Sermon transcript for March 15, 2015
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.
Sermon transcript for March 8, 2015
The Day Jesus Came to Church
Belmont UMC—March 8, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
The title of this sermon was not the first title but it was the one that wouldn’t go away. I thought it was odd, but it wouldn’t go away. So this is about the day Jesus came to church.
Then I recalled a comedy sketch I saw some years ago—I think it might have been on Saturday Night Live. A comedian was portraying a televangelist. He standing behind his gilded pulpit and he’s preaching and gesturing and telling the crowd what Jesus wants them to do. It was Jesus this and Jesus that, like he and Jesus are pretty thick.
Then an usher hands him a note that reads, “Jesus has just arrived in the studio and he has few things he wants to discuss with you.” The TV preacher gets a horrified look on his face and says, “He’s here? He’s really here in the studio?” Then he crouches down to hide behind the pulpit and attempts to sneak off the stage as though he’s been doing something terribly wrong.
In the Gospel story Jesus does not show up at church but he does show up at the Temple. The Temple is the center of Jewish faith and worship. By Jesus’ time synagogues existed in local areas where people gathered to hear the reading of the Torah and the rabbis would expound on the meaning of the texts. But the temple was the holiest place in the Jewish faith. The temple in Jesus’ day was always under construction. Herod was rebuilding the temple and Jesus comments on this building in the scripture.
When Jesus visited the Temple he was confronted by the busy, bustling scene in the courtyard. It was expected of Jesus to go to the temple during Passover, where he, like other Jewish people, would pay the Temple tax and offer a sacrifice.
The money changers were there to exchange the currency of travelers. The animal sellers were there, also. For the wealthy, this served as a convenience. For the poorer pilgrims this represented a harsh and oppressive obligation. The money changer and animal sellers distracted the pilgrims from the sense of sacredness.
I picture wall to wall people when I read this text. When I was in Jerusalem I went to an open air market on the day before the Sabbath. People were crammed in there buying food for the weekend. They were yelling, talking and laughing—kind of like a Nashville grocery store right before a snow storm. It was chaotic and wonderful. I imagine a similar scene at the temple.
Jesus is suddenly struck by the futility of the activity—the waste, the deception, the manipulation of God’s intentions for selfish human purposes. The terminal sickness of this religious system hit Jesus in the face and he reacted with whip-cracking anger. This does not seem premeditated.
Inside the temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place—the holy of holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant rested--a place that only the High Priest was allowed to visit. At the heart of the Ark was the Mercy Seat, a slab of gold resting on top of the Ark and guarded by cherubim. Nothing was on the Mercy Seat, no idol, no representation, only an empty place that is said to be for the divine imaginings of the people. This was a holy place where they could connect with their faith. Here they could imagine the God who had loved them and had been faithful to them over and over again.
Jesus’ reaction was against the intrusion of noise and unholy images into this sanctuary where people came to experience the presence and mercy of their God. Jesus is clearing the temple of these distractions. That’s what happened the day Jesus went to the temple.
What would happen if Jesus came in here today and sat down among us? Would he come with blessings or with a whip? Would he turn over some tables or would he smile on us? Are there systemic injustices in the church that Jesus would confront? Would we even recognize him? Or would we be too distracted to notice him? What would he look like?
Several years ago Jesus came to Mt. Juliet. I saw him walking along Lebanon Road. He was wearing a loose fitting robe and his feet were bare. He was carrying a large cross. It was quite surprising to see him as I was driving along the road to work at Grace UMC.
I pulled over to talk with him. This Jesus was a young man with long brown hair who had set out to walk across the country as Jesus, carrying nothing but a cross. His presence startled people, but they brought him bottles of water and sandwiches and invited him to stay in their homes at night. He had not lacked for food or a place to lay his head. Sometimes they asked for his autograph. His presence made people slow down and think.
He said he had no political or personal agendas, but he felt led by God to walk across the country to allow Christ’s presence to speak to peoples’ hearts.
The coming of Christ into our typical Sunday morning would certainly have a profound impact on us and on what is important. Our attention would shifted away from own opinions, our pet peeves, our beloved traditions, our busyness, our talking and activity.
I suspect that all eyes would be on him. Nothing else would matter. It would be an experience we would never forget. It would change our lives. This space, this whole building would be made holy by the presence of Jesus.
I’ve thought about holy, sacred spaces a lot after reading this passage. My brother brought me a plate with the image of Mt. Zion UMC, in Robertson County. He found it at among my family’s things. There were two so he gave me one of them. This was the church where I was baptized as an infant, where I learned the stories of Jesus in Sunday School, where I was nurtured in the early days of faith and where I went through Confirmation. We went to Vacation Bible School there in the summers and in December we dressed up as shepherds for the annual Christmas pageant. When I think of prevenient grace, the grace that leads to God, I think of this little, white framed church. In later years I would return to this church, as the family chaplain, to lead the funerals of beloved aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s a holy place for me.
During the last winter blast, several small churches burned to the ground. The images of them reminded me of Mt. Zion. I saw photos of them on Facebook and on the evening news. I heard people tell, through their tears, of how much these buildings had meant to them, and how sad it was to lose these places of worship.
In 70 A.D. the temple in Jerusalem would be completely destroyed and it has never been rebuilt. People would never again come there to offer sacrifices. The holy place was gone, the Ark was gone, and the Mercy Seat was destroyed.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (v. 19) He was speaking of the temple of his body, not the temple built by human hands over forty-six years. Jesus is the temple which has come from God, who will always be with us, no matter where we are.
The people from those churches that burned over the past month said they would find a place and a way to gather on the Sundays after the fires. Jesus came to their churches on those Sundays, just as he had every Sunday, in those beautiful little white framed churches. His presence made all of those spaces holy places.
So we don’t come here to wonder “What if Jesus came to our church?” We come here every week to be in his presence, his loving and transforming presence. We invite him here at the beginning of the service and we make space in our hearts to experience his presence. We do recognize him, in the warm smiles and the tender embraces of friends. We see him in the hands that welcome and feed the homeless. We see him on the faces of acolytes who bear his light into this space. We hear him calling to us through the music of choir and congregants singing hymns. We hear him as the Word is shared, and he challenges our complacency and our love for the status quo.
Here we enter into the holy place, made holy by the presence of Christ. Here we lay aside the distractions and our hearts that have been anxious all week are set at ease and turned back toward God. Here we are changed and renewed, because Jesus came to our church again today.