“Growing in Love” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! We are continuing our study of the book of Ephesians and its writer’s call for us to look, and imagine and go beyond where we currently are. It’s an inspiring book, with great concepts to ponder, especially when times have been difficult. Even if we are content where we are now, it’s possible that God wants something even better for us.
The past two weeks I have talked about the phrase from Ephesians, “The riches of grace” or “the riches of Christ’s grace,” not only as the individual grace which we receive through the redemption of Christ’s blood on the cross, but as groups of people who were once aliens and strangers but have been reconciled and built together as a holy temple and as the body of Christ. This passage which John read from Ephesians 3 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible; it is one which I go to when I am in need of encouragement, or just to be reminded of why I feel called to do what I do. It is a passage which shines with the riches of God’s glory. But before I talk more about this passage, I want to tell you about something that happened to me this week.
I have a friend who is a gifted artist and a person of deep faith. She works mostly in pen and ink, and does detailed and realistic renderings of building and landscapes. We connected more than 25 years ago, because she had a drawing which she wanted titled as part of the finished piece, and I did the lettering for her. I’ve lettered many of her pieces since then. She brought a piece to me this week which had been particularly challenging for her: it was a commission of a farmhouse and the huge red maple tree which stood in front of it. Melissa commissioned the piece for her parents’ 65th wedding anniversary: they spent the past 58 years on this farm and still live there. The tricky part of the commission was that the tree is no longer there. It was damaged in a storm several years ago, and had to be cut down. Melissa’s 90 year old father has been cutting it up bit by bit to fuel their wood-burning stove. This tree which had been a place to climb and play and take photos for children and grandchildren, now lives only in their memory.
In the course of my friend Jackie telling me about her drawing of the farmhouse and tree, she told me about a friend she had as a child. Here’s a photo of what that friend may have looked like. [Slide] It was also a red maple tree, at the end of the driveway to her family’s farmhouse. Jackie didn’t elaborate, but she said (and I quote), “I had a terrible childhood. Just awful.” Her mother was meticulous and controlling, and every evening after supper, Jackie and her sister had to clean the kitchen and take out the garbage. It was a long walk to the end of the driveway to throw the garbage away. And one night, after dumping the garbage, Jackie poured out her heart to the maple tree at the end of the driveway, because there was no one else to talk to. Pretty soon, she volunteered to be the one to take out the garbage each night, so that she could talk to her tree. She said there were some nights that she came in with bits of bark on her shirt and the impression or bark on her cheek because she had been hugging her tree. Jackie did not grow up in a Christian home, and didn’t have any sense of what she was longing for at the time, but she believes that God used that tree to comfort her, and that although she would not have said it at the time, that when she was talking to that tree, she was talking to God. [Slide down]
Those of you who know me, or have even taken a casual look inside my office, might understand why Jackie’s story about her friend the maple tree resonated so much with me. But it really isn’t a story about a tree, or even a lonely child — it’s a story about God, and the breadth and length and depth and height of God’s love for us. God who not only sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins — and the theology of that is so rich and complex that we are still trying to understand it — but found a way to bless families and to reach a child who needed to know that someone loved her.
I have asked you for the past two weeks to consider a time when you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were loved. No one has shared your answer with me, and I get it, it’s a pretty personal question. . I am someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in a stable family, and have a great husband and three wonderful children — I’ve gotten more than my share of preschool drawings and homemade Mother’s Day cards, and birthday presents and whatnot. I have appreciated them all, and the sentiment which they represent. Bu the time I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was loved after I had done a hurtful thing to someone I cared about deeply. In time, after we talked through what had happened, that person forgave me. It is, perhaps, the most concrete example of God’s love which I can point to in my life. It turns out the time when I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was loved, was when I had messed up, and knew I had messed up things for someone else. That experience taught me humility and way more about grace than any Bible study or seminary class could have. It made me a different person: a less judgmental and more compassionate one, I hope.
I’m sorry if you are someone who has never messed up, because you have never had the experience of being forgiven. (If you think you have never messed up, you might have some issues with denial, too — but that’s another sermon). I’m sure there are people who mess up on purpose, ask for forgiveness, and then go out and do it again. If they experience grace, it is cheap grace — a Band-Aid to be ripped off at the first opportunity, rather than healing which actually makes us whole. The writer of Ephesians is describing something beyond what we can offer one another, and beyond what we can understand, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all of the fullness of God.” Did you catch the paradox there in verse 19? The author of Ephesians is praying that we would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge: how is that supposed to work? The answer to that paradox is close to my heart, at the heart of this passage, and I believe at the heart of the gospel. We know the love of Christ most fully at the very places where we are imperfect and broken. Little girls with happy families don’t have to go out in the dark to talk to maple trees. Adults who never do anything wrong to never have to ask for or receive forgiveness. Even when we are doing our best to be steadfast and faithful, we mess up. We live in a broken world: and that is exactly why God is present with us: in maple trees, and especially in people. If we know that we have been forgiven, than we ought to forgive others. If that sounds easy to you: Forgiveness, it’s just that simple! Then you haven’t been in the game very long. There’s no guarantee that you will be as fortunate as I was and have someone extend Christ’s love to you. However, you get to decide how you are going to respond to people whom you care about who mess up. And when people you don’t care about who mess up.
Committing to forgiveness means playing the long game: forgiveness takes time, forgiveness takes energy and forgiveness means that things are not always ‘fair;’ if we can commit to forgiveness despite those things, we will be growing in love. Not falling in love — growing in love is not about romance, it is about grace. It is wonderful to talk and sing about the wonderful grace of God, but grace is not an abstract theological concept which we can comprehend; grace is a gift we are given when we are broken and vulnerable. Grace is beyond what deserve, beyond what we expect, and beyond what we know. Grace is what roots and grounds us in the love of Christ. Grace is what gives us the strength to live and work in this world right now, and to hope for God’s future. Grace has brought us safe this far, and grace will lead us home.
May God bless you and keep you. Amen.