Scriptures: Ephesians 3:14-21; Psalm 139:7-10
There is an oxymoron in today’s second scripture reading. An oxymoron is an expression that on the surface seems self-contradictory, like the word “bittersweet” or the phrase “a deafening silence.” There is an oxymoron in Ephesians 3:18-19. Listen again to what it says. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” There’s the oxymoron: to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, to comprehend the dimensions of Jesus’ limitless love. How do we measure or even imagine something that is limitless?
I think the only way to do it is by telling stories. So the sermon this morning is four stories, each illustrating a dimension of God’s love. God’s love is incomprehensible, but in these stories we get glimpses of it from different angles, and when we put the stories together, we begin to see the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
So here we go. First, what is the breadth of Jesus’ love? How wide does it go?
Dale Soden, a history teacher at Whitworth University, has written a book called Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History. One of the activists he profiles is the Reverend Sherman Burgoyne, a Methodist pastor in Hood River, OR. I think we are all aware that during World War II thousands of Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast were uprooted from the homes and sent to internment camps away from the coast in places like Idaho and Wyoming. This happened to one of our own church members, Frank Muramatsu, and to the father of another church attender, Paul Nogaki. After the war these Japanese Americans were released from the camps, but returning to their homes sometimes proved difficult. In some cases their homes had been taken over or sold, and in some communities like Hood River, OR, they were not welcomed back. The mayor of Hood River at the time, Joe Meyer, said this about returning Japanese Americans: “We trusted them so completely while they were here among us, while all the time they were plotting our defeat and downfall.” Of course no evidence was ever presented to support this charge, but sometimes people like to believe things whether there is evidence for it or not. Mayor Meyer concluded, “We must let the Japanese know they are not welcome here.”
But Pastor Burgoyne thought that was wrong, so he organized a group of over 50 people in Hood River, OR, to support the returning Japanese Americans. Members of the group met them at the train depot, so as to accompany them back to their homes. They shopped for them when stores refused to serve them, and helped them re-establish their own businesses by encouraging people in their churches to purchase their goods and services.
But Reverend Burgoyne and his wife paid a price for these efforts. Dale Soden writes,
They were frequently shunned. A rock was thrown through their window, and the Rotary Club, as well as other civic clubs, refused him. … [In 1947] Burgoyne was reassigned—or in some people’s minds, exiled—first to a congregation in Shedd, Oregon, … and shortly thereafter to a Methodist church in Spokane (p. 132).
I had never thought of Spokane as a place to be exiled. But when asked why he did what he did, Pastor Burgoyne said, “I’ve done nothing unusual. I’m just an ordinary Methodist minister trying to be a Christian. The Redeemer put love in my heart, and I want to use it” (p. 133).
How broad is the love of Christ? It reaches out to all races, languages, and nations, including those races, languages, and nationalities that live in our own community.
But what is the length of Christ’s love? How long does it reach? Let me tell you another story. Presbyterians, along with many other Christian denominations, began extensive mission work in China back in the 1800s. By 1913 there were 92 Christian missionaries in China, many of them Presbyterians. Then in 1949 communist insurgents led by Mao Tse-Tung took over the country. One Presbyterian missionary had his head cut off. Others were arrested. The rest fled or were ordered out of the country. Church buildings were closed or converted into factories, and for thirty years the Christian church in China virtually disappeared. Presbyterian mission leaders groaned and wept and wrung their hands over how much mission money and effort had been put into China and now seemed lost. But 30 years later in 1979 when Christian churches in China were allowed to reopen under Deng Xiaoping, on the very first Sunday there were tens of thousands of baptisms. It was like Mt. St. Helens. For decades the Christian faith in China appeared dormant, dispersed among thousands of small house churches functioning under the radar, but under the surface they were like magma flowing through a volcano, seeping into cracks and crevices, rising toward the surface until it finally broke through the crust and exploded. As recently as 2014 a Chinese religious affairs official estimated that about 500,000 Chinese are baptized as Christians every year (The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 11, 2015). God plays the long game.
Now I know that some of you here, in fact many of you here, have children that grew up in this or in other churches, and now are no longer involved in any church. And it grieves you. You are wondering if all that Sunday School, all those youth group programs, all that investment of time, money, and care in their faith development was wasted, just like mission leaders thought their efforts in China were wasted. They went thirty years without any visible Christian activity in China, then bang—500,000 baptisms in one year. God plays the long game, so if I were you, I would not give up. The love of Christ is longer than you think.
What about the height of Christ’s love? How high does it go? Let me tell you another story.
By the age of 30 Albert Schweitzer was an internationally known college professor, an accomplished organist, and a world class authority on Johann Sebastian Bach. He was, as they say, at the peak of his career. Then he had what amounted to a conversion experience. In his autobiography he wrote,
While at the University and enjoying the happiness of being able to study and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking continually of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health. Then one brilliant summer morning … there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it (quoted in Conversions, edited by Hugh Kerr and John Mulder, p. 190).
On October 13, 1905, at the age of 30, Albert Schweitzer resigned from his teaching and music positions and entered medical school as a first year medical student. He finished medical school, went to Africa, and founded a hospital which gave medical care to thousands of Africans with treatable diseases, including leprosy. Albert Schweitzer worked at this hospital for the next 60 years of his life, and in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.
What I like about this story is that it is not your typical conversion. Albert Schweitzer was not a drunk who hit bottom and found God after the failure of his business or marriage. He was a success. He was at the peak of his career and enjoying it. But even at the peak, even at the heights, he discovered that God was not finished with him yet, that the love of God was higher than he had yet imagined.
It occurs to me that many of you here this morning are not at the bottom of your lives. You are not reeling from a business failure or the breakup of your marriage. You are not, at the moment, in some form of crisis, gasping for air and feeling like you are about to drown. You have had successful careers, you have raised your family, you have accomplished some important things, and now you are wondering if God has anything in mind for the rest of your life. The answer is yes. Even at the high points of your life, when things are going well and you feel blessed, even then God may use you in unexpected ways, if you are open to it. How high is God’s love? Higher than you have yet imagined.
But it also goes lower. How deep is God’s love? Here is one last story. In the Netherlands, in the city of Haarlem, there is a house you can visit at one time occupied by the Ten Boom family. The Ten Booms were not Jewish; they were devout Christians. But during the Nazi occupation of Holland, they felt it was part of their Christian mission to help Jewish families escape the Nazis, so they hid some of them in their house. When their hiding place was discovered, the Ten Booms were arrested and sent to different concentration camps. The children, Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom, never saw their parents again. However, the two sisters managed to stay with each other, despite being moved to three different prison camps, each worse than the one before. Corrie eventually survived the camps, but Betsie did not. However, just before she died Betsie made this remarkable statement to her sister. She said, “Corrie, we must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell than that no pit is so deep that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been there” (The Hiding Place, p. 215).
How deep is God’s love? Deeper than anything you will ever experience.
The composer of Psalm 139 puts it this way:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there [that’s how high the love of God goes]; if I make my bed in Sheol [the world of the dead], you are there [that’s how low the love of God goes]. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, [that’s how wide and long God’s love is], even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Those are the dimensions of God’s immeasurable love: a love that will embrace you and work through you no matter how high, low, wide, or far you may go.