We’re in the midst of a sermon series right now called, “Is there more to life than this?” It’s a teaser for the fall when we are offering the Alpha series on Sunday nights at 5:00 pm. Alpha is a 10-week study, or conversation really, along with a video that takes place around a meal with a small group of people. It’s designed to be an introduction to the Christian faith, but it’s an invitation to anyone who would like to explore the bigger questions of life. We hope you’ll join us.
Our sermon series this month is placing several of the questions from Alpha in conversation with Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Today’s question is: How Can We Have Faith?
Story of Blondin
In the 1850s, there was a French man by the name of Charles Blondin who set out to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He had a publicist who was skilled at getting the word out, so the first time he walked over Niagara Falls, there were 25,000 people who came to see him do it! Many, if not most, doubted that he would succeed.
On the day of the event, Blondin used a 1,300-foot-long rope, two inches in diameter, and carried a 26-foot-long pole, weighing 50 pounds. About one-third of the way across, he sat down on the rope and gestured for the Maid of the Mist tour boat to come under him for a brief time. He sent down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine, took a drink, and then walked the rest of the way across. After resting a bit, he came back from the Canadian side to the American side, this time hauling an old fashioned camera — the kind that sits on a tripod and the photographer hides under a cloth as he takes a photo. He stopped and took a photo of the horrified onlookers while he walked across.
This wasn’t Blondin’s only trip across. There were some 300 times. Not everyone admired him. Some thought he was terribly reckless. He once carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire, and cooked an omelet. When it was ready, he lowered the breakfast to passenger on the deck of the tour boat.
One time he pushed a wheelbarrow across and asked, do you think I could push a person in the wheelbarrow? Of course, they said. He was skilled. But legend has it that when he asked for a volunteer, the crowd fell silent. No one was willing to trust him with their own life. Eventually, a small, old woman came from within the crowd — it was his mother — and he wheeled her across the rope and landed safely on the other side.
It’s a great story. And sometimes that’s what faith looks like. Sometimes faith means trusting that someone else is in control, stepping way out of our comfort zone, and trusting that our security comes from God instead of the things around us that are so alluring: things like wealth or status or a secure pension. And sometimes faith means challenging ourselves to take a leap of faith by doing the next hard thing in order to grow.
Context of Ephesians
Our reading today is from a letter to the community of believers in Ephesus. Ephesus was an ancient city located on the western shore of modern-day Turkey. In the Book of Acts, we read that the Apostle Paul traveled to Ephesus twice. The second time he stayed for two years.
Ephesus was having a bit of a crisis because Paul’s preaching about Jesus was persuasive. He brought new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of ordering relationships. As he told them about the power of God in Jesus, people began to believe him.
The silversmiths in town started to become nervous. What would Paul’s preaching do to their trade? He was telling people that gods are not made by human hands, and people are beginning to believe him. Their livelihood was endangered. It would become obsolete. The old way of doing things was being threatened. I have to say that sounds familiar…
There was confusion and mayhem in Ephesus. In fact, there was a risk of rioting, which, in the Roman empire, was a serious crime with the threat of punishment. So Paul left Ephesus, but not without raising the question, Where are you going to place your trust? Who is your God?
It’s a question we ask, too. “Where are you going to place your trust?” But sometimes faith asks another question. If we’re honest, sometimes the question that faith stirs in us is of a different sort. When we receive a difficult diagnosis, when a loved one dies, when someone we love leaves, the question might be: Where is God? Where is God now?
This past week, our country has been in turmoil because of two mass shootings that happened within a few hours of each other: one in El Paso, Texas, and the other in Dayton, Ohio. The question at the epicenter of the crises is most surely, Where is God now?
There have been so many mass shootings in recent years: at schools and universities, night clubs, movie theaters and shopping malls, places of employment and houses of worship. We ask why? And how long, O Lord? Why are guns so readily available, and what’s the motivation? Where is God in all of this?
Last week in El Paso, it was a massacre of Latino people. The alleged killer confessed that he set out to target Mexican people. In his young life of 21 years, he had witnessed change afoot in another Texas city where he lived, and he didn’t like the fact that the racial balance was shifting, that he was no longer part of the clear majority of people.
Twenty-two innocent people lost their lives, and dozens more were injured. Real people who were loved by their families and neighbors, people whose lives made a difference. Why, God? Where are you? How can we have faith?
We have come to a crisis in our nation, and its name is racism. It is not new, but it has its own particularities for this time. It has been articulated by leaders in high places, and last week we saw it enacted, not only in El Paso, but also in Mississippi where Latino children were once again separated from their parents. It’s dangerous rhetoric because it gives license for extreme actions by white supremacists and cruel policies by our government. But we are sadly mistaken if we think that is as far as it goes. We are misguided if we think the rhetoric is only saying out loud what has been under the surface for a small subset of American culture for a long time. The condition of being white has meant that those of us who are white have blind spots. Our experience of privilege has prevented us from seeing what nonwhite people experience. Even if we believe that the hatred inherent in racism is wrong, we have blinders that prevent us from seeing how harmful it continues to be.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians
In our reading today, Paul writes to the community of believers at Ephesus. He lets them know he’s praying for them. In fact, he lets them know what he’s praying for on their behalf. He prays for faith. He prays that the Spirit might strengthen them in their inner being and that Christ might live in their hearts through faith as they are rooted and grounded in love.
Paul addresses his prayer to God the Father. He prays not in some general abstract way, but to the Father from whom every family — every tribe, every ethnicity, every nation — on earth takes its name. Paul’s prayer is to the Creator who has made all peoples in our incredible variety, who shows no preference for one people over another, and asks that we might have faith.
Faith is a mystery. It is not ours to own or control. It comes to us through the Spirit. Martin Luther, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, says:
I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth.…
Faith is the work of the Spirit. But Paul also prays that Christ will dwell in our hearts through faith as we are being rooted and grounded in love. That as we act in love, Christ will live in us, and faith will grow.
Love means we need to listen to the voices of people who are not white, to hear their stories and their perspectives. Love means we need to hear from people whose communities have suffered discrimination and discover how the systems that work for the white majority have kept minority communities down. Love means it’s incumbent on us to listen with an open mind.
Our work is about reconciliation, but we dare not move too quickly, not without hearing from those who have been oppressed first. We might think love looks like the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. But love honors who the other one is and seeks to treat them the way they want to be treated.
This is such hard stuff. One of the existential questions of our time is, How do we live together as the human family? And one of the real crises is the migration of people — immigrants who are seeking refuge. You might have heard that the ELCA was gathered in a churchwide assembly in Milwaukee this past week, and one of the decisions the delegates made was to declare the ELCA a Sanctuary church. What exactly that means for the church at large, we have yet to learn. But a group of people from Bethlehem has already been at work thinking about how we can respond and has offered concrete ways to support the Sanctuary movement. If you want to learn more, talk to Ben or me, and we’ll point you to an information sheet available by the bulletin in the hallway or to people who are working on it.
We are not left to our own devices to figure out how to live together as a human family. God has given us to each other. Through worship and service and fellowship and all that we do together, we experience Christ’s love for us and what it means to love Christ in others — even our enemies.
We come together to learn the love of Christ. We do it imperfectly, but God is working in us. And Paul says God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
God knows the truth about our lives, about how complicated and messy our human entanglements are. But God’s plan for the fullness of time is to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth — both now in this broken world and in the promised future. For all this, we give thanks, and we join with others in giving praise to God forever. Amen.