that she talked to them occasionally. At first, this kind of talk made me a little uneasy. But the more we talked, the more I knew that she was not just fantasizing. This expectation of reunion with her loved ones was a reality for her, as it is for each one of us. Death was not a scary thing for her, she had welcomed it as a friend. As strange as this seemed to me at first, looking back it now makes perfect sense. I remember one conversation most of all in which she said: "Now, when I'm gone, I want you to have my down comforters. They are good comforters. I know you always have cold hands and feet, and they will keep you warm." Strange again. "Yes, grandma," I said. I do sleep with her comforters now. They are good comforters and they keep my cold hands and feet warm (at least in the few days of winter that we have here in Texas). Like a blanket of grandmotherly love, they wrap me every night. How can I thank her for this precious gift? I can't, she is gone. But perhaps I can remember her in my prayers before I go to bed at night. Perhaps our prayers of thanksgiving are the only way we have to acknowledge all the gifts that we have received from our Lord, for which we can give nothing in return.

Let us pray!
Gracious and ever-loving God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, now to You who by Your power at work within us are able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to You be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. AMEN.

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