Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent I, March 9, 2003, dedicated to Promise Arianna Busby on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!

"Graceful Love"*

(Part 2 of 8 in the Lenten Sermon Series: "For the Love of Christ")

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

This sermon series started on Ash Wednesday with "Love That Will Not Let Me Go." The love of God in Jesus Christ is a love that has transformed my life. I shared how Christ's love has the power to change all our lives. In the coming weeks, the sermons will focus on Sacrificial Love, Just Love, Saving Love, Transforming Love, Cross Love and Eternal Love, on Easter Sunday. I invite you to join me in this journey of worship, prayer, and love.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock & our salvation. Amen.

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"And we are put on earth a little space, that we might learn to bear the beams of love." -- William Blake --

Every person on this earth yearns to love, to be loved, and to know love. Our identity, our true reason for being is to be found in this desire. Along with William Blake, I believe we are here that we might learn to bear the beams of love. To bear love is to endure love, to carry love, and to bring love forth.

In the first, we are meant to grow in our capacity to endure love's beauty and pain. In the second, we are meant to carry love and spread it around. Third, we are meant to bring love into the world, to be birthers of love. Enduring love, carrying love, birthing love - this is the threefold nature of our yearning.

Evidence of these longings can be found in so many settings - in great art, music, literature, and religion. A common universal passion for love runs through them all. Psychology has also identified passion for love at the core of human motivation. Neurological research says indicated for over twenty years that "the highly developed human cerebral cortex makes possible the insights required to plan for needs of others and gives us a concern for all living things." (Quoted in The Brain, Paul MacLean, New York, Bantam Books, 1984, pp. 136-137).

But, to discover real proof, you must look to the longings and aspirations and themes of your own life. In most of us, the longing for love has become distorted or buried, or lost its focus. Too many hours spent in all the wrong places - longing for success, longing for peace and happiness, takes it toll on the longings for love. In your life, only you can answer the questions of what it is that has prompted you to do certain things, to say certain words, and to seek love in certain ways and places.

Do you remember when you wanted to be pleasing, attractive, or helpful to others - in those times, what have you really been hoping for? Perhaps just that - perhaps something else. Remember the moments of your life when you felt most alive, most complete and fulfilled - what did it taste like? Do you recall other times when you have felt very bad, or empty or alone - what were you missing at that time?

If you pause right now and reflect quietly, inside, you may be able to sense your deep desire for love and wonder. It can seem expansive and joyful. It can also be, at other times, painful and lonely, and even a bit unnerving. Whether it feels good or bad, the longing for love is powerful and awesome. When the desire is too much to bear, we often bury it beneath frenzied thoughts and activities or try to escape it by dulling our conscious way of living. But, no matter what we do, it keeps touching us in glimpses, in dreams, in hopes, in our unguarded moments.

In all of this, we seek to bear the beams of love since we have been put on earth for a little space. Although love is challenging to define, I do believe it is manifest in action and it is the best and brightest of the energy in the human spirit which fuels our vitality and our faith. And grace is love's closest friend. Grace is "the flowing, creative activity of love itself . . . (Grace) is what makes all goodness possible" ( G.G. May, The Awakened Heart, pp. 3-4).

Unfortunately, we lose sight of grace - as parents, as children, as siblings, as students, as efficient employees and bosses. We get wrapped up in productivity and efficiency and forget the creative activity of flowing from love. Let me give an example: As a parent, I want to take good care of my children (which is efficiency) because I care so much for them (love at work). This is the way it becomes. We become preoccupied with efficiency - What are the children eating? Are they getting enough sleep? Are they doing their homework? Do they make it to school on time? After a while, we lose sight of the love the efficiencies were meant to serve! Doing all the right things on time becomes seemingly more important than attending to their small fears, hurts, and struggles. When our children bring their report cards home - the ultimate symbol and social measure of childhood efficiency - we lose sight of the hopes, fears, concerns, and soul of the one who brings it home.

Grace is being loving without being efficient. Grace is the truth and the power behind the statement, "I love you, no matter what . . . " A seventeenth century monk named Brother Lawrence was often described by people who knew him as bumbling and clumsy. In the monastery, when it was his turn for doing dishes, his fellow monks often feared no plates would be left unbroken for the next meal. He was not the paragon of personal management. After meeting him, the French theologian Francois Fenelon described him as "gross by nature and delicate by grace." (Brother Lawrence: The Practice and Presence of God, Francois Fenelon, New York, Doubleday, 1977, p. 18). To be delicate by grace is, in my mind, more valuable than all the efficiency in the world!

Are you delicate by grace? As you look around your life, do you know people who are delicate by grace? Years ago, I was visiting a member of my church in a psychiatric unit in Cleveland. It was just before Easter. I was carrying this home communion set - which contains the elements of communion in a little box. As I entered the unit with my Bible and with communion, a woman came running up to me with a frightening look in her eyes. I felt as though she was going to attack me. I stopped as she ran toward me. She stopped dead in her tracks just inches from my body.

Angrily, she screamed at me - "Are you a priest?" "No," I replied calmly, "But I am a pastor." She calmed down almost completely and said, "Will you serve me the Eucharist?" I answered, "I would be honored to serve you the Eucharist." She started to cry and held onto me while she said, "I have been in here for a long time. Before I came in here, I received the Eucharist every morning. I need the body of Christ!" This woman, who was suffering from severe schizophrenia and was frightening in her appearance was delicate by grace. Often, I have met people who are homeless, seemingly helpless, struggling with life, living, and loving who are delicate by grace - while I struggle to figure out why I spend so much energy trying to be efficient. Like Brother Lawrence, I often feel gross by nature. I wish I was also delicate by grace.

But, you know what - it has been my failures more than my successes that have led me to grace. It is my dysfunctions, my inefficiencies, my weaknesses that cause me to open my eyes and see the mysterious and amazing grace that abounds just on the other side of my failure. I must tell you, I am overwhelmed by gratitude when I recognize love in those moments. These turnings toward grace are usually wordless, simple acts of love. Gerald May puts it this way in The Awakened Heart:

Grace is love happening, love in action, and I have seen so much grace in the brokenness of others and in myself that I know we are all in love. We are in love, within love, as fish are in the sea or clouds are in the sky. It surrounds us, it penetrates and perfuses us. In a very real sense, we are made of love. Love creates us and we create love." (Ibid, p. 7).

In Genesis 9, God chose the rainbow as a sign of grace and forgiveness, as well as a covenant symbol of love for all generations and all living creatures who dwell upon the earth. In the New Testament, story after story demonstrates the grace of God - perhaps none more powerfully than the woman caught in adultery.

In John 8:1-11, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who has been caught in adultery to Jesus while he teaching in the Temple. The law of Moses clearly says that an adulterous woman should be stoned to death for her acts. Jesus is silent. He bends down. He writes something in the sand. Finally he stands up and says, "Let anyone among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again, he bent down and wrote something in the sand. One by one, all who were present, go away. Alone with the woman standing before him, Jesus straightens up a second time and says to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She responds, "No one, sir." And Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on, do not sin again."

There is much evil in the world. There are people threatening to throw stones and others throwing them across the globe - through words, deeds; through rockets and mortal fire; in workplaces and homes, everywhere. Every day. But, you need not be among them. Out of the darkness and confusion and uncertainties and doubts you face, you can gain strength, you can live in grace. It is not easy to bear the beams of love. I guarantee, most days, it will be the hardest work you do. But, by the grace of God, you are able to love in such a way as this. And in so doing, you will remember in word and deed, that grace is love's closest friend. Amen.

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* Themes, quotes, and thoughts from this sermon have been drawn from The Awakened Heart: Living Beyond Addiction, by Gerald G. May, M.D., Harper/Collins, San Francisco, CA., 1991).

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