January 1, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I have listed today’s sermon in the bulletin as a meditation because it is really more of an extended parable than a sermon. Specifically, it is a parable about this piece of paper and what it can teach us about our redemption, the redemption that Anna, daughter of Phanuel, saw coming to us in the baby Jesus.
To those of you listening by podcast, I am holding up what looks like a blank sheet of paper. It is an 8.5×11 sheet of white computer paper and as far as anyone in the sanctuary can tell, it has nothing written on it. If, however, I invited you to come up to the pulpit and take a long hard look at this sheet of paper, you might see that it is in fact not completely blank but is covered with the faintest of markings, the tell tale traces of a previous document. The writing from that previous document is so light that you might think it’s simply a figment of your imagination. It’s so light that you certainly can’t read what was once written here, but look hard enough and you will realize this piece of paper is, in fact, not a completely clean slate. Something was there once but whatever was there is now faded from view and faded enough to allow us to use this piece of paper to record new thoughts and ideas. This piece of paper, then, is at the same time both used and usable. It bears upon it evidence of a past history and yet it stands ready to capture whatever new future you choose to write here.
Now, so far, there isn’t anything too strange about what I have told you. Since we were children, we have all used pencils to write, erase, and write again, and we all know that often when we erase — even when we scrub our hearts out — some of the graphite is left behind leaving our paper slightly grubby but certainly usable. I am able to do something, however, with this piece of paper that I can’t do with an ordinary erased note, however. If I take this piece of paper and put it in the freezer, the writing that is barely noticeable now will suddenly re-appear and fill the page, leaving no space for anything new to be written upon it. Instead of a usable piece of paper, the cold of the freezer will transform this paper back into just a plain old used piece of paper cluttered with old thoughts and meanderings with no room for a single new idea. You’re going to have to take my word that that is what would happen because I couldn’t haul my freezer into the pulpit to prove my point, but if you are a true doubting Thomas, I’ll let you take the paper outside following worship so that you can stand with it in the frozen Alfred air for a few minutes to test it for yourself. I will assure you, however, that my resident cynic, Mathew, tried it out and he will confirm that when he pulled it out of the freezer, he saw that it did in fact, reveal its secret message. (For the curious, in a demonstration of my overflowing creativity, the secret message that I wrote on this paper says, “This is a secret message.”)
So let’s go over the properties of this piece of paper. I am holding a piece of paper that is blank enough to be used to write down your dreams and hopes and plans for tomorrow, but will become cluttered with yesterday’s words as soon as it is exposed to the cold of the freezer. The past scribbled on this paper has never really disappeared: it has only faded enough to stay out of sight until the climate get a little rough and inhospitable when it will suddenly push its way back into view. Given that it is New Year’s Day, I’m guessing that you know where I am going with all of this talk about a past that we seemed to have erased yet persists in returning as soon as life turns cold and tough.
Sure enough: in my parable today, this paper represents your life.
Before I get to my theological point, I know there are some of you out there who will spend the rest of my sermon time puzzling out how I do this neat trick, so to make sure that you listen to my theology and don’t get stuck on the chemistry, let me reveal the magic. I received this piece of paper — actually a whole notebook full of this paper — as a Christmas gift and the secret to its remarkable powers is not actually the paper at all but the pen that comes with it. The pen is an erasable gel pen which you can buy at any office supply store (if you’d like to try it at home.) The special ink used in an erasable gel pen reacts to temperature: when the ink is warmed up, it disappears and when it is chilled, it reappears. The manufacturers use the word “erasable” to describe the pen but unlike a pencil eraser that scrubs the graphite from the page, this ink remains on the page, but when you scrub it with the pen’s rubber tip, the friction increases the temperature which causes the ink to disappear. If you have a whole page of notes, you can save yourself some time and muscle by sticking the page in a microwave for two minutes. The increased temperature will cause the ink to fade from view. If you want to get it back, just pop the paper in a freezer to reduce the temperature, and the ink reappears. The notebook I received as a gift touts itself as reusable because after you fill it up with writing using the special pen, you can just put the whole notebook in the microwave for two minutes and voila! you’ll have a fresh set of pages. And it really does work. What they don’t mention, however, is that you better not leave the notebook in your car on an Alfred winter day because if you do all of your past words may come back to haunt you.
Anyway, while my family was captivated by the chemical properties of this gift, my preacher brain, of course, went immediately to the sermonic implications of the notebook.
“Aren’t we just like this notebook?” I thought. “We try our hardest to get rid of the past and become new people, but just when we thought we had successfully changed for good, the old person we once were reappears and clutters everything up again.”
Just think of the number of times you have had to make the same New Year’s resolution because the change that you try to accomplish never lasts long enough to make it to the next year? Or how many times have you thought that you had gotten over an old hurt only to find it choking your heart again when something happens to trigger that old memory? Grief and sorrow are particularly resilient: even when enough time has passed to allow our anguish to recede a little to the background of our lives, the smallest thing may loose it upon us again, plunging us right back into our heartache.
The tenacity of our past mistakes and hurts begins as soon as we are old enough to feel the disappointments of our own imperfections. A few weeks ago, I was meeting with our Junior High youth group and we were discussing embarrassing moments. One of the ninth grade boys told a story of a time he felt foolish in front of someone he respected and he said that moment can still play over and over in his head like a continuous looped recording. I warned them that there are episodes from my own adolescence that I can still recall today, decades later in distressing detail, accompanied by all of the feelings of shame I experienced at the time. Our past is never gone; our temptations are never securely locked away in a prison; our hearts are never completely healed; our shame never fully dissipated. This is the truth of what it means to be human. To be human is to be like this piece of paper, always bearing in our present the marks of our past, knowing that the mistakes, the hurts, and the frailties we thought we had exorcised from our lives can reappear at any moment.
If to be human is to always bear in our present the marks of our past, to be Christian is to recognize that we are not enslaved to that past, that — like this piece of paper — our lives can be transformed by the warmth of Christ’s love so that we can be used for new things. This is what I believe the word redemption means. At the birth of Jesus, the prophet Anna proclaimed that Jesus would bring redemption to Jerusalem and we, as Christians have embraced that gospel of redemption, taking about becoming new creatures in Christ, but I don’t think we always understand exactly what redemption means. Most of the time when Christians talk about redemption, they make it sound like if we only have enough faith, Christ will erase our past: Christ will close up every wound, take away all pain and suffering, remove every temptation from our hearts, and hand us a completely new slate upon which to write our future. So when the pain persists, or those old character flaws keep returning to thwart our best intentions, we think that it must be that we have failed in our faith. If only we believed better, we think to ourselves, we would be better people which means that in addition to the burden of our imperfections, we have added the burden of shame over our too weak faith. We know we are in need of redemption but the more we pursue it, the farther away it feels because we just can’t shake this past which clings so tightly to us.
I would propose, however, that we have gotten redemption all wrong. Redemption from our past and our sin doesn’t erase our past — it doesn’t make us incapable of sin or impervious to temptation; what Christ offers us is a love that will make our humanness bearable and will free us from anxiety and shame so that we can turn these imperfect lives toward a gracious goodness.
And so here is where I turn once again to my parable of the paper. My parable of the paper is not just descriptive of the way in which our past clings to us, but it is transformative in its promise of the way in which Christ can make even this used imperfect life usable again. If we are the paper in my parable, then Christ is the microwave! We are called to carry our sins to him, to confess to him our imperfections and our failures, to admit all of those times when we tried to be better but ended up messing up again, to offer to him in prayer our anguish, our despair, our doubts and disbeliefs — all of our frustration and weariness — we are called to stand in his presence marked by the imperfections of our humanness and allow his grace to wash over us. In his love, we will hear the words, “You are forgiven and redeemed. I will transform this used up life to make it fresh again. The past is not gone, but it will no longer weigh you down and you will be able to write new things on these pages. You will be freed from the burdens of yesterday so that you can focus on the possibilities of tomorrow. Let my grace wash over you,” Christ says, “so that in the warmth of my love, you will know you are freed to use your life still grace and goodness and peace.”
We stand on the threshold of a New Year, holding what looks like a blank sheet of paper, but we know that hidden beneath are the marks of many yesterdays, marks that will too easily rise once again when the world turns cold and difficult to manage. We, however, have been given this promise in Christ, that whenever our lives become cluttered with the grime of sin and doubt, we can place our lives in his hand, stand in the warmth of his grace, and he will renew us, restore us, and make our lives useful again.
I invite you to come to his table now to experience Christ’s redeeming presence.