Sunday, January 04, 2015

Second Sunday after Christmas

Ephesians 1
11 In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, would be to the praise of his glory. 13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.

There’s a good chance it’s the first thing you ever inherited.

You turned up a card to see the rather bewildered expression of Mr. Monopoly, arms raised, with the message, “You inherit $100.” And when you saw it—whatever age you were—the sum likely seemed strange. If you get $200 for simply passing GO, why would you get excited about inheriting half that amount?

And what about the odd suggestions illustrated on the card? Pressed toward Mr. Monopoly are three cards with the words Buy a Yacht, World Tour and Rolls Royce. I may not have been the brightest kid in Mount Albert, but even I knew that $100 in depression-era America would not buy a yacht, a world tour or a Rolls Royce.

And what about this Mr. Monopoly, what’s his deal? One minute he's striding toward GO, then he's on crutches, then he's being carried off to jail, and the next thing you know he's sprouted wings and he's getting out of jail free.

And would you be surprized to learn that this former jailbird’s name isn’t even Mr. Monopoly? That’s right! In 1946 he appeared in another Parker Brother’s game, this one called Rich Uncle. It was then revealed that his name is Rich Uncle Pennybags. It turns out he’s the 6th riches fictional character in the world—according to Forbes Magazine—right between Jed Clampett and Bruce Wayne. Ask me later who tops the list.

Two more surprizing things about Monopoly before I get back to whatever’s supposed to happen up here: There actually was a Community Chest in the 1930’s—it’s now known as The United Way—and the game itself is considered highly ethical. In one of the better bits of irony, the game appears in the list of ethical gift suggestions owing to the fact that it’s union made in an American factory. I’m not sure what Rich Uncle Pennybags would make of this.

So now you’re thinking back fondly to the time you inherited $100. Maybe you’ve inherited more that $100, or some non-monetary items, and I think you will agree that whatever is inherited is usually a mixed blessing. Maybe it’s an item that was passed in to you and you must maintain it to pass it on to the next generation. Maybe it’s something less tangible, like a trait—colourblindness or crooked teeth—that you wish you had never inherited at all.

Through it all, an inheritance is a metaphor: something we receive from others. But even that doesn’t fully define it. It is something we receive with unique intent, the intent that it will somehow have meaning to us, or enrich us in some way.

I share all this with St. Paul in mind, who reminds us that faith is something we inherit:

13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.

I’m never sure if Paul makes these things convoluted, or the translators make them convoluted. I can tell you that after reviewing half-a-dozen translations I wasn’t further ahead in trying to understand this passage. The best way, it would seem, is to break it down.

1. You heard the word of truth
2. (the gospel of your salvation)
3. when you believed in Christ.
4. You were marked by the Spirit,
5. the down payment of our inheritance,
6. to return to God’s possession.

Or to put even more simply: hearing and believing, the Spirit marked your return to God. This, then, is our inheritance: life in the Spirit as a sign of belonging to God, now and always. And the response: to praise God’s glory.

Three times in this short passage we are reminded to praise God. Maybe reminded to not strong enough: we are implored to praise God. At the beginning of the passage he uses another metaphor—adoption—and insists we were selected by God from the foundation of the world. The obvious response is to praise God’s glory.

Next, a reminder that we were predestined to believe—though the unfolding of God’s plan—and for this we should praise God’s glory. And then the end of the passage, which I shared a moment ago: marked by the Holy Spirit as God’s very own, we ought to be moved to offer praise to God’s glory.

It is important to note the extent to which offering praise to God is a counter-cultural act. When we get the two-part summary (and Great Commandment) that says ‘love God (etc, etc) and love your neighbour as yourself’ it is the latter part that makes sense to the world. Even if you are not predisposed to love your neighbour, it makes sense. Religions are by their very nature ethical, and even the most irreligious person can understand that faith should require people to do something, and often something they might not naturally do, like love their neighbour.

The former, praising God’s glory, is harder to understand. And this lack of understanding usually comes in two sizes: the need and the purpose. So let’s start with the need. People often say something like ‘why does God need all that praising? Isn’t God big enough or powerful enough to get by without our praise?’ The first answer is ‘we can’t know.’ The Bible provides a rather mixed picture on the question of whether God needs our praise, but is pretty clear that God deserves our praise. The author of all that is, the source of every blessing, the source of mercy and compassion: God clearly deserves our praise.

So what’s the purpose? What good will it do? And this is a frustratingly simple answer: There is no real purpose. It will not bribe or compel God, it will not redirect or thwart God, it will not earn us a thing. In the very eloquent words of Dr. Marva Dawn, praising God is a “royal waste of time,” something she meant in the best possible way.

What she means is that praising God has no practical value in the world’s eyes. It won’t do anything that makes sense to the world out there: it is simply something that we feel compelled to do. We are richly blessed: praise God. We are bowed by not broken: praise God. We have the gift of companions on this journey: praise God. We have a world of hurt when we chose to walk with others this earthy way: praise God.

Our greatest inheritance is a community of faith where we gather to praise God. We have found each other, we encourage each other, and we prompt each other to continue praising God in this place. We can do no other.

When this street was little more than a portage people were praising God. When all of this returns to dust people will be praising God. We received it and we pass it on. Faith is something we receive with unique intent: the intention that we will praise God and pass it on.

A couple of days ago, the Globe featured an interview with Emily White, the author of the book “Count Me In: How I Stepped Off the Sidelines, Created Connection, and Built a Fuller, Richer, More Lived-in Life.” Read the title and maybe you’ve read the book. Her thesis is simple: The world says ‘be more self-reliant’ when we learn again and again that human’s need each other, we need to connect.

She says: “I’m not sure any generation before ours has encountered, or been forced to accept, the same level of aloneness as us. Sometimes the aloneness is glamorized...and other times it’s deplored...but either way, it’s not challenged. There’s not a whole lot in our culture urging us to join together in real, in-person ways. We can tweet, but we’re not encouraged to meet.”*

In her book, she give herself the “belongingness challenge” of finding others. She joined an animal welfare group, took up community gardening and went to church. She then describes how her life was changed by engaging with others outside the private realm.

Notice that two of the three things she joins (worship, community gardening) are part of our life at Central. In another counter-cultural act, we have been busy joining together in real, in-person ways all along. The urge to gather makes us human, makes us whole, makes us God’s heirs: inheriting the redemption that comes when we find God and find each other, and to God be the praise. Amen.



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