June 6, 2010


“Overcoming the Past”

Galatians 1:11-24


Today is a great day of celebration.  It is not a church holiday, which makes preachers like me nervous, but it is a day when we recognize a significant part of our ministry:  Education.

One unfortunate aspect of days like today is that many people see it as recognition that something is finished, over, done.  “No more pencil’s, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks,” goes the old rhyme. I suppose that when you are in the midst of education it does you some good to see the parts of it and to celebrate the completion of the various parts.  This idea becomes unfortunate when we mistakenly think that we are somehow ever done learning.

When I first graduated from seminary I thought that I was primed and ready to go.  Fortunately for me my first parish was patient with me as I struggled to learn which end of the casket was the head, what was the best way to conduct a wedding rehearsal, and if the baby does not want to be ‘presented’ to the congregation it’s best not to push the matter.   There was more for me to learn.

I know that for some of you, who are not being promoted but graduating, you don’t want to hear this.  You are not alone.  I once heard a minister proudly proclaim that he had never read another book after seminary.  Fact of the matter is that I heard his congregation make certain hushed proclamations about him too, but not that he read too much. 

Some of you may have heard older people testify that they went to a one room school and never finished the 6th grade.  When I hear these sorts of tales, I wonder how they did it; how did they make a decent living, raise a family, and send their children off to college or trade school.  They must have kept on learning.

Learning and growing is central to our faith.  You have reached a milestone and it is good to recognize that.  You should feel good about completing part of your journey.  As most of you know, we are trying to sell our house in Oley.  I refuse to engage in some of the HGTV type stuff to get the house sold, but there are several projects I’ve been putting off and because I’d do them if we were going to live there indefinitely I am doing them now.  Last weekend I tore off the old dilapidated ramp going into our shed.  I sketched out a design, purchased the lumber, got out my tools, and made a nice ramp so the equipment can go in and out easily.  It was good to start something, to work diligently at it, and see it completed.  I think that part of my satisfaction is due to the fact that this was a task I could begin, do my best, and then stand back and appreciate my work.

Not all of life is this way, of course.  There are things that are never finished. That darn consistory meeting comes around every month, it is never ‘over.’  Last month we were talking about the funerals we’ve had this year and one person noted that when Rev. Wayne Lutz was here, his first October, he had 16 funerals in one month.   I told a colleague that I was sure Rev. Lutz was glad when that was over.  She quipped, “It’s never over.  Last time I checked the death rate was still 100%.  They are never over.  Sometimes they just come close together.”  Unfinished business can sometimes haunt us.

Then there is the problem of the past.  There are times when we are thankful that part of our life is completed because we were no good at it, or that we failed miserably in our efforts to do it.  There is a difference between effort and ability, but the sense of regret over the past is often a barrier to the future. This can make you hold yourself back.  It can lead you to make lasting judgments about yourself that get in the way of your future potential.

And others, based on your past performance, can make judgments about you that are no longer accurate.  Do you remember the story of Jesus’ return from the wilderness, when he went and preached in the temple?  Don’t you remember the murmurs?  “Is this not Joseph’s son?”[1] And others said, “what good can come from Nazareth.”[2]

But the most powerful story I know of this kind is the one we read this morning.  The Apostle Paul speaks about himself, saying,

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”[3]   

This prior life was not one of failure to perform or even of some lapse in judgment.  Paul excelled in his work.  But there was something more for him.

He might have simply thrown his arms up in the air along the Damascus road, saying, “Too bad God!  I am just not the right person for this task.  Everyone knows who I am. I know who I am.”

I once had to ride a church bus because the kids on the bus were misbehaving so badly that the cops pulled the bus over.  I am telling the truth.  So when I did chaperone that bus, I surveyed the situation for a while, and then I went and sat next to the kid who was acting out the most.  I asked him his name.  Then I asked, “Dickie, why in the world are you acting this way?”  He said, “Because I am a ‘bad’ kid, just ask anyone.”  Now Dickie was a fourth grader.  That is awfully early in life to have your identity defined by those around you.  I wondered if there was a way for him to overcome this string of behaviors that lead to his being identified this way.

The way out of this, the only way I know, is to remember that “God loves you and receives you as you really are, and not as you think you should be”[4] and may I add, not as others label you.  What I am talking about is the freedom that grace allows you.  Paul tells of his own situation, saying, 23 they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.”[5]

This grace is not cheap.  Dietrich Bonheoffer in his classic text, “The Cost of Discipleship,” describes ‘cheap grace’ as “…grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  Or, even more clearly, cheap grace is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.”   See it is one thing to know that you are loved no matter what, and it is quite another to treat that love with no regard for the lover.

One of my children once said, “I can’t wait until I am grown up and can do whatever I want.”  I laughed hysterically. The truth of the matter is that in this harsh world in which we live you cannot do whatever you want.  Everything has its consequences, but so does responding to the love of God.  You can be the person God created you to be.  There is more for you in the future.  There is more of you for the future.

This is not a burden, This is the Good News.

[1] Luke 4:22

[2] John 1:46

[3] Galatians 1:13-14

[4] Richard Rohr

[5] Galatians 1:23-24