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Second Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2019
On Friday, my youngest daughter Claire, my ten-year-old, was not feeling well, so I kept her home from school. She was not terribly sick, so we decided to go for a drive in the country in the area where, a half-decade before she was born, I served my second pastoral appointment, a three-congregation circuit of churches called the Prince George Charge, located just east of Hopewell.
I was able to show her the outside of the two of the churches and the parsonage, the first church home we had lived in, and the inside of Salem United Methodist Church in Burrowsville. For some reason, it was important to me that Claire see this part of the history of her family of origin, and I was surprised by the number of memories this little trip brought back to me. When we moved there, Ellen, our oldest, had just turned one and had been walking for only a few months. It was in that home that she learned to speak, the first home where she was able to really experience the arrival of Santa and the Easter Bunny. It was the house where we used a yardstick to make marks on the wall as Ellen grew and grew.
The parsonage was on an adjacent piece of land to one of the churches and part of the cemetery was in the backyard. On summer afternoons, Tracy could look out the kitchen window and see me in my robe, standing with the gathered community, burying the dead. I used to push Ellen in the stroller through that cemetery, a little acre of the communion of saints, right there on the other side of the fence.
When I became a father for the first time in 2002, like most people, I received a great deal of advice from the people around me. Yet, nothing that was said to me was truer than the following words: “They grow so fast. It all goes by so much more quickly than you think it will.” This past week, the little girl who it seems just yesterday was tottering through the church with me as I delivered the Sunday bulletins was hired for her first job. Next month, we tour colleges, next August she starts her senior year of high school. Next year, we move her out.
It all goes by so fast. Even today, I can look at lines on the wall of our pantry in our house in Richmond and see how little time has passed between those horizontal tick marks, as my little girls transform before my eyes into young women who before I am ready for it will outgrow the nest Tracy and I have worked so hard to secure for them in parish after parish. Some days, it is more than I can comprehend.
Growth is part of what it means to be alive. Even when we stop calling it “growth” and start calling it “aging” we are always moving, never static, growing towards something, hopefully something good and holy and true. Today is the second Sunday of the holy season of Lent, a time set aside by the church for us to take stock of where we are and where God is calling us to be. We make a tick mark on the wall at the crown of our heads, comparing it to last year’s mark, and we see where we are and how much we have grown in our faith and life, and we take stock, make plans, set a new direction.
In the fifteenth century, a German monk named Thomas A Kempis writes in his book The Imitation of Christ “Who wages a stronger battle than he who labors to overcome himself?” Lent is about that process of overcoming ourselves, our wrong-headed desires, the things within us that we have learned that it is easier to live with than to deal with. Lent shines a light into our dark corners, measures the distance between the lines on the wall, calling and equipping us to grow.
In this morning’s text, Paul writes to the church in Philippi that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” And this is just it: the conforming part is easy. We can conform our lives to the wrong things, to the expectations of someone else without even trying, without even realizing we are doing it. The challenge, therefore, is that transformation business, that work of subjecting ourselves to Christ and his work in our lives, in the church, and in the world so that we are genuinely transformed into the cruciform image of Christ’s love, the image our sin warps and distorts until it is unrecognizable, and Christ’s image is not evident in our lives and the choices we make.
This kind of transformation that conforms us into Christ’s image is central to how Methodist people understand the world and our part in it. Almost three hundred years ago, Methodism was born into a Christian world who, in many parts, believed in a God whose son died for the sins of a relatively small group known as “the elect,” and that one’s salvation was entirely the work of God, a status one could not tarnish or refuse.
However, the Wesley brothers understood the God revealed in scripture differently. They came to know a God whose love is so great that God’s son dies for all of sinful humanity, a God whose love preserves our freedom of choice, allowing us to accept, resist, or even reject God’s divine grace. What is more, the Wesleys believed in a God who not only transformed us into converts who are justified (or made right) before God, they believed in a sanctifying God whose grace never stops transforming us, making us more Christlike throughout our life on earth. As such, salvation was never a static status one achieved, but a lifelong process wherein you and I continually conform to “the body of his glory by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
To put it another way, the Methodist understanding of the operation of God’s grace is that, as believers, we are either (hopefully) climbing the mountain of holiness or (hopefully not) rolling backwards down it, but we are never standing still. The call to Christian discipleship is inherently a call to growth, to transformation, to living into our sanctification as nothing less than the beloved, adopted children of God.
Quite often in Methodist theology, we discuss the effects of this growth in holiness and Christlikeness, this process of sanctification, in terms of its effect upon individuals. In essence, we regard how the operation of God’s grace enables individuals to grow and change, to be transformed from our old selves and conformed into the image of the life and witness of Christ. However, it is not often that we consider the aggregate impact of all of this individual transformation upon communities of faith, even whole denominations, and we neglect to do so at our peril, for if we do so, we ignore a good part of the impact of the history of the church, especially in Methodism.
The Methodist movement grew like it did because individual lives were transformed. These changed lives changed churches, which in turn changed communities, which in turn, changed the world. It was the aggregate effect of all this change that was so transformational for society. For example, one changed heart did not result in the end of the Atlantic slave trade. One changed life did not solve the plight of the poor in seventeenth century England. One changed life did not spread Methodism across western Europe, North America, and eventually around the world. All of these things did in fact occur, yet they occurred as a result of whole churches growing in grace, whole churches being sanctified, whole churches being transformed in the way Paul describes in this text.
This should all make sense; we are indeed the sum of our parts. If our individual church members are growing in Christlikeness, then our churches are also growing in Christlikeness. If our churches are growing in Christlikeness, then it stands to reason that our denomination is growing in Christlikeness, and so on.
I began considering this when I was preparing the sermon I preached the Sunday before General Conference a couple of weeks ago. As I researched the sermon, I grew in my appreciation as to how often our denomination has wrestled with issues over long periods of time and in so doing, how we have come down on the side of grace and lovingkindness in so many ways. As I said in that sermon, it took decades for our church to transform its stance on divorce from only allowing it for the cause of adultery, to punishing clergy who officiated at weddings for previously divorced people, to realizing that marriages end for many reasons including abuse, to realizing that couples who divorce are in need of God’s loving grace, to calling for our clergy to offer premarital counseling.
Likewise, our church split over the issue of the ownership of slaves in 1844 and stayed split for more than a quarter-century after the end of the American Civil War. Today, our Social Principles include words that read “Therefore, we recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons. We rejoice in the gifts that particular ethnic histories and cultures bring to our total life. We commit as the Church to move beyond symbolic expressions and representative models that do not challenge unjust systems of power and access.”
In the life of our church, women had, then lost, and then gained again the privilege of ordination. Yet today, our Social Principles include the words “We therefore urge that every effort be made to eliminate sex-role stereotypes in activity and portrayal of family life and in all aspects of voluntary and compensatory participation in the Church and society. We affirm the right of women to equal treatment in employment, responsibility, promotion, and compensation.”
We have gone from castigating those who suffer from alcohol dependency to having a statement that reads, in part “Drug-dependent persons and their family members, including those who are assessed or diagnosed as dependent on alcohol, are individuals of infinite human worth deserving of treatment, rehabilitation, and ongoing life-changing recovery.”
And now our church and churches like ours are considering matters of inclusion and exclusion of LGBTQ persons, and in our consideration, I can still see God’s sanctifying grace at work in our midst.
I believe that it is likely that all of us have wondered aloud or in our hearts if it is possible if change in the church is simply the result of some kind of acquiescence to society, which is to say that we just embraced where the world was already going as if it were our idea. Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Why is the church so often a taillight instead of a headlight?” From time to time in my life, I have wondered aloud if this is true, if the world just changed without the church and then the church eventually got on board.
Yet today, I am not so sure. I am not so sure because I believe that our God is in the redemption business. I believe that our God is in the transformation business. I believe our God is in the sanctification business, and as such, I believe that as our God transforms lives in the church, our God transforms lives through the church, and as our God transforms lives through the church, God also transforms the church itself. Therefore, I believe that it is both possible and likely that as the church is reformed and transformed, as the church becomes more loving, compassionate, and just, our God makes another mark on the wall, just above our heads, not so that we can castigate ourselves for how we once were, but so that we can celebrate who, by God’s sanctifying grace, we have become.
This sermon series is titled “Courage to Believe: When Faith is Difficult.” A month ago, we asked you to complete paper or online forms to share with us where you struggle with faith, and boy did you share! In fact, we received so many good questions that we decided to not only use your questions on Sunday mornings during Lent but also on Wednesday nights.
Reading your submissions, one thing that became clear to me is just how seriously you take your faith and the weight of the burdens so many of you bring to church with you each Sunday. Taking a bird’s eye view of your questions, I realize how many of them boil down to wondering just why Christian discipleship can be so challenging if God really does want to bless us, and if any of us can honestly be expected to grow beyond our well-worn beliefs and habits.
As I consider this in my own life as well as in the life of the church, I am brought back to Thomas a Kempis and The Imitation of Christ and his great lenten question “Who wages a stronger battle than he who labors to overcome himself?” In this morning’s text. Paul is writing to a congregation for whom this kind of transformation is difficult, so difficult, in fact, that he acknowledges that the Philippians are surrounded by people who are moving in the opposite direction, people of whom Paul writes, “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
To this, Paul writes to remind the Philippian church and to remind us that our citizenship is not on earth, but in heaven, and as such, we are guided by different principles, different values, different hopes and dreams than the world around us. We have a different story, a different narrative enfolding our lives. And as a people who come to church on Sunday to be immersed in that different world than the world around us, it should come as no surprise that we who believe can so easily feel like resident aliens, foreigners in our own land because we are the citizens of the world to come. It is like visiting with your dietician and trainer one day a week when it seems everything around you is a bakery. We are indeed Shrove Tuesday people living in a Mardi Gras world.
And yet, even when it seems that the world is too much with us, God’s Holy Spirit is still with us, still shaping us, extruding us, forming us, transforming us, conforming us into that cruciform image of Christ, growing us in God’s grace and lovingkindness, so that those wandering in this lost and broken world can see in us the difference, see our citizenship revealed in all we do and say, and in our transformation, hear God’s call to their transformation, their growth, their death to the old and resurrection to the new, the holy, the fullness of God’s grace.
Look at your marks on the wall, what do you see? Look how far apart are they, and how can this Lent be a time for you, for me, and for our church to to stretch, to reform, to grow?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.