Rooted and Grounded in Love

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
July 29, 2012 Ephesians 3:14-21

A week ago we wondered if it could get any hotter and if we would ever see a drop of rain again. Now things have normalized a bit. The best part of the moment we’re in though, if you ask me, is the Olympics. I must confess to being somewhat of an Olympic junkie. We watched the opening ceremony Friday night. I didn’t understand it all, but I enjoyed it. I fell asleep in the middle – perhaps you did too, but as I mentioned to the children, I awoke in time to see all those petals being lit to form one gigantic and awesome flame, and then Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude.” The Beatles and the Olympics – could it get any better?!

We will watch as much as we can, while getting some semblance of work done. I found myself yesterday riveted by women’s volleyball. Italy vs. the Dominican Republic. Who to cheer for? I know someone from the Dominican Republic, but I like Italian food. Oh well. I watched and cheered for them both. I was glad local boy Ryan Lochte did well, but I was pained a bit for Michael Phelps.

To that opening ceremony. Along with that great moment of James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II parachuting into the stadium, and Lord Voldemort disappearing without need for a Harry Potter spell, my more serious favorite moment came as the Olympic oath was said. It’s always a good moment that frames the days to follow. I know that it is symbolic, mostly, that athletes will not always follow it. Nonetheless, I like it.

This time around, taekwondo champion Sarah Stevenson took the Olympic oath on behalf of the athletes. I am not really sure what taekwondo is, but Ms. Stevenson is good at it. She became the first British world champion, and won the nation's first Olympic medal in the sport at the Beijing games by claiming the bronze. She had already competed in the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. She is 28; her father Roy died from a brain tumor last July and her mother lost her battle with cancer three months later. If I happen to catch taekwondo as I am scrolling through the Olympic offerings, I will pause, and cheer for her.

Here are the words she said Friday night on behalf of the athletes: "In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams." In other words, we will play hard, we will play fair, and we won’t cheat. Those words in the middle, about doping and drugs, were added more recently.

I like the words of the oath. Even if they serve as symbols, even if every athlete will not live up to them, there they are, out there, for all to see, to measure their performance against. You could be a pole vaulter from Brunei, one of those countries with 2 or 3 athletes overall whose chance of winning is about as likely as the Chicago Cubs; you could be a highly trained, highly compensated athlete, a Chinese table tennis player or Russian weightlifter or Jamaican sprinter. Still, you have pledged yourself to live by those words, and the principles that undergird them.

Enough about Olympics, except I think of vows we make that are similar. We have made baptism vows for our children, which they confirm as young adults. We have made membership vows sometime along the way. Some of us – elders, deacons, ministers – have made ordination vows. Words set in front of us. We have pledged ourselves to live by those words, and the principles that undergird them. Our version of “we will play hard, we will play fair, we won’t cheat.”

I cannot say for certain that I go home every day, and when asked how my day was that I respond, “Well, I did pretty well in terms of upholding my ordination vows today.” But I can say, and perhaps you can as well, that when I think about it, I can be grateful that I have those words, those ideals, as a kind of measuring stick.

Spoken or unspoken, articulated or not, we have a sense, do we not, when we live life, make decisions, that adhere to the fundamental principles that matter to us. That’s what made the Penn State scandal so difficult to grasp. Certain principles, in this case two sets of them – one about the safety and well-being of children and one about the trust we place in leaders – were violated repeatedly and systematically.

Our cynical world appears not to be surprised when a politician is caught cheating, either with another person, or financially. But I often find myself being surprised. Or when an athlete cheats. Or a minister.

Now I know that the words said by a 28-year old taekwondo athlete – and this sermon has just set a record or the amount of times the world “taekwondo” has been said – I know those words themselves will not prevent someone from doing something they shouldn’t. Wedding vows themselves don’t prevent certain behaviors. Something more fundamental does.

So we find ourselves again in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, the Ephesians. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, but I’d encourage you to take the 15 minutes to do it. You will be edified. Paul has already told us that human history has changed because of Jesus, that fear and anxiety have been replaced by grace, that death has no power over us. He has told us that we are no longer strangers or aliens, but citizens in God’s household. He has told us that every dividing wall has been broken down. He has told us that Christ is our peace.

This is fundamental stuff, and paragraph by paragraph, verse by verse, word by word, Paul keeps drilling down, the bedrock of faith, to our core principles. Paul has been a prisoner, a grateful prisoner, he says, to these principles, to this vision. Because of grace, he says, he has not lost hope even in the face of sufferings. And he encourages us as well not to lose hope.

And then his prayer, that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” No time for agricultural metaphors today with all this Olympic stuff, but we know the importance of a strong and sturdy root system. A plant can’t grow if its roots are unable to take in nourishment. And a tree will fall over in a strong wind, be uprooted, if the roots have not anchored it in the earth. Rooted and grounded in love. The core principle, love, the core vision by which we live our life, because the love of Christ has made it so.

Alan Brehm writes: "The bottom line in the Christian life is that it's all something that God does in us; in fact it's something that only God can do in us. That means we have to entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love that surrounds us all; it means we have to trust God to do that wonderful, unimaginable work of new life." (The Waking Dreamer)

Entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love. And because we have been loved so mysteriously and powerfully, we can love with that same mystery and power. We have been loved. Paul’s words don’t make it so. We have been loved. The words testify to that love, tell the story of that love.

To read these words, to let them cascade over us, to let them be grounded and take root in us, is to, in a sense, take an oath, a pledge, a vow. This is our core vision. Love. And we make the vow and take the oath, not because of the love we can manufacture on our own, but because of the love that has been planted deep within us. It blooms and flourishes. That is the oath made to us, the vow, the promise. That we are loved. And that becomes, therefore, the oath we make, the vow, the promise. That we love.

Charles Cousar writes that in this prayer of Paul’s, the gifts of love are not private, but have a “deeply corporate significance.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, page 445)

That’s so often the mistake of religion in America; we have been taught to think that salvation is about the individual, a personal relationship with God. The “you” Paul writes to is a plural you – us – and beyond us, so that the love we experience is never private, but is to be shared in community and not simply the community that comprises the church.

So it can never be a sense of self-satisfaction that God loves us as individuals because of who we are. It can always be a sense of gratitude that God loves us as individuals because of who God is, and that God loves us individually, but never in isolation, always loving us into community so that we can become a beloved community that loves a broken and hurting world.

That is our vow, our pledge, our oath. To love.

To love as parents and children, partners and spouses. To love as friends. To love in our work – love that respects and seeks justice and equity, whether we are lawyers or teachers or maintenance people or football coaches or swimmers. Love as neighbors. Love as citizens. Love that honors the other, that seeks reconciliation, that builds community. Love in abundance, in a world filled with anxiety and fear and a commitment to scarcity.

We may not get any medals for it. In fact, we probably won’t. But if we seek to live by this vision, that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” medals won’t matter. Love will win. Amen.



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