Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Perfect Grace" Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, by the Rev. Sem. Laura Gatzke

Perfect Grace
Laura Gatzke, UCC Seminarian
The Word: Acts 15:1-18
The Message:
Before I begin this morning, I would like to extend my thanks to this church for inviting me to preach. I attended college just up the hill at Bethany Lutheran, and attended church here during my college days. I also served as your interim youth director back in 2007, and I strongly believe that experience shaped my path to ministry. Thank you for all your support, I am very appreciative and excited to be here in worship with all of you. With that, let us pray.

Creator God-- open our hearts to your word and guide our minds to follow our hearts. Let us reflect on how our lives are changed by the messages of Jesus Christ. May my words reflect this message, and above all, reflect your love for all people. Amen

The woman carefully unwrapped the baby she had been carrying on her back with her shawl and cradled him in her arms. He was the smallest baby at the mother/child center in Nairobi Kenya. I saw his button nose first, then his sweet eyes and finally a tiny little mouth, open and smiling. I immediately wanted to reach out and touch his spots of tightly curled hair on his head and trace my fingers over the creases in his face. But I came to this country not knowing the local language—and could not say in Kiswahili “Where is the bathroom?” much less “Can I hold your baby? I was at a center for mothers and young children. The center is run by a local church and is supported by Compassion International, the organization I sponsor my child through. The center takes in the poorest of the poor, women from around different neighborhoods of Nairobi, and provides them with food, training, parent education, and other programming.

The woman with the baby continued smiling and standing close to me, allowing me to gaze over the baby. A worker at the center approached me.

“He is our littlest,” she said, smiling down at the baby. “And he is doing so well! When he came here, we didn’t know. He wasn’t able to keep fluids down. He was sick. But each time here at the center, he grew stronger and he is still growing!”

The mother beamed. She looked down at her child, but then, for a moment, her expression became distant. She looked up at me and then spoke to the center worker in Swahili. The worker nodded her head and translated for me.

“The mother wants to acknowledge that there are many babies who do not make it. They can’t get to the center to get help, or they get here and we can’t help them. This mother, while she is so grateful to God for her baby, wants you to also remember the mothers and babies who do not get better.”

I look at the mother, and in a moment that transcends our language barriers, we lean into each other and hug. The little baby coos and squeaks as we embrace. I was so blessed to be in the presence of this woman who is such a witness to the desperate human struggle we are so often faced with.

The reality is that we live in a world where things don’t not always go as planned.
And it’s true for the families in Kenya just as it’s true for all families in the world. We have hopes and dreams of where we will go in life, and then, as John Lennon says, “Life is what happens when we are making other plans.”

I worked last summer at a teaching hospital in Minneapolis as a chaplain, and encountered many situations in which people’s lives took a sharp turn in a different direction than they had planned. They shared how they had exercised three times a week. They ate smart. They took their vitamins. They followed the rules.

They took the medication that was prescribed. “It was supposed to help. But Chaplain Laura, I’ve been here for six days—and guess what? The medicine isn’t working.”
“The surgery—even though it was ninety percent success rate—failed. We just retired and she died. What did I do to deserve this? I don’t want to be alone as I age.”

Things happen to us in our lives that go unexplained.

And we want answers. We want an explanation.

After the Boston marathon bombings, the media was quick to jump on the “why” and “how” questions. And some faith leaders also latched on.

Quotes of, “it all happened for a reason,” Or “It was just God’s timing” flew through the air just as quickly and just as sharply as the bits and pieces of metal that were packed into the bombs.
And as a Christian body, we can respond in two ways:
We can believe that God is a God of cause and effect, or we can believe that God is with us in those moments, like a parent or dear friend who sits near to us, with an arm extended around shoulders, and weeps with us when these terrible things happen.

When bombings happen,
When our loved ones die,
When all of the crazy changes happen in life—despite our following the directions and following the rules.

I think of our reading for today, out of the book of Acts. The interaction between the disciples and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a group of people who liked to strictly adhere to Jewish law. They are often found in the New Testament testing Jesus on the interpretation of law.

In our text for today, they are specifically asking about following a law on circumcision to Peter and Barnabas.

The Pharisees state that in order to be saved, this law must be followed.

And I love how preciously Peter sums up his response, it’s so well-laid out, I have to read it again:
“Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

We are not bound by the law. Christ’s love sets us free from having to strive for that type of perfection. God’s grace is perfect enough for our lives.

It’s perfect in the face of our imperfections.

God’s grace lifts us up when we are faced with situations that rock our faith—even break it; when we find ourselves, or our nation, faced with tragedy. Or even disappointments in our day to day lives.

God is with us when the paths in our lives change. When the direction we think we are going turns out to be a dead end, or an entirely different path instead.

I read a beautiful poem by author Emily Perl Kingsley that I would like to share with you this morning. Emily is a mother who is raising a child with a disability. She describes her feelings of finding out her child has a disability in the poem “Welcome to Holland” I feel like this poem can relate so well to many of us, whether we have a child or not, when our lives are changed by something out of our control. Emily writes:

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like
You are planning a fabulous vacation trip—to Italy.
You buy a bunch of fancy guidebooks and make
Your wonderful plans. The Coliseum,
the gondolas in Venice.
You may learn some handy phrases in
Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day
Finally arrives. You pack your bags and off
You go. Several hours later, the plane lands.
The stewardess comes in and says,
“Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?
I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed
To be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of
Going to Italy.

But there’s been a change in the flight plan.
They’ve landed in Holland and there you
Must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t
Taken you to some horrible, disgusting, fithly
Place, full of pestilence, famine, and disease.
It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy a new
Guidebook. And you must learn a whole new
Language. And you will meet a whole new
Group of people you have never met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced
Than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after
You’ve been there for a while and you catch
Your breath, you look around and begin
To notice that Holland has windmills, Holland
Has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and
Going to Italy, and they’re all bragging
About what a wonderful time they had there.
And for the rest of your life you will say,
“Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go.
That’s what I planned.”

The pain will never, ever, go away
Because the loss of that dream is a very
Significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact
That you didn’t get to Italy, you maybe never
Be free to enjoy the very special, the very
Lovely things about Holland.

Our lives go in many directions, and things don’t always turn out as they should—even when we plan, even when we have done everything according the rules. But God is with us in each of those moments, holding our hands, reassuring us—or even grieving with us.

Sometimes, when I am feeling down and out in America, I close my eyes and picture that tiny baby I met in Nairobi Kenya. I see his button nose, his sweet big eyes, and if close my eyes tight enough—I can almost feel the curl of his hair on his soft, newborn head. And that gives me hope.

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