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
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.