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Sermon transcript for April 5, 2015

Easter Power
John 20:1-18
Belmont UMC—April 5, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

I receive Sunday School class emails and updates from many classes and in one church I served the class communicator would include a summary of what she thought I had said in the Sunday sermon, for those who had missed church. I was always interested to read what she thought I said. Sometimes she was spot on, but most of the time she wrote of a very different version of the sermon than what I had actually said. Sometimes her version was an improvement of the sermon.

Tom Long shares a story about Clint Tidwell, who was a pastor of a church in a small Southern town, and one of his blessings—and one of his curses—was that the 80 year old owner and editor of the local newspaper was a member of the congregation. The blessing was that the editor believed Tidwell was a fine preacher and he wanted the whole town to know it, so he published a summary of Tidwell’s sermons every Monday morning in the paper. The curse part was that the editor, though well meaning was a bit eccentric, and Tidwell was often astonished and sometimes embarrassed by the editor’s synopses.

Tidwell’s deepest amazement came not when the newspaperman misunderstood the sermon, but when he understood it all too clearly. It was early on a Monday morning after Easter. Tidwell, in his bathrobe and slippers, paddled out the carport door to retrieve the morning paper. He could see that the morning headline was in “second coming” size type. Had war broken out? Had the banks failed? What had happened in the dark of night while he slept?

As he drew close he was startled to read in giant bold letters, TIDWELL CLAIMS JESUS CHRIST ROSE FROM THE DEAD! His face turned red. Yes he had proclaimed that news in worship but what would the neighbors think. You are supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that’s not like saying that some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it? As he looked at the glaring headlines he felt a little foolish. (Tom G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter)  So what about us? Does the Easter story ring true and is it filled with power?

One might think the title of the sermon to be a bit unusual but the word “power” is associated with Easter and the resurrection in the New Testament. The word “power” may evoke a lot of different thoughts and it’s a word that has the ability to attract a lot of connotations, some of which are negative, like “power trips, power corrupts or abuse of power.”

But the power of Easter, the power that comes out of the story of the resurrection is very different. Paul speaks of this in his letter to Philippi, “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (3:10 CEB) This was important to Paul because he believed he had encountered the Risen Cross on the Damascus Road. The idea that the resurrection has power is present throughout the New Testament.

The resurrection of Jesus is the key event in the Gospels that transformed the disciples from fearful, betraying, questioning followers, into leaders of the early church. They were so convinced that the affirmation, “Christ is risen!” was true that most of them would die for their faith.

But do we believe this and are we prepared to declare that the Easter is a real event that has power in our lives today?

Easter is a little hard on our faith but it was hard on those first century Christians as well. As someone said, “Death has been around for a long time.”  And people in the first century knew the reality of death better than we do in our sterilized, death-denying attempts to avoid the whole subject altogether. We expect death but we can get a little unsure about resurrection.

Easter was hard on the faith of Mary who is weeping in the garden because she thought Jesus’ body had been stolen. Mary thought the man she encountered was a gardener. Why would she think otherwise?  She did not expect to encounter the Risen Christ. When she hears her name, she hears something familiar, something powerful and knowing—wonder and surprise leap up inside of her and she responds by calling him “Rabbi.” He speaks to her and she runs to tell the others, “I have seen the Lord.” 

But Easter changes everything for the disciples and it changes everything for us. Easter is a powerful event.

Easter is power in the face of death!  For those early Christians, who faced great hardship and persecution, the words, “Because he lives, you will live also,” were a source of hope and encouragement. These words continue to speak hope and encouragement to us as well.

I preached an Easter sermon a couple of Saturdays ago. It was the funeral sermon for our friend, Gabe Segovia. Gabe, who died on his 45th birthday, was an amazing young man who was a blessing for us all. He learned he had a brain tumor when he was 41 and he went through 3 bouts of cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

I told the crowd at his funeral that Gabe did not lose his battle with cancer. He won because he did not let cancer take anything of value away from him. Instead he turned the disease on its head and used it to teach him how to live fully. It  led him to a profound experience of faith in God—a story that he told in many, many churches. He was here a couple of Sundays before he died and he hugged me and said, “I love you, Pastor Ken.” Then he took a selfie of the two of us to post on Facebook. I often wonder how many selfies he has taken over the last few years.

Gabe would tell us that he believed that Christ is risen, because the risen Christ came to him, loved him and transformed him in a powerful way. He would tell us that as a member of the Homeless Ministry Team here at Belmont, he had encountered the living Christ in service to our homeless neighbors.

I can’t imagine preaching Gabe’s funeral if I did not believe in the power of the resurrection. Gabe believed it fully. Easter doesn’t get any more real than this.

Easter is power in the midst of life!  I listened as my friend, Michael, prayed for us the other day. He said something like this, “Death, darkness and defeat do not have power over us anymore because Jesus took those things with him into the tomb and left them there.” The resurrection gives us new life and new hope in living everyday. It is transformational.

The great missionary, E. Stanley Jones, in his autobiography, tells about a man from Africa that he met who had changed his name to “After” immediately after his conversion. He reasoned that all things were new and different and important after he met Christ, so he was going to reflect that new reality in his name as well as in his thinking. (A Song of Ascents, p. 16) After Easter, nothing is the same again.

This Easter power is manifest in the transformation and work of the Christian community. In his book, The Bible Makes Sense, Walter Brueggemann, explores themes of the Bible and what they mean. In a chapter titled, “From Death to Life” he notes that life always means relatedness. “Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning and action.” (p. 109)

Brueggemann references the story of the mentally ill man who is consigned to live among the tombs, which for society meant that he was as good as dead. (Mark 5:2). Jesus heals the man and sends him home. He restores him to health and to his community from which he has been excluded. This is an Easter story.

Brueggemann notes that the “the early Christians were not much interested in the mechanics of (Jesus) coming out of the tomb, but they were mightily moved by his present power to gather outcasts around him to form a new community. Resurrection is the good news that the banished, destroyed one, is the one (the only one) who has the power to create a new community.” (pp. 115-116) Radical hospitality is an expression of the power of the resurrection.

Today we read the beautiful Easter story out of the Gospel of John. But there are new Easter stories being written every week in this church and in every place where people seek to follow the Risen One. These Easter stories are written in every act of kindness and in every word of encouragement. They are written when the hungry are fed, and the homeless are welcomed in. They are written when our hospitality models the welcome of Jesus, who excluded no one. They are written when love and justice win.

In the words of Brian McLaren, Easter “feels like an uprising. An uprising of hope, not hate. An uprising armed with love, not weapons. An uprising that shouts a joyful promise of life and peace, not angry threats of hostility and death. It’s an uprising of outstretched hands, not clenched fists. It’s the “someday” we have always dreamed of, emerging in the present, rising up among us and within us. . . . This is what it means to be alive, truly alive.” (We Make the Road by Walking, p. 170)

So let tomorrow’s bold headline read that your pastor and pastors all over this city, claimed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Because the Lord is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Sermon transcript for March 29, 2015

“Bystanders Becoming Cross-bearers”
Mark 15:15-26
Belmont UMC—March 29, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

Here we are at the beginning of Holy Week; the season of Lent seemed to go by quickly this year. I took the time to read through many of the passages that we will consider as we move through the coming week. Every year we come face to face with the events in the last week of Jesus’ life. Every year we stop and look and listen with awe and dismay. The story inspires us and troubles us. The story changes us and draws us closer to God, giving us a fresh glimpse at the wonder of God’s incredible love.

I was asked to write a reflection for the Station of the Cross based on the Gospel reading and it stayed with me all week. Simon of Cyrene, a bystander is compelled by soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus. Each year I’ve read that part of the story, but this year I was struck by the way the lives of these 2 persons, Simon and Jesus, come together along the way of the cross.

Cyrene is a name that comes up several times in the New Testament. Located in what is modern day Libya, it was a place where a large number of Jewish people lived and we see them coming to Jerusalem as pilgrims at Passover and Pentecost (Acts 2). Mark, who is not big detail, gives us this subtle clue, calling Simon “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” Why would Mark add this detail? It is obvious that these two men were known by the early Christian community. This may be Mark’s subtle way of saying that Simon became a Christian, a follower of the Way.

In our story he is a bystander, like thousands of other pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—to pay the temple tax, the make a sacrifice, and to eat the Passover meal. Simon is likely a religious, dutiful, keeper of the law. He is an ordinary person, from an ordinary place, looking upon an extraordinary scene.

The week had begun with an unusual little parade—a man named Jesus was riding into the city on a donkey. It was festive and celebratory. But the mood has changed and the quietness of tragedy hangs in the air. The cheers of Palm Sunday have become the jeers of Good Friday.

Simon watches a man carrying a wooden cross beam. He’s seen this before. The Romans used crucifixion freely as way of punishing criminals and sometimes for no good reason at all. The man with the cross is wounded and there is blood and sweat on his face and torso. The man stumbles. Simon watches, like one looks at the scene of a car wreck—looking but not wanting to look at the same time. Simon watches as the man falls. The soldiers are becoming impatient; they want Jesus to move along, quit holding things up. They want to get this over with.

Suddenly, Simon is pulled from the edge of the crowd, “You! You help him carry it!” There he is, shoulder to shoulder with the man they call Jesus. They look at each other as they come along side one another. Simon gently lifts the cross off the Jesus’ wounded back and he hears Jesus exhale with a great sigh of relief.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem with his disciples. They had not understood why he felt it necessary to make this dangerous trip into a city of enemies, but they would in time.

I’m always struck by how alone Jesus must have felt, even when surrounded by a multitude of people. And he’d felt alone long before he arrived in Jerusalem. There were days when no one seemed to understand his teaching. There was the day they threatened him in his own home town. There was a day when many left him and quit following him and he turned and asked the disciples, “Will leave me, also?”

In Jerusalem he knew he would be alone, tried alone, and crucified alone. He prayed in Gethsemane and asked God for a new plan and there his disciples fell asleep and could not keep him company. On the cross he would cry out to God in words from the Psalms (Ch. 22), “My God, my God, why have you left me all alone?”

He carried the cross alone. Already beaten and too weak to make the journey to Golgotha. He feels the weight lifted from his wounded shoulders and looks into the eyes of a stranger, Simon.

And there we are—bystanders, ordinary people from ordinary places, spectators, looking but wanting to look away. We could have been there. We could have been called from the sidelines and compelled to carry the cross. And there we would come shoulder to shoulder with Jesus, side by side.

We do come alongside Jesus during this Holy Week. We take a closer look at Jesus and remember his life and what he did. He healed the sick, even those with leprosy and those who had been cast to the margins. He included everyone and turned no one away. He taught with authority, like one from God. He forgave those who thought they could never be forgiven.  He loved those who would say, “God could never love me.”

Alongside Jesus this week, we see the world as it really is. We see the failings of our humanity. We see our fickleness and shortsightedness. We see our mob mentality and our cruelty. We see our reluctance to forgive or to see the best in others. We see our tendency to exclude. We see our prejudices.

This week our lives and the life of Jesus come together in a new meaningful way and we will likely be changed by it.

I remember singing a hymn when I was kid. “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”  I never liked that hymn, because it troubled me. I didn’t want to bear a cross—it suggested a cruel and harsh side of life I wanted to avoid.

But the cross represents the extent of God’s love for the world. Madeline L’Engle wrote, “What one of us can understand a love so great that we would willingly limit our unlimitedness, put the flesh of mortality over our immortality, accept all the pain and grief of humanity, submit to betrayal by that humanity, be killed by it, and die a total failure (in human terms) on a common cross between two thieves?”  (source unknown)

I was in High School and it was Holy Week. I was having a cool relationship with the church, but I kept showing up, because it’s what we did. The Youth were asked to have a Good Friday service and I was asked to participate. I was busy working in town and on the farm. I said I can be there but I can’t make the rehearsal. So they asked me to process the cross. Someone had made it for the service. It was crude and thick and extremely heavy. I weighed about 140 pounds, and I could barely lift it. The congregation began singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” The words of that spiritual have always had an effect on me. It seemed like a simple thing to do but under the weight of that cross I began to feel something. I held back tears as I walked down the aisle and the words, “This is how much God loves us,” came to my mind. I never forgot that.

A year later, in my first year of college, my life turned around and I found renewed faith in God. I wonder if that is what happened with Simon.

Today we stand in the crowds and watch as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. We wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!” But we do not fully understand what this parade is all about.

On Thursday we will sit at the table with Jesus and the disciples and celebrate Passover. He will tell us that one of us will betray him. We will turn to one another and ask, “Is it I?”  And we will be stunned by these words and even more stunned when our Rabbi/ Teacher gets up from the table and begins to wash our feet.

On Friday we will walk with him to Gogotha and watch him die. We will celebrate and reenact these events in worship on Thursday and Friday and we hope a lot of you will come. But I do think these worship services should come with warning labels. I think it was Annie Dillard who said that people who go to church should wear crash helmets. The may be a crash helmet kind of week for us. For if you come these services, your life may be changed by the power of God’s transforming love.

We do not carry crosses but we do carry the power of God’s transforming love into the whole world-to everyone. We do carry the grace of God’s forgiveness which is extended to everyone. We are called from the sidelines the carry the message of good news, the message of healing, hope and liberation to everyone. Thanks be to God!


Sermon transcript for March 22, 2015

Now is the Time: We Shall All Be Changed
John 12:20-33, CEB
March 22, 2015 – Belmont United Methodist Church
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Family debates were predictable whenever we gathered at my grandparents’ Alabama home. Usually they began to brew at the dinner table, and then we’d carry the friendly chaos with our dessert plates into the sprawling living room where aunts, uncles, and grandparents claimed chairs and sofas, while cousins of every age spread out on the floor.

Topics spanned religion and world events, best fishing holes and worst politicians, and we could count on a few voices to routinely carry the conversation into the afternoon or night. Yet every once in awhile, one of us who was typically a listener, would chime in – and I can still hear my grandfather say, “Well, another country’s heard from,” which everyone understood to really mean make room for a new voice in the family.

Chaos is also brewing in our reading today, because crowds of noisy people with competing purposes have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Here, in a public space vibrating with predictable Passover buzz, our Gospel writer, John, asks us to make room for a new voice – another “country” so to speak – for “some Greeks” who simply ask “to see Jesus” (v. 21).

Now it’s important for us to know that just a few verses ago, Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem, and are immediately surrounded by a diverse and needy mass of people. John writes that some need to be part of Jesus’ Welcome Committee, palm branches in hand – hoping against hope that Jesus is the king who’ll turn life upside down in their favor. Curiosity seekers need to be wowed, need another miraculous sign, like Lazarus being raised from the dead. Jesus’ disciples (at least eleven of them) need to be reassured that they’re headed in the right direction, because lately Jesus has been talking about things going wrong. And Judas, well he just needs Jesus to irritate him one more time, just enough to push him over the line of no-return, while the power wielders – and there are always power wielders in the crowd – the Pharisees, political leaders, and government officials need Jesus to be destroyed because he keeps causing them to lose their grip on crowd control.

“Look!” the power-wielders say to each other, “The whole world is following him!” (v. 19). Which is our cue to mix into the Passover crowds where we come upon those “Greeks” I mentioned before, the ones now standing in front of Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, and we overhear them saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). But the Greeks want more than a visual sighting of the man from a distance; they want to meet with the Human One. In fact, according to Biblical scholars, what their words really mean is “we want to become his disciples.” The Greeks of our scripture want to become disciples of Jesus, and how does Philip respond? He goes to a fellow Jesus-follower, Andrew, and tells about their request. Then, after talking it over, Philip and Andrew decide to go find Jesus, where they tell him what these Greeks are asking for.

Now I confess that this is where our passage gets a little disappointing for me, because I expect Jesus to instruct Andrew and Philip either “let the Greeks come to me,” as he does for the little children, or “take me to them,” like the time Jesus follows Jairus home to heal the synagogue leader’s dying daughter.

But what comes out of Jesus mouth doesn’t come close to my expectations, which is often the case when I listen to Jesus. And what he does, or actually doesn’t do, is an even greater let down for me. In this text Jesus never meets with the Greeks at all, but instead leaves them to wait in the dust of Jerusalem.

Now we don’t know everything about these waiting intruders, but historians write that they were likely Gentile proselytes – converts to Judaism - who came to Jerusalem for the Passover feast along with all the others. What John does make quite clear by his choice of words is that they are not Greek-speaking Jews, but rather are representatives of the Gentile community of Jesus’ day. So this delegation in our text represents a new group, an “outside” collection of people who hear about Jesus and come to join him as disciples. Yet when these Gentiles show up, members of Jesus’ inner circle, Philip and Andrew to be specific, treat them more as a curiosity, just another report of the “movement” to give to Jesus. Notice that no room is made for the Gentile voices to be heard. No path is cleared for them to see Jesus; no safe space offered to them. And it appears in our reading that at first the only response they get to their request is silence - even from Jesus who seems to fall prey to an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of quiet about them.

Then somewhere in that distance between the inside crowds and the dusty edge, Jesus breaks the quiet, and breaks any delusion we might have had that silence would ever be his response to anyone seeking to follow him. “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified,” Jesus says, when Andrew and Philip return to the inner circle of disciples after leaving the Gentiles behind (v. 23). “The time has come,” he tells the crowd gathered around him, to choose life or death, love or hate, past or future because “Now is the time for judgment of this world” (v. 31), (Jesus’ words, not mine). Not yesterday, according to John’s Gospel, not tomorrow, but now – now is the time for everything to be changed because some Gentiles, some “others,” some “outsiders,” have asked to join his disciples, yet still his closest followers, the ones who have been with him the longest, do not yet understand his mission.

You know, as long as there have been disciples of Jesus, there have been some followers on the inside and other followers on the outside asking to be let in. In the early church, Gentiles, like those in our reading, were kept on the edge, waiting for full acceptance while church leaders debated the pros and cons, the how’s and how not’s of membership. For centuries, women were denied access to full discipleship, while scripture and tradition were used to teach that we are created as inferior beings, ill equipped for and destructive to church leadership. History painfully reveals that for far too-long-a-time people of color in the body of Christ were enslaved, rejected, and even destroyed, often in the name of Christian discipleship. Yet Jesus has never stopped saying to every generation of the church: The time has come for judgment of this world. Now is the time to become my disciples.

As one who seeks to follow Jesus in this time and in this place with you at Belmont United Methodist Church, I have witnessed, first-hand, your exemplary discipleship on many fronts. But in recent times, in recent weeks, my life has been changed by your discipleship of welcome, inclusion, love, and justice on behalf of part of our family that has far too often been denied full inclusion in Christ’s church. I am speaking of God’s beloved children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

Now I know with you that we do not all think alike about sexual orientation and its implications for the church. But I do believe, as did our spiritual founder John Wesley, that we can all love each other alike, because love is from God who created us all. Yet some unloving words are being used in Jesus’ name and on our behalf to again create insiders and outsiders within the body of Christ. In this time for our denomination, I have come to believe – actually, I have come to know by serving with you in this congregation – that this language is doing harm to people we love. There are words in our official denominational books that tell some here that as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender persons they are “incompatible” with the teachings of Jesus.  And if you hear this language aimed at you long enough, it becomes too often a path to begin to wonder if you are also incompatible with the love of God.

Brothers and sisters, there are words in our current United Methodist language, that I do now believe are causing harm, permitting injustice, and fuelling hate against some people to whom we are joined as family through our baptism. I have come to believe this because of the personal experiences and stories many of our brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents have shared with me in this congregation. And through my ministry here and deepening life with God through prayer, holy conversation, and reading of scripture, I am convinced that these words do not speak for Jesus. Yet, as long as this language remains in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline, people in the world will believe that the words do speak for all of us. This will be true unless we join together in love to change the words.

I have come to a place in my faith where I believe that much of our denomination’s language about homosexuality breaks God’s heart. And I have come to believe that any word-barriers we craft or use to divide us into insiders and outsiders within the body of Christ are contrary to the teachings of Jesus, and that this same Jesus, the Word made flesh, was sent by God into this world so that by Christ’s Love we can learn to be drawn together, not kept apart.

Love that once changed our prejudicial language about women in the church. Love that once removed our discriminatory words about people of color.  Love that continues to speak the truth to us, to all of us, whether or not we think alike - Jews and Gentiles; men and women; all ages, nations, and races; all sexual orientations and gender identities; believers and doubters; poor and rich; Bishops and laity; hopers and dreamers. Love that has the power and purpose to bring us together as God’s beloved people.

“For this is the reason that I have come to this time,” Jesus cries out to us from the Gospel of John to this Passover feast; to this place; to this Cross; to the humiliation, diminishment, and suffering he will soon bear on our behalf through the streets of Jerusalem and beyond. And for this reason Jesus has come to this time so that everyone who seeks him will find him where they are, and that no one, ever again, will have to wait for the Love of God to come to them.  You see, now is the time, from this day forward to the Cross and Resurrection, when we shall all be changed (1 Cor. 15:51, RSV).

1 See “The Nurturing Community,” The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church.


Sermon transcript for March 15, 2015

God’s Gift
John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10
Belmont UMC—March 15, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

“You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way we live our lives.”  (Ephesians 1:8-10 CEB)

When our youngest was a little guy, less than 2 years of age, we went to the city of Quebec on a vacation. We stayed in a little hotel in the historic part of the city. We happened to be there when they were celebrating Quebec Day, on June 24th. There were lots of people in the streets as many people had come into the city for the celebration.  The best way to get around with this little boy was to carry him on a backpack and he loved being up high, at eye level with the people. He had this habit of picking out someone in the crowd and staring at them until he got their attention. Then they would look at him and respond with delight and laughter, saying something in French. And the little boy would respond with equal delight. He did this everyday and it was wonderful to watch this joyful interaction.

Kathleen Norris describes a similar scene in at an airport departure gate. A young couple was there with an infant. “The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, not matter if it was young,   old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking, he would respond with absolute delight.”

“It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt awe-struck . . . because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. . . . I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see that way.” (Amazing Grace, p. 151). This is how Norris understands the mystery of grace—God taking delight in us.

We think of grace as a synonym for the love of God, love that is given to us not because we deserve it, but because it is the nature of God to love the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God loved the world so much that he was sent to be the full expression of God’s love for us. (John 3:16)

Grace is key to understanding our Methodist heritage. I spent some time last week listening to persons coming or ordination and commissioning to begin the process toward becoming ordained clergy, and we wanted to hear them articulate of the three movements of grace. Our Confirmation Class is learning about this and we talked about in Methodism 101 last week.

John Wesley, our founder, taught that grace came in three movements. First, we experience prevenient grace, the grace that comes before everything. God draws us to God’s self with grace, through the inspiration of others, through the beauty of nature. God seeks us out and draw us toward the divine. It is the grace that leads to God. When we come to God and accept God’s love for us we experience justifying or saving grace--grace echoed in the passage from Ephesians.  Then we begin to grow in our faith and experience sanctifying grace—grace that allows us to be more like Christ.

Another word that is often associated with grace is favor—God’s favor. My late friend, Reverend Sandy Hodge, used to tell each of her children, “You are my favorite!” She used to tell her friends that as well. She said to me one day over lunch. “Ken, you know you are my favorite pastor friend.” I was touched by her generosity, until I heard her tell another pastor friend the same thing. How like God to treat each of us as God’s favorite—to favor us with divine love!

Anne Lamott says that grace is spiritual WD-40. She writes that “sometimes grace feels like water wings when you feel you are sinking.” She writes that her own attempts to make progress in life, in family, in work and in relationships are more like:  “scootch, scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch.”  Then grace comes along. She does “wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also that silver bells would ring to announce graces arrival.”  (Grace Eventually, p. 50-51)

The main thing to remember about grace is that it is God’s gift. And the truth about many of us is that we are not comfortable being on the receiving end of gifts. We have a work ethic that makes us want to earn everything.

When I was in college I had a friend who had run out of money for food. I came home to work on weekends and my parents would load me up with groceries and I shared these with my friend. I was glad to do it. One night he came to my room and said he’d received a check from his parents. He wanted to take me out to dinner. I refused, saying, “You can’t do that; you need the money.” I never forgot the look on his face, as he said tearfully, “If you can’t let me do this, I’m not sure we can be friends.”

In the foot washing story in John 13, Peter says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” (John 13:8)  We cannot be in relationship with anyone unless we allow ourselves to be on the receiving end of their kindness, their hospitality, their love. We cannot be in relationship with God unless we receive the gift of God in Christ—grace.

We have a beautiful crocheted blanket in our living room. It was made by the poorest woman in one church I served. We often had to pay her electric bills and fill her pantry to keep her from doing without. I still remember the day she brought this blanket into my study. Her name was Alice and I knew she sometimes sold blankets like this and I offered to pay her for it. She said, “You don’t understand. This is a gift because of all your kindness toward me.” Receiving that gift was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But receiving that gift was a glimpse of the kingdom and God smiled on both of us.

We like to say, “You have to earn my trust.” “You have to earn my respect.” “You have to earn my forgiveness.” But Jesus offers all of these unilaterally. These are gifts from God. This is God’s grace.

We used to have this little dog that we adored. He would run up to us when we came home and we would give him a treat. Actually, we did not give him a treat; we made him beg for it. He would stand on his hind legs as reach up as high as his head would go and then we would drop it in his mouth.

This is how we are with forgiveness. We say if you beg enough and long enough, I’ll forgive you, but the pattern of Jesus’ life was to say to everyone, “Your sins are forgiven,” even if they had not ask or sought forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gift of God. Forgiveness is grace. Is there someone we need to offer the grace of forgiveness?

Grace is not only a gift to us but the gift we offer to the world. Paul writes to the Ephesians that “this is what we were created for—to do these good things.” We are the grace bearers to our world. We do that when we forgive someone, when we are kind to someone who is hurting, when we lift someone’s burdens, or when we offer words of hope and encouragement.

Anne Lamott remembers a time when she was sinking and grace came to her like water wings. It came in the form of two friends who encouraged her, told her good things about herself. She writes, “Grace arrived, like the big, loopy stitches with which a grandmotherly stranger might baste your hem temporarily. When I awoke the next morning, I felt more kindly to myself. . . The spirit lifted me and now it holds on lightly, like my father’s hands around my ankles when I used to ride on his shoulders.” (Grace Eventually, pp. 57-58)

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of grace lately. Much of that has come from you. I’ve had a couple of long and exhausting weeks. They have been meaningful but tiring. I returned to my office on Wednesday afternoon, after being at a retreat. I was a part of the design team for the retreat so that meant long days and work, not retreating and rest. I checked my mailbox found two cards there amid the junk mail. They were both from young clergy friends, both handwritten cards, the kind people don’t send much these days. Both cards contained generous and kind words of gratitude for my presence in their lives.

They came just when I needed them. They came like the grace and for a few moments my office felt a bit like heaven and it was as though God was staring at me to get my attention, to love me, and to be delighted, as God does always, for all of us.



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