I was at a meeting with leaders from Beacon last week. We opened by listing hallmarks of a great leader: Courage, Perseverance, Accountability, Integrity, Stamina, Resilience, Humor, Honesty, Collaboration, Vision, Inclusion…

And the one that stuck with me all week, thanks to this text, is heightened attention for Gratitude and Joy.

The church in Ephesus has gathered together to hear this letter read aloud, a word about who they are and whose they are, a blessing for the uncharted territory in which they live, a remembering of their bodies and Jesus’ body for the sake of something much bigger than anyone can accomplish alone.

Ever since I heard about you, I have not stopped giving thanks and remembering you in prayer.

And then the letter cuts through the paranoia, shame, trauma, and fatigue to articulate what’s actually true. What really matters. Who they are, already and always.

It’s funny that our truest identity can be so easily buried in the noisy chaos of more tempting and cruel accounts — and that so often self-talk and personal piety only make it worse. How strange and wonderful that our psyches are designed to rely on the external word, the voice of another knowing and loving us, making a way where we could not.

This letter is filled with grace for the grey — those muddled seasons in between: death and new life, occupation and freedom, mystery and revelation; the befuddling arithmetic of paradox: sinner and saint, already and not yet, a table big enough for both Jew and Gentile.

It reclaims them for the hard and good news of being Christ in a world that rejects suffering, vulnerability, humility, and mercy as signs of weakness and defeat.

It restores them to the fullness of a call to show up as gracious guests in the tension and need of others, to consider the kingdom’s will before their own personal interests, to trust that God does not need their good works — but their neighbors sure do.

It reforms them for a vision that is not limited by budgets and buildings, culture or comfort zone; molded into a new life that looks like the fullness of the Risen Jesus, that sounds like a people who are filled with hope that comes from heaven.

Ever since I heard about your faith and your love Ephesus, I have been giving thanks for you. I can’t stop remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking God to give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so you never cease growing in relationship with each other and our maker. I pray that your hearts would be open to the big, audacious call of discipleship and the power that comes when we peel back the veneer of this world’s false promises and reveal the ways Jesus’ resurrection still lives among us. 

I thank God for the ways we are connected by a divine love that does not fail, a holy power that is at work in every time and place thanks to salvation that never stops setting people free from our human oppressors, our earthly suffering, and our too-tiny imaginations. I know this because I write from prison and do not despair because we remain one body thanks to Jesus and his crowded table, where there is forgiveness, fullness, and life for everyone.

I bet you could hear a pin drop in Ephesus. They didn’t know they were starving for this word until they heard it proclaimed into the mess of their actual church and lives and family and work and daily grind. And they feasted on it, reading it over and over again until they returned to their actual selves, the fullness of Jesus’ power within them. They came back to life, into the fullness of Christ’s body, thanks to this prayer.
You could hear a pin drop while I read and re-read this passage all week. This is the good news, the audacity of faith, and the confidence of call I need for this moment in national and global history — while political parties play tug-of-war over the label ‘Christian,’ while the world’s poorest migrate in search of peace and freedom, and while the wealthy drink deeply from the wells of paranoia and fear. While we cherry-pick our news and facts and sense of reality.

It is weary work to live in the in-between and the paradox. This interim season of church uncharted has stretched decades and we are still wondering what will become of us. Our senses are tired, our voices are hoarse — either because we have been shouting for so long or because we have not found them quite yet.

But this is where the church is called. And this is where God loves to show up.

Re: Churchwide resolutions about sanctuary and liberation. While our church body, the ELCA, has a hierarchical structure, we are congregation led. That means that when the assembly makes a statement, it’s only words until congregations figure out what to do with it. Every congregation and community will find a unique way to wrestle with this, to discern this biblical call to live and serve beyond our human categories for the sake of God’s power and imagination.

It is a holy reminder that our neighbor’s struggle is our business because God is making it our business.

A few examples of real congregations figuring out what’s next:

  • We will speak up when we hear people using dehumanizing language because migrants are not illegals, aliens, or an infestation, they are human beings who deserve dignity and basic human rights.
  • We will build connections with Latino congregations in our community to make sure they feel supported and seen in the midst of the unknown.
  • We will work together with local law enforcement and non-profits to learn how we can help communities of color stay safe and part of the wider community when fear and prejudice pressure them into the shadows of society.
  • And we will trust that the church can accomplish infinitely more together than we can alone, especially in the in-between and paradox, moments ripe for incarnation and God’s sneaky liberation.

The spirit of this letter to Ephesus matters. Even here. Even now.

Blessing

God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
God bless you with tears to shed
for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain into joy.
And God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe you can make a difference in the world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness to all
in the name of God our maker, redeemer, and holy accomplice.
Amen.