The sermon for week August 05, 2012
THE SMILE, Ephesians 4:1-16
It is interesting how certain snatches of memory that seem to have no rhyme or reason for being remain in our mind, sometimes for a lifetime. They are just there, and through the decades they pop into our consciousness, recalled as vividly as the day they were formed. We might not be able to remember the gifts we received last Christmas or only can with concentration, but not these memories. They come, they go, but they never leave us, though we are never able to make sense of them, except occasionally something happens, and we get it. The fragment of memory has a meaning, a message that at last becomes visible and we see it then not as useless residue, but perhaps what it was all along, a bit of starlight, revealing a sacred pathway, meant to lead us to our true self and all the fullness of that self God intends for each one of us.
Here is my little memory that has persisted for a lifetime. I am in the 7th grade. I have just started Junior High School. I am on a bus, not a school bus, the city of Detroit had no school buses. It is a regular public transportation bus, used by students to get to school. There are other students on the bus but also factory workers and office workers.
The other students are congregated together in two groups: the white students and the black students. I sit alone on a seat near the front of the bus that faces the front of the bus. I know no one. I wish I did. I wish I had friend with me. I wish someone, even an adult, would come and sit next to me so I wouldn’t appear so all alone.
Across the aisle is another student who sits alone. Her seat faces the aisle. For one moment we glance at each other and smile, but we quickly turn our gaze away and never speak. I could tell she is equally alone. She seemed nice, but I will never know because neither of us will ever speak, even though we will take the same ride again and again sit alone, but never speak. Why? It was because she was black and I was white.
This was our world. Perhaps, now, it is hard to imagine. How could it ever be that we would unwittingly doom our children to lives of isolation rather than have them possibly connect with someone seemingly different from ourselves? But, the danger persists for all of us, and this is the focus of my sermon this morning. It is not, however, a sermon on race, or religious biases, or economic divisions, or all the other ways we are separated from one another. This instead is a very personal, not a socially, oriented sermon, focusing on the “me” in each of us, and this is what I want you to get excited about, what it means for you to be a part, not of a world that divides us but unites us.
My little snatch of a memory is in fact a part of a world that is passing away. The preaching of Paul in Ephesians, and let’s assume it was Paul, announces a new way of being together. His is a proclamation of a new reality, a new creation, inaugurated in the life of Christ. His is a world where we see in Jesus Christ everything that divides us, the old order, is crumbing down, and what we see in its place is a world where there is, “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, and one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
In this perspective, I have that little memory on the bus not as a lament of the old regime in which races were separated, but to teach me that across the aisle on that bus God was bringing to be a new reality where race would not divide us but sooth our loneliness, even if in that moment all we could give to one another was a gaze, a passing recognition that we were both lonely, and a smile, no more, but a smile that connected us. Even in the midst of all the prejudice of that time, God’s spirit was working to make us one and heal us.
Here is what I believe: God has a plan for each of us - some of us might be called to be preachers, some of us might be called to be musicians, some of us are called to be mothers or fathers, some of us might be called simply to be lovers of the world, but for all of us it means growing into ourselves, reaching maturity, realizing the fullness of our humanity, being me and not another, and the fertile soil upon which this happens is in the recognition of our oneness. It is out of our oneness we find our individual uniqueness.
The Message translation of the Bible translates the words we read this morning with these words, “Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.” And continuing, “But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ each of us is given his own gift.”
The broader your faith, able to embrace the world and its diversity,the deeper your faith will be, able to embrace the self and its uniqueness. It is a narrow faith that leads to conformity. It is a faith that recognizes our oneness that also celebrates our diversity. The church should reflect that oneness in its diversity, but the church is not the sole depository of that oneness. It is the world where God operates. It is all of life that is God’s kingdom and all of life reveals the destiny of God’s desire that we be one and see ourselves in union with all of life and the more we are rooted in that oneness the more we ourselves grow into the fullness of our potential, created in the image of God.
I recently read a book entitled Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. Dr. Lehrer is a journalist who reports on neuroscience and although the accuracy of some of the Bob Dylan quotes in the book have been called into question and admitted too, I think the science of the book remains. It is a book that explores the subject of creativity. He asked himself what causes our creativity and what stifles it and has looked inside the brain for clues. What was found is we get stuck in our ways of thinking. The brain develops patterns that then limit our creativity and approach to problems, particularly the left side of the brain and while these are necessary for day to day responses, we get stuck in those patterns. Our image of reality narrows and thus our solutions to problems.
What helps get us unstuck is exposure to people with different expertise, sitting in a room with others who have different backgrounds. It was the model Steve Jobs used at Apple and Bell Laboratories used decades earlier in developing the first solar panels and transistors. We thrive in an atmosphere of diversity. Dr. Lehrer also emphasizes the importance of travel. He says the brian lights up when you expose yourself to different cultures and people with different ways of seeing things.
You become unstuck. Your brain makes new associations. If forms new patterns, and the Aha moment is born. Suddenly you are more alive.
Perhaps as preachers when we preach we focus too much on the commands and not enough on the promises. We say, you have got to love one another. You have to be open and accepting. You have to love your neighbor and your enemy. It is true, it is a command, but what is often not shared in our sermons is that this is also a way God brings us to ourselves. Being open, being welcoming, lights up our brain. It is the spark that charges our creativity. It unleashes our potential, the gifts of the Spirit, we didn’t even know we had within us to be actualized.
To me, in other words, it is a part of our salvation, the root meaning of which is our wholeness, all summarized in the line of the hymn I quote over and over, “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought, since Jesus came into my life.” Your capacity to be accepting of others different from yourself, your welcome, is directly related to your giftedness, your potential, realized in the new humanity God is bringing to be and we have seen in Jesus Christ.
I wish I would have been braver on that bus. I wish I could have thrown off all the cultural barriers that kept me from getting out of my seat, crossing the aisle and saying to that other student, “Hi, my name is David Andersen, do you mind if I sit next to you.” It would have helped to alleviate a lot of the loneliness I felt. I didn’t, but you know what, it is not sadness that shrouds that memory, instead it is the smile that passed between us.
Even then, you see, God was working. Through all the prejudice and ignorance that ruled our lives at that time, God’s Spirit was working, bringing us from the depth of humanities sin and hatred and blindness, the birth of a new creation. There was that smile that passed between us.
Father Greg Boyle, one of the speakers at Chautauqua during our stay there, is a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to working with gang members in California. Indeed for many of us it will be through acts of service we first cross the aisle of estrangements from one another. This is good, but Father Boyle said that service is not God’s final destiny for us. He then spoke of his own transformation and how those he served, some of them gang members, have brought wonder and amazement and a sense of awe to his life. Then he made this statement, “service is but the hallway leading to the ballroom.” There is our destiny, God’s banquet room, a feast, a dance, a joyous celebration of God’s Love for all of us, a love that inhabits our hearts, a love God has for all the world.
Here on earth we prophesy that Great Messianic banquet when we sit at the table of our Lord at every communion service. True the focus is on the Last Supper and the crucifixion, but it is all done in the premonition that the end was not written on that night but is in the feast to come. The sacrament of communion is the first glimpse of the ballroom, so, when we gather around the table, what should be in our mind, even when we think about the crucifixion, is not the sadness we have seen, but the smiles that have passed between us, because in those smiles, even if and perhaps especially if it is between strangers of opposite backgrounds, different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, in that smile of recognition between two strangers, we know Christ lives and God’s love is making all things new, and our brain is firing, and we are becoming more the person God created us to be. Amen.