Ephesians presents itself as a letter from the Apostle Paul
in which Paul is, among other things,
describing this AMAZING thing that has happened in his life.
What happened was that right at that point
that he had the WALLS of the house of God figured out, and defined…
…right at the point that he was certain of who was IN and who was OUT
…God knocked down one of the walls.
In Paul’s case, the wall was the one between Jew and Gentile.
Suddenly, this thing that had seemed so clear, so formidable
had been torn down and cast aside!
And having described that, he then says this:
For this reason I bow my knees before God,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory,
God may grant that you may be strengthened
in your inner being with power through his Spirit,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,
as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
I pray that 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.
Now to the one who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more
than we can ask or imagine—
–to God be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
[And may God bless our reading, and our understanding
and our applying these words, to how we live our lives.]
In one of his wonderful sermons[i], Frederick Buechner described a day
when he and his wife stopped by a convenience store
to pick up a few groceries.
They were in a bit of a rush, so they tore their shopping list in half,
and Buechner headed down one aisle
and his wife headed down the other.
They had hardly gotten separated before Buechner remembered
something that they had left off the list.
It was on his wife’s side of the store, so he craned up over
the cereal boxes and cake mixes and said,
“Hey…uh…don’t forget the heavy cream!”
And she leaned over the Pampers and the paper towels and said,
“Ok, but don’t you forget that you’re trying to lose some weight.”
And he responded, “Well, you only live once.”
It was then, said Buechner, that this thing happened in the store…
…this thing that, for the moment anyway, broke through his deafness.
It was a hot day, and the woman at the check-out was flushed and weary…
…but she had been listening to the exchange,
and when Buechner said, “Hey, you only live once.”
she leaned over the Lifesavers and TV Guides and said:
“Don’t you think once is enough?”
“It was a mild jest,” said Buechner,
“And I laughed a little and my wife laughed a little
and the stock boy carrying a load of boxes laughed a little,
but beneath the jest, I heard something.
“I heard a woman saying,
‘People come and people go, and I’m tired of them.
I’m tired of them—I’m tired of this,
I’m tired of myself,
I’m tired of life.
I’ll plug on through to the end,
but when the end comes, I won’t complain.’”
Buechner said, “I’m thinking how Jesus said,
‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’
but she rings up shampoo and says,
“Once will be enough, thank you.”
What Buechner heard that day at the 7-11 is what all of us can hear—
–that all around us people are wrestling with the pressures,
the weariness of life—and being overwhelmed by it.
The Bible knows about being overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed by life. Overwhelmed by sorrow.
So we hear the Prophet Isaiah affirming that we will
walk through fire and NOT be burned,
we will go where the WATER will not overwhelm…
Why such a strong affirmation UNLESS, with the Psalmist, we were likely to CRY:
“Save me, O God, the waters are coming up around my neck!” (Psalm 69:1)
The Bible knows about being overwhelmed.
It used to be when I read these sorts of passages in scripture,
I didn’t think it meant the woman who works at the 7-11.
I thought it meant someone heroic,
like missionaries or martyrs
or Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King
or Jesus on the cross…
…and, of course, it does mean that.
But it’s ALSO about what WE breathe and what WE live.
It’s about hopes and fears and dreams…
“Save me, O God, the waters every day are coming up around my neck.”
Several years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked
a bright young theologian, David Ford at Cambridge University,
if he would be willing to write a book that had
the same intellectual rigor of all his other work,
but would be about ordinary, everyday Christian life and faith.
Ford said when he agreed to do it,
he knew that he was going to have to abandon
his usual theological methodology and categories
and talk in the way we everyday people talk about our lives.
And so he began to gather groups of people
and simply ask them how they were experiencing their life
and their faith…and he said:
“I got a lot of the usual stuff, but every now and then,
there was a breakthrough of candor and honest.
When there was, people did NOT use categories
like “sin” and “salvation”;
they talked about being overwhelmed:
overwhelmed by computers,
–too much to do, too little time,
too little love, too little self-esteem, too much self-doubt.
Overwhelmed by a million things!
And this being overwhelmed, Ford argued,
led us particularly unequipped to handle sorrow and pain,
fragility and loss.
“Save me, O God, the waters are coming up around my neck.”
I’ve been thinking about that and thinking about myself
and other people in that light,
and I think he’s right.
I think, for example, of the guy in the silver Subaru
who lived in my neighborhood in Chicago.
I’d see him travel the same route into downtown…
He had a baby seat in his car.
He had a bumper sticker that read,
“My kid’s an honor student at Longfellow Elementary.”
He had a cell phone into which he yacked like a magpie
as he drove 60 on a road made for 35…
One day, I saw him weeping, uncontrollably,
as he was turning onto the Dan Ryan interstate.
In all the time we spent together, I never once had courage enough
to roll down the window and signal to him and say,
I think I know how it feels.
You have a family and a mortgage
and a job that won’t quit
and a salary that does
and a Subaru that will,
and how’d we all end up so…OVERWHELMED?!
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up around my neck.”
I’m NOT Telling you anything you don’t already know—
–that everybody in this room, at one time or another,
feels absolutely overwhelmed.
And its not that we are bad managers of time
or irresponsible with our commitments,
it simply goes with the territory of being human.
If you are going to try to be ALIVE in the world,
you open yourself up to other people’s lives and vulnerabilities
and sorrows and joys and responsibilities
and pressures and commitments—
–and sometimes it ABSOLUTELY becomes too much,
and we are absolutely overwhelmed.
Now I am here today to tell you the good news in Jesus Christ,
and it would seem in some ways that
the good news in Jesus Christ OUGHTto be
that right at the point we cry out,
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up around my neck.”—
–that God reaches down and plucks us out of the floodtide
and puts us on to high and dry ground.
And I suppose that does happen now and then.
But Ephesians gives us a DIFFERENT image.
Instead of God plucking us up out of the flood
and putting us onto dry ground,
Paul in Ephesians says that when we are overwhelmed,
to the contrary, God OPENS up the floodgates
and inundates us all the more!
…But not with the floods of pressures and demands
and brokenness and vulnerability—
–but with the great floodtide of the kindness and mercy
and grace and love
and generosity and joy
and hope of God!
We get flooded with an image of God that has some size.
“I want you to know the height and the depth and the breadth
of this thing, Paul says.
“I want you to be overwhelmed by the fullness of God.”
God overwhelms our overwhelmedness.
Now, where does this happen?
Sometimes, I think it happens in the most unexpected places…
Several years ago, Emery University gathered and held its annual commencement.[ii]
Joining the graduates was a notable list receiving honorary degrees.
Like most commencements, the graduates were NOT too—
–how do we say this—reverent, or respectful.
When the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright was giving his speech,
the students were throwing their hats in the air like Frisbees.
So it went for the honorary degree to a diplomat to Africa,
and for the honorary degree to an internationally acclaimed mathematician.
When they were giving their remarks,
the students were buzzing and laughing and joking.
And you couldn’t blame them.
Years and years in school, thousands and thousands of dollars,
the job market down, they were simply overwhelmed,
and for goodness sake—give them a few moments of festivity.
But then…there was a MOMENT when ALL of them grew still.
It was the moment that Hugh Thompson was given an honorary degree.
Now, you may not know his name.
He was, by FAR, the least educated person on the platform.
He had started college, but his family was too poor
to be able to put him all the way through.
So he dropped out of college and joined the army.
He became a helicopter pilot.
And in March of 1968, he was on routine patrol
and flew over the little village of My Lai in Vietnam.
He looked down out of his helicopter and saw an unspeakable thing:
United States troops, having lost their moral bearings in a frenzy,
were massacring babies and children
and women and old men in the village.
Well, war, as they say, is hell,
and many pilots would simply have kept on flying.
But Thompson, he set his helicopter down in the line of fire,
between the troops and the villagers.
He got out of the helicopter
and confronted the Lieutenant in charge in the name of decency.
He helped get survivors to safety.
He went over to the ditch where they had thrown the bodies
and combed through them—seeking anyone who might still be alive.
He found a little girl—who is in her 50s today—
–alive because he was pulled out of that ditch by Hugh Thompson.
He then radioed other ‘copters to come in to aid the rescue of the remaining villagers.
When he stood on the platform, at Emery University, he said to the students,
“I have no wisdom or eloquence to give you today.
I can only tell you what my parents taught me a long time ago.
It was the words of Jesus:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And the students, for one breathless moment,
were stilled by a vision of faith and humanity that had some size.
…They were overwhelmed.
Sometimes it happens here in worship,
Now, we are, as a group—fairly realistic about worship.
We know that not all worship soars.
Sometimes the sermon is flat. We know that all too well.
Sometimes the anthem never really gets off the ground.
Sometimes sacraments are either stiff or frenzied.
We know about that.
But OTHER times…something…SOMETHING breaks through.
Every now and then, by a power that is beyond our control
and a grace too deep for our knowing, the veil parts.
And in this place…we are overwhelmed.
And then, in spite of overwhelmed schedules,
and overwhelmed minds,
and overwhelmed hearts:
WE are overwhelmed with the grace and love of God!
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City,
talks in one of her books about a church she served…
about the annual Christmas pageant. [iii]
It’s a typical Christmas pageant,
except it’s not just the children involved;
they get the whole congregation involved in the pageant—
everybody in the congregation plays a part.
At Jones’ church, in fact, people beyond the congregation come and join in, too.
In the particular pageant she was talking about, they asked Reggie
if he would play the role of the innkeeper at Bethlehem.
Reggie?…A homeless person, who was on the streets around the church
and who slept many nights in the church
and had gotten to know many people in the congregation—
—had become a part of the family of the congregation,
and they asked HIM to play the innkeeper.
And they asked Joyce,
who was a part of a program at the church for mentally ill people,
they asked Joyce if she would be willing to join the women’s chorus
in singing the angels’ song over Bethlehem.
They were to be in the balcony,
and when the time came, they were to sing the angels’ song.
She didn’t want to do it.
She didn’t feel CAPABLE of doing it, but they said,
“We’ll help you. We’ll do it with you.”
And so Joyce agreed to sing in the angels’ chorus.
When the night of the pageant came,
Mary and Joseph trudged wearily
down the aisle of the sanctuary up to the inn,
they knocked on the door,
and Joseph spoke his line:
“We have traveled a long way and are weary from our journey
and we seek lodging.”
And “innkeeper” Reggie said, “Sure—come on in!”
…as you know, THIS was not the right line, and so Joseph spoke his part again.
“We have traveled a long way and are weary from our journey
and we seek lodging.”
“I get it,” said Reggie. “You can stay with me.”
RIGHT THERE…that congregation—through Reggie—
came into contact with the GRACE of GOD
that had some height and depth and breadth—
and in the SIZE of that grace—
—there wasn’t going to be ANYBODY homeless.
And THEN the angels sang,
“Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth and good will…”
And when the song had ended,
everybody in the congregation heard
Joyce’s clear voice ring out:
“I had no idea,” she said, “that I could be an angel”…
“I want you to be overwhelmed,” Paul says, “by the fullness of God.”
I want you to be rooted and grounded in love.
What better way, when the waters of life seem to rise and threaten,
what better way than to root and ground ourselves in the trust
that God will OVERWHELM us
in the ways that we most urgently need.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, HarperCollins, p.83. This sermon is indebted to the sermon of Rev. Mark Ramsey entitled “Overwhelmed”.
[ii] Recounted by Tom Long in his lecture to the Festival of Homiletics in May, 2003. Hugh Thompson died in January, 2006, and his speech at Emery, along with his actions at My Lai were widely retold in obituaries, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times.
[iii]Recounted in her book Feminist Method and Christian Theology, (Augsburg Fortress, 2000) p. 153