I have been asked to provide the manuscript for the sermon I preached Saturday, March 19, during the worship time preceding our Holston WCA annual meeting. Here it is.
Let’s think a little more about the Scriptures we heard earlier in our service.
Psalm 63:1-8: This describes our desire for God, felt especially when we find ourselves parched and dry.
Isaiah 5:1-7: Here, we are told of God’s desire for justice and righteousness, and the difficulty in finding it in this often unfruitful world.
Luke 6:43-45: Jesus observes that good people put goodness into the world and bad people put evil into the world. Certainly, we are all a mixture to one degree or another, but we tend to draw from what is most abundantly stored in us.
All together, these are very appropriate for the season of Lent. In fact, as we planned this service, we simply chose to use the Scripture from the daily lectionary readings for today—Saturday, March 19, 2022.
The season of Lent puts us into a time of discernment. Events the last few weeks in the United Methodist Church have just about ended a very long time of discernment, a time that for some of us has turned into a Long Lent of ten years or more. We still have decisions to make, but as far as I am concerned, the options have narrowed dramatically.
As I try to bring all of this together during our preaching time today, I think I’m going to follow the more difficult path. Preaching-wise, the smoothest path would be to review the slights, the offenses and the betrayals we have experienced the past several years, a diatribe that probably would get us worked up. When you’re in a room of largely like-minded people, that’s the easier way to go.
I don’t want to do that, though. Most of us already have a bitter taste in our mouths, more than enough bitterness to satisfy a good Jew observing the Passover. Instead, I want to challenge this group a little.
First, I want us to think about how we behave in these next few months. Here’s a simple phrase: “Be nice.” It’s a phrase we have heard from the time we were small, advice probably given to us first by our parents or grandparents. “Be nice.”
“But ma, they were mean to me first!” That doesn’t matter. We still need to be nice. Be nice when face to face with those who would oppose us. Be nice on social media. Be nice.
It is a mind-numbingly simple concept, and it is very Christian. Back to our Scriptures for today: If we desire a relationship with a gracious God, and if we seek justice and righteousness to please God, and if we want to be filled with goodness so that goodness flows out of us, a concerted effort to be nice is a good starting point.
Jesus took the idea and really ran with it, didn’t he? “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemies.” “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As difficult as the first two are to live, that last one is astonishing to behold. Jesus was nailed to the cross, lifted in the air above all those who wanted him dead, bearing their scorn and reproach. He also bore our sins—we helped put him there. And yet, he poured out grace as his blood was shed. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Paul took up the post-Resurrection baton on behalf of the church, continuing on this topic of how Christians should behave. He acknowledged we would become angry at times, but he said this in Ephesians 4:26-27: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Now understand, being nice doesn’t mean being a punching bag, a pushover, or a good-hearted fool who keeps doling out money to support dangerous worldly ideas. Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16.)
Be nice, but use your heads!
And let’s always remember, being nice is not a weakness. It actually is a strength. Hear what Paul has to say in Romans 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
So, be nice. At the same time, be smart. Can we all agree to this?
This next part will help. It is easier for us to be nice when we know for certain where we are headed. We are headed home.
In my previous career, I used to travel a lot. People would say, “I wish I had a job where I could travel.” Let me tell you, it’s charming for the first three months. After that, the best part was always heading home.
Home to my beautiful wife. Home to my children, who were all quite small at the time. The house was just a simple starter home, and sometimes I would find peanut butter or Cheerios stuck to my chair in the dining room. But it was home, and it was wonderful.
To journey home, I required a mode of transportation. I have done the planes, trains and automobiles thing, and trust me, I never confused the mode of transportation with home.
I did get to fly Singapore Air once—business class over and first class back. My boss was on the return flight and he upgraded us. First class was about as fancy as air travel gets, but I didn’t hesitate for a second about getting off the plane and heading home.
Folks, the United Methodist Church has never been the destination. It has been a mode of transportation taking us home. Sometimes it has been a really nice way of traveling, but it is not home.
What is home, by the way? The constant, unending holy presence of our Lord and Savior, something that can be enjoyed now and for all eternity. As United Methodists, we have certainly gotten glimpses of home in our lives: I think I see it! Roll the windows down, it sounds like home, it smells like home!
And we will be fully home one day. Again, let’s hear from Paul, this time in the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
We have a problem right now, though. We gather here today as people who have become quite certain that the means of transportation we’ve been using no longer is going where we hoped it would go. On paper, we have the same map, but no one capable of steering seems to be reading it anymore. The road looks strange and dark.
So we’ve started making a simple request. We would like to get out of the vehicle. It also would be really nice if we could have our luggage: our buildings and our fair share of what we have helped the group accumulate over the years.
It all sounds reasonable to me. I don’t really care which Book of Discipline paragraph we use, so long as the process proves to be reasonable and fair.
Here’s some good news:
We also are now confident another vehicle going the right direction will pick us up. By getting on it, we know we at least will be getting closer to home, rather than farther away. I guess we could walk that direction alone, but Christians have always found the journey to be easier when we travel it together.
I so long for home. I need to feel like I am headed that way. I need to smell the air and look at the terrain and say out loud, “Hey, this looks like where I want to be.” And I want us to pick up as many as we can along the way while we journey home together.
Dear Lord, give us the strength, the excitement and the energy to do what must be done so we are heading your way once again. It is in the name of Jesus Christ that we pray.
And all the people said, “Amen.”