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A version of this sermon was preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017 at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.  It was the first in the second summer series (on Ephesians) in the Narrative Lectionary, which we will truncate from four weeks to three as our Blessing of the Animals service intervened on Sunday the 23rd. 

Embrace slide

For my first six years in ministry, around this time every year, Kevin and I found ourselves in Delaware with up to nearly fifty youth and adults from our presbytery.  We joined in what was then a ten year tradition of annual mission trips to Delaware to engage in home repair, worship, and fellowship.  One of the rituals of this trip is Thursday night communion on the beach.  All those teenagers and adults would circle up on a beach, just after sunset, after putting in four hard days of work on behalf of families in need and growing as a community of faith in that time.  Prior to receiving communion, we would pass the peace of Christ in the same way each year- everyone there exchanging hugs with everyone else.  No one was excluded.  The social norm of high schoolers, and truthfully everyone else, those norms that dictate that some are in and some are out were transcended every year at this moment, as all were IN, in this circle of hugs.

This time-honored Delaware Work Camp tradition beautifully illustrates what it means to be a part of the church.  The church is a community of faith in which EVERYONE in included in the radical embrace of God in Jesus Christ; not one of us is excluded.  We are all tightly and warmly held in the arms of our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.

This is the testimony of our epistle reading this morning.  In grand and poetic language the early church in Ephesus is reminded who they are and, more importantly, whose they are.  You are the CHOSEN ones of God; you were chosen, not on your own merit, not because you have earned it or are worthy, but out of the sheer and abundant grace of God you were chosen before you were born, before anyone was even born, before the foundation of the world.  You are the adopted children of God, counted as one with the Son of God, Christ Jesus, and therefore you are beloved by God.  You are forgiven of all your sin, redeemed, saved by the works of Christ Jesus- you are the chosen, adopted, beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God on whom Christ has lavished the riches of his grace.  You are held in the radical embrace of God in Jesus Christ.  So it was written to the church in Ephesus so long ago, and so it is proclaimed to the church gathered on the corner of Sunset and Dosch this fine Sunday morning.  You are in the arms of God, each and everyone of you.  You are the beloved children of God.

Think about that.  Let that sink in.  (PAUSE)  You, with all your rough edges, bad habits, painful tendencies, on your worst days as well as your best, you, just as you are, are within the circle of God’s radical embrace of love and grace.  You didn’t and couldn’t earn this.  This is a gift that has been given to you freely out of the lavish riches of Christ’s grace.  You are IN.  Let this permeate your entire being.  (PAUSE)

How does it feel?  Does it feel all warm and tingly like when your mom or your dad would tuck you in at night or rock you to sleep when you were very small?  Does it feel cozy and safe like the hug of your closest and dearest friend?  Does it feel just right like falling asleep in the arms of your beloved?  How does it feel?  (PAUSE)  Get in touch with how it feels to be the beloved children of God held in God’s loving arms because this is who you are and this reality fuels our life together as a church.

Now it is possible that this affirmation of who we are and who’s we are could lead us to feel rather smug and self-satisfied.  (Sing-Song) We’re the children of God, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.  It could lead us to say- “Well, I’m assured that God loves ME and that’s all I need to worry about.”  But an embrace is not a one-way exchange..  If we are to simply sit with our arms cross our chests, smirks on our faces, we fail to hug God back.  We fail to participate in the embrace.  We therefore fail to experience the embrace that God has to offer us.

There’s something else said in the introduction to the letter to the Ephesians that helps to draw us away from a smug, self-satisfied, embrace-denying reaction.  This is perhaps the hardest language in this passage to get our heads around, let me read it to you again, and then we’ll consider an interpretation of its meaning together.  Listen again for the word of God.  “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained our inheritance having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.  So that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory.”

What does this mean?  It may mean that our chosen, beloved status has offered us a special and privileged glimpse of the mystery of God’s will, a will which includes a plan for the fullness of time, meaning a plan that is still being worked out and will continue to be worked out as long as time persists, and this plan involves God bringing ALL things in heaven and earth into God’s loving embrace.  We are among the first, in the grand scheme of things, to have a full experience of the radical embrace of God in Christ, and we are therefore, out of our profound gratitude, to live for the praise of his glory.  And what does that mean?  We are to tell people about that good, good feeling that accompanies the embrace of God.  We are to praise the glorious work of God in Jesus Christ for we may be among the first to be gathered up into God’s arms, but we are surely not the last.

We are to open up our arms and participate in the embrace of God by reaching out beyond these walls and embracing those who most need to hear a word of God’s love for them.  We must remember that the grace we have received is a gift, not based on our merit, but based purely on the vast and abundant, lavish and rich grace of God.  Therefore, we ought to open our arms especially wide to those who seem least deserving, demonstrating the wideness of the grace and mercy we have received.

The experience of the all-inclusive hug on the beach each Thursday of the Delaware work camp was not only an illustration of what it means to be a part of the church, but it was also an illustration of what it means to BE the church.  To faithfully live out our call as the chosen children of God we must embrace everyone within reach, transcending social norms, and proclaiming the radical embrace of our Glorious God. And…  just this week exactly this happened, you could say church happened, on a different beach in Panama City, Florida. …. Let’s watch a news account….

We watched an edited version of this clip… 

80 strangers, on the spur of the moment, from every walk of life, make a human chain to reach those too far out and in danger of dying… May it be so among us.


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