An Intolerance of Smallness
Meg Peery McLaughlin
October 20, 2019
Children’s Sabbath/Dedication Sunday
Ephesians 3: 14-21
Prayer for Illumination
Like little children
who sit criss cross applesauce to hear a story,
who put their listening ears on to really pay attention,
make us ready to encounter a word
that helps us all grow up–
grow up into your expansive love.
We pray in Christ, Amen.
Our text this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the church,
and in the midst of the letter, Paul prays.
So, listen, church to this prayer for you—
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I didn’t put the sermon title on the Franklin Street board this week.
For if I had: it would have said to the whole community:
and then the words
“An intolerance of smallness”
As if 5 digit numbers were the only allowed pledge amounts.
As if small children were not welcome in church.
An Intolerance of Smallness. . . . let me be clear:
Every gift, every commitment of time and treasure that you place in the basket today is appreciated and every one of those gifts matters.
A church body is healthy when all the parts participate.
This year we have had gifts that have come in that have seriously reduced our budget anxiety, and we have had gifts that I know come from a young person’s allowance, or lawn mowing money.
Each are stunning in their faithfulness and every precious penny pursues God’s love and justice in this place.
And children– with all there wonder and wiggles
with all their questions and quirks
are welcome in this sacred space.
Yes on this Children’s Sabbath where our youngest Presbyterians lead us in worship, but not just today. Children are welcome here every day.
I didn’t put the title on the sign because of pledges and children.
But I also chose to not put the title out there
because I was an English major and was taught that our words matter.
And intolerance isn’t really a word
I want associated with the church I love and serve.
Sadly, there are many who –even without seeing that word printed anywhere—assume such about the church.
And maybe not always for nothing—
our church history has not always had the best track record
honoring the gifts of women,
or making space for our lgbtq friends,
or even extending a little grace to those who have lived with divorce, disabilities, or doubts.
We are waking up to welcome, by God’s grace,
and because that is the trajectory of the gospel, I believe we’ll continue to.
Just last week our denomination put on a conference with the tagline:
eviscerating racism in the church. Yes, we are here for this.
But even with all this hard, and ongoing work, that I know we are doing,
I didn’t want the word “Intolerance” out there to send a conflicting message.
So what is the deal, preacher?
It’s this prayer. Paul’s prayer for the church.
He prays that we would know the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love,
that we’d be filled with the fullness of God,
whose power accomplishes abundantly far more that we can even imagine.
The language is dripping in bigness,
leaving no room for smallness.
And the Spirit wouldn’t let me forgo that this week.
This past weekend I was with my dad’s family at a reunion in the foothills of Georgia.
Solo parenting and sharing a bed with a 5 year old made for some droopy lids driving home, but I’ll tell you what caught my eye:
a church sign that read: Life is full of choices. One is eternal.
I sipped my coffee and grieved the way that we have tried to make God too small.
If salvation is based on me,
based on my individual decisions, my actions or inaction,
then how limited must God’s grace be?
But, friends, it isn’t limited, it is absolutely free,
let loose on the world through Jesus Christ,
incapable of being bound by us,
God’s grace is giant and generous.
Sure we make individual choices, we act and refrain from acting,
we walk offerings up to place in baskets
and live our lives in ways we hope makes God smile,
but we do so all in response to grace that already abounds around us and in us.
That is what we come week after week to proclaim here.
Paul’s prayer inculcates in us
an intolerance for smallness when it comes to God’s saving love.
But even good ole’ Reformed Presbyterians
who hang their hats on grace and gratitude
try to make God too small.
Later in the week, I was at church member’s bedside.
Michael Lefaive is battling lung cancer. And it’s not fair. Cancer never is.
Michael and Gail—these googly-eyed-in-love newlyweds—are aware of the odds,
and they are fervently hoping that Michael will be a match for a treatment.
I asked his permission to share this.
The day I showed up to see them this week was also the day when
the ceasefire failed in Northern Syria.
Michael and I were talking and he said,
“I know there are children dying in Syria,
but . . . . I still want to ask God to be here now.”
I know what he meant.
He was seeing his own suffering in light of the suffering of others
and wondering what was appropriate to ask. I could appreciate his humility.
But I’ve been sitting with Paul’s prayer this week – that talks about comprehending the height, depth and breadth of God’s love –
and I believe it’s calling us to trust that God’s compassion actually does stretch from bombed out Ras al-Ain all the way to that ICU on Manning Drive.
So I grabbed Gail and Michael’s hands and we prayed.
It was a prayer that was intolerant of smallness.
But it took some remembering about who we were praying to,
because we are so used to substituting in a small God.
But we weren’t praying to a small god,
whose grace is dependent on our decisions,
whose presence is pinpointed only on needs that make the news,
as real and raw as those needs are,
we were praying to a God who loves Michael beyond Michael’s comprehension
a God who grieves his disease deeper than our ability to name
a God who promises that nothing in all of creation will have the power to pull Michael from God.
I don’t know what kind of reminder you need:
That long before the world caught up to your preferred pronouns,
God already had room for yours?
That God is big enough to handle
not only your love and praise, but also your anger and questions?
That Jesus is Lord of
not only your personal life but also the life of the polis, the city, the political life?
That your admission of trust in the love to God in Jesus Christ
does not equal the exclusion of your Jewish husband or your Muslim neighbor?
That the God of back then with the manna in the wilderness and the overflowing vats of wine at the wedding is still the providing and overwhelming God of today, and will be tomorrow?
Preacher Guy Sayles nails it, I think, when he says:
The substitute god we’ve fashioned is limited, narrow, and tame–does nothing surprising or amazing–and is boxed-in by our preconceptions. This god is stingy with mercy and has only enough love for “our kind of people”–our nation or tribe or race or family or social class or denomination. This god of our own making is predictable, safe, and boring.
Such a god is hardly worthy of praise, so we shore up worship with louder volume and shine it up with greater glitz. We allow less time for silence, because this passive god couldn’t possibly have anything crucial or even interesting to say. We don’t expect this diminutive deity to restore, redeem, or transform anyone or anything. Since the best we can hope for is sympathy and advice, preaching is about coping with the way things are, rather than about the in-breaking of an entirely new and saving order of things[i].
Here’s the good news,
this substitute God is not the one we have.
And Paul prays for us to know that.
He prays that we would have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
It’s an oxymoron, really. Praying that we could know something that can’t be known.
Comprehend something that surpasses knowledge.
such an awareness may be threatening to us
students and academics and researchers.
We who like the control of knowing how it all works
and how it all will work out.
We heady Christians who like to parse out providence
and wrap our minds around “right” theology.
Standing in the face of the mystery of God’s big love,
receiving the gift of God who is vast beyond our comprehending,
beautiful beyond our appreciating, and wonderful beyond our imagining;
God who encompasses everything: past, present and future; near and far;
what we have discovered and what remains hidden.
God who above and beyond, among and within, high and holy, close and compassionate[ii],
it leaves us breathless and trembling.
Which is why I’m so grateful this prayer comes to us on this day.
On Dedication Sunday, where we can’t help but respond to God with the gifts of our lives, of course, that makes sense.
But also on this Children’s Sabbath,
for children can teach us how to run wildly into mystery
and how to curl up cozy with love that envelopes the whole self
When I baptize children
I use a phrase that comes from the Book of Common Order from the Scottish Church.
In this sacrament, the love of God is offered to each one of us.
Though we cannot understand or explain it,
we are called to accept that love
with the openness and trust of a child.
So friends, though it’s not on the board on the street,
I’ll proclaim it loudly here:
be intolerant of smallness,
utterly unwilling to limit God.
You are loved beyond your knowing,
by a vast and powerful God who is “at work within you”
and able to accomplish abundantly far more than all you can ask or imagine.
To this God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.