(Significant Scriptures: Psalm 103:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 13:31-35)
As I was preparing this message, I had an idea. I thought it was a good idea at the time. My thinking was something like this, “What if we did something different? What if we had a taste test where there would be three dishes, two of which would have a missing ingredient? Then I could ask someone to come up and taste the three items and they would a) notice that the first two dishes would have a missing ingredient and b) choose the dish that was not missing any ingredients. And this would then be a great introduction to the rest of my message when I could talk about the Missing Ingredient in our lives and how small groups can help in that area.
So that I went ahead with that idea. And as a person who values integrity and honesty, I need to tell you that things did not, in any way, go the way that I thought they would. Here is what happened:
The sermon started off with a video clip from the ReGroup small group curriculum which talks about some of the pros and cons of small groups. Then I tried to transition from the video to what came next. I explained that one of the great things about celebrating our various cultural backgrounds is the wonderful food that each culture offers. And being of Norwegian descent, one of the foods that we celebrated was cream and bread, which was (I thought) a Norwegian delicacy (more on this later). So I asked for a brave volunteer from the audience. I noticed that a young fellow’s hand immediate shot up. So I invited him to come up.
Then I prepared the three dishes for him to taste. When I was growing up, in our family, cream and bread was a real treat. It consists of taking some bread, and pouring cream on top. You can use homogenized or 2% milk or sour cream. My favourite method is to pour milk on the bread and then put sour cream on top of that. After the milk and/or cream, we would put chokecherry syrup on top, but you can substitute grape jelly or some other jelly or jam. On each of three plates, I placed a slice of bread. On the first slice of bread, I poured cream, but no jelly. On the second piece of bread, I put jelly but no cream. And the third was prepared with cream and jelly. One at a time, I carved off a piece of each slice of bread and gave it to him to taste. And then I asked him which one he liked the best, the one with the cream, the one with the jelly or the one with the cream and the jelly. He said that he like the one with the cream the best. The sermon almost ended at that point.
The congregation thought it was very funny. I was trying to think of how I could possibly salvage the situation and segue into the rest of the sermon. And I quickly realized that there was no way to successfully do that. So I think I explained to the congregation how I was trying to illustrate this idea of a Missing Ingredient (my memory is already a little foggy at this point) and then began talking about the Missing Ingredient in our lives. So that was what happened. And later on, I found out that cream and bread is not a Norwegian delicacy for someone from Norway was present that day and they had never heard of it before. Ouch! (It gets even worse. I could not even Google up an image of cream and bread and chokecherry syrup. How bad is that! All these years I have been living a lie! Ahhh!)
After reflecting on it for a while, the thought came to me that the message was about grace, specifically about how small groups can be places where people can experience grace. And there was grace for me in this illustration gone awry because even though it didn’t work the way I thought it would, it became a memorable event that people could then use to remember the rest of the message. So even though this did not turn out in any way like I thought it would, it was an experience of grace for me because, in a way, it turned out better. Thank you Lord!
Here is the rest of the sermon:
Sometimes we sense that there is a Missing Ingredient in our lives. We were created by God and we were created to have a relationship with him. And perhaps we could say that what we need more than anything else is to know and experience that God really loves us. And we also need to know and experience that another human being truly loves us. And even though we may be surrounded by a family and friends who do love us, and even though we may be part of a church and know intellectually that God loves us, we still have these needs because we tend to forget that God and others loves us or we take it for granted. And when we look around in the world, we see all the crime and the poverty and the broken relationships and the broken families, and there is a brokenness in our own hearts too if we are brave enough to look there. The Missing Ingredient that we need is grace.
Our English word grace is based on the Greek word charis and charis means ‘something that causes delight’ or pleasure and it also has this sense of ‘a gift or demonstration of favour from a ruler.’ So if someone came up to you and unexpectedly gave you a gift and you opened it up and said, “Wow! This is great! This is exactly what I need right now!” that would be grace.
And the ultimate gift of grace for us and for the whole world is Jesus. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves the whole world. And because he loves us, Jesus came into this world and became a human being just like you and me. Jesus lived a perfect human life and that one perfect human life counts for all humanity. And so when you are confronted with the evil darkness of your own soul, lift up your eyes to Jesus and receive the grace of his goodness, his wholesomeness and his purity that he freely gives to you.
Jesus taught and spoke of the kingdom of God and he healed people to show people that the kingdom was near to them. And so when you find yourself living with a body that is growing older and weaker, look to Jesus and the future that he will give you when one day he will raise up and transform your tired old, broken down, dead body into a new, resurrection body that will never grow old, never get sick and never die.
Out of love for the whole world, Jesus willing went to the cross to suffer and die for everyone’s sins. And on the third day afterwards, Jesus rose from the dead to prove to us and to the whole world that he has defeated sin, death and the devil for us. So when you find yourself tormented by the guilt and shame of something that you have said, thought or done, look to Jesus on the cross and be reminded that he has taken all of your sin away and given you complete and total forgiveness for everything wrong that you have done.
This is great news! This is grace, this is a gift from above that gives us great delight! And yet it is challenging for us to incorporate this truth, this grace from God into our lives. You see, grace is not our native language. Guilt and law is our native language. And it is really hard for us to talk and think and live in a new way. Ironic as it seems, it is hard for us to live in grace.
So what can help us to live in the grace that God gives us? Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, (Eph 3:17b-18) So how do we become rooted and established in love? How do we grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is for us?
One very important way that can happen is through small groups. Small groups can be little communities where people truly experience the grace, the favour of God, through other people. They can be places of safety where people listen to one another, care about one another, help one another and really love one another. Small groups can be places where people grow in their faith in God and grow in their love for other people.
And so if you feel like there is a Missing Ingredient in your life, I would encourage you to consider becoming part of a small group. What we are trying to do here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church is offer a wide variety of kinds of small groups on various days and times so that we will hopefully have a small group that is just right for you. We realize that not everyone wants to be in a small group. We realize that some people get their need to be loved by God and others met in other ways. But our hope and our prayer is that our small groups would be places where many of us could be built up and encouraged in our faith and that our church would then be built up and strengthened by all of its small groups. As Paul writes, again to the church in Ephesus, “From [Jesus] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16)
And as helpful as small groups can be, let us not lose sight of what is really important, and that is Jesus. Small groups are a way that we can experience grace. But Jesus is the ultimate source of grace. And right here on this altar today, we have ultimate grace. Jesus tells us that he is present in this bread and wine. And though we do not fully understand how it can be, we believe what he says to be true, that his body and his blood are really here in this bread and wine. And Jesus gives himself to you as a free gift, so that you can be sure that he is with you and he loves you and he gives you forgiveness for all of your sin. And the Missing Ingredient is missing no more. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 20 September 2009.)