Dear Sisters and Brothers, I’m Ronna, Ronna Case, ordained United Methodist elder in 1980 and a hospital chaplain for two community hospitals, in the southland, in Chicago Heights and Olympia Fields for the last 18 years. I’ve been attending Holy Covenant since the summer of 1991. That’s when I returned to Chicago after 15 years away. During the time away I worked as a minister in three ways: as a hospital chaplain in California (where I was born), a missionary with the Mexican Methodist church in Mexico City and the pastor of two UM churches in Bakersfield, California.
Through all those changes I have been with Ted Jennings, a theology professor, now at Chicago Theological Seminary on the southside, and author of numerous books, whom I married in 1974.
This morning, as we pray marriage blessings upon Kate and Kyle, I ask God to give them abiding passion and joy, soulful adventures, the ability to think of life from other’s point of view and the commitment and ability to appreciate and support each other. I almost didn’t get married. I affirm that people who don’t marry can be just as whole as those who do, that love and contentment can come to us whatever state we’re in. I’m also one of the people who wants to extend the rights and privileges of marriage to all consenting adults.
Still you may know, Jesus was talking about a new kind of family. Last week Rebecca brought us such a fine message from Ephesians chapter 2. It’s worthy of a visit to the church archives, at our website, to read it. Worthy too of a recap here.
Rebecca declared that from God’s point of view, there is no barrier between us and God. Everyone is already inside the household of God. People who seem to be outsiders, abused, wounded, damaged, despised and forgotten, are just as much a part of God’s family as you and I. This assurance comes from the prophet Isaiah as well as the letter to the Ephesians; Isaiah’s prophetic words, in chapter 56, are shaped into the song we sang today about God establishing a place in the temple and in the kin-dom, for those who are despised and forgotten.
Some people in Israel and in Ephesus were insulted to hear this. How could that be true? How could it be good news. Surely obeying the laws, knowing the right answers and being loyal to family and tribe should count for something. Sometimes it may make us uneasy too. Having advantages, the privilege of education, social status or economic surplus surely must give us a monument or two in the temple and a front row seat in God’s eyes.
Yet this is the good news! The awesome love of God, through Jesus Christ who is the saving love of God, goes everywhere and anoints anybody, not just us. Anybody who loves kindness and works for justice, not just us. Everyone may be a member of the royal household of God. God’s spirit crosses every border, tosses down every one of the world’s carefully constructed walls that are built, in culture and church, trying to keep us from seeing each other, knowing, loving, being in solidarity with one another.
Isaiah says that God makes a special monument honoring all the people who seem to be outsiders and therefore inferior. The love of God moves into the heart into Jew and Gentile, woman and man, insider and outsider. It becomes rooted, the love of God moves in and well, opens…a Facebook address.
Rebecca proclaimed that Christ dwells in us and is our peace, even when there was no peace outside. Therefore you and I are not strangers here, but are brothers and sisters of this One who is the Peace that lives in and between us.
Now the family of God is so different Jesus asked once, “Who is my mother?” She had come one day to look for him while he was working. In front of the whole crowd he seems to dismiss her. My mother, He answered, is the one who does the will of God. (Mark 3:33) Another time He said, in answer to a trick question posed by some of those who wanted to bring him down: Actually, there won’t be any marriage in heaven and women won’t be passed around like pieces of property (Mark 12:25). During his crucifixion he was still drawing the family circle wide. The Gospel of according to John tells us that “when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near (the cross), he said to his mother, Woman, behold your son. Then he said to the disciple: Behold your mother. “ (John 19:26)
We Christians are new creatures and members of a new kind of family. It’s a royal household composed of God’s kin folk, a family-tribe joined not by blood ties, but by a particular faith; faith in love, in goodness and hope, even when trauma, violence, and death seem to be winning. It causes us to seek God, love all people and change the world. And the head of this new faith family is Christ.
Paul’s letter to the Christian community, in the busy city of Ephesus, is an intimate and complex love letter. Paul started out a highly educated and devout Pharisee who always observed the many Jewish religious laws perfectly. He was disgusted by the message of the Jesus people and became obsessed with hunting and hurting as many of the first Jewish Christians as possible. Later, after being transformed through a difficult experience and conversion to faith in Christ, he became the first missionary to non-Jewish people. Maybe one of the reasons he went to the pagan cities and towns was because his former targets – Jewish Christians – family members of those who had died because of him – had a hard time forgiving him for the suffering and murders. Whatever complex motivations there may have been, Paul left his religious family of the 12 Jewish tribes of Israel, he went into alien territory, to tell pagans they too were members of the family of God.
He was the first to come to the city of Ephesus. The Gentile Christians there became his kinfolk and he loved them. Having heard they were having problems, Paul wrote this letter to give them guidance and encouragement.
Chapter 3: vv 14-21 is a passage to linger over. It’s a prayer actually. Paul writes that he bows his knees to God in order to pray for his Christian brothers and sisters in Ephesus. This, by the way, would have been an unusual posture for prayer for him; normally a Jewish man prayed standing or prostrated on the floor. Maybe by saying “I bow my knees” Paul is connecting with traditional way people in Ephesus prayed. Someone could research that.
And what does he pray for? First he prays that the Ephesians will get stronger through Christ’s spirit that dwells in their hearts. Then he prays that they, being rooted in Love, will understand how immense God’s love really is, and will be full of that love.
Now the minute I read the word “rooted” I think of plants in the urban garden plot I work with a friend. I brought this tomato plant to help us remember Paul’s message.
How did this tomato grow? Well, with hope in my heart and a great love of tomatoes, I planted the seed in a little bit of soil. I set it in front of my west window, while it was still cold outside. It sprouted in the dark of the soil and began to grow. After a while, loving the sun, loving the water I gave it, it put out a few jagged green leaves that smelled like tomatoes when i touch them. It was possible to understand some things about this plant. It began to reveal what kind of plant it was: tomato. I wondered just how big it would get.
Now with nutritious soil water, sun, and darkness in which to rest, by God’s grace, it will become full of the reason it was created: delicious, vegetable, red fruit juiciness on a hot summer’s day.
It is like that for us as we mature as individual Christians. Rooted in love, knowing that God loves and forgives us and not just us but the whole world, we fill up with divine love and we overflow with it, becoming what we were always meant to be, helping, bring healing to one another, having profound conversations, loving kindness, seeking justice, nourishing one another and planting seeds for tomorrow.
This image of being rooted in God’s kind of love motivated Gary Gunderson to write a book about Christian community I recommend called Deeply Woven Roots. He says many churches worry too much about their size and survival. They don’t see they were meant for service not just survival. Gunderson envisions health care as the basic work of the church.
I just went to a workshop on chronic illness. There has been a profound change in medical care over the last century. People used to die from acute untreatable infections, small pox, tuberculosis, pneumonia, thyphoid, dysentery and untreatable accidents. Today doctors and hospitals are organized to save us in acute medical crises arising from chronic illnesses, various heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, obesity and accidents.
In Deeply Woven Roots Gunderson diagnoses our root health problems as alienation, meaninglessness, and isolation of the self, which create anxiety, stress, self-destructive behaviors and plain old bad choices. He suggests that self-help books often aren’t much help because when isolation of the self is the problem we can’t find the experience we need by ourselves. Someone said Jesus was 3/3rds about healing. If you extend healing to spiritual, emotional, and to matters of the economy and culture it’s true; it’s all about healing with love.
Unfortunately, instead of healthy communities that are rooting folks in the tough and tender love of God, church ministries often plan to help people cope with the ways things are and to change themselves, to fit into a kind of life that’s gone crazy overvaluing autonomy, and individualism and undervaluing the creation of a common good.
Christian communities that become places of healthcare and service in the world are those communities that have found that prayerful humility empowers them. Prayerful humility empowers them to perform vital actions in people’s lives. Gunderson suggests they Accompany members, through better and worse, Convene to find God and each other, Connect with one another and other communities, Tell the Stories, Give Sanctuary in times of persecution and injustice, Bless one another and Pray together. And Endure.
It all begins by being rooted in love.
Love. Every child that’s born seeks it. Recognizes it when it’s there and when it’s not. Responds to it in unique and positive ways. Grows in healthy ways because of it. And withers without it. More than threats and fear, more than gifts and privileges, a child is moved by love. Needs to be rooted in love.
Christian community is about divine love living in hearts and working in lives. In Christian community we practice, hesitatingly unsure sometimes, things that root us in love. The joyful and hard things: seeing one another, listening, being a witness, a friend; praying for each other, sharing ideas and lunch, walking in the valley of the shadows together, texting, sharing fears and burdens, working on weaknesses together, cooking for strangers who become family, asking for help, singing for one another, praying, showing up, finding the time, showing up again, forgiving many things, many times, opening to Christ’s peace, being a new creature again today, where Christ lives and works. Practicing makes deeply woven roots.
Notice that this tomato has so many roots that it needs to be repotted very soon. We’re the same way, as our root systems grow in the soil of God’s love, we need more room and more soil in order to support what grows up from the roots. We need soil with essential nutrients from Scripture, focused conversations, prayer alone and with others, opportunities to serve and proclaim God’s goodness.
Ephesians 3:14-19 is a prayer …that we will be rooted in God’s immense love and then grow until we are full it! John Wesley called this Sanctification (That’s a $25 dollar word). John Wesley was one of the leaders of the late 18th century Methodist movement that began in England and, after many generations, gave life to the United Methodist church. He wrote a lot of sermons and pamphlets on health and economic issues. Knowing that sanctification means being like a fruitful tomato plant at the peak of the summer, will get you a great grade if you’re taking a theology class at seminary. Even if you are not, the tomato plant might help you remember this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
You can be the new owner of this tomato if you like. I’ll put leave it in the back for you.
Paul prays that Christians will be rooted in God’s love, will grow to understand how immense God’s love really is, and will overflow with it.
Then, at the end of chapter 3, in verses 20 and 21, Paul does something different. He comes out of his posture of intercessory prayer and begins to praise God. These two verses are one of the most beloved pastoral blessings, used by pastors over two thousand years at the end of sermons and at the close of worship.
“Now to God whose power, at work within us, is able to do more abundantly than all we can ask or even think, to God be the glory, in the church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
As we continue preparing… to say goodbye to our beloved Pastor Kate… we practice being rooted in God’s love, and trust Christ is the head of our family, the pastor who never leaves us, our peace, in a world with little peace, who dwells in our hearts and works in our lives. So we do overflow with divine love. May it be so!