(1 Samuel 7:7-12)
Below is a the Memorial Sunday sermon at Smith Chapel, how we can become an Ebenezer, a living memorial to God's help. After listening to Bishop Schnase describe the Wesleyan approach to salvation and sanctification through Grace, I thought it important for us to hear my take on friend Dorothy's story, part of the sermon below. The hymn of preparation was "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and the Scripture reading was 1 Samuel 7:7-12.
Ebenezer, in our song and our Scripture, “stone of help,” but also stone of remembrance for it helped them remember. Last Tuesday, we visited our stone of remembrance, the memorial stone of our son Jeff. Jeff would have been 48 on June 30th, one month from today. August 13th will be 30 years, but he will always be 18 to me. Jeff was Rosemary’s best friend. He was Curt’s constant companion. He was our son. In his short life, he had experienced more than most. He had a job that he loved, he had a girl that he loved, and who loved him in return. He had friends that he loved who cared about him. He was passionate about life. He loved life and it loved him in return. How do we memorialize a life so precious to us? How do you live in response to the love that he had given us? A stone of remembrance yes, but our best response is a life of remembrance, a life lived as a memorial to life of love that he lived. Our lives as a stone of remembrance.
Sometimes when tragedy happens, we have trouble even getting on with life, let alone living our lives. We have the question in our hearts continually, the question that has plagued humankind since the beginning, the question that in so many cases drives people away from the Christian faith. The question of course is “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
You’ve all asked that question. Certainly Ilene has asked the question. Certainly Cecil has asked the question. When we think of Julie, I think we all ask the question. My hunch is that every single one of you have asked. Many times with unsatisfactory answers, many unsatisfactory answers from good, well-intentioned people. They say, “It was all part of God’s plan.” Or “God takes the very best for his own.” Or “God loved him the most.” Well, then, I don’t want God to love him. In fact, I don’t want a God that had it in his plan to snatch Jeff from us. How can we have faith in such a God? How can we raise a stone, a memorial to such a God?
It’s the kind of thing you might have heard from your friends. It’s the kind of thing you might hear from the more vocal of the Christian community today. “God has a plan. It was all part of God’s plan.” It’s the kind of thing that drives many away from the faith. You might have heard it, but you won’t hear it here. It is not Methodist. It is not Wesleyan. It’s not part of our DNA.
John Wesley had a running battle with friends of his who followed the French theologian, John Calvin, who believed that all things were predestined by God. Even those who are to be saved and those who are not to be saved are predestined by God. That was unacceptable to Wesley who believed in a God of grace. A God whose grace was available to all, not just some. God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace is available to all. O, we have the free-will to refuse it, we can choose, but God’s grace is available to every one of us.
How does this address the question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The world is fallen, evil exists, bad things happen because of the choices we have made from the beginning. Choices made by both people and spiritual forces. Paul called them “powers and principalities”; they make choices too. Choices result in accidents. Choices sometimes result in evil. Bad things happen to good people not because God chooses them, but because people do. Choice gives us the freedom to love, to experience joy. It also gives us the freedom to do harm.
Or because that’s the way a fallen world is. We choose to go certain places. We choose to go at certain times. We live in certain places. The hurricanes that provide water for thousands of square miles, provide devastation at the seashore. The same thunderstorms that water the plains spawn tornados. The wild beasts that provide food also are a threat to life and limb. We live in a fallen world, but someday we know that the lion will lie down with the lamb. That is yet to come. For now, bad things do happen, but we know that God is there.
The important thing for John Wesley was the understanding that God’s grace was available, not just available, but working in each and every one of us even before we know it. Wesley was not alone in his understanding, but was following in the footsteps of a Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, who had set forth certain principles in opposition to John Calvin. Wesley embraced Arminism, as it came to be known, and our own denomination as well as many other Wesleyan denominations, such as the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army, Assemblies of God; and many others like the Disciples of Christ have followed and others, most all flowing from Wesley’s teachings.
And how important is this understanding? It makes understand that God’s love is for all, not just for some. We don’t have a God who picks and chooses. We have a God who loves all of his children and wants all to believe in him and love him in return. By the way, that should influence the way we view others.
It makes us understand that we are immersed in God’s grace that is continually nudging us, but that we have apart to play, we have to accept the nudging of God’s grace. Understand there is nothing we can do by ourselves to save us. It is grace. But what we must do is make the choice to accept it.
It makes understand the power of prayer. What good would prayer be if all things were predestined, even the prayers we say tonight? We choose to pray because we know we have a God who loves us, and God who hears our prayers. Not that all are answered to our satisfaction. Evil forces exist in this world that resist grace and bad things can happen.
But it makes us understand that nothing can happen that cannot bring God glory, even the most tragic of circumstances. Tragedy happened in Jesus’ life. His friend Lazarus died. Jesus used it to bring glory to God. Bad things happen in our lives. If we will allow God, he will take those tragedies and bring glory out of those too. I praise God today because he has been at work in my life.
Yes, I think the Wesleyan understanding of God’s grace, God’s love, makes our lives much more important because we have choices to make. What we do with our lives matters. It matters to us. It matters to others. We can choose to make our lives a memorial. We can choose to make our lives a difference. And I would submit that we make a difference best when we follow the teachings of Jesus.
We are the body of Christ. Jesus is our head. We are to have the mind of Christ. Paul called Jesus the pioneer and perfector, perfector, of our faith. It is Jesus to whom we look. It is Jesus who we follow. It is Jesus in whom we believe. It is in following Jesus that we build our lives into a memorial for Him and for those we love. Our lives become an Ebenezer when we choose to follow Jesus.
Making choices is not always an easy thing. We are immersed in a world of bad options. It’s easy to make bad choices when we are surrounded by bad options. Fortunately, Wesley had some things to say about that too. He taught us too how we are to live our lives in following Jesus, how we can best make choices. We talked of that last year when we did our sermon series on Wesley’s Three Simple Rules.
First, do no harm. Recall that we said that this was the first rule because in so many cases it is so difficult to undo harm. We can be forgiven, but the consequences of harm remain.
Then, do good. Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, for as long as ever you can.
Finally, stay in love with God. We do this by immersing ourselves in grace and saying yes to God’s nudgings. We immerse ourselves in grace by doing all those things associated with the devotional life: We pray, we read and hear Scripture, we study, we partake in Holy Communion, we fast, we gather in community to enter into holy conversation. In so doing, we hear the love of God proclaimed and we respond in love.
This week I read a facebook note from my friend Dorothy in Springfield. She had attended a Joyce Meyer event this past weekend where Joyce had talked a lot about, “what you think, you become.” She was challenged to spend some time each day thinking about what she was thinking about. It struck a chord with her.
On Tuesday morning, her Bible opened to the following verse, one of my favorites: Philippians 4:8 "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." NIV
Wow! Dorothy thought about in the shower, then on the drive to work. Then she thought about what she thought about. When the day was done, she wrote this:
What goes into my head, thoughts, judgments, etc., can be pretty scary sometimes… Man, are my eyes wide open now. Here are a few examples that will bring me to a place that is noble and just and lovely and admirable:
1. I will not shade any of my thoughts with deceit or lies.
2. I will think about others with respect and honor.
3. I determine to think on what is virtuous and decent.
4. I will keep my thoughts focused on good things.
5. I will look for the inner beauty in the people I meet - after all God created them.
6. I will focus on the best qualities of people I know.
7. I will avoid sloppy attitudes.
8. I will recall those things that cause my heart to praise God!
She concludes: These are the biblical teachings that will better shape my day to help me better shape the world where I am.
Dorothy is becoming a memorial, a stone that will help others remember who and whose they are. How does this come about? It is grace. God’s grace. We can do nothing apart from God. But there came a time from God’s nudgings (Wesley called it prevenient grace—grace before we know it, grace before it’s convenient) there was a time Dorothy responded and said yes to God. God forgave her of her sins and brought her into a relationship with Him. She became a Christian. She was justified, she was made right. She was brought into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We call this justifying grace. You see grace is God’s love continuously poured out for us. God continued to pour out his love, to continue to work in Dorothy’s life. He nudged to go to the Joyce Meyer seminar. She said yes. Through the voice of Joyce Meyer He placed an idea before her. She said yes. On Tuesday morning he nudged her to read her Bible. She was again immersed in grace. She said yes. He placed Paul’s letter to the Philippians before her. It shaped her thoughts to which she said yes.
How do our lives become a memorial? Wesley believed that God does not leave us alone. Through our immersion in grace, our immersion in God’s love, from our saying yes, day after day, God moves us from where we are towards where he wants us to be. Wesley called this sanctification. Moving on to Christian maturity with God’s help. Yes, I would say on to becoming an Ebenezer, a monument a stone to God’s help.
Stones are a big deal in the Bible. (Note: Small stones are passed out to each in the congregation.) A search will reveal almost 400 occurrences, depending on the translation you might be using. Some notable remembrances of stones in the Bible:
Jacob used a stone as a pillow the night he dreamed of Jacob’s ladder and angels ascending and descending from heaven. In the morning he set it upright as a pillar, pouring oil on the top of it and saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it…. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”
Stones. The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets of stone.
Joshua had the Israelites take 12 stones out of the Jordon River after they had crossed over and set them up as a monument to God so that anyone who asked in times to come they would know they were a monument to God’s mighty acts so that they might fear the Lord forever.
There was the Ebenezer stone, the stone of help.
There was the stone Jesus commanded be removed from Lazarus’ tomb, and the stone that was rolled away on Easter morning.
Then, there was Christ, the cornerstone.
Finally, we are to become stone of remembrance, an Ebenezer, a monument to God’s help for those around us to see.
One more thing, we become a memorial, a stone of remembrance, when we live a life of gratitude.
As we drove away from the cemetery, from Jeff’s grave last Monday, I asked Rosemary a question I’d heard another time. “If you knew, if you knew the pain, the suffering, the anguish that you’d have gone through because of the loss of Jeff, because of the bad things that had happened to this good child. If you knew, would you have had children?”
Her response was the one that I know you know: “I’m grateful for the time I had with him. I wouldn’t trade a moment, not a second of that time.
The time we have with one another is precious. A precious stone, more precious than gold. You see that precious stone is hope. And that too is grace, an undeserved gift of love from God. The hope that we will join again with those who have gone before, join with them in the presence of Jesus Christ who is our stone of hope.
Our hope is in Jesus Christ, the answer to our deepest longings, and our most difficult questions. When we ask, “Why?” We need not know the reason. Reasons may never be satisfactory to us. What we need is our stone of hope. We need gift of Jesus Christ.
With a gift like that, how can we not live our life as a stone of remembrance, as a memorial to all that God has given us.
So may you all be stones of remembrance, carrying in your hands the precious stone of hope to the glory of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is our help and we are his stones of remembrance, his Ebenezers in a world that desperately needs his help. Become a stone for all to see, and as Dorothy said, to shape the world around you. Amen.