How is the church of Jesus Christ like a pile of dead trees? That’s the question that came to my mind as I confronted Ephesians 2:1-10. This message, the third in a series on Paul’s letter to Ephesians, invites us to consider how receptive we are to what God longs to do within us – and to remember that the Church is God’s from start to finish. I preached this sermon in Crafton Heights on March 27, 2011.
This is a true story.
One day, maybe sixty or seventy years ago, a hardrock maple, also known as a sugar maple, took root in a forest that I presume to be hundreds of miles from here. Maybe ten years later, a spruce seed fell to earth somewhere in the northern hemisphere. I do not know whether this seed was planted intentionally or was the result of a planting program, but somewhere, a spruce tree began to grow.
When I was born, these trees were already alive.
Perhaps thirty years ago, each of these trees came crashing to earth. When they hit the ground, they were changed instantly, were they not? Last Sunday evening, the youth group took a walk through the woods at Settler’s Cabin Park. We saw a lot of trees. And these trees were doing one of two things. The trees that were alive were growing. They were preparing to send forth shoots; some of them had little buds already forming – they were pregnant with life. But we also saw a great number of trees that had stopped growing. What were they doing? They were rotting.
You know that as long as a tree is connected to the soil, and anchored by its roots, and nourished by the sap that runs within it, that tree will grow and thrive. But this spruce tree and this hardrock maple tree were no longer connected, anchored, or nourished. They were dead.
What could have happened to these trees? Well, they could have rotted. Spruce wood, for instance, cannot be expected to maintain its integrity for more than twelve-eighteen months if left outdoors.
Or, I suppose, someone could have chopped them into firewood.
But that’s not what happened to these trees. Someone collected these trees. They were selected. Someone looked at these two particular trees and said, “Yes, that will do perfectly. It’s just what I have in mind.”
These trees were shipped to Hamamatsu, Japan, where they were cut into lumber. The lumber was put into a kiln and underwent a process whereby the wood was declared to be “superdry”. The wood was trimmed and shaped.
Some of the spruce was sliced and spliced together into a large sheet – nearly six feet around – and became a soundboard. Other pieces of spruce were carved into small rectangles and covered with a special plastic that gave them the look and feel of ivory.
Here is a seemingly obvious question: what’s a piano for? I mean, just as the spruce, maple, and other wood that comprises this instrument could have been used for other purposes, aren’t there different ways that you could use pianos?
For instance, when I was a kid, we had a piano in my living room. It functioned mostly as a platform for photographs. The bench was an excellent place for hiding things that I didn’t want my mother to find – she never looked in there.
I know some folks who have pianos because they want to impress their neighbors. “Oooooh, look, Harvey! They’ve got a piano. That’s class, I tell you…”
I’ve been known to use a piano – not this piano, of course – as scaffolding for painting the living room or changing a light bulb.
And you say, “No, you maroon! None of those are reasons to have a piano. A piano exists to create music. This piano, in this room, is here to enhance our worship, to glorify God, and to point our hearts in his direction.
Think about this – there were many, many possible outcomes for the spruce and maple seeds that were planted around the end of the Second World War, but somehow, that wood ended up in this piano. And while there are several hundred thousand Yamaha pianos in the USA, this one was destined for our sanctuary, where it leads God’s people in praise and worship.
I suppose that you could come in here and do a chemical analysis of that piano and determine the exact nature of its composition: you could tell us how much of what particular kinds of wood are used, and how much glue, or how many screws, or the quantity of lead or plastic. You could say that the black thing there to my right is essentially a pile of dead trees. But because those trees lived, and the lumber was saved and dried, and skilled craftsmen joined multiple pieces of wood from many trees together, artists like Jim Homme can use this piano to help us grow in our relationship with God and with each other.
That is, I think, the story of the church as Paul tells it in Ephesians 2. As you may remember, we’re looking through this little letter to the church in Ephesus because it’s a letter to a church that, so far as we know, is healthy. We want to look through their mailbox because we dare to hope that something we read there will help us to grow as God’s people in this place and at this time.
And even though it’s a letter to a church, so far we haven’t read much about the church. Chapter one is all about the power of God working in and through Jesus Christ. Paul points consistently to the magnificent workings of God’s spirit as the precursor to anything that he says about the church. But finally, as we begin chapter two, we hear a word about the church.
And, I have to say, it’s not a particularly pleasant word. Paul doesn’t mince words at all: “you were dead” (v. 1), “we were children of wrath” (v. 3), and “we were dead” (v. 5). This is not polite conversation here – this is Paul, naming the truth.
In some ways, he reminds me of a certain woman I used to visit. I had sensed some unhappiness in her marriage, but as she got older and became homebound, I would go and sit with her and her husband. And she would start off by telling me how nice it was to see me, and how glad she was that some people cared about her. Once she got going, though, it got even worse. She commented over and over about how lucky the world was to have people like me who were workers, because this man that she married was, and I quote, “the laziest man God ever put on this earth.” She was relentless – and it was uncomfortable to listen to. Unfortunately, her husband never really gave me any reason to stick up for him. I can’t say whether he was actually the laziest man God ever put on this earth, but I think he’s probably in my top five, anyway.
Paul reflects on the state of humanity – sometimes he says “you” and sometimes he says “we”, but the point is clear – on its own, our race does not have much to commend it. We are dead. No less than those spruce and maple trees I mentioned a few moments ago, we have been cut off from our roots and the sap is drying up within us.
You know that in church we call this idea “sin” – the knowledge that we are not the people that we are supposed to be; we are not those creatures that God intended. If you need me to talk you into the fact that you have made mistakes, that you have left God’s purposes for your life, that you have walked away from the best and embraced the things that want to destroy you, well, let me know. But I suspect that you know exactly what I’m talking about here – that our lives are not right – that we, just like these trees, have been cut off.
Do you remember the story of Genesis? How God created humanity to live in the Garden, and how we were fashioned to experience the joy of God’s presence?
But what happened in Genesis? We walked away, didn’t we? We left God’s best for us. Like puppets who cut their own strings, or trees that uprooted themselves, the humans that God created for joy and life opted for something else – something less – than our full humanity.
Yet the entire Bible is the story of how even when we walk away from God, he continues to create in and through us. God comes to us in Jesus Christ and shows us grace – the love and kindness that we do not deserve, the favor that we do not earn. God sees us in our fallenness and our scatteredness and chooses – for his own purposes – to make us into something amazingly beautiful.
Paul, in his first words about the church to the church, emphasizes the fundamental truth that it is God who acts first, and we who respond. God creates, and we reflect.
You can trust me on this one – sooner or later, Paul is going to get to the things that he expects the church to do or to be in this world, but before he does that, he lays out the reality that anything we do as a community, anything I do as a person, is not because we are so great, or I am so talented, or you are so handsome – but because God has built us that way. God has raised us to this place at this time to do those things that will reflect his intentions in the world.
To put it another way, I can say with supreme confidence that I spend more time in this room than any other human being. And let me tell you something about that piano over there. Sure, I know you appreciate it when you waltz in here on Sunday mornings, but do you know something? It almost never sounds good. Most days, the only thing it’s good for is collecting dust. It almost never does anything to draw me to a better place, or to lift my spirits, or to encourage me.
But every now and then, someone who knows what he or she is doing sits at that pile of wood and touches the keys. The hammers strike the wires that are stretched tautly across the pin block. The tones from those strings echo across the sounding board…and, well, then it’s a different story, isn’t it?
That piano is a magnificent instrument. When there’s a musician there. It is nothing without the touch of an artist.
The church, in many ways, is a similar collection of parts. You could say that this room is nothing but a pile of lives that are thrown together haphazardly. A mongrel group of strangers who wandered into the same geography at the same time.
Or you could say, with Paul, that we are fashioned. That we are crafted. That we are destined. That we have a place in the world and a task to do.
And when we do church – when we sing praise, or feed the hungry, or comfort the frightened, or visit the sick, or forgive those who sin, or clothe the naked, or counsel the confused…well, I think it’s about as pleasing to God as when the notes of an A Major 7 chord reverberate through that case and echo off that beautiful piece of spruce.
When we do church well, the melody of life is unmistakable.
When we do church, it’s God’s work, not ours – but we are here. May we say, on days like that, “Thanks be to God.” And may we seek to be present so that our neighbors and friends – those whom God passionately loves – may say as they hear the melody of life that God draws forth from us, “Thanks be to God.”
Just as this piano was crafted and tuned and placed and now waits for the touch of a skilled and talented hand, may we be ready for God to use us. That’s why we are here. That’s why there is church – as Paul says, “We are what he has made, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
We don’t do any of the things that we do because we think that God will like us better. We do what we do because that’s what we’re for. We live in harmony with the way we were made, and the song that echoes through us belongs to God and blesses the world. So far as I can see, there’s only one reason to have a piano or to come to church: so that we participate in the melody that God has, and be changed by it. Thanks be to God. Amen.