Monday, October 15, 2012

Sermon: "God's not done with us yet"

I have a post I need to write about Palestine and churches, and another post I need to write about one of those DC experiences you have that make you blink awake, but those aren't written and this is, so you get another sermon. I preached this on Sunday at Grand Oaks, the assisted living facility at Sibley Hospital (so about a 60 year jump from the demographic I preached to last). I think it went pretty well. I do that thing where I end more than once, but there it is, it's done and preached now.

Philippians 1:3-11
Psalm 51: 6-12

My father is a very practical man.

He’s the kind of person you want around when a tire goes flat or a furnace filter needs changing or a pipe is leaking. He and my mom live in North Carolina where I believe he’s in the process of building himself a work bench.

Like I said, he’s a very practical man.

It’s funny what we remember. I remember my dad’s shoes. As a child I watched my dad polish his shoes, something that he did, as far as I could tell, perfectly. He would spread newspaper all over the kitchen table and shine away until he had restored the row of shoes in his closet to perfection. 

I think I always took for granted what my father did. He would try to teach me how to do something, how to plant a garden or caulk or work with wood, and I would only half pay attention, because I knew, I just knew, that I would grow up and I would know how to do all these things. I figured that there would come a time that I was a grown up, and as a grown up I would know how to do grown up things. Why learn how to do them as a kid?

Well, I turned 10, and then 13, and then 16. When I was 16 I figured that I would be a grown up after high school. When I was in college I felt like I would be a grown up after college. And suddenly I was 25 and I still didn’t magically know how to do all these grown up things that I guess I thought I would suddenly be able to do at some point.

It turns out that I still have a lot of learning to do. Life’s not done with me yet.

I wonder how many of us are like this when it comes to our walk of faith. I wonder how many of us have gone through life thinking that there would come a time when we were finally where we wanted to be spiritually, when we had finally learned all that we could of God and we had become perfectly the disciples we are called to be. I don’t know about you, but I wonder if perhaps some of you have felt a sense of frustration about spirituality, a sense of not doing enough or praying enough or reading the Bible enough. I don’t know about you. But I know that I feel this frustration. That I often say to myself, “next week I’ll read the Bible more” or “come Lent I’ll pray more.”

There is good news for those of us who feel this sense of spiritual incompleteness, who wonder why at this point in our lives we don’t have it all together like we thought we would, that we’re not suddenly spiritual grown-ups like we thought we’d be. The good news is simply this: God’s not done with us yet.
I think we get a glimpse of that good news in Paul’s letter to the Philippian community. Paul is writing this letter from jail, and so it’s striking how joyful a letter this is, how reflective of the wonderful relationship in Christ that Paul and the Philippians have. This is a community that Paul (along with Timothy) planted, that he has watched grow up, that has supported his ministry from afar and welcomed him when he is near. And as joyful as Paul is about the Philippian disciples of Christ, as proud as he is of this community, he does not believe that they have finished their journey. Listen to his words: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” God, Paul believes, will complete the growth of this community. But not yet. Not yet. God isn’t done with them yet.

This concept of God’s continued work in our lives is often called “sanctification.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, did not by any means invent this concept, but he did put a particular focus on it in his writing and sermons. Wesley, who emphasized the importance of grace, argued that humans experience grace in different ways. There is prevenient grace, the grace that comes before—that is, the grace that is at work in our lives before we even realize it, before we even know to call it grace. There is justifying grace, or pardoning grace—the grace through which we experience forgiveness from God and reconciliation with God. And then there is sanctifying grace, that grace that continues to be at work in our lives, growing holiness and deepening our relationship to God.

Wesley actually believed that it was possible for a believer to achieve what he called “perfection”—not perfection in the sense of making no mistakes but perfection in the sense of always acting out of love. But he also felt that he never achieved perfection in his lifetime, that he was always going on towards a goal. In other words, John Wesley, the founder of one of the great revival movements in the church’s history, felt that God wasn’t done with him yet.

We can see the concept of sanctification in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you maybe be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Even the Philippian community, Paul’s favored child, had growth still to do. Their love could overflow more, and more, with more knowledge of God, more insight into the love of Jesus Christ. They had come a long way. But God wasn’t done with them yet.

We can see the concept of sanctification at work in the psalm that we read as well. Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, begging forgiveness for past sin. But the psalmist doesn’t ask only for forgiveness. It’s not enough to be restored to a past state of affairs, before the sin. The psalmist wants transformation. Wants “wisdom in [their] secret heart.” Wants “a new and right spirit within [them].” Psalm 51 is a prayer that has faith in forgiveness. But it doesn’t stop at forgiveness. God isn’t done with the psalmist yet.

And so God is at work in our lives. Growing. Transforming. Leading. There is no magical point in our lives when we have learned everything we need to learn about God, when we have walked every step of discipleship there is to be walked. We continue in prayer, in Bible study, in meeting together in worship, not because we have it all together but exactly because we don’t. Exactly because we are still growing and learning in Christ. Exactly because the one who began a good work among us is still working in our lives to bring it to completion. Exactly because God isn’t done with us yet.

God is, this very day, extending God’s grace to us. Grace is already here. We are merely putting ourselves in the way of grace. Putting ourselves in the way of grace with our actions, with our prayers, with our life together. It’s something we commit to again, each day, knowing that God is not done with us yet.  
I have to admit that I still don’t know how to polish a nice pair of shoes, and that’s just the least of the things my dad can do that I still need to learn. I have a long way to go. All of us, no matter what stage of life we are in, still have a way to go to be the people that God intends us to be. But this is not like a test to see how much we can achieve in a lifetime. This is growth, fast or slow, growth toward the sun of God’s  love for us. We have a long way to go but we don’t go alone. God isn’t done with us yet.

Oh and one last thing. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written to a community, not an individual believer. God is at work in our lives together. Spiritual growth is not something that happens just to one person or another person in isolation. We grow together in love. We lift each other up. We hold each other accountable. We pray together and study the Bible together. Because no matter what stage of life we are in, life is something we share. And God isn’t done with us yet.

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