Sermon May 17- Becoming Perfected

A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
1 John 4:7-12
7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

John 15:1-2
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

There’s a young man who lives in southern Indiana, on a little 20 acre farm. He works at a Catholic seminary and worships with his family at a Catholic church, and he’s a part-time writer. So he write a little book called “A Time to Plant,” which looked to me like it was a series of series lessons learned from farming- so of course, I bought it and read it.

His name is Kyle Kramer, and the story is really about his decision- his calling- to choose a piece of land, and a community, and commit to it. What he learned was far more than he thought he would. And mostly, he learned by making mistakes, by being in need, and by listening to the voice of God and the voices of his neighbors.

Let me share just one little story: Kyle bought twenty very-neglected acres.

Then he bought a freshly painted 1953 Ford tractor. He writes: “It didn’t take me long to realize that a fresh coat of paint does not a rebuilt tractor make, and I cursed myself for having bought another piece of junk, albeit one with a better paint job. The tractor ran hot and had a mysterious problem of running perfectly for a few minutes and then stalling out and not restarting for half an hour.”

“Late one afternoon the tractor died out hundreds of yards away from my truck and tools. I lugged the toolbox down to it, trying to wrench it back to life. In a rather spectacular temper tantrum, I became so angry and frustrated that I started flinging my tools into the nearby woods, along with a barrage of curse words that would take the bark off a tree. Ashamed of both my incompetence and my immature emotional reaction, I felt completely and utterly defeated. When I purchased the farm, I had made in my mind a covenant to care for it. Now I felt I was unworthy of ownership and incapable of the good work the land required of me, I felt that all my romantic notions of farming were being ground to pieces under the heel of what real farm work actually entailed. I felt, in other words, that I would never belong here.”

But Kyle was wrong. He wasn’t a failure, he was just in the right situation to be taught. Listen to what he learned:

“Tears of discouragement were welling up when I saw some movement at the corner of the field and turned to see a figure walking toward me across the brush. A soft-spoken, shy man in his forties, he introduced himself as John Schaeffer. He’d heard that someone had bought part of the Brinkman place, and when he was driving by and saw my truck, he walked down through the fields to say hello.”

“After our introductions he turned to the tractor. ‘That thing giving you some trouble?’ he asked in a gentle, quiet voice. Ruefully realizing that he’d likely heard my tirade of curses, I described the symptoms with as much calm as I could muster. John almost immediately diagnosed the problem- a partially clogged fuel valve. Using a piece of baling wire (of course!), within a few minutes he had the little four-cylinder purring sweetly. I thanked him profusely, but he waved it off. ‘Don’t think about it,’ he replied. ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’”

That was love, a neighborly kind of love, and Kyle learned by being loved when he was in need.

He learned how to love, and he learned the nature of love, and commitment, and the more he learned about those things- the more he learned about himself, and about the love of God.

Those of you who are married will attest: marriage is a covenant in which there is a lot to learn after the wedding is over. Sometimes those lessons are painful and sometimes they are playful, and sometimes they come swiftly and sometimes they emerge slowly, and each partner in the marriage evolves- with age, and with experience and with the influence of the other.

Well I don’t have any personal stories to tell in that regard, but I do have the story of a friendship.

One day about 15 years ago I was sitting at a table in a restaurant, reading. And something nudged me- something I could not see, but something I could feel in my heart, and it whispered, “Stop and look- there is something to learn.”

And so I put down my book and lifted up my eyes, and I saw two men. The first man was tall and handsome, and he was wearing expensive clothes, and he was a man of respect in the community.

And the second man was wearing old, dirty clothes. His shoes were untied, and he needed a bath. And he was sitting at a table, waving his hand to every person who walked by, and saying, “Hello!”

And he said “Hello” to the first man.

And the first man waved at the second man. But it was a very tiny wave, a wave so tiny that if I had not been looking for it, I would never have seen it. And besides that little wave, he completely ignored the second man.

And I kept on looking, and when I did, I saw something nobody else could see. I saw a look of loneliness and sadness on the second man’s face.

It wasn’t there very long, but it was there for a moment. And in that moment, the second man became my teacher.

I learned something in that moment. I had known it in my head for forty years, but in that moment I learned it in my heart.

Even people who need a bath and who wear dirty clothes have feelings, and even they can tell when they are being treated wrong.

Yes, I learned something. But it is never enough to simply learn. If what we learn is something of value, we have to act on that knowledge.

It is not enough to know how to read blueprints, and make measurements with a tape measure and a square and a level, and how to do all the things a carpenter has to do to build a house, IF YOU NEVER BUILD THE HOUSE.

No, it is not enough. So I closed my book, and I stood up, and I walked across the restaurant to the table where the second man was sitting, and for the next few years, until he died, he was my friend and my teacher.

His name was Albert, and he was Amish. But like many of the Amish in that community he had a phone, so from time to time he would call me and ask for a ride.

Usually, he wanted a ride to the doctor’s office. But as we drove, he would talk, and tell stories about his visit to a Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, or about worship in Amish congregations. One day, he invited me to an Amish youth group gathering.

They started with volleyball, and had a meal, and then they sat around a table and began to sing- boys on one side, girls on the other. Each young person picked a hymn form one of their books- one with the words in what they called Dutch, which was low-German, and one with the words in English. Neither book had notes- if they knew the tune, they could sing it. If not, they passed it by. But whoever picked the song had to start the song off, and pick the right note to start it one.

One time Albert told me about frolics. Another culture might call them barn-raising. Usually they happened after a fire, or a tornado. All the Amish I knew were skilled, at one level or another, at carpentry. So if a family lost their barn, or their home, to some disaster, they gathered from miles and miles around, and built a new one. I never got to see one of those events, but I’ve always liked the idea that they were called ‘frolics’

Another time Albert invited me to an event- I can’t remember if it had a name, but it was an event for mission. It lasted several days, but the congregations in each district were assigned one day for their turn to come help, if any folk were available.

So Amish came, and Mennonites, and even Church of the Brethren. They came and boiled ground beef in giant vats, and then canned the meat up in two-pound cans, and put a generic label on it, and sent it to a warehouse. Whenever there was a disaster anywhere in the world, people in need could call on that warehouse for meat.

Albert was the first one to tell me about the great quilt auction held every year at the Kansas State Fairgrounds. I later learned that my friend Dale was one of the auctioneers who donated his time to the auction. But the women in every Amish congregation in Kansas, and many of the Mennonite congregations, made quilts to auction off. And many of them went and cooked for three days, because wherever there is an auction there is food, and people will pay good money to eat homemade Amish cooking, and all the money from all the quilts and all the food went to the Mennonite Central Committee, which responds to emergencies much the same as our Presbyterian Disaster Assistance does.

Now mind you, I was not abiding with Albert. We were just hanging out. But even so, he was my teacher- and from my teacher, I learned that every human being has something to share.

Because he took me places,
Because he explained things,
Because he told me stories,
Because Albert let me see beyond the appearance of his dirty clothes.

Now if I, a Princeton trained theologian, could learn things from that slovenly, disreputable man- well what do you suppose that you and I could learn from Jesus?

I’ve thought about Albert a lot over the years, and I’ve decided that it was Jesus who was behind the lessons that Albert taught me.

It was God’s Spirit working in that café that morning that nudged me out of my chair and into the chair next to Albert. And it was God’s Spirit living in Alvin that opened him up.

And it was God’s Spirit working ON me that helped me to see far more than Albert imagined he was telling me. Because you see- it is by abiding, by staying connected, by following Jesus, that we learn and grow and mature, and by which our ability to love becomes perfected.

We look, we listen, we follow, we act, we make a mistake, we are forgiven, and we start over again. But as long as we make that choice- to keep on going, connected to Jesus, letting God live in us- love is becoming perfected.

Perfection itself may be a long way off, but Jesus is very close. And if Jesus is close, grace will abound.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

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