A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sermon (February 17) "Unbinding Your Soul: There's More!"

New research is in. It turns out that those who expect their marriages to be fulfilling have a higher percentage of satisfaction with their marriages than those who did not have such high expectations for marriage.

Marital science researchers say that unrealistic expectations still are not helpful. Marrying an alcoholic person and expecting her to stop drinking just because you put a ring on her finger doesn’t work out so well usually. But if both husband and wife expect to enjoy being married, researchers say that makes it happen more often than not.

Expectations affect relationships. There are many married couples who  are simply cohabiting. They know each other’s stories backwards and forwards, but neither has asked the other lately about what happened in their day.

It’s comfortable, mostly, until somebody leaves the cap off the toothpaste one too many times, and the occasional argument breaks out. But not for long. They’ve learned how to live together well enough. They’ve cut their deal. Yet they can’t tell you when their last date night was. Or when they kissed longer than just a sparse peck on the lips. Neither husband nor wife really expects anything more.

What are you expecting out of your relationship with God these days? Are your expectations high? Maybe you’ve hoped for something from God before and been disappointed. Maybe you’ve tried to keep God at arm’s length out of fear of what God might expect from you. Maybe you don’t know what you could expect from God, so you don’t even know where to start.

Ephesians is a letter written by the apostle Paul or one of his students. The letter is written to Christians in Ephesus, a city in what is now the country of Turkey. These Christians are brand-new to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they were Gentiles, which means they weren’t Jews before they became Christians. They don’t know about the Hebrew Scriptures or the gospel of Jesus.

The letter starts out by giving these newcomers to the faith some basic theology. Then Paul talks about Christian unity, and then, all of a sudden, the letter writer breaks out in a prayer. A big, bodacious, passionate, prayer. It’s a prayer for the people reading the letter. It’s a prayer for all of us too.

And the prayer is this: I pray your expectations about God will be blown away.

I pray . . .your expectations . . .about God . . . will be blown away.

There’s a commercial on TV of a man sitting at a desk. He throws up his hands and loudly declares, “That’s it! I finished it!” Turns out he was searching the internet and got to the end of the information highway.

Okay, we all know that’s not even possible! Can you imagine getting to the end of the internet, having seen it all? Ephesians tells us that this is the way it is with God. There is no way we can reach the end of who God is. There is always more, always more, to be discovered.

Madeline L'Engle said, "I do not believe I will ever reach a point in my life when I can say: ‘This is what I believe about God. Finished. What I believe is alive and open to growth!"

The prayer in Ephesians asks that God will show us far more than we can ask or even imagine about who God is. The prayer asks that we be blown away by how much God loves us, and what God can do with us.

The research is in. Martha Grace Reese has worked with thousands of mainline Protestant congregations. Through the Unbinding Your Soul study, she has discovered that God will blow away our expectations of who God is, and what God can do with us.

Discovering the more in our faith is kind of like a scuba diver diving into the ocean. No matter how experienced the scuba diver is, there will always be more of the ocean to explore.  The scuba diver always has more dives to make and more to experience.

In her vast research, Martha Grace Reese has found that we will discover more of God if we will do two things: First thing is to talk with each other for real about our faith, and the second thing is for us to pray for God to show us more.

This is exactly what Ephesians 3:18 directs us to do! Listen for the instruction to pray and talk with each other for real:

“I pray you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

The prayer is for us to know more of God’s love through Christ. But notice the prayer acknowledges that we will not come to this experience alone. It is together with all the saints that we will discover more. The saints are, of course, not the New Orleans football team, nor the dearly departed who lived exemplary lives. When the New Testament says “saints,” it simply means people trying to follow Jesus. That’s you, Saint Bill. And you, Saint Stephanie! And You, Saint Allen!

Sometimes, just like in any relationship, we saints who have been at church for a while become reasonably comfortable in our relationship with God. We have a pattern of how we pray and when we pray, like at the table and before bed. That is, if we pray.

We go to worship on Sundays and usually sit in the same pew. We show up to go about the same ministry in the church. We feel reasonably satisfied in our spiritual lives. We ask our friends at church how they are and take “just fine” for an answer. That’s the way we answer, too.

And we are, thank you, doing just fine, in essence. But we couldn’t tell you the last time we deeply, passionately connected to God. Maybe it was a long time ago around the campfire at church camp? Or maybe  when a grandparent gave us a bible as a gift on Easter Sunday? How long has it been since we last deeply connected with God?

Today marks the beginning of our church wide Unbinding Your Soul season of Lent focus.  You can pick up an Unbinding Your Soul book today in the parlor.  We have enough books for one per family. Our daily prayer journal readings from that book begin today and will conclude on Saturday, March 23rd.  The daily readings will help us grow stronger in our faith.

We also have several small groups including Sunday School classes that will be meeting over a four week period beginning next week. It’s in the small groups where we will be able to learn from each other and deepen our prayer lives together.  These small groups are designed for the long term church member as well as for someone who is new to our church.  As you sign up for a small group, think about inviting someone who doesn’t already have a church home to attend a small group with you. Let’s open wide the doors of our church for our Unbinding Your Soul focus.

We did something similar last year during the Season of Lent in which we had daily readings and participated in small groups.  Around this time last year I was at the gym and I had a conversation with a long-time member of our church.  He said to me, “I’m thinking about signing up to be in a small group but I’ve never done something like this before.”   Just when I was about to encourage him to sign-up, he kept on speaking.

“I know that this will help my spiritual life, but I’m just not sure if this is for me,” he said. There was a slight pause, and again I was about to encourage him to sign-up for a group when he continued in his train of thought.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt.  I’ll just stop by the church office this afternoon and sign-up for one of the groups.” And then he looked at me and said, “Thanks for encouraging me to sign-up.”

Well, the truth is, it wasn’t me at all.  It was all him.  He just needed someone who would listen. That’s why he decided to sign up for a small group. He wanted something more in his Christian faith. And I think that’s true for many of us.

Last year, a young adult in our church got the book that we used last year and signed up for a small group.  He says that the time in that small group helped him to experience a renewal in his faith.  Somewhere along the way, he had drifted away from the church, but thanks to that experience, he found his way back to God.

Not too long ago, he told me that he was at a restaurant and he saw someone from his small group that met last year. He said how that chance meeting in the restaurant reminded him of how much he has grown in his faith over the past year. And it all started through that small group during the Season of Lent right here in our church.

Ephesians chapter three is telling us there’s something more. More strength for our inner beings, more rooting and grounding in love for our hearts, more power for our minds. More of God at work within us.

Dawn and Joe took their kids to see the Bridal Cave in central Missouri. When the family stepped into the cave, it was a cool 50 degree respite from the hot summer day. Soon, their eyes adjusted to the cool, musty darkness of the cave. They began to follow the lit paths behind the tour guide. They listened to the guide explain the stalactites and stalagmites. They saw the stunning formations of earth all around them.

Then, the guide shone her flashlight across the great expanse of the cave. “You see that back wall of the cave?” she asked. “We estimate there’s a good mile and a half more of the cave just behind that wall.” They all gasped. They imagined the untold wonders on just the other side. Then the tour guide said, “But no one has explored it yet.”

Church, let’s go exploring.

This week, let’s ask God: Is there more? Is there more you want me to have of you? More of you for our church to have revealed to us? If we dare, let’s pray with Ephesians. Let’s pray to God: I want more of you in my life.

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