Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and father figures, both male and female here today! I am remembering my dad who as many of you know was a storytelling preacher, a professor of Philosophy or religion and a seminary president. He often preached on Romans and memorized many passages from it for his preaching. This passage brings me memories of him. I can hear Dad reading it in my mind. I can hear the rhythm of the cadence and inflection of his voice. And I remember him reading it with such passion. Not being a tall man he would rise up on his toes in excitement as he preached or read scripture, as if he was going to make a basketball goal just as he did in high school when he was captain of the team and they won state. Holding his soft-covered, leather pulpit Bible up in his left hand, he might paraphrase a bit to reiterate his points saying...”Because we are justified by our faith, set right with God, through Jesus and so have access to God’s peace and grace...” As the meaning of the text became more intense he rose higher on his toes reaching the highest point at “and hope does not disappoint us!” Then he would come down and lean in with the punch line, “because God's love has been poured [big pouring motion with his right hand] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This text was not about false, feel good sentiment for Dad. It was not a happy-clappy message. God will make everything fine for us if we just believe in the right way. For Dad, Paul’s message was life-changing news in the midst of the very real lives of the people he was addressing, in the midst of their sorrows and tragedies along with their joys. This message brought ultimate meaning and purpose to his life so he was passionate to share it. I do not remember all of his exegesis. The legacy he left is the memory that my Dad was/is a friend of God. He once told me, shortly after my mom’s death, and after at least 60 years of preaching God’s good news, that when he died his hope was that he would learn to love as God loves.
That’s an aspiration, isn’t it? To learn to love as God loves. I know Dad had glimpsed that in many ways while he was here with us in this life. I trust he is learning it more fully now. And I have to ask myself, do I have this aspiration? What about us here in this faith community? Do we want to learn to love as God loves here in the midst of our lives? Do we want to at least catch glimpses of this selfless loving? And in doing so be friends of God?
In this passage from the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges that he and the early Christians lived in very trying times. At times he wrote his letters from prison. They knew the danger of persecution. Yet Paul’s conviction is that God is utterly faithful just as God was to his ancestor, Abraham, and in God’s action in the world through Jesus, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be justified, to be set right with God through our trust in God, is to know God as Friend.
Paul tells us that even in the midst of suffering we stand in God’s grace and share in God’s peace because God is our faithful friend. Take a moment and ponder this. In the midst of your personal lives, here at Plymouth in our communal life we stand in God’s grace and peace. Because we have been justified, set right with God through our trust. We can rejoice with Paul trusting that God befriends us before we even befriend or trust God back.
We can rejoice with Paul because like him we know the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of God the Creator and God the Spirit moving across the waters of creation. Because, like Paul, we experience the faithfulness of God in Jesus, the one who lived among us, who was crucified by the sin of the world and yet through whom God conquered death in the resurrection.
The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity came generations after Paul’s writing. Yet implicit in his testimony here in Romans is the Holy One-in-Three, the Holy Three-in-One, the mystery we name the Trinity. One unified God who has three faces or three windows of revelation into the hugeness, the unfathomable nature of the Divine. Knowing that God is faithful friend simplifies this mysterious and often confusing human-made doctrine of Trinity for me. I think of one of my closest earthly friends and the many different roles she plays in my life, comforter, challenger, care-giver, confronter and I understand the different faces of God as friend.
Paul tells us that to be justified by faith is to be friends with the flow of Love that we know as God, that we envision as the community of the Holy ONE – Earth-maker, the Source and Creator of All, Jesus, the Pain-bearer, who came to share our common lot, who bears with us the weight of this world, and Spirit, who continues the Life-giving movement of hope and deepest joy even in the midst of suffering. In deep friendship with the Holy One-in-Three, we can say confidently and without shallow sentiment that our sufferings can produce endurance and endurance character and character hope, no matter what situations life brings. Then we know in the midst of sorrow or joy the glory of God and we can in the best sense of the word boast of, share joyfully, without arrogance, but with the strength of humility, God’s peace and grace because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Sometimes mysteries are best understood through looking at them through the corner of our eyes in story.
On the very real mountain and peninsula named Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, a place of 20 monastic communities comprising one large Easter Orthodox monastery, there is one monastery that was the smallest of all, the Lesser Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It holds only three monks and one lay porter. It is difficult to get to being high up on a cliff. The path to its door is steep and winding and windy. The small door to the monastery is always open and leads you into a sunny courtyard with plants blooming throughout the year. When a pilgrim enters, the person finds a small bench to sit on. Old Gregorio, the porter, lets the pilgrim sit in silence for a time as he peers through a small window to get a sense of the person. Eventually he emerges to sweep the courtyard and shyly ask the pilgrim questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “How was your journey?” Then he silently slips away and returns with one of the monks.
If he returns with Father Demetrios, the eldest monk, an old man with a long white beard, the monk sits right next to the pilgrim and begins to talk immediately. His voice is rich and deep. His words flow like honey from a comb, words of welcome and wisdom. He always seems to know just how long to talk for when he stops the pilgrim will spill forth their own words of confession, contemplation, of doubt and faith, words coming from the heart and sometimes with tears.
If Old Gregorio brings back Father Iohannes the interaction is very different. Father Iohannes is a rather round middle-aged monk with curling brown hair and warm eyes. He sits on a chair in the sun, just across from the pilgrim on the bench and looks deep into their eyes before closing his own eyes to sit in the sun in silence. From time to time he might look at them again. The silence is companionable, but it can last all morning...even into the afternoon. The pilgrim is always the one to break it, finally pouring forth their story. In the end Father Iohannes who has listened intently, gazes at the pilgrim with the deep, silent love of a brother and then simply gives a blessing.
When Old Gregorio bring forth the third monk, the pilgrim encounters a beardless, young man, Father Alexis. He looks lovingly into the face of the pilgrim with the clear, guileless eyes. His own face becomes a mirror for what he sees in the pilgrim’s face – sorrow and grief, frustration or anger, confusion, the joy of learning and asking questions. When he speaks, it is from the deepest yearnings of the pilgrim’s own soul and holds the wisdom of God that is within.
Most pilgrims stay the night and when they leave in the morning they pass by the Icon of the Trinity that is the little monastery’s greatest treasure. In it sit three figures in a loving circle, breaking bread with one another – a white headed, white bearded old man, a curly, brown-haired, smiling man of middle age and a young man with a clear face who seemed to gaze beyond his companions and into the eyes of the beholder. This is the same icon that Old Gregorio says his prayers in front of early each morning, crossing himself three times, praying for the wisdom to direct each pilgrim who might visit that day to the monk the pilgrim’s soul most needs.
For those who seek this smallest of monasteries on Mt. Athos, they would do well to remember it is more a place of heart than of the map. And that the monks and old porter are waiting patiently within a space of prayer and image. And that the Lesser Monastery of the Trinity could just as easily hold an elderly, but energetic housekeeper named Georgiana, an abbess named Mother Demeter who writes beautiful poetry and songs, an earthy, ginger-haired middle aged woman, a healer, named Joanna and a young, lithe woman with blond hair and keen green eyes, a weaver of tapestries who is named Alexis, meaning helper, like her make counterpart.
God comes to us as friend, creating us anew, bearing our pain with us, empowering and emboldening us to act on our deepest loves. This is the mystery of the Trinity. And this is the message of the apostle Paul who believed he was set right by God’s friendship, given God’s peace and grace and love poured into his heart. This is the friendship that empowers all we do in acts of social justice, acts of caring for one another, acts of welcoming the stranger, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, acts of worship and fellowship and study and prayer. This friendship empowers ALL we do. Do you accept it? The friendship of this larger than life, abundantly overflowing Holy One-in-Three, Three-in-One God? It is freely given.
Amen and Amen.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
What’s So Full About Being Empty?
Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 2:1-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don't be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God's will is--what is good and pleasing and mature.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 43786-43789). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 45118-45125). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Welcome to our third installment of the sermon series, “Thorny Theological Themes.” Our words for today are.....“Surrender and Emptying.” Yikes! These are not usually positive words in our culture. To surrender implies giving up, admitting defeat, failure, sacrifice of everything. Empty implies there is nothing there. Nothing in the gift box, the grocery bag, the gas tank. Why would we want to give up, to sacrifice? To be satisfied with having nothing?
I grew up with these texts from Romans and Philippians. With the words, give your life as a sacrifice for Jesus, empty yourself of your self for God as Jesus did. Coupled with “Be Saved” sermons and “I surrender all ... all to Jesus I surrender” hymns, the words sacrifice, surrender and empty were full of conflicting emotions. I wanted to be a good Christian, to follow Jesus, but I also wanted to live my life with my gifts and joys and passions. Were these things bad? As a young adult and even into later adulthood, these passages had all the makings of what I now call “door mat” or “what a wretch am I” theology. I am nothing unless I discover and follow exactly what God wants me to be. Which couldn’t possible be what I wanted to be since I was only a sinner. My hopes and dreams couldn’t be the right thing, could they?
I was deathly afraid God’s ways would mean drudgery, invisibility, and second string status. That voice was coming from culture as much as from theology. For women were second string as human beings. Support staff for men. People of color were second string, at best. Same with pore folks of any color. LGBTQ people were totally invisible when I was growing up. To each of these groups the message of surrender, empty yourselves of who you are, is NOT good news! Thank God, since my childhood there have been activist and theological movements leading us out of closets of oppression and into liberation. Joyfully we now proclaim that we are all equally beloved children of God, each with unique, divine gifts and graces, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. We have made great progress and the resistance movements of God’s liberation continue. We still have a ways to go.
Somewhere along the line of my life, struggling with the messages of culture and scripture and church, I discovered a paradox. To sacrifice or surrender or offer my life to God, I have to know I have a Life! A life of gifts and graces uniquely given to me by God and that I am God’s beloved. To be full of who I am in God’s image, I have to be empty of who I am in the eyes of culture, for that is not who I really am. To be Full = Empty.
A famous Zen master had a visitor....some say it was a student, some say it was another master, some say -- and I think its appropriate for this congregation -– it was a university professor. While the famous master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's full! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "This is you," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."[i]
Can you imagine what happened next? The professor could have walked out in a huff and claimed the famous Zen master was an old coot, a fraud. The professor could have spluttered with anger and begun to argue with master. Telling the master that this was a ridiculous metaphor and why not open the lesson with a treatise on compassion, instead. That would be really worthwhile! Or perhaps the professor had the grace to blush, to be suddenly silent and thoughtful. To get a tea towel and clean up the mess. And then to sit and wait. Thoughts churning, perhaps. But to keep silent, to breathe, to listen. After a time the master may have poured the cold tea from the cups, brewed another pot and perhaps, then the teaching could have begun in earnest. Grace in action.
Life has taught me to empty my cup. Particularly, when it comes to scripture texts that hold the baggage of a life time. What I didn’t hear or understand in these texts way back when was their crucial, life-giving wisdom. In the letter to the church in Rome, Paul gives the church instructions about new life under the lordship of God through Jesus, rather than the lordship of Caesar and the false powers of the empire. He instructs the people to structure their lives through God’s grace. Grace, the power of God’s unconditional love that Hal invited us into last week in this series. Paul says, “Because of God’s grace, God’s mercies, you can present your selves, your bodies, your whole lives as living sacrifices for God. Not burnt up, dead sacrifices, but living offerings. Present your vital, passionate, gifted life ready to live under the structure of God’s grace in the midst of all the joys and challenges.”
“This is your appropriate priestly service.” In Christ Jesus, WE are priests to one another, each and every one of us under God’s grace –- women and men, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, no matter our race or sexual orientation or gender identity or social class. We receive God’s revelation for ourselves and collectively for the community. Therefore we do not need to be poured into the mold of the world’s values -– greed, scarcity mentality, fear of the other, intolerance of difference, power over to get control –- we are transformed, changed in form through grace and empowered to live into God’s will for life, what is good and pleasing and mature. Empowered by grace to grow into all we are made to be in God’s image. Giving our all to God through Jesus, who gave his all to God. I think the world needs our living offerings in a big way right now! The world needs us to help structure it through the structures of God’s grace.
In the letter to the church in Philippi, Paul leads us further in understanding how to be a living sacrifice under the living structure of God’s grace. “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. [THEN] Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. Put on the mind of Christ.” Jesus became human, he emptied himself, made himself fully available to God, in order to be filled and used by God. To live God’ grace. An empty cup waiting to be filled.
Here is the seemingly dangerous part. The leap of faith to empty ourselves of the ways we are conformed to this world means looking inward. The leap of faith is to look within at the fear, greed, consumerism, possessiveness, scarcity thinking, suspicion even hatred of the “other”, to look at the anger, hurt, and wounds, that may be in our lives. I used to be afraid to truly be quiet and go inside....I was afraid I would find nothing there, a void, a nothingness. No one home. What I found was I was not really empty, but full of fear and self recrimination.
When I finally took the time to be in solitude and quiet, to intentionally go within, even just for a few minutes each day, I found that in “empty” was the presence of Love, the presence of God. Love first for family and friends and congregation. Then increasingly Love and forgiveness for myself.
If you take the leap to faith to empty your self in silence and solitude and prayer, to intentionally seek to let go with the body’s help of the energies of neediness, of fear, of not having or being enough, of anger, of greed, of false pride..... you name the unhealthy energies that consume you....if you seek to empty your selves of these things? Will you be filled? Will you even survive? If you come with an empty cup to learn from God’s ways of structuring the world through grace, will you really be transformed, changed?
Yes, my friends, you will. God wants to fill you with grace and love. In fact God has already put them inside of you. You only have to look within. To let go, empty your self with God’s help. Then God will show you who you really are and what amazing gifts you are filled with and how you are to use them!
So we take the leap of faith, individually and collectively as community. We give our lives as living sacrifices, offerings as Jesus did, and then the world comes back at us with fear and hatred and persecution and oppression, what then? Life happens – we lose a job, a marriage, a child, a beloved parent or friend. We receive a diagnosis that is not good. What then? We feel emptied of all strength to keep on keeping on, empty to the point of nothingness, what then? God’s Holy Spirit will fill our cups with grace– which also brings love, courage, justice strength and compassion. We will be able to respond with a cup full of the gifts of grace and we will withstand the onslaught that can sometimes be life. So practice emptying to be filled. Empty can be so full.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)