Too Much: Love
October 24th, 2021
Today we wrap up a sermon series called “Too Much.”
Two weeks ago, Hadley walked us through the parable of the unforgiving servant; how Jesus reminds us that the forgiveness God extends is simply beyond our capacity to measure or count. It’s certainly too much for us to ever repay. She told us about her teacher Mrs. Jackson who reminded her often that “to whom much is given, much is required.”
Last week, Meg took us back to the wilderness where God’s people gave too much to that ancient Stewardship campaign – where Moses had to restrain their generosity. I suppose the concept of a General Reserves Fund had not been invented yet, but rest assured UPC, on this Commitment Sunday we know precisely what to do should we have that particular problem today.
Our Scripture reading today ponders what it means to be the recipient of almost too much love. The reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus. Tradition maintains that Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome. Paul penned these words to assure that flock of the faithful that they are worth the sacrifice. I invite you to listen to this passage from chapter 3, which is actually in the form of a prayer.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
In Bishopville, South Carolina, you can find a 3-acre garden filled with living sculptures – nearly four hundred topiaries trimmed to absolute precision by a man named Pearl Fryar.
Pearl’s garden began in 1984 when he saw that there was a “Yard of the month” competition and right then and there he decided that he was going to win it. Upon learning that the competition was only for residents inside the city limits, and that he was just outside, Pearl decided he was going to have to go even bigger. He said “I had to do something so exceptional that they couldn’t help but change the rules.”
He began by going to a nursery where a small, sculpted plant caught his eye. After a few pointers from the owner, Pearl took a juniper bush home, nourished and grew it, sculpted it and from there he was hooked.
From then on, he would come home after 12 hour shifts in a canning factory and work deep into the night perfecting his art.
In spite of having absolutely no formal training in either horticulture or in art, Pearl Fryar is regarded as one of the finest topiary artists in the world. He doesn’t just make nice, boxy hedges for mazes. He is not content to simply sculpt his plants into your run-of-the-mill animal shapes. Pearl’s garden is a master class in improvisation and abstraction – it’s just that instead of a canvas he has a garden, instead of a paintbrush, a pair of hedge clippers.
Here’s the truly fascinating thing, though: that very first juniper bush he took home from the nursery was half-dead and destined for the dumpster. In fact, much of Pearl’s garden consists of plants that were somebody else’s throwaways. It makes you wonder, just what does Mr. Fryar do to bring these malnourished bushes back to life? What are they rooted in that makes them so robust?
It’s almost become cliché for the church to wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days when the church was more at the center of the culture.
Back to the days of “if you build it they will come” – when all you had to do was open the doors and people would come in.
Back to the days when Sunday School roles were flush and building campaigns were necessary to accommodate the growing numbers.
That sure would be nice – but that is not the story these days.
These days it’s about adaptive leadership and growth strategies.
These days it’s about positioning Sunday worship as an attractive alternative to tailgating, travel soccer or even Sunday brunch.
These days it’s about a Stewardship campaign that is compelling enough to inspire giving.
Has the church been transplanted into a less hospitable climate?
Has the ph of our soil shifted so drastically that we are destined to diminish slowly over time?
The Church is not at the center of culture anymore and there are Christians out there who are absolutely terrified of this fact.
The most disturbing version of this out there gathers under the loose banner of Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism loosely maintains that America is a Christian nation, but that identity is under siege. So it is up to true, Christian patriots to defend that identity and restore it by any means necessary.
• Political organizing that seeks to legislate a set of narrowly defined “Christian” values.
• Rhetoric that is pro-gun, pro-militia and often encouraging violence
Faced with the erosion of the Church’s primacy in culture, Christian Nationalists have decided to plant themselves in the soil of Power.
I thank God every day that those Christians are not the only Christians.
I thank God every time I think of you and how you are earnestly in search of other soil.
So what soil are we planted in if not in Power?
The Apostle Paul, who was no stranger to hostile church-planting conditions, answers that question with a prayer:
“I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being,” he wrote, “and that Christ may dwell in your hearts as you are being rooted and grounded…in love.”
Love is what we are planted in and that makes all the difference.
That love is what makes me so proud to call you my Church family.
So long as we are rooted and grounded in love, I don’t really care if we are at the center of the culture anymore. If we’re staking out ground, I’d much prefer that we find ourselves in the heart of God.
If I may, I’d like to share just a few of the ways I’ve seen glimpses of this grounding here at UPC.
A year ago we started small groups here at UPC – 30 of them to be exact; nearly 300 folks of all ages gathering to read scripture and talk about their faith. I was blown away by how many people yearned for such connection.
I was thrilled to see that certain small groups really got in to their small group number – one person even hollered out “SMALL GROUP 19!” at our outdoor Easter service after a fellow member of the group concluded a trombone piece for the postlude – for my part I give you full permission to do that in the sanctuary as well.
But I’ll tell you – I recognized that the small groups were holy when one church member said to me “I’m having a procedure next week and – I’m sure it will be fine – but in the past I was not much of one to share such things…but because of experience in my small group, I’m going to tell them and ask them to pray for me.”
I pray that…you are being rooted and grounded in love.
I don’t want to steal her thunder, but in a moment you’ll hear from Bella Moshier about the Youth Engagement Council. I’ll let her tell you the details, but two years ago when I was brand new here at UPC, I sat down with Kim McNeill to talk about Youth Ministry.
She said that there was this class of 9th graders who are incredible leaders – they love Church and I want to cultivate that leadership potential.” And so Kim drew up this whole plan for engaging them and she had their first meeting in January of 2020.
Two months later COVID shut it all down and we were quarantining at home. Kim didn’t get to run that play at all.
And yet, seeds must have been planted because now I see these 11th graders coming together as a team; going out of their way to invite and welcome middle school students to be a part of the community.
I can’t tell you how long I have labored in my life to cultivate that same kind of servant leadership among high school youth. All I can say is that it is incredibly difficult – and yet, while we weren’t looking, that growth just happened and it is pure grace.
Again – I pray that you are being rooted and grounded in love.
Last week I shared with you that Day McLaughlin has been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. If you know Day at all, you know that she volunteers A LOT…especially with children. Sunday School, Godly Play, Vacation Bible School.
The 4th and 5th graders gathered for Kirk Club this past Wednesday for the first time this school year. I was a tad late making it out there to join them, but when I showed up, I was so moved that the children were writing letters to Day letting her know how much they care about her.
One more time – I pray that you are being rooted and grounded in love.
It’s stories like these that make me proud to call you my church family.
Maybe some other Christians would boast about winning this or that legislative victory or gathering hundreds of people in full militia gear for some “Take America Back” rally.
Maybe other Christians want to measure their faithfulness by how much power they consolidate.
That’s not me and it’s not us. We choose love every time.
In a few moments, you will be invited to bring a pledge card forward.
I won’t be shy about asking you to fill out the one side asking you to make a financial pledge to support University Presbyterian Church in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two.
But I also ask you to turn it over and take a moment to remember what you’re rooted in here. What is it about this place that grounds you and helps you grow.
If you’ve only been visiting for a short while or even if it’s your first time here, tell us what you are yearning for in a church family. EVERYone can participate because this is about more than financial promises. It’s an act of worship.
It’s how we remember what we have been rooted and grounded in – not the power of God, but the love of God.
Truth be told, though, they may not be all that different.
Did you catch the end of the Scripture – the end of Paul’s prayer?
“Now to him who by the…power at work within us…”
In the eyes of God – Political clout and military might – that’s not power.
In the eyes of God – love is the only power that matters…
love, love, love.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.
Let the people of God say it together. Amen.