Joe Neville

Ephesians 1:3-14




Rip Tides


It's summer, and I am a creature of summer. I love the long days and easy nights with soft breezes and mild Western sunsets. I also enjoy the less hectic pace of life in the office, although you wouldn't know it this weekend, with discussions with our enthusiastic Acting Associate minister, this worship service and personal decisions!  None the less, it's summer and many of us are on vacation or getting ready to start one.

This text reminds me of a game I played some years ago when I was a youth minister in Winchester, MA. Have you ever played Capture the Flag? I played Capture the Flag at various parishioners summer homes in Gloucester, MA, Maine and New Hampshire, 70 some odd young people, cookies and youth advisors. It's a game where there are two teams and two flags. Each team hides the flag in the woods and there are color guards around it. The guards protect the flag with their lives.  If they are found, they must surrender the flag or run for their lives and not get tagged.  Of course, most of the time the color guard runs for it with the flag, but every now and again, they realize how futile it is and they surrender on the spot.

Paul, the writer to the Ephesians, has surrendered to the life he believes is in Jesus Christ and he encourages the same kind of surrender for the people at Ephesus.  Paul is literally swept away by the wonder and grace he experiences in Christ. He reminds us of an earnest, if not brilliant, divinity student coming to grips with her own theology and love of God.  Paul writes of believers having access to the heavenly places, God's work of election and predestination, grace, revelation, divine inheritance and the promise of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer — all in the first chapter!

I am almost envious of Paul!  His convictions are solid; he is so sure of himself.  He is a man with a mission.  He opens his mouth to speak and knows everyone will listen.  He has surrendered his whole being to Christ and has held nothing back.

For us, surrender is a dirty word.  It means giving in, giving up, waving a white flag and walking out with our hands up in the air.  It means defeat and with defeat comes shame.  Surrender is not about being powerful, in control, number one or the winner.  Surrender doesn’t show up in our American vocabulary very much.  And when it comes to religion or God, many of us wince at the thought of giving up without a fight.  Surrender, especially for Christians who desire more than a fundamental faith, can be difficult.

The idea of surrender to God in Christ doesn't go down well with good Congregationalists and thoughtful people.  We want a thinking faith.  It would be very difficult for us to surrender our need for reasoned thought and thoughtful reason.  In fact, one of the tenets of our denomination is that everyone is invited to come to God out of our own study, understanding and intellectual comprehension of God's presence in our life.  So the first question of the reasoning Christian is always, "To what or to whom do I surrender?"

The question itself might be a smokescreen for our longing and our desire to know God.  We long to give ourselves to something, that is what life is for, but it is hard for us, especially in this culture, to trust in the intimacy required for embracing our faith and loving God.  To be intimate, we have to reveal who we genuinely are, our defenses are lowered and we become open to the possibility of being accepted or rejected by others and by God. No wonder the idea of surrender to God is a difficult one!

We have to be careful what we surrender to. There are a thousand false gods: the idols of the market place, idols of power and politics, idols of security, and they are all competing for our loyalty. Prime time television is full of images and gimmicks designed for our material surrender, irresponsible pleasure, consumption, fake missions, teen idols, fast money — all wanting us to surrender to them.  The test however, is, does any of it make you more compassionate, more sane, more humble, more inclusive, more caring, more just?  Does it expand or narrow the circle of your love?  Divine surrender expands rather than narrows!

The prophet Jeremiah, who had a lot of trouble surrendering to the call of God, suggested a good guideline: "The law of God is one that is written on the heart." What that might mean for us is that we can give ourselves up to that ultimate concern that fulfills every aspect of our being–heart, body and mind and spirit. We must bring it all to God.

In summer, some of you may remember going to the Newport Jazz festival, in Rhode Island.  The music was all day, but as evening started to fall and as the sun went down and the heat left the grass something special happened. Someone would start the music: Ellington, Monk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers or possibly MJQ and thousands of us would drift into the night under the stars.  I remember giving myself completely to the music.  I surrendered to the night, to the rhythm of the event, to the joy of being human and to the music, oh the music–the steady, powerful ethereal beat of the music.  Body, mind, spirit and heart. That is what I long to do in God.      Gandhi, King

When we enter the dance with God, we make ourselves vulnerable. We risk letting go and becoming open to surrendering parts of ourselves we don't want to give up.  Maybe it's our reasonable minds.  Maybe it's that our heart has already been broken many times before.  Perhaps our bodies have been bruised or aren't working well.  And of course, many of us are downright skeptical about the nature of spirit.

How shall we enter the dance with God?  How can we let go of our skepticism, our need for control, and our lack of trust, to begin to move in ways that deepen our faith in the Spirit?

I spoke with someone recently, who literally asked me that question. "How can I trust in God and more how can I trust myself in the search for God?   Is the church a safe place for me or God? Is the church a place where I can find God?"

People are wary of aligning themselves with imperfect communities of faith.  I hear it all the time. "If my church makes a decision I don't like, then I will leave."  Or "I can't support a church that embraces an issue like that or funds a project like this one."  Or "Why should I go to church?  I can't take the hypocrisy, the theology, the sexism, the racism, the fund raising, the lousy preaching, the odd music, or any other thing."  

There are always good reasons not to be a part of a church. The Sunday New York Times, a good book, my hammock and a freshly brewed cup of coffee would be some of them for me on this beautiful Sunday morning in the midst of summer.  But the wrong reasons to leave a church or not join one are if you cannot find a community of faith that agrees with everything from what kind of music we should sing to where we should stand on the rebuilding of Iraq, then I have the perfect excuse not to belong to a community that has more than one member — me.

There is no perfect church.  There is no perfect God.  There is no perfect belief system and there is no perfect way of being a Christian.  If you decide to be part of a community of faith, you get it all.  Barbara Brown Taylor says that if you seek God and belong to a community called church, "you get a Bible that says God helped Joshua exterminate whole tribes of people and a letter to the Ephesians that says we are the chosen people.  But you also get the parable of the prodigal son, the twenty-third psalm."

To my mind when you join a community, you get to eat with people you wouldn't otherwise meet; you get to celebrate the births, marriages and deaths of people you wouldn't otherwise have the chance to care about.  You get to look across the aisle and extend yourself to someone you never met before and might never meet again and you get to sit Sunday after Sunday and ponder your own spiritual and emotional growth over the years.  You get to watch children grow up and you get to give your money to good causes and sit in meetings and grapple with the future, just like many have done before you.

Whenever people are people in a community, you will get diversity of opinion, belief, practice and understanding of what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ.  Sometimes things will happen that hurt or offend.  Some of the things are worth talking over until we all can agree and other things we should probably leave alone for awhile and visit them later.  We need each other to be saved from our own self-righteousness.  We need each other in order to be shaped by God for the good of the world.  We need each other in order to be the Body of Christ, the fleshly, fruity, fulfilling, but messy, Body of Christ in the world and in this place.

During the summer, our ears perk up when the news stations carry a story of children and adults who drown in our oceans, lakes and rivers.  People who are caught in the undertow of those giant currents that are caused by strong winds and water that gets trapped next to the shore, causing it to pile up and not flow out. If you have swum in that kind of water you know the rip tide effect.  The strong current can take you down and away in a matter of moments, smashing you around like an old tennis ball. The force is so powerful that you are unable to get to the surface for a breath. In a matter of minutes, you can die and be only a few feet from shore.

Now, I’ve read, if you are ever caught in a strong current, a rip tide, there are two things you can do.  If you are a strong swimmer, swim parallel to the shore and out swim the tide.  Or you can let the tide carry you out beyond the long shore current by getting on your back and placing your feet up and your arms over your head.  Basically, in this position, you will let the tide carry you out to the breakers, where it will release you as the water spreads out and the tide disappears.

I think this is a like being a person who is on the journey of faith and who is struggling to find a home in God.  When we resist or put up a big fight, there is a chance we will go under and be trapped spiritually.  Our resistance and our need to have everything the way we want it is all about our needs and our control.  We need to remember that when it comes to God and the matters of life–we are not in control!  The winds and the waters of life can be calm and quiet one day and toss us around the next.  We can resist, put up a fight and go down under.  Or we can surrender or align ourselves with it and go with the flow, if we are strong and vital, swimming with the current.  Or we can let the tide carry us, learning how to float and learning how to allow ourselves to go with life and somehow in the process go with God.

I have never liked to surrender.  I have been a good resister to the big waves of life.  I have learned how to put up a good fight and a couple of times I have almost drowned.  And like Jonah, the waves have spat me out and thrown me up on dry land.  But I have also had the experience of learning how to float and trusting in the Body to carry me. Much of this learning has come through living my life in community, in the Body of Christ.  Speak briefly about Jesus, Paul, Gandhi, King and Mandela all men who surrendered yet profoundly reshaped the world.

As we proceed into our future, into a time of change and new directions, a time when we are wrestling with all that it means to be a liberal Protestant Church in the 21st Century, a time when we are talking about how to be a community of peace and justice and inclusion, we need to learn a little about surrendering to the wisdom and strength of God in the midst of the waves and storms of life.  Perhaps we can learn to let the sea carry us, as Paul says, "to trust in God's glorious grace, freely bestowed upon us through the Beloved."