Alleluia People: Audacious Dreams
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 22, 2018
Psalm 25:4-10; Ephesians 3:14-21
One wanted to be a doctor. Several others wanted to be police officers or soldiers. A couple wanted to be famous singers and at least three wanted to be teachers. Under normal circumstances these would be ordinary dreams for a group of first graders. These are the kinds of dreams we want all our children to have. And by children I don’t just mean our biological children. I mean, all children. We want all children to reach their fullest potential. Yet for these first graders these are audacious dreams. These are audacious dreams because these are the dreams of the children I tutor at Alcott Elementary School in Pontiac. They are audacious because most of these children live below the poverty line and in a district that has just a 46% graduation rate. These are audacious dreams because these children are trying to learn in overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded classrooms. So. what we might ask ourselves is just how realistic are the audacious dreams of these children?
This morning we could ask the same thing of the Apostle Paul’s audacious dreams for the church at Ephesus. His dream for this church, whose members he considers to be his children, is that they are “…able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine…” That is a remarkable dream; to be able to accomplish far more than even Paul can ask or imagine. It is remarkable because the church at Ephesus was not in a place to do much of anything. Let me explain. Ephesus was the second largest and most important city in the Roman Empire. It was technologically advanced with storm water and sewage drainage. It had stone streets and massive villas. It was also home to the Temple of Artemis or Diana. The temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. People came from across the empire to worship there. Silversmiths made their living by selling small statues of Artemis to tourists (yes, some things never change). The church, on the other hand was a small, and I mean small, group of people, who had no power and no influence. They had no grand temple and were telling a story about a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a traitor to Rome. And their story that he had been raised from the dead, was for most Greeks, simply absurd. So why is it that Paul thought that this church could live out this audacious dream? The answer is because it was a supernatural, alleluia community that was rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Ephesus was a supernatural, alleluia community. What I mean by that is that Ephesus was not simply another social organization or business collective. In the Roman Empire there were a wide variety of social organizations. There were guilds which oversaw various trades such as silversmithing and tentmaking. There were secret religious societies that carried out rituals into which one had to be invited. But the church was neither of those. The church was an alleluia community called together by and empowered through the Holy Spirit. We see this when Paul prays that the church will be strengthened in its inner being with power through the Spirit. What this means is that the church is not solely dependent on its own inner resources to accomplish more than Paul can ask or imagine. The church is fueled by the very Spirit of God which not only confirms the faith of those alleluia people, but also pushes them out into the world with a message of hope, compassion and care. The Spirit grants them the courage to invite others to be part of the community and gives them the confidence they need to stand against those who would persecute them. They were a supernatural community.
Ephesus was also a community rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ. We know that in this world there are forces that shape individuals and societies. Some shape them for the worse and some for the better. Hate, violence, anger and revenge shape society for the worse by tearing it apart. On the other hand, love is the power that can bind the world together into the creation God desires it to be. This is the love that is at the heart of the church at Ephesus. I love what Paul uses to describe this love. First, he uses the image of tree roots. I am not sure how many of you have been traveling in the forest and have seen a tree with shallow roots that has toppled over. This is not Paul’s image. He imagines roots reaching deep into the earth and drawing spiritual nutrients from Christ; nutrients that create a loving community. The second image he offers is that of being grounded on Christ’s love. This image is the image of Jesus’ love being a solid foundation for a large building. For those in Ephesus, this would be a powerful image because of the foundation for the Temple to Artemis. In a sense the church’s foundation is better and longer lasting. Thus for Paul, this love that fuels and supports the church is what changes hearts and builds communities in which individuals can live into their full, God-given potential. They are a community rooted and grounded in God’s love in Jesus Christ.
So, what about us? What about Everybody’s Church? What does it mean for us to be a supernatural, alleluia community, that is rooted and grounded in love? I ask that because that is indeed what we are. We are not simply a group of people who happen to get together on Sunday mornings. We are an alleluia community that is chosen by God, empowered by the Spirit and rooted and grounded in love so that we can welcome all people. As such we too are to have our audacious dreams. We are to have our dreams of doing more than others can think or imagine. Over the years there have been dreams. Baldwin House, the first low income housing in Birmingham, a dream of Lois Poston. Another is the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care, a dream of Kate Thoresen that supports children, youth and families in the foster care system. A third, is our adoption of Alcott Elementary School. This was the dream of my predecessor L.P. Jones and Kathy Nyberg. And all of these dreams are worth continuing because they are an extension of our Spirit-driven loving community.
This morning then, I want to offer you a two-part challenge. The first is to share your audacious dreams with us. I say this because I know that many of you are involved in other audacious movements of the Spirit here and abroad. Share them with us so that we might share them with others. Second, choose a dream and engage. Choose to become engaged in Faith Communities for Foster Care, or Alcott, because, as I noted at the beginning of my sermon, there is a need for loving, alleluia people in both ministries in order that the audacious dreams of these children, youth and families, whether it is at Alcott or in Foster Care, become realities. So ask your yourselves this question, “How am I helping audacious dreams come true as a member of this supernatural alleluia community that is rooted and grounded in the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Alleluia People: A Called Community
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 8, 2018
Genesis 12:1-3; Ephesians 1:1-14
“You…you Americans. I choose you.” I can still hear the words echoing in my head. Cindy and I, along with another couple, had taken a spring break trip to Venice. One day we rented a car and headed to Verona. It was late in the day and we needed to eat. So, we were wandering a plaza filled with multiple outdoor dining spaces. I would like to say I was looking for the best place, but I wasn’t. I was looking for the cheapest. As we were examining the menus and their prices we heard, “You…you Americans. I choose you. You are always in a hurry to eat. Come here and I will give you the best meal of your life and show you how you should eat.” The person speaking was the smiling, pleasant looking, owner of one of the open-air cafes. I’m still not sure why we agreed but we did. In fact, not only did we agree to eat at his establishment, but we let him choose the menu…and I didn’t even look at the prices. In the end, we all thought it was one of the best, and most leisurely meals we had ever eaten…and still think so to this day. “You…you Americans I choose you.”
What I would like you to do for a moment is to close your eyes and imagine hearing those words, “You, you people I choose you.” But instead of imagining a wonderful café owner saying them, imagine for a moment, that it is God speaking. “You, you people, I choose you.” If you can do that, then you can understand the heart of the Letter to the Ephesians. You can begin to sense how it is that God chooses individuals to be Alleluia People. As a reminder, Alleluia People are those who through faith in Jesus Christ live lives filled with gratefulness, joyfulness and fearlessness. What Paul tells those folks in Ephesus, and tells us here this morning, is that we are Alleluia People, not because of luck or fate, but because we have been chosen by God to be so. Just as surely as Abram and Sarai were chosen by God, the Ephesians and we were chosen. In fact, he says we were chosen before the foundation of the world to be Alleluia People. And as those who have been chosen, in order that we live into our new Alleluia People lives, we are invited to an amazing five course spiritual meal that has been prepared for us that we might become capable of being the Alleluia People God desires us to be. If you are ready then, let us go to the table.
Course one is redemption. Paul tells us that in Christ we have been given the gift of redemption. Redemption is that process where a person is moved from a captivity to freedom; from being useless to useful. One of my vivid memories as a child was getting Green Stamps. Green Stamps were given away for purchases at grocery stores and gas stations. People saved them and put them in little books. My mother would always let my brothers and I lick the stamps and stick them in the books. When you had enough books, you visited the Redemption Center and exchanged them for things like toasters and waffle irons. In a sense then you were redeeming them. You were taking them out of captivity and into freedom where they could be useful and live into their toaster potential. This is the sense in which Paul used redemption. We were moved from captivity, perhaps captivity to our self-centered lives, and into a new freedom of Christ-centered lives in which we could live into our full potential as Alleluia People.
Course two is forgiveness. Paul tells us that we have been given the gift of forgiveness. What this means is that our past is our past. One of the great problems of life is that sin and sins, refuse to allow us to move forward in our lives of faith. They are like anchors, dug in, restricting our movement. Not allowing us to move forward and living into our potential as Alleluia People. Forgiveness is alike a pair of bolt cutters that snaps the anchor chain and allows us to move forward. To move more and more toward being Alleluia People.
Course three is wisdom and insight. What this means is that we can begin to see God’s purpose behind the work of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We can see in Jesus what an alleluia life ought to look like. We can see the path that we are to be taking as we live into our Alleluia Person potential. We can also see this path as an outpouring of God’s love for the world, intended to transform us.
Course four is inheritance. This is where our story connects with the ancient story of God’s people. The children of Abraham were chosen by God to be blessed so that they could be a blessing to the world; so that they could be God’s change agents working to make this an alleluia world. By our faith in Christ we have been adopted into that family of blessing and so we share in their inheritance of blessings and blessing. We become capable not only of being Alleluia People for ourselves and for our own journeys of faith, but we become those who can bless others that they might discover what it is to be Alleluia People as well.
Course five is the Holy Spirit. We have been given the very Spirit of God to live and move within us, insuring us that all that we have been given and promised in this spiritual meal will never be lost. I am not sure how many of you may remember or have seen the videos of some of the first space walks in the Gemini program. As the astronauts left the capsule, they would be tethered by a cable which provided them with life support and insured that they did not drift into space. This is what it is like to be sealed in the Holy Spirit. We are tethered to God and God’s blessings. We are insured that the life support we need to be Alleluia People will never be lost.
Even with all of that having been said, there is still one more gift we receive, and it is probably the greatest gift of all; that this meal is already paid for. Unlike in Italy where we had to pull out our plastic to pay for dinner, Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, paid the full price so that we can come to the table and feast. In fact, there is nothing we have or could pay that would make this meal available to us. Our good works cannot buy this meal. Our prayers cannot buy this meal. Our failings cannot keep us from coming to this meal. All we can do is participate in this act of infinite love.
This morning then as the communion elements are passed I hope that you will ask yourselves this question, “How I am allowing this meal, this five-course meal, to empower to me to be an Alleluia Person and to be part of an Alleluia People?”