Word of the Week

A sermon preached at the Antioch Christian Church, Vienna, VA from Ephesians 3:14-21

Surrender—it’s a word that’s defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as verb that means to give control or use of (something) to someone else.

And I have to tell you that it’s not one of my favorite words.

Oh, I love verbs that are the opposite of surrender. I like verbs that ask a lot less change of me. Verbs like defend, hold, keep and continue.

Because isn’t it pleasant and peaceful when things stay the same?

Isn’t it pleasant when we can take our cues from the warm and fuzzy feelings of routine? It is!

But is this the way of Jesus? Does following Jesus mean that everything stays the same?

When I was 17, I signed up for my first long-term mission trip through my church’s denomination. Once accepted into the program for high school students, I received my assignment in the mail: I’d serve in children’s ministry in Charleston, SC for six weeks.

While my first thought was: “Wow, a summer serving God and working with children in a town close to the beach—what could be better than this?”

The reality I met on the first day was much harsher.

Charleston was 7 hours away from my hometown of Chattanooga, TN. I would not be close driving distance to family and friends if I got homesick. So goodbye familiar.

Our team was big—over 50 students serving with Charleston Outreach —so we’d be crammed into 2 bedroom apartments with only one bathroom. So goodbye privacy.

The hours—we’d be working from 6:30 am in the morning till sometimes 8 pm at night sometimes without breaks in between. So goodbye sleep.

And, there was little time for the beach either.

The first weeks of the summer, I cried every day in the closet to either my mother or grandmother begging them to send care packages (sad, but true!). But I quickly learned that a re-adjustment in attitude was needed if I was going to experience God's gifts for me from the summer.

And it all started with the word surrender.

I would have to surrender to the fact that the cereal that my housemates bought was not the kind my mother bought at home and I liked.

I would have to surrender how often I could wear clean clothes— because we only got to the laundry mat every 10 days or so.

I would have to surrender to my teammate’s preferences and ideas about how we would lead our Vacation Bible Schools each morning. Sometimes, we wouldn’t sing the songs or do the crafts I wanted to do.

Telling you all about this now sounds a little bit petty now but at the time, it was a big deal. Little things are a big deal, aren’t they?

But, my team was together in common purpose after all: to share the love of Jesus to all those we met. We all believed Jesus brought us together. And like Jesus we regularly reminded ourselves: “Not my will by thy be done.”

If you’ve ever had an experience of discomfort with something you feel God has called you to do like I did that summer (and in many other situations since), then you’ll understand exactly the spirit of the epistle lesson before us this morning. The writer of the book of Ephesians offers a glimpse into his prayer life for the church in Ephesus.

And it also begins with the concept of surrender.

Beginning in Ephesians 3 verse 14 what we hear is a break from the theological teaching found earlier in the book. And instead we hear a corporate prayer offered on behalf of the congregation.

It’s a prayer much like the pastoral prayer we heard offered this congregation every Sunday.

It’s a prayer of that speaks to the identity of why the congregation exists.

It begins with this visual: “I bow my knees before the Father.”

And what an extraordinary beginning this was to the prayer.

Though it sounds normal to us—when we think prayer, we think kneeling-- such wasn’t to the congregation who first heard it.

For the first century readers the custom of prayer as a physical bowed act was not normal. For example, if we go back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious folks in the gospels, we will notice that men and women in Jesus’ time all prayed standing up.

So begin with these words, “I bow my knees before the Father” was a huge teachable moment.

Though God is not concerned with the outward appearance, the Ephesian writer was saying how we carry ourselves outwardly has a lot to do with what we expect on the inside.

So he says boldly, “I bow my knees before the Father.”

Or in other words: start here—God is God and you are not.

And the prayer begins with beautiful words about the real heart of the journey of faith.

Or, more specifically what you and I are asked to do on this journey.

It’s hard to get through the rest of this prayer—as it reads like one long run-on sentence depending on the translation you are using, but let me boil it down for you.

Surrender your life to Jesus. It's simple but oh so profound!

And the writer gives us this description of what the surrender will look like when it occurs.

First, Christ will strengthen and dwell in hearts. And second, the Christ will root and ground the congregation in love.

For to know Christ is to know love, to be love and to share love.

Love, love, love. As simple as it is, it all goes back to love in this text.

But I tell you, it’s not the kind of love that we somehow will up or make ourselves have. No, it’s the literal living and abiding presence of Jesus in us that this text says the Christian life is all about.

For none of us can have our hearts rooted and ground in love if it does not come from Jesus first.

God asks us to surrender our will, our desires for our life, and our best laid plans to the work that Jesus longs to do in us. It's not just churchy talk, it's the truth!

I’m sure you’ll notice throughout the text the frequency of the word “you” and “your.” We know from grammar class, that these are singular words. But when we go back to the original Greek, what we realize is that “you” comes from the plural. It’s more like in English “we.”

Or for any southerners you could just insert “y’all” or for notherners “you guys.” And you’ll be at the right spot.

“I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that [we] may be strengthened.”

Or in other words—this is exhortation in prayer for the entire gathered community. No one is off the hook.

One of my favorite heroes of the Christian faith that I’ve loved since childhood is Corrie Ten Boom.

ten-Boom_CorrieIf you are unfamiliar with Corrie’s story—she’s a woman from Holland who reached young adulthood during the Second World War. Corrie, along with her father and sister Bestie hid Jews in their home to keep them from arrest and death at the hands of the Nazis. They did so out of a strong sense of a faith calling.

Corrie knew that to be a follower of Jesus meant always to stand up for those mistreated or in danger. Always.

All went well until the day when it was discovered what Corrie and her family were doing. The German solders stormed Corrie, Bestie and their father’s house arrested them, and sent them to a concentration camp. Though Mr. ten Boom did not survive in the camps. Corrie and Bestie braved the test well until an illness took Bestie’s life only days before Corrie was released.

There was no dearer person in Corrie’s life than her sister Bestie and you can imagine how devastating the loss was to her. But as Corrie emerged from prison she knew that God gave her a story to tell and share with any who would listen.

In 1947, in Munich, Germany Corrie found herself in a church sharing a testimony that God forgives and that she’d forgiven those that had brought harm on her and her sister’s life.

It was here that she met face to face with Jesus’ calling of surrender—to a person rooted and grounded in love.

She was standing at the door shaking hands with people as they left the church when she saw him. She saw the man who was one of the guards who supervised and tortured her and Bestie at the camps.

And before she even had time to escape her horrid memories, the former guard spoke to her: “Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein [you gave tonight]! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

Corrie knew she’d just preached on forgiveness and that this man was a beloved child of God as much as she was, deserving of love. What on earth would she say next?

But before she could muster a word, the guard went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ [putting his hand out]—’will you forgive me?’

Corrie knew that if she truly believed that her life belonged to Jesus, there would be only one reply she could give—

Corrie said this is what happened to her next: “And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

This, my friends is what surrendering to Jesus’ presence in our lives is all about. Loving the unlovable. Forgiving the unforgiveable. Abiding in grace with those who persecute us.

And what’s the result when we do surrender?

We only need to keep reading in our text a little bit longer to know.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to him to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Do you hear this?

For when you and I surrender to God—as this prayer hopes we will—then we are going to live into a life that is beyond what we can imagine.

I’ll tell you that I never imagined when I was 17 on my first mission trip that one day God would call me to pastor and opportunities to travel the world and preach the gospel—but Jesus did.

I’ll tell you that I bet Corrie ten Boom never imagined that God’s love would call her to hid persecuted persons in her home, go to prison for her decisions and then share a powerful word of forgiveness with the world through books and speaking—but Jesus did.

And, I’ll tell you that when God led your founders to birth a congregation called Antioch Christian Church many years ago that they would have never imagined the ministry of love that God would be calling it to in just a time as this in 2015—but Jesus did.

When we surrender our lives, to Jesus, my friends and Christ truly abides in our hearts, we’re always on the move.

Our lives are always going to be led to places where Christ can strength us and challenge us to BE the GOOD NEWS to those who need to hear it.

So may we start this morning with one word: surrender.


Excuses, Excuses: I’m Afraid  Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

As we end our “Excuses, Excuses” sermon series today and thus our discussion on what can hold each of us back from relationship with God—I think we’ve saved one of the most important excuses for last, an excuse that all of us struggle with regularly. And this is it: we are held back from the new horizons, possibilities and dreams that God has for us because we are afraid. We are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of losing what we had in the past. We are afraid of what we cannot control in the future.

We all know about fear because fear is something that each of us deal with if not every day, regularly.

Albert Hitchcock in fact once said, “Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

No matter who or what is the big, bad wolf in your life, this fact unites us: we all have fears that keep us back from God’s best for our lives. We won’t start new relationships because we’re afraid of getting hurt.  We won’t apply for new jobs because we fear we won’t get them. We won’t get out of bed on some days because we fear it won’t be better than the day before.

We fear losing the approval of those we love. We fear being exposed for who we really are. We fear making really big mistakes. We fear loneliness. We fear poverty. We fear fear itself, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we encounter a woman who like us wrestled with fear but courageously preservers—modeling for us a different way of being with our “I’m afraid” excuses.  Esther is this woman’s name. And although her name might sound familiar or at least maybe sometime you’ve seen it in the table of contents of your Bible—few of us really know the story of her life and why this particular tale ended up in the scriptures in the first place.

As the story goes, Esther was a young girl, an orphan of Jewish descent who was taken in by her older cousin Mordecai when her parents died. Her adopted father, Mordecai was a descendant of those who were captured when Jerusalem fell to Babylon (and thus went into exile) about 100 years before.  However, since the Babylonians fell to the Persians, Mordecai, Esther and the other Jewish people are now living under control of this new king, Xerxes.  And life isn’t easy living for the Jews as a member of the religious minority in the primarily secular culture. If life wasn’t bad enough under the Babylonians, now they were controlled by the Persians. And in this environment, we know nothing else about Esther other than what chapter 2 of Esther tells us that she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”

But, change is brewing in the nation. Much like the tale we might know from British history—where King Henry VIII gets tired of his first wife and divorces her for no good reason other than he wanted more children from a younger virgin wife, so goes the days of their lives in the Palace in Persia. King Xerxes divorced his wife, Vashti and seeks a new bride. The king makes quite a show out of the affair, welcoming a contest to see what young woman attracts his attention the most.

Mordecai encourages young Esther to participate and also forbids her to tell anyone at the palace her true nationality. Esther was to just blend in, not overly mention that she was of the tribe of Benjamin.  And, as Esther goes through the vetting process, she rises to the occasion, attracts the favor of the King and wins the contest. Soon she’ll be made to be the new Queen!

Meanwhile, Mordecai begins to get into some trouble, especially with Haman, the grand vizier to the king.  Mordecai finds out that two of the men in the king’s court are plotting to kill the king and sends word through now Queen Esther about the plot. The king executes the two men and Haman is furious.  He feels that Mordecai, a common man has superseded his position as right hand man to the king.

The best way I can describe it is this: you ask your supervisor’s boss for something instead of going directly to your supervisor and then your supervisor has a chip on their shoulder forever more about you. But, instead of getting over his attitude—and taking a time out for a reset, Haman takes matters into own hands. We read in chapter 4 that he gathers together a group of people to take not only Mordecai’s life but the lives of his tribe, the Jews.

So, what a quandary Esther and Mordecai find themselves in as they learn about Haman’s plans.

The remnant of Israel left in Persia—the people said long ago to be God’s beloved people—soon are about to face a genocide, unknown to them. The only two folks who know about it are Esther and Mordecai. And the only person who can do something about it is truly Esther, the Queen. So, you think she should just go talk to the King about this, don’t you think? But there’s a catch. Yet, let’s remember what happened to the last queen, Vashti. When the King was angry at her and found out she’d deceived him, Vashti was fired on the spot via a royal decree. Esther had not come this far in life—rising from orphaned girl to life in the palace—to throw it all away right now!

I can imagine there was much fear as Mordecai and Esther began to talk through all of this resting on their shoulders. Something needed to be done, but what if it cost them their lives? What if they couldn’t come up with a plan that worked? What if what they tried to do made the situation worse? What if?

Fear, at this juncture could have easily robbed Esther of her place in history, her moment to shine, and her opportunity to be God’s instrument to protect a group of people in need of someone to watch out for them. Fear could have kept Esther locked into a position of deceit. Fear could have stopped God’s light from shinning forth in this dark situation.

But it didn’t.

Esther, laid down the excuse of “I’m Afraid.” And, instead she embraced the opportunity to do her part, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to recognize that God had given her this moment in time to be fully herself.  For though we know that while there were apprehensions on Esther’s part, Mordecai encourages her in chapter 4, verse 14 with these famous words, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Do you, get it, Esther? Do you really get it? God has put you in this position for such a time as this!

One of my favorite books is The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  It tells the courageous story of Corrie and her sister and father, living in a small town in Holland during the time of World War II, taking the great risk of hiding Jews in their home knowing that these acts could one cost them their own lives.

In describing her upbringing and what brought her to this point in her life of feeling as if such an “I’m not afraid” type of attitude came over her, Corrie tells this story from her childhood:

Corrie, as young child, was upset thinking about her father dying someday. It made her quite upset as it would any child who loved their father very much. As was his habit, he sat down at the edge of her bed to tuck her in.

“Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?”

Corrie sniffed a few times feeling overcome with the emotion but gathered up enough courage to answer her father’s question, “Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t rush ahead of Him. When the time comes…you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.”

So also was true, I believe of Esther at this juncture. At just the right moment she knew what she had to do.  And, though the word “God” is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, making it the only one of its kind in all of scripture—we clearly see the leading of the divine at work. God is preparing and leading Esther for exactly the role that has already been prepared for her to play in this story.

Look with me at chapter 7. The plan is in motion—Esther seeks the perfect time to speak on behalf her people to the king, throwing a party in his honor. And at this party, look with me at verse 3 to see what Esther says to the king, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.”

Without backing down, without letting her fear control her, Esther boldly stands up and uses her position to ask for mercy not only for herself but for everyone else whose lives were in danger.  The king grants her request, and the gallows that were originally built by Haman for Mordecai were now used for all those who plotted against the Jewish people, unfairly.

Sigh. What a relief! The king showed Esther favor! All was well.

As we process this story, what I think is most remarkable about Esther is the fact that freedom for her and many others comes in the telling the truth. What? What did this sweet little girl need to tell the truth about?

If we go back earlier in the book, we realize that Esther was not this young woman’s given name. Her real name was Hadassah—a Hebrew word connected to the meaning “darkness.” Esther became her royal name which scholars say is related to the Hebrew verb “to hide.”  Thus, by taking on the name “Esther” she was choosing a life of deceit.  She was hiding her true identity. She was hiding hoping that no one knew where she came from. She was not fully being herself. She was Jewish, a foreigner, not being honest about being an outsider leading the king to believe that she was one of them.

Scholar Amy Oden puts it like this, “Ultimately deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, through Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once reveled, the king responds favorably and the Jewish are saved.”

Ah! The story is making more sense here, isn’t it? Esther is a girl who many of us certainly could understand. For we often don’t tell the truth about who we are either. We make up that we were little league champions when we only got a trophy for being on the team. We make up the fact that we were born to a mother who graduated from Harvard, when she only completed Harvard high school. We make up the fact that our boss gave us a promotion last year when what we really mean by last year was 10 years ago. And we say all of these things out of fear!

But, Esther, changed the course of her life. How? She told her truth. “Hey, everyone, this is who I am. I’m Jewish!” And, God blessed it.

And doesn’t this just cut to the heart of what our fear is really all about. We are aren’t truthful in our words, in our actions or in our intentions because we are afraid if people knew us, if they really knew us then, our lives might radically change. We might not be so highly regarded. We might not win this award. We might not advance in our career. We might never find anyone to love us as we hope someone special would.

But, the witness of Esther and the countless other stories we’ve studied together this fall, encourages us all otherwise. Because what has been the common theme throughout this entire series?  We can lay aside ALL our excuses because to God all of them don’t amount to much. We are loved in our questions. We are loved in issues with organized religion. We are loved in our negative impressions of ourselves. We are loved in all our deficiencies. And today, we are loved in our fears, or even when we’re trying to hide the truth. But, instead, we are invited to come out from behind whatever bush or tree we are hiding behind and come into the light of God’s love for us.

Because we need not use the excuse of “I’m afraid” because we don’t have to fear; we just don’t. Freedom comes in just laying ourselves out for God to use, even in spite of ourselves.

So, my friends, what is the story of your life that you need to tell today? What is the secret that you need to bring forth to the light?

Let us simply not be afraid anymore to tell the truth. Esther wasn’t. And we don’t have to be either.


How much time do you spending worrying on any given day? Though such would not be a statistic that any of us would boast about, I know it is something we all do. And all the time.

We worry about what we will eat for dinner when we come home. We worry if our children will finally eat tonight what we put in front of them.

We worry about what traffic will be like on the way to work. We worry about the fastest routes to take.

We worry that we aren't where we'd like to be in our lives by whatever age we find ourselves in. We worry what is next and how we get there.

We worry about a friend's reaction to this and that and how it might cost us a beloved friendship.  We worry about being lonely.

We worry our parents are getting older with declining health. We worry about how we will have the means to take care of them when the worst news comes.

We worry that we won't make it to the movie on time and the show will be sold out.  We worry then, what will we do for fun on a Friday night without our preferred means of entertainment.

We worry that our best laid plans will all go awry without a plan B automatically in place. We how we will cope when all feels lost around us.

We worry. Worry creeps into our every moment faster than we might ever recognize-- both in the minor details of our lives and the big stuff too.

But, when we do what resources of our faith tradition and practices are we deigning help from? How might we be robbing our constant worried filled lives with some of the best resources for calmer waters? 

In the Christian tradition, Jesus had a lot to say about worrying. The most famous of sayings on this topic came from his Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 6:

 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Such as always been one of my favorite and least favorite scriptures. It a comfort for Jesus to have acknowledged and cared about that which most of us do all the time, but annoying too. It is always easier to worry than it is to surrender, isn't it? I recently heard a member of my congregation say as we were having a discussion on this topic, "What would I do with myself and my time if I didn't worry?" Good question. It seems that the whole "non-anxious" presence is not a state of being that comes naturally or enjoyably to us. We might just have to re-think our dispositions in the world if space in our brain was opened up from letting go of worries.

A hymn-- a great hymn of the Christian tradition that often comes with baggage for many is "I Surrender All." Such is certainly the case for me. Only until recently did I allow it on the "songs we are allowed to sing in church" list during worship planning. "I Surrender All" draws to mind images of emotional manipulation, long "alter calls" at revivals, and on the type of Christian worship that makes me want to pull my hair out in disgust. But, even with such a history, it's a hymn whose words are a powerful testimony of what God asks us to do in our all-consuming problems. And this is: let go of them.

All to Jesus I surrender;
all to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
in his presence daily live.

I surrender all, I surrender all,
all to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

2. All to Jesus I surrender;
humbly at his feet I bow,
worldly pleasures all forsaken;
take me, Jesus, take me now.

3. All to Jesus I surrender;
make me, Savior, wholly thine;
fill me with thy love and power;
truly know that thou art mine.

(See aren't the lyrics not as bad as you might have remembered?) What powerful words!

Surrendering everything is one giant leap from the worry world in which most of us live all the time. But what if we began with just one worry? What if we said for a day, "I will not worry about ____ today. I will leave it in God's hands. I will trust God to be present to me and provide for all of my needs."

Because in the end, just as Corrie Ten Boom said in her book, Clippings from my Notebook: "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength" we've all got a lot of holy encounters waiting for us in life. And we truly don't want worry keeping us from them. Do we? So, for me, for today, I am choosing to let go and mean the words when I say them, "I Surrender All." What about you?