Sermon transcript for July 15, 2012
The Riches of God’s Grace
Belmont UMC—July 15, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
As I read and reread the Epistle lesson for today I found myself deeply moved by the beautiful brushstrokes set forth in these introductory words. And the sermon I began to imagine was not focused on these verses alone, but it swept through the words of this important little letter attributed to the Apostle Paul.
If there is any verse or phrase that caught my attention it was the phrase that spans verses seven and eight where Paul writes, “according to the riches of God’s grace that God has lavished on us.” This phrase seems to summarize all that Paul is writing. God has lavished grace on us. God has given grace freely and generously. And there are beautiful images that describe the generous grace of God.
This passage of 11 verses is actually one long sentence in Greek and it has been broken up into sentences in many modern translations. This makes it easier to read. In its original it is a sentence that would have made William Faulkner proud. And read as one long sentence it reflects an enthusiasm, an overflow of praise and gratitude, a doxology, a flood of thanksgiving. It expresses how much God’s grace means to us in the Christian community. It made me think of the way a child, in her excitement and exuberance about a new discovery or experience, will overflow with long sentences and enthusiasm.
It expresses all that God has set in motion for our lives and for the world, in the grace of Jesus Christ. At the heart of our relationship with God is this grace—the love of God given freely and unconditionally. Grace is our identity as a people of God.
Edwin Searcy suggests that the church must hear these words from Ephesians spoken in the thick accent of grace. He reminds us that while we hear Paul use the words of grace: blessed, chosen, beloved, adopted, many in the congregation may be more familiar with other words: fated, shameful, guilty, and rejected. We may find some tension between what we are experiencing in the real world and what God seeks to offer to us. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, pp. 231-233)
Grace is the bridge between God and us. This is God’s doing and we cannot do this ourselves. There are no self-made Christians!
It has been suggested that one of the chief differences between Christianity and other religions is that many other religions focus on how one can reach God, but we believe that our experience is about God reaching to us.
We use language that expresses the opposite. We say, “I found God!” We did not find God; God found us. God pursued us and lavished on us the riches of grace. God bridged the gap for us and in the generosity of grace we have entered a relationship with God.
A young man said to me, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to get my father to love me.” That was a very sad conversation indeed. But that is not our experience with God. God is constantly reaching out to us, loving us, and hoping that love will be returned.
Paul writes in Ephesians that by the grace of God we are no longer aliens or strangers, but fellow citizens. We are made to feel like we belong. This is God’s doing, this is God’s grace, that makes it possible.
It was mentioned earlier that Reverend Linda Johnson’s father died earlier in the week. Knowing that I would not be back in time for the celebration of his life, I called Linda on Tuesday and I reminded her of my favorite story about her dad, a story that she told in one of her sermons. Linda likes to dance and it was her father who passed on this love for dancing to her when she was young. He would put an album on the record player and take her hands in his. She would place her little feet on top of his and he would dance her around the living room. For her this became a metaphor for her relationship with God and the grace that teaches us to live in harmony with the movements of God.
God’s grace has the power to break down walls that divide us. In Ephesians this wall is the dividing wall of hostility. This wall is symbolized by the temple wall that divided the places where Jews and Gentiles could gather. Years ago I watched my Grandfather pulling weeds that had sprouted in the crevice of a foundation wall. He said, “A little seed gets in there, a plant grows, and before you know it the whole wall comes down.”
As we sow the seeds of God’s grace, that take root in the fissures of human walls, God has the power to bring down the walls that divide us from each other and from God.
Friends, we are called to be the bearers of this grace to the world. We give witness to the power of God to heal, to redeem, to bless, to unite, to love. This is how we respond because God has lavished us with the riches of grace.
Three years ago 23 of us had just returned from a trip to South Africa and Swaziland. In Johannesburg we had the privilege of spending time with the volunteers of Come Back Mission, whose work focuses on the needs of the poor and marginalized, mostly folks who live in shantytowns. One of those shantytowns has the surprising name, Heavenly Valley. Heavenly Valley and many places like it were established by the apartheid government of relocation, when blacks were forced out of their homes and into segregated housing units. These government houses were considered temporary structures when they were erected 40 years ago, and they are still inhabited by the poorest of the poor who have no place to go. The houses are essentially 20 X 15 foot sheds that reminded me of the storage buildings Americans erect in their backyards to hold their extra stuff. Some of the homes are made of cast off plywood and pieces of metal roofs. They have no running water or electricity.
The people of Heavenly Valley were marginalized, forgotten, left to fend for themselves, but for 20 years Come Back Mission has been offering a redemptive word to the people of Heavenly Valley. They minister to those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug problems, and the poor. At Heavenly Valley we assisted in painting a preschool started by the Come Back Mission and we painted the home of the older couple living next to the preschool. We visited and prayed in the homes of the persons who lived there. The problems are so numerous—we wondered and asked if they felt like giving up. All of the volunteers were positive and hopeful. What we did on one day, these Christians have continued to do for 20 years.
Our guide on our visits was a small woman named Bernie, a woman who had grown up as an orphan, who had been mistreated under apartheid. She shared with us a story of being told by a white acquaintance that she was “no better than a dog” because of the color of her skin. Bernie is a compassionate fireball. In every home, Bernie, a Come Back Mission counselor, greeted each person with love and respect. She called them, “My sister” “My brother” “My child.” And then she asked us to pray for the persons in each home. It was important that we say the names of the persons to make them feel included. Everywhere Bernie goes she is a bearer of the grace of God.
As United Methodist we have the opportunity to be powerful witnesses to the grace of God, the grace that breaks down walls and welcomes all into God’s presence. We live in an increasingly polarized world, polarization that has built walls based on ideologies, prejudices and a kind of fundamentalism that says, “I’m right and you are wrong and therefore, I dismiss you and your ideas.” This wall building is exemplified by gridlock among our nation’s leaders.
There is ample evidence that the early church was a diverse group of people: rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, slave and free, male and female, from all over the Mediterranean World representing diverse points of view, diverse cultures and diverse ways of engaging the world.
We gather here, week after week, a very diverse group of Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and everything in between, rich and poor and middle class, conservatives and liberals and everything in between. And yet we gather at one table and eat from one loaf of bread and share from one cup. We love each other and forgive each other. We bear the grace of God to one another. We pass the peace of Christ among us as a sign that we are forgiven and forgiving people. And we work side by side to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. And in doing so we are reminded that this is not about us, but about something bigger than we could ever be. It is the grace of God that makes us who we are and our unity in the face of diversity is a powerful witness that God is at work among us and in the world.
And these are some of the ways we acknowledge that God has lavished us with grace. These are the ways we return love for love and say to this generous God, “We love you with heart, soul, mind and strength. Our lives are yours. This journey is not about us, but about you and about fulfilling your purposes in this world. Here we are, use us as bearers of your grace!”
Sermon transcript for July 8, 2012
Dare to Draw Close
July 8, 2012
Adam Kelchner, preaching
Audio - MP3
What is so captivating about power and authority when we see it embodied in flesh and blood? What draws us near to larger than life personalities whose very presence commands attention? A corporate manager who commands board room activities. A revered spiritual leader whose words let you see into the very depths of God’s imagination. A politician whose oratory and presence stirs the crowds into a frenzy. Perhaps you find yourself more naturally drawn to the power of nature, whether it be standing at the edge of a precipice overlooking sheer cliffs, natural gorges, and raging rivers or gazing at water rushing over majestic falls. If not in the mountains or somewhere like Niagara Falls, then perhaps on a sandy beach with waves breaking into tumultuous surf at your feet.
Somewhere. Someone. I think we’ve all been captivated, held in place by an encounter with sheer power. One evening, years ago at Annual Conference, the conference preacher had stirred thousands of delegates to their feet with shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Keep Preaching.’ His prophetic, audacious words told the truth about the church but also pointed us toward a more inclusive style of community.
I set out quickly after worship concluded, determined to find this preacher and hear more of his prophetic words. I made my way through one of the tunnels in the conference arena so I could maneuver through the gathering crowds. Several yards ahead, I could see him with his flowing robe and stole caught in the wind of his brisk walk. I called out. “Pastor!” He stopped walking, all six and a half feet tall, towering there before me. He turned around. “Yes?” Suddenly, I was searching for the carefully crafted introductory speech I had prepared in my head just moments before. As I searched for words, he (likely well aware of the intimidated young man standing before him) said, “Walk with me.”
As the crowd grew larger, Jairus stepped forward falling at the feet of Jesus pleading for help not for his own life, but for the life of another. Jairus, a man of power and authority in the synagogue has thrown himself at the mercy of the man in the center of the crowd, a traveling Jewish teacher. We can imagine Jairus with tears in his eyes pleading for help uttering these words: “My daughter is about to die.” Jairus could have even been yelling at Jesus because his own power in the community cannot stave off the death of his little girl. It is a familiar cry, “Please, please do something,” when we see our loved ones overcome with the pain of suffering or disease.
Still crying out in desperation, with no other concern other than to save his daughter, Jairus declares that Jesus can heal his daughter-he can save her from the grip of death. Blessed is Jairus for his keen perception that he has entered into the presence of the divine, Jesus divine with power to heal and triumph over death. And so, Jesus set out toward Jairus’ home to care for the little girl. In short time, Jairus and his household learn that no one can come into contact with the Christ and remain untouched, unchanged in their condition.
It is on the journey to see Jairus’ daughter, that the divine power of Jesus is made public before the gathered crowd. It is at this point in Mark’s story within a story, that we encounter the desperation of the woman who remains nameless. She suffers. She suffers from years of pain from hemorrhages, from going from doctor to doctor perhaps without an accurate diagnosis and no immediate hope of a cure. After while, her material livelihood was depleted from the unending visits to doctors unable to ease the pain of her body. This account of her travails is hauntingly familiar and prophetic, as individuals and families we know risk their livelihoods for medical treatment. What a timely word as the debate and rulings on healthcare rage in our political world. Impoverished by the cost of treatment and cast from the center of communal participation due to purity laws, the woman is completely vulnerable and sick. How can a nameless woman, pushed away for her ritual impurity and poverty, draw Jesus’ attention to her condition? She is such a stark contrast to Jairus whose power and prestige aided his ability to step forth in the crowd toward Jesus.
The woman with seemingly nowhere else to turn presses through the crowd and secretly touches Jesus’ clothes. In order for us to understand the motivation for her supposedly audacious behavior of touching Jesus, Mark allows us to hear the woman’s thoughts. “If I but touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.” She senses that when life comes into contact with the presence of Jesus Christ, it will not stay as it is. Miraculously, upon touching Jesus’ garments, the woman’s bleeding stops! She is healed.
Then with tension in the air so thick it can be cut with a knife, Jesus begins searching for the one who had touched his garments. Is he upset or shocked? We sense that the private act of the woman in touching Jesus’ clothes could be disastrous if she is found out. The woman, already cast out from communal life, could be further castigated and alienated for making bodily contact with people in the crowd causing ritual impurity. As Jesus’ disciples question the absurdity of his question, given the size of the crowd, Jesus waits, scanning the crowd. Why doesn’t the woman, still unnoticed, slip away from the tense situation, carrying with her the benefit of her private healing? Rather than slip away, the woman began her public account of the healing.
The woman had experienced the presence and life-giving power of God. What else could she do than tell the truth of her encounter with God’s power? I think the woman’s behavior gives us a model-when we experience the life-changing presence of God, what else can we do but tell the story? In telling the story of her healing, she confirms herself as a child of God-a daughter raised to new life. Jesus confirms her healing, the power of her faith, and sends her forth in peace. But quickly, the peace spoken to the daughter of Israel is disrupted by the words of messengers that Jairus’ daughter is dead. Jesus’ attempt to bring a healing hand upon the little girl in order to save her life has seemingly failed. Too little, too late?
One afternoon on my chaplain rounds I visited with a family of faith who told me with great hope of the thousands of people around the world praying for their sick child. The child’s life depended on the success of a major surgery that was scheduled for the next day. So that afternoon we shared prayers for healing, a quick recovery, the steady hands of surgeons, assistants, and nurses, and the peace of the Holy Spirit. The next day, while making rounds, I learned that the surgery was not successful, yet rather disastrous. The seemingly ineffective prayers of thousands of worldwide supporters compounded the family’s devastation and disappointment. Why did the prayers for healing seemingly go unanswered? Didn’t God hear the prayers of the faithful thousands petitioning for this child’s health? Like Jesus not making it in time to the little girl, was God absent during the little boy’s surgery?
One of the most difficult, even perplexing challenges of our faith tradition is to have trust in the power of the divine when our pleas and prayers to God are not met with satisfaction. In the experience of absence and despair, there is a good word that is spoken. “Do not fear, only believe.” Jairus is told by Jesus to believe and not to be afraid. Trust in the authority of Jesus Christ who speaks life out of death. Trust in the life-changing power of God among us. Trust in the touch of the One who authors life and restores wholeness. It is in Jairus’ home that Jesus, accompanied by a small number of his disciples and the little girl’s parents, speaks words of life and brings restoration with his touch.
This Markan story is a story of God’s authority in Jesus Christ restoring life. It is a story about the audacity of faith, which can drive us to transgress the strongest social barriers for the sake of being made whole and right in our relationships with God and one another. It is a story about the power of trusting a divine word even when there is seemingly no good reason to think there is a way forward. Can we risk trusting God even in experiences of absence? But like the daughter of Israel, when we place trust in the God of life and we experience God’s grace for ourselves, what else can we do but tell the story? Do we as a church, of the mighty and the meek, dare to draw close when the life-changing power of God is near? What are our stories of life-changing power and God’s extravagant love?