Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Ephesians 3:14-21
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
I’m so excited that you will have the opportunity to hear from my friend and colleague, the Rev. Debbie Weatherspoon, next week as she opens a month of fantastic guest preachers. Former Epworth intern Akesa Fakava, who has completed her Masters of Divinity at Claremont School of Theology, will return the following week, then you will have the rich blessing of hearing from our own Dr. Randall Miller, with the series concluding with Rev. Angela Brown, chair of the order of deacons for the Cal-Nevada conference and member of the United Methodist Judicial Council. I’m so grateful for all of their voices, for the varied and highly impactful service of their careers, and for their faith which shows through in the ways that each of them engages life and the challenges we face as a human and Christian community.
Debbie was here working with me and the staff this week as we planned out how we will observe the sacrament of holy communion in the sanctuary on August 1, next week, for the first time in 17 months. As we talked before the staff meeting, Debbie shared a story with me about Brandon Haynes, a young man from Louisiana. Though his mother had urged him to get vaccinated against COVID, he questioned whether it was safe. He told her he’d done his research. Tragically, just recently, Brandon did contract COVID and died shortly thereafter. As his mother stood by the bedside of her son who was no longer breathing, she said she was angry. Not at Brandon, she said, but angry that he was gone, angry that there was something that could have been done to give him life.
In this stage in our lingering pandemic, there are so many emotions to deal with, many of them conflicting, especially now that we are dealing with both new opportunities to connect, and the return of some restrictions. Milestones lived in the typical ways and time with family and friends have been lost. Some of us have also lost loved ones. Grief and anger are natural responses. As we come to the end of our series, Emerge, we’re asking the question of how to live again, and not just how to survive, but how to be renewed and transformed. How to take flight. I’m reminded of a poster that my eighth grade science teacher had on the wall—“It’s difficult to soar with the eagles when you work with turkeys.” When I would look at that poster on the wall, I always thought, “I wonder which of the other teachers he doesn’t really like.” It never occurred to me that he might have been referring to us students! The lingering realties and emotions of COVID are the turkeys surrounding us now.
Our scripture today from Ephesians begins with the interesting words, “For this reason…” From this opening we are to understand that we are being given the answer to the words that have preceded. The “for this reason” references the root reality for the guidance being offered to the Ephesians. So what is this root reality? The passage Judy read begins at verse 14 in chapter 3, so we look back to verse 1 in chapter 3 and what do we find? Another “For this reason!” So we look back further in the letter to the church at Ephesus, at the two chapters that open Ephesians. There we see that the root reality is expressed in these truths: we are blessed, God chose us before creation to be blameless and holy in God’s sight, God freely gives God’s grace, we are forgiven. And why do we get to have all of this, to live in this goodness? Because God wills it. And why does God will it? Because God is good and God is love. Beyond that it is a mystery.
We are blessed. God chose us before all was created to be blameless and holy in God’s sight. Grace is God’s free and good gift to us. We are forgiven. God is good and God is love. Let these messages sink in. This is the ground of truth, the root reality that Christians are asked to live out of. That you are constantly being called to live in, embody and be renewed by.
In this series we’ve talked about the awkwardness and fear and uncomfortability we can experience as we emerge. We’ve explored the different kinds of reactions we are having to the new opportunities to connect and celebrate; and how important it is to just keep honoring each other where we are and offering love. And we’ve considered how to maintain the hard won wisdom we’ve gained, staying vulnerable and empathetic in our hearts, knowing that new challenges will come but that we can keep getting up, that God and our community will always be lifting us to rise.
And now we come to the point where we can take flight. To live in the glory of God. To embrace all of these good gifts I just named. How wonderful is that?! To live fully in the knowledge and assurance that you’re blessed. To act out of the confidence that you are forgiven, holy and blameless in God’s sight. To let grace flow in and through you. And yet we can often find this hard to do.
In the story I shared as I opened, Brandon Haynes’ mother did find herself mired in anger and grief as she mourned her son lost to COVID. How could this have happened to her beloved son when it was so preventable? But she didn’t stay in anger long. Instead she decided there was something she could do to reflect that all God’s children are forgiven, holy and blameless in God’s sight. There was something she could do to let grace flow in and through her. And so at Brandon’s funeral, she had a vaccination clinic set up. All of Brandon’s friends, many of whom held the same skeptical positions as Brandon about vaccinations, were given the opportunity to be vaccinated in his honor. And in death, Brandon became life to many of his closest friends.
Brandon’s mother, Betty Antoine, offers us the key to living in God’s good gifts for us. Instead of focusing on her own grief and anger, she took the focus off of herself and put it on others. She discerned what she wished someone had done for her and instead did it for others. This piece of self-awareness is the path to taking flight, and if we truly believe in God’s love for us, we can shift focus away from our own pain to rest in God’s mercy and grace and then focus on what we can do to serve. In this shift is life. In Christianity, we call this Resurrection.
There’s been a lot of news these last few weeks about Blue Origin and Virgin Galactica, the companies founded by global capitalists, making it into space. It’s captured a lot of people’s attention and imaginations. One writer from the news outlet Truthout reported that the time the media spent reporting on Blue Origin’s one space flight nearly equaled the amount of time spent reporting on the Climate Crisis for all of 2020! While it’s gotten a lot of hype, the space race has long been critiqued by activists and people of faith as a new colonialism, a conquest-fueled fever dream that ignores the needs of earth and the creatures on it. Blue Origin alone invested 10 billion dollars in space travel.
It’s not surprising that some commentators have referenced original rapper Gil Scott-Heron’s 1969 spoken word piece, “Whitey on the Moon” in the last month. Scott Heron wrote it in response to the first moon landing, observing to the bongo beat, “The man just upped my rent last night (cause Whitey’s on the moon), No hot water, no toilets, no lights (cause Whitey’s on the moon) I wonder why he’s uppin me? (cause Whitey’s on the moon.)”
As a human community, we can get confused and literal, and think that “taking flight” means charging into space. Sometimes, in an attempt to transcend our own needs, we can look not just beyond our own needs but also beyond the needs of others in pursuit of a distraction. That kind of transcendence is not the kind of transcendence I’m talking about here, nor the transcendence that the letter to the Ephesians points to. The way to tell the difference between true transcendence of our own egos and that which is just a distraction is to ask these questions: do I feel my body relax? Does my mind come into present moment? Do I feel the flow of God’s energy, the blessing of grace and mercy in my being? And does this state ultimately make me more aware of others and others’ needs and how I can offer life and love to them? OR do I feel somehow more competitive, more impoverished, more critical of myself and others?
One of the shows I have enjoyed watching in the past few years is the series called The Crown, which tells the story of Britain’s multigenerational royal family. I’m reminded of an episode where Prince Philip becomes enamored with the American astronauts who landed on the moon. In this same episode, we also see that Philip has lost purpose, is angry and depressed. The parallel story to Philip’s obsession with the moon landing is his spiritual crisis, the arrival of a new priest and the new priest’s request to use empty buildings on the estate to set up a retreat center for spiritual renewal. Philip is critical of the project and when asked to meet the first group of retreatants, he sighs and refers to the retreat center as a “concentration camp for spiritual defectives.”
As the episode progresses, he also has the opportunity to meet the American astronauts. He’s so excited to meet these men he can hardly stand it, but when he does have his private audience with them, he realizes they are just regular men, lucky to have an extraordinary job, but with the same challenges as any other human. He realizes that his focus on the space race as a way to transcend his own malaise has been a distraction, and the real path to transcendence was right in his own earthly backyard.
He goes back to the retreat center, called St. George’s, and begins to partner with the priest in providing a place of renewal and support for people who experiencing the same frustration, aimlessness, and depression he found himself in. He championed St. George’s being a place for people to discuss religious and secular issues. Philip himself went on to give talks on the role of clergy in society, stressing the importance of bringing together scientists and theologians to try to find common ground. In serving, he found his transcendence.
The letter to the Ephesians is a recipe for taking flight, for transcendence. And the whole point of the passage we have for today is an entreaty to go beyond ourselves, to transcend the ways that our conventional and very human stuckness can be alleviated by a refocus and an openness to the God who is always calling us into union with Godself. God is calling us beyond our unhelpful patterns, beyond the demands of our egos that keep our focus on ourselves and our needs. May we be fueled by the reality that we are blessed, and that God chose us before all was created to be blameless and holy in God’s sight. May we know God’s grace is God’s free and good gift to us. We are forgiven by a good and loving God. And in these truths may we experience our needs as met, and look beyond ourselves to meet the needs of others. This is how we are renewed and transformed, and this is how we take flight. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, July 25, 2021
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The Community Gathers...
Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & The Gathering of Spirits
Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Judy Kriege
Opening Music: "I'll Fly Away"
Judy Kriege & Cathryn Bruno
To Hear the Word...
Scripture Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21
*Passing the Peace
You are invited to turn to the people around you and bow to each other as a sign of graceful greetings this day.
Anthem: "On Eagle's Wings"
Annette Cayot, soloist
Message: "Emerge: Living in Glory, Embracing Life"
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment...
*Hymn of Response: "Many Gifts, One Spirit"
Prayers of the People:
Leader: God of transformation, People: Hear our prayers.
If you have a prayer request or are interested in longer-term spiritual accompaniment from a Stephen Minister, please email email@example.com, or send a text message with the word "Prayer" to: +1-510-588-5055.
The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer)
Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Offering Our Resources and our Energy
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
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Offertory: "Ain't Got Time to Die"
Charles Lynch, soloist
Praise be to God, who breathes the breath of life. Praise to the Christ who sets us free. Praise the Spirit whose wind and fire give power to move and light to see. As it was before the world began, is here and now and evermore. Alleluia! Praise the three-in-one whom we worship and adore.
Prayer of Dedication
To Go Forth with Love and Compassion
*Closing Hymn: "Faith While Trees Are Still in Blossom"
Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Participants: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Annette Cayot, Judy Cayot, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Charles Lynch, Gregg Richardson, Cathy Travlos.
Audio engineer: Paul Nasman
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Prayers © 2021 enfleshed.
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.