Sermon transcript for March 3, 2013
The Tenacity of Grace
Belmont UMC—March 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I first met Tom when he started coming to church with his girlfriend. After they were engaged he and his fiancé began coming for premarital counseling. Tom was a friendly guy. He owned a small fencing company so he was strong and ruddy from being outdoors all the time and engaged in physical labor. After we began the counseling sessions he would often call me and asked if he could stop by for conversation. He’d come in my office at the end of the day, covered in dirt and mud, go in the washroom off my office, clean up and change into a clean T-shirt. I enjoyed those conversations but I always felt he was holding back something.
I learned that Tom’s mother had died when he was in middle school and I knew that event was a turning point for him. He hadn’t attended church since his mother died and he was a little surprised by the new experience. What surprised him most was how kind everyone was to him. The older ladies who sat near him and his fiancé on Sunday mornings always welcomed him and told him how glad they were to see him. They would give him gentle hugs during passing the peace. Those embraces reminded him of his mother.
Tom decided he wanted to be baptized and join the church so we set a date and we talked through several sessions about the meaning of baptism. On the Saturday night before his baptism he called me. He was obviously upset and I had difficulty understanding what he was saying; he was crying. I said, “Tom, I’m worried about you. Meet me at the office in half an hour.” I drove to the church and waited for him in my office. He burst through the door, fell on his knees and wept. I’d never seen a person cry with that much intensity. I knelt down beside him and put my arm on his shoulder and waited until he could talk. He kept saying over and over again, “I can’t be baptized; I’m not good enough.”
Over the next hour Tom poured out his story. When his mother died, his father started drinking a lot, and when he was drunk he became violent and beat Tom and his little brother. Tom said that the worst part was not the beating but what his father said to him. He told him, “You are worthless. You’ll never amount to anything.” (I’m cleaning the actual language quite a bit for church.)
After the first beating, Tom ran to a friend’s house. His friend helped wipe the blood off Tom’s face and then offered him a joint of marijuana. The drug helped ease his pain. After that Tom turned to marijuana and other drugs to ease the emotional pain of his life. His father quit beating him when Tom was big enough to fight back, but he kept using drugs. Every time he used drugs, he could hear his father telling him how worthless he was. Tom said, “I’ve been clean for a year now, but you can see I’m not baptism worthy. I’m not worth anything and I’ve always known it.”
Over the next hour I talked with Tom about baptism as a sign that he is a child of God; that God had loved him from the beginning of his life and that God’s love gives him and all of us worth. It is this love that redeems us. I told him that his father had been wrong and his baptism would be a new beginning and a new way of seeing the world and seeing himself in it.
I did not give him the option of backing out of the baptism. The next day standing with him at the chancel and beside the baptism font, we both cried through the whole service. No one in the congregation knew what the tears were for, but I think I understood the power of baptismal water more that day than ever before.
Jesus told a parable about a fig tree, a fig tree that did not bear fruit. Every year for three years, the vineyard owner came looking for fruit on that tree and found none. The vineyard owner said, “It’s worthless, cut it down. It’s wasting soil. Cut it down.” But the gardener said, “Give it some time. I’ll cultivate around it and add some manure/fertilizer. Give it another chance.”
I’m not sure I’d be as patient as the gardener, but God is. God does not give up on God’s children. God is patient and waits for us to find our way to life and fruitfulness. There is nothing more tenacious than the grace of God. Last summer I threw a “dead” plant in the compost pile, a plant I’d given up on and finally yanked it out of the garden along with some weeds. In late summer I was surprised to find it sprouting in the pile of other dead leaves so I pulled it our and repotted it and it looks better than ever.
Who are we in this story? We may be the gardener who like God tends to the fruitless ones with love and patience until they come around and begin to live into their identity as fig trees, that is, as children of God. Transformations don’t take place over night and we need the time and patience that God gives us.
In the text some folks come to Jesus and ask him a hypothetical question. Sometimes people asked Jesus these questions to distract him or to trap him into saying something that sounded blasphemous. Jesus always had a way of turning the question back on the interrogator. He says it’s really about repentance. Repentance is about a complete new way of thinking and a new way of being in the world.
Who are we in this story? We may be the manure. Sorry if that offends anyone. We are to be the rich environment of love and hope that comes around another person and allows him/her space to come to know who and whose they are. Like those older ladies who greeted Tom with gladness each week and hugged him during Passing the Peace. They were doing what came natural to them and they never realized that their love was creating an environment of acceptance and care, a rich soil for his transformation. They created an environment for repentance to happen in his life, repentance that allowed him to see things differently, to see himself as a child of God.
We have lots of baptisms here at Belmont and that’s a sign of our vitality. But we must not let the language of the baptismal liturgy grow stale. This is our promise to each baptized person. “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” These words are full of grace and promise. At Belmont we begin to surround persons with love and forgiveness long before they make it to the Baptismal font.
Reflection question: Think of someone who needs you to provide a rich environment of grace for them. Picture them in your mind. Pray for them and carry them in prayer throughout this holy season.
Sermon transcript for February 17, 2013
Free Lunches, Power Trips, Quick Fixes
Luke 4:1-1-13 First Sunday in Lent
Belmont UMC—February 17, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
One of my favorite movies is the 2000 film, Chocolat, based on the novel by the same name (writer, Joanne Harris). Chocolat tells the story of a young mother, Vianne, who arrives in a repressed French village with her six year old daughter and opens a Chocolaterie. The village is a very serious little place under the leadership of a severe and unhappy mayor, whose countenance is reflected in the faces of the people. The cinematographer does a wonderful job of capturing the environment of the town in the use of monotones of gray and brown. Vianne arrives with her daughter, both wearing bright red capes, in contrast to the town and we know immediately that something is about to happen.
The time is the beginning of Lent and Vianne opens her chocolaterie across the street from the church. Beautiful, mysterious chocolates begin to adorn the front window of her shop and the contrast between the chocolates and the town’s Lenten observance is stunning. One by one Vianne wins over the people of the village with her happy and gregarious personality. The conflicts between Vianne and Mayor Renaud grow more intense throughout the movie until she decides to move on to another place. A group of townspeople come to encourage her to stay and each has a story of how she has changed their lives.
At the end of the movie the staunch Mayor breaks into the chocolaterie on the day before Easter and destroys the beautiful display of chocolates in the window. But to his surprise, a small piece of the chocolate drops on his lip and he gives in to the seduction, devours the chocolate, collapses in tears and falls asleep in the window. Vianne finds him there the next morning and agrees to keep his secret, vows to stay and live in the small town that has been transformed by her presence.
I have told a story that has made the first week of Lent more difficult for those who have given up chocolate for the season. Lent is about our identity, not our ability to resist chocolate for 40 days. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness defines Jesus’ identity as the son of God, as the one who will not take the easy path in this life, the one whose power is centered in servanthood, not aggrandizement. Jesus spent 40 days of reflection and preparation for what his future would hold.
“The devil said to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (v. 3) In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to make bread from a stone, but Jesus has come to the wilderness to fast. Fasting is not designed to starve a person, but to feed the soul, to make space in the soul for God. During Lent fasting is not only about giving up food in the spiritual discipline of fasting but replacing the time spent in eating and meal preparation with prayer and meditation. It would be easy for the man who can turn water into wine to make bread out of stones, but we do not live by bread alone. We have spiritual needs and spiritual hungers and fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead. As fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead, so it prepares us as well.
When I was in seminary, the spiritual life department proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting during Lent. Posters had gone up all over campus calling students and faculty to participate. We all knew about it but we were too busy learning how to be pastors to attend to such spiritual disciplines.
The day of the fast arrived and at lunch time we lined up at the only place on campus for food, the cafeteria. Instead of the usual two lines, only one line was open and the line was long. I still recall the look on the face of the cafeteria manager as he walked up and down the line, wringing his hands and saying, “I thought you were supposed to be fasting today. We did not prepare enough food. Why are you here?”
Chances are we won’t be fasting this Lent, because we won’t understand the value in it. We are so accustomed to satisfying every hunger, every hint of loneliness and isolation, every moment of silence, with something, anything that prevents us from being alone with ourselves and our feelings.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that the empty space within us belongs to God and the simplest definition of addiction is anything we use to fill that space other than God. She writes, “The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers in our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole. To enter the wilderness is to leave them behind.” She invites us to live with the emptiness for a bit and see what we find out. It’s possible that the emptiness of fasting will remind us to make room for the God who calls us children of God and who loves us with all God’s being. (Home by Another Way, p. 67)
From a high place where he could see all the kingdoms of the world, the devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms.” (v.5) Jesus is tempted with power, but being prepared to follow God’s plan meant learning that power is found in servanthood, not in self-serving displays. Jesus shunned the flashy, attention getting events. He would heal people and instruct them to tell no one. On the way to Jerusalem two of his disciples would ask him if they might sit on his left and his right in his coming kingdom. He scolded them, saying, “You do not know what you are asking.”
Jesus criticized those who lord power over others and taught that the mission of our lives in serving others, not ourselves. Jesus came as a servant, not a political leader or conquering hero. Consequently, many rejected him. But he came to teach us that there is no place for power trips in the kingdom of God.
The forty days of Lent prepares us to be God’s servants, calling us away from the temptation of the world to rise to the top, stepping on others on the way up. There are no ladders of success in the kingdom and we have 40 days to come to terms with this reality.
“Do whatever you want, and God will protect you.” the devil said. (v. 9) I’ve known folks who believed that. Jesus did not come to be protected; he had come with a mission. He came to show us what God is like and to do that he had to suffer and he continues to suffer with us when we are wounded by the realities of this world.
We want the God of the quick fix. We want a God who will always protect us from the hurts and pains we might experience. We want a God who will give us pat answers to all our questions and we want all of this now, right now. We know from human experience that it doesn’t work that way. We will all experience suffering, loss, defeat, sadness, disappointment, and failure. And we need to be prepared.
The people I have known who have spent significant time alone with God, in prayer, in study, in reflection are those who are better prepared to live victoriously and hopefully everyday, in spite of what they face. Because the Jesus who said “no” to the devil in the wilderness is the Jesus who says “yes” to us when we are suffering and he comes along side of us and gives us courage, comfort and hope.
You have heard this quote from Frederick Buechner before, but here it is one more time. “After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
It means more than giving up chocolate for 40 days. It can be a little frightening like looking in the mirror first thing in the morning, before we’ve had time to comb our pillow hair and put on our make up. It’s frightening because who we see is who we are. It means bringing all we are to the wilderness, all our baggage, all our painful memories, our broken hearts, our history of failure, and our weird idiosyncrasies. We come to allow our emptiness to speak to us of God and hope and identity.
This is a process and there are no quick fixes to our humanness. It takes time but with Christ, everyday, we can learn and grow and find our way, our identity as the children of God.
REFLECTIVE QUESTION: Today I want you to capture in your mind one person, one person who typifies the servant ministry of Jesus, one person who has been to the wilderness and come back again, changed. Ask yourself, how can this person’s life example lead me on this journey of Lent?