An Invitation to Mystery

Good morning.  I stand here today, in Alberta, who is now governed by the NDP political party.  A mystery.  I, a peace-loving Mennonite country hick, stand in front of you, an educated liberal-minded big city congregation.  A mystery.  Three weeks ago, I got birthday wishes from people living in more than a dozen countries, from almost two dozen nationalities.  A mystery.  My wife loves me. A mystery.

Ephesians 3: God’s Marvelous Plan for the Gentiles

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

A Prayer for the Ephesians

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Now I should be honest and forthcoming about my orientation to preaching and teaching.  If you listen carefully to the messages I preach, I have a deliberate way of employing the scriptures, and balancing that employment with current events and awareness.  I believe the Apostles Paul and Matthew used the scriptures in a similar way.  They believed that ancient texts had something important to say to us, and this message could be delivered within the context to which they were addressing.  Paul was especially good at this, by incorporating correction, personal history, teaching, mystical understanding, praise and gratitude, and personal greetings to unique communities, each with unique challenges.

In the last message I preached, you were invited to welcome the mystery of God’s presence in your life.  At that time, my intention was to speak to those of you who, filled will all kinds of knowledge and mixed messages of what a good life is, still feel unfulfilled.  I include myself with you in this invitation to mystery, because even though I have overwhelming moments of fulfillment, I still lapse into longing.  What we know in our thoughts we don’t experience in our lives.  What we preach from pulpits and lecture halls and in our most revered news sources doesn’t resonate in our being.

Why is that?

Now to ask the “why” question can be a type of head game.  Coming from the philosophy and social-science background that I do, to answer a “why,” it is sufficient to give a plausible explanation.  The why, in those contexts, is seemingly resolved by saying believable statements.  I have stopped believing this behaviour.  Not only is it not credible, it feels hollow.  Like listening to most commentary about events, and not participating in the events themselves.  To say we need to respect minority rights because they are covered by the Charter of Rights leads something of our experience lost.  To use Air as an example, Air is both Thai and female, and falls into the classification of “minority” with both feet.  However, when I view her as a minority, my experience of her is entirely lost.  If I continually see her through my lenses of what is Thai and what is female, I certainly won’t recognize her as she is.  I won’t give her the horizon for her to actually be.

So how can we talk about, much less experience, God’s mysteriousness? I have, for more than a month now, asked numerous people how they have experienced God working in their lives.  Some have reported about the miraculous, from healing and recovery, to provision of resources and nourishment, to forgiveness.  Uniformly, they reported blessings, forgiveness and health have been provided from unexpected, unanticipated and hidden places.  That is, God’s presence and action was revealed in a transcendent way.  It came from beyond known horizons.

Dare I say, these horizons have both internal and external reference points.  Certain aspects of what we feel and imagine are not allowed into sensible discussions of what contributes to a good life.  In other words, there is a boundary between what is allowed and what is not allowed.  There is a boundary articulated by what we call reasonable or sane.  It certainly seems “crazy” to admit that God’s universal plan, and the good life therein that we are to experience, admits alien life or that it resolves our neurotic preoccupation with our ex-lovers.  Internal or conspiracy obsessions seem antithetical to the good life.  Certain intuitions and experiences seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, to God’s universal plans or even what is material to a good life.  In other words, they belong to what we call insane!

The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians Chapters 3 & 4, certainly takes seriously the experience of God from mysterious points beyond our given horizons of significance.  When he writes, “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus…” (in v.6) Paul asserts a new paradigm and principle that was yet unrealized by the Jew of the day.  “YEP! Those WEIRDOS belong to God too!” Both Peter and Paul refer to this truth as being revealed.  It comes from outside what I have called “horizons of significance,” but has been referred to as regimes of truth or paradigms of meaning. This revealed bit of truth crashes upon us and rearranges, often destroying, our whole worldview.  To the Ephesians, whom Paul has great affection and hope, they would have experienced a closeness to God as giving them a direct experience of God’s manifold wisdom.  The grace of the story of Jesus made possible the approach of the Ephesians to God with freedom and confidence.

So our present day experience of uncertainty has an uneasy relationship with the confidence and freedom that Paul highlights.  Let me illustrate what I believe to be the core of this unease.

Whereas Paul, in Ephesians, makes plain the mystery of God revealed in Christ Jesus is the destruction of the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, we still don’t know how to relate to others in our midst.  We have trouble recognizing and embracing people who diverge in their sexual orientations and gender identities.  We have savior complexes in dealing with people and organizations that originate in the “developing” world.  We support and affirm an expanding Canadian military complex that tacitly upholds hostility.  We pride ourselves in reaping the benefits of capitalistic pursuits that come at great cost to people in our midst, to land that sustains our organic lives, and to the general detriment of our spiritual, social, and mental well-being.

The mystery of God, which is God’s salvation for all of us by acting in history, by revelation of knowledge, and by transcendence of our horizons of significance, is at risk of being forgotten.  We think it is through our work, our self-education, and our virtue, that we live the good life.  Are we that different from the one who thinks that he should lead because he is “very, very rich?”  Are we that different than those who have destroyed all sacred spaces to the retail gods of consumption?  Are we the ones who vilify those people who voted for Trump out of disdain for their so-called collective stupidity?  Or who vilify Clinton supporters for their collusion and corruption?  Do we really believe we can save ourselves?

Paul gives the alternative better than what I could when he writes, (v.16 – 19) “I pray that out of God’s glorious riches, that you may be strengthened with the power through the Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.”

What could this mean to us?

To contemplate the meaning of being filled with all the fulness of God requires an answer that is full of experience, NOT plausible explanations!  Being filled with the Spirit makes its appearance in this world, not as a narrative, but rather, as a tangible reality.  It must overflow from our connection with God, with God living inside us and possessing us.  It must not be just good deeds done out of “Christian” obligation.  It must be a response to experienced needs, an outrage at actual injustice, and in hospitality that drips with joy.  It must be praise and worship that explodes out of us, thankfulness that cannot be contained, and prayer and meditation that recognizes God within us, surrounding us, and sustaining us.

What a difference would our prayers have if we prayed like Job, whose words cannot be recognized as being said in isolation?  Can you imagine calling out God to account for what God has done?  “Hey buddy, let’s fight!”  What difference would our praise be if it broke out into dancing like King David? What difference would our response to injustice and suffering would be if it were embodied in joyful hospitality? What thankfulness would we express if we gave thanks like my friend Nahum, who basically said “God is freaking incredible!” after his wife Sandra came out of the hospital three weeks early, after an intense surgery in an act of motherly strength.  I have a hunch that the focus is not so much on Nahum’s reaction, but on the strength of God embodied by Sandra!

So my invitation to mystery today can be seen in many ways.  Let me highlight three.  First, I want to invite each person here to step outside our paradigms of sovereignty, our paradigms of control, of self, of government and to acknowledge that God is sovereign.  Let us acknowledge that in the name of domination, Canada in it’s great 150 years, has subjugated indigenous peoples of Canada and violated them to their very core via the residential school system.  Let us be outraged by the continued reliance on fossil fuels that continues to destroy our environments throughout the country.  Let us acknowledge that with all our celebration of diversity, we still hang out in our racial enclaves with condescending help towards those who come from other cultures.  Let us embrace the fact that it is through these poor and oppressed that God dwells and that by our own pride, we fail to see God in our midst.  Cast your vote, but savour life!

Instead, let us look at those around us and feel more blessed, and more connected, and more humble.  For it is by looking into their mysteriousness that God reaches us.

Second, I want you to invite mystery in your time with God.  Oh wait, do you even spend time alone with God?  Do you pray when you are by yourself.  Do you meditate quietly and let God speak to you?  If you don’t, then begin….. And begin today!  And when you do, don’t talk and petition all the time.  Take some time to listen and laugh and feel. Talk to God because God is there, and the Spirit is listening to you.  See what God says back to you.  You’ll know it because when the Spirit talks to you the message is loud and clear and rings true as soon as you recognize it.  The mystery of God permeates every breath you take, and it permeates everything you see and hear and touch and taste.  Unless it is Kraft Dinner.  I am pretty sure God has nothing to do with Kraft Dinner.

Third, I want to invite you to fellowship, to occupy and establish the Church to be a safe place to express and be yourself.  Laugh at things that are funny; be amazed at beauty in worship; and be joyful at the presence of others; grieve at real loss; wear different colored socks.  Laugh with people who are looking at other people’s socks right now. Laugh harder with those who are looking at their own socks. Eat together, drink together, share what you have, express who you are …….. And in all of it, taste and see that the Lord is good!

There is a take-away from this message.  And Paul writes it best…. 

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” AMEN.

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