Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.
He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.
Just by being – we are harming others.
And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…
You get the idea.
Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.
So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.
The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.
Paul says all of this made us dead.
Not physically – but inside.
Dreading to get up in the morning.
Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.
Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.
Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.
But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.
A world not ruled by the way things are.
A world instead ruled by the Messiah.
This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.
It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.
Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.
We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.
And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.
Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.
I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.
Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.
Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.
Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!
Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.
We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.
The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.
This is what John and Paul are writing about.
We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.
God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.
Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.
And we’re the people asked to participate.
That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.
We are our own judges and judgment.
If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.
But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.
That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.
John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.
But, I find it is SO hard.
Change is scary.
I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.
Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.
Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.
Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.
You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.
Yes, it is.
The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.
Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.
I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?
I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.
So Paul writes us encouragement.
Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.
In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.
And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.
Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.
The atoms of the world. And universe.
Changing the world begins wherever you are.
For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.
Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.
Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.
Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.
Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.
The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.
The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.
Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.
How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.
Pennies and prayers.
Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.
Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.
Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.
The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.
The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.
Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.
Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.
Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.
People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.
The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”
Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.
Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?