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Preaching Notes for the First Sunday in Lent (February 14, 2016)

by The Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth

As we transition to the season of Lent and during the month of February as we celebrate Black History Month in the United Methodist Church, I am very excited and grateful to share with my readers the perspective and reflections of our guest writer for February, the Reverend Cedrick D. Bridgeforth, Ed. D. I hope you find Rev. Bridgeforth’s notes to be both inspiring and challenging as you prepare to preach a bold and prophetic word in your own congregation.  – Dawn Chesser

February 2016: Unnatural Disasters — The Stony Road to Hope

Rev Cedrick BridgeforthRev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth is Lead Pastor of Santa Ana United Methodist Church in Santa Ana, California. He is also chairperson for Black Methodists for Church Renewal, an official caucus of The United Methodist Church that works to raise up prophetic and spiritual leaders who will be advocates for the unique needs of black people.  He completed eight years as a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, and he also served as pastor of Bowen Memorial (1999-2003) and Crenshaw (2003-2008) United Methodist churches.

He was born in Decatur, Alabama, where he resided until he enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he served for four years. It was during this time that he felt the call of God upon his life. After completing his military service, he returned to Alabama, where he held several jobs before enrolling at Samford University in Birmingham. He graduated in May 1997, with a Bachelor of Arts in Religion, and then enrolled in the Claremont School of Theology, where he completed his Master of Divinity degree in May 2000. 



While completing his studies at Claremont, Rev. Bridgeforth worked as an admissions counselor at the school. A year after graduation, he was hired as Director of Alumni and Church Relations (2001-2003).  Rev. Bridgeforth earned a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University in 2005. In addition to serving as a pastor, Rev. Bridgeforth has served as a course instructor at the University of La Verne’s Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies.

Rev. Bridgeforth is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Beta Psi Lambda Chapter), and he has published two books: Thoughts and Prayers and Thoughts on Things That Make You Think: And Prayers to Help You Pray About Them.

During this Lenten Season, we also have the high privilege of celebrating African American History Month (observed in the United States).  Both carry great weight and can work to challenge preachers and congregations to consider the roles and responsibilities we have as people of faith to practice humility and exhibit servant leadership. The tandem observance can also be a time to examine questions of equality and inclusion, while seeking to form new relationships that cross barriers and build bridges with those you know have been or feel marginalized within your congregation and community.

The promises contained in Romans 10:11-13, “… All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame.  There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him.  All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved,” can be an empowering word for those who hear themselves included in “All.”

Making an intentional plea or call for the observance of Lenten disciplines while also commemorating African American History Month can bring the biblical message to life because many will make commitments to various observances in hopes of growing closer to God.  What better way to grow closer to God than through relationships developed through intentional discipleship and unfettered compassion—not for the sake of growing in membership or stressing integration for the sake of saving a dying church. 

Rather, what is meant here is a push for observance of disciplines that call people beyond their relational comfort zones and into areas of service and reflection that allow them to live out and to strengthen their faith by exploring where they do not consider or include “All” in their decisions or benevolences.  Such challenges in the sermon could create space for imperative conversations about racism, child abuse, domestic violence, overeating, underemployment, homelessness, familial discord, or violence in your community.  This is an opportune space and time to encourage a discipline of holy conversations in small groups and in families ripped apart by their political and theological differences. One could point to the text (verses 9-10) as a place in Scripture where all are equalized (“no distinction between”) and challenge the notion that all must not believe exactly the same, but that all must believe in the same.  That is a discipline of humility and righteousness that many among us would struggle to observe because there is something oh-so-satisfying about being right, even if it is about the wrong thing.

In the more traditional observances of Lent and African American History Month, some disciplines will involve releasing, limiting, or ceasing certain activities, indulgences, and pleasures, to create a sense of longing and to build up one’s will to have power over the strength of fleshly desires.  Others will lean more toward taking on disciplines and practices that have waned or never been fully integrated. Some may take on something completely new.  Regardless of whether the chosen disciplines center on abstinence or inclusion, the power to stay the course is the same: resistance to the old ways and the lure of what could be will war and bring the disciplined ones to points of reckoning within the depths of the soul. 

There will be questions of providence and some inkling of giving up that will war against the desire to stay the course. Given those realities, which can be stated in the form of personal examples or testimonies, pointing back to the use of Scripture as an effective tool and resource can go a long way in supporting the paths of discipleship. If you also choose to name the observance of African American History Month, you can lift up an example or two of historic figures who overcame great odds to succeed.  A local example will be most powerful. However, the pain and unknown details around personal connections to local heroes may be too controversial, so you may find displays and books in your local library or basic information online:

 

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After the baptism of Jesus, Luke shares the genealogy of Jesus in chapter three. He begins chapter four with a detailed account of what Jesus experienced in the wilderness. Historically, there are arguments about whether Jesus was tempted all forty days or if he was tempted at the end of the forty days.  There is some wisdom in exploring that question, but such exploration may not produce the fruit your congregation really needs, because what they will most likely identify with and want to know is how to respond to temptations and how to prepare to face them before they appear. 

Given the realities families and communities are facing with corporate layoffs, splintered political primaries, entrenched religious intolerance, steep racial divides, and nauseating self-indulgences, the Gospel text must be presented in ways that allow for a reality check and a real way to address the temptations in their lives. For some, their temptations are tangible and known by themselves and others. And there are just as many people who assume their temptations and vices are secrets.  The truth of the matter is, whether people have come to the place where they can acknowledge their temptations or not, the need is the same: to grow closer to God.

The first week of Lent begins with the first account of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism. He is led, driven, taken, or moved into the desert where he, in all of his divinity, is brought face-to-face with some very human temptations. The absurdity that comes with the three temptations found here in the text is almost laughable, except the temptations mirror the struggles of clergy and laity in our midst, and that curbs the urge to mock or to dismiss them too quickly.

The overall propositions are based on loose interpretations and half-hearted challenges of Jesus’ identity and what he really came to demonstrate.  Why would the savior of the world use all of his divinity and dignity to command stones (verse 3), worship the devil (verses 6-7), and receive stolen property (verses 9-11)? 

It is easy to climb upon the nearest judgment seat and declare: “There is no way anyone would fall for such foolishness.” However, we have woven into the biblical narrative numerous accounts of people who have done the unthinkable to gain power, prestige, or possessions.  Some examples include one who sold his birthright for food (Jacob and Esau), another who concocted her own interpretation of how God would fulfill God’s promises (Abram and Sarai), and many other accounts of what happens when a person is lured away by a desire for something other than God and greater than the current reality.

We have accounts of tribal leaders who were duped into selling their family and neighbors into the slave trade for financial gain.  We have seen national leaders bow to the threats and promises of the elite and powerful for the sake of attaining an office or influence in certain circles.  We have seen one nation lord over another by syphoning its natural resources and leaving the homeland saddled with abject poverty and all the ills that come as a result of limited financial, educational and medical resources. So the lure of power, the call of the profane, and a desperate hunger for more makes the human heart susceptible to temptations and more prone to seek instant gratification and relief than to examine the long-term impact of a choice. Whether riches, position, or access to either or both, promises of something more powerful and precious and imminent speaks to the hearts of the vulnerable and taints the souls of those presumed to be mighty.

This temptation narrative may also be a key opportunity to speak against some ills of our time, but also give hope to those who suffer in silence from depression, shame, isolation, guilt, and lack of joy or hope.  Naming how the Word of God can be a resource for building one’s strength and character can be empowering for individuals and families affected by debt, incarceration, addiction, unemployment, divorce, eating disorders, and many other issues that have them questioning their worthiness or ability to ever be made whole. Letting them know they are not the only ones having those experiences may open the door for further reflection and learning. However, great discernment must also ensue so such proclamations are not taken as empty words without a realistic word of hope, especially in the presence of individuals or families addressing or hiding from illness, heartbreak, and other adversities, none of which they feel are aptly addressed by their congregation or their community.

Jesus relies on the Word of God to sustain him in the midst of what must have been a daunting task.  He knew he had the power to resist as well as his possession of power to respond and prove his divinity.  His commitment to the truth of the Word gave him more power and authority than any war of words or exhibition of his true power ever would have.  It may also be good to explore the reasons some feel it necessary to defend and debate the Word of God when all Jesus does is present it.  Jesus used this moment of what was expected to be a great temptation to be a moment of great teaching and testifying of what God said, and which ultimately foreshadows what God will do. 

Prompting people to go beyond memorizing verses to guard their hearts, a preaching moment that invites them to meditate upon or to recall a time when they felt weak and vulnerable going into a situation, but they came out of the circumstance stronger and more faithful could offer assurance and encouragement.  Creating avenues for them to share what they are comfortable sharing about those experiences during coffee hour or fellowship time would go a long way toward establishing a most compassionate community within a congregation.


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In many cultures around the world, the story of the ancestors are revered, rehearsed, and reshaped over time for the purpose of communicating the milestones, breakthroughs, and connections that identify or highlight the importance of a people or place.  There are writings that record the stories and their significance, such as what we have in this text. However, there are also oral traditions, art, and rituals that aid in transmitting a family name or fortune, a cultural legacy, a waning language, or an enduring spirituality. 

We learn about ancient civilizations through story, art and artifacts.  We learn the history of our family of origin through photo albums, family reunions, and genealogical research.  We learn our religious traditions through participation in rituals, reading sacred texts, experiences of the Divine and through historical records.  We make our greatest attempts to transmit the essentials of family and faith through means that will have meaning and will be easily replicated in the future. 

In many African American communities of faith, there are direct connections made between the struggle of the seed of Abraham and those of African descent that call the United States home. The correlations begin with the enslavement and continue through the exiles.  The notion of being a “citizen of no nation” is a reality experienced and expressed in many African American communities.  The protests and church-centered activism of the Civil Rights Era (1950s and 1960s) were based on a biblical narrative depicting a royal people who were forced into slavery and found themselves wandering in the wilderness, depending solely on God to bring them to The Promised Land— freedom from all forms of oppression. That was not a new rhetorical form developed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and carried forward by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. John T. Porter.  It was a form also employed beyond the Christian church by Malcolm X, The Black Power Movement, and Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.  The form predated all of them and had thus been transmitted to them through history.  We hear it in many of the Negro Spirituals and Freedom Songs:

SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT

(Public Domain)

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

CHORUS

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

CHORUS

The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming for to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming for to carry me home)

CHORUS

If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming there too.
(Coming for to carry me home)

CHORUS

 

MARCHING 'ROUND SELMA

(Public Domain, Author Anonymous, US Civil Rights Movement, 1960’s.)

Marching 'round Selma like Jericho,
Jericho, Jericho
Marching 'round Selma like Jericho
For segregation wall must fall
Look at people answering
To the Freedom Fighters call
Black, Brown and White American say
Segregation must fall
Good evening freedom's fighters
Tell me where you're bound
Tell me where you're marching
From Selma to Montgomery town

There is a connection being made between the plight of African Americans and that of the Hebrew people as they remember their ancestors and retell the stories of their faith and culture.  We continue to  experience this today through movements such as Black Lives Matter. Although not a Christian effort, it is one that champions freedom and challenges forms of oppression in the same way Freedom Riders of old sought to do.

There may be obvious or less-obvious minority groups in your congregation and community who know what it is to long for an enduring identity, a resounding voice, and ways to celebrate what they have accomplished before they knew oppression or in spite of their oppressive state.  Considering those who are not of the majority culture by virtue of race, ethnicity, gender, politics, theology, economics, marital status, family construct, or education will strengthen any language or attempt to bridge obvious and ignored divides.  Drawing attention to their presence and their plight, in light of the rituals, songs and history that makes all people relevant, first to God and to themselves, and also to the broader community will make this text come alive.

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Categories: Worship, Worship Planning, Lectionary Calendar, Preaching, Civil Observances, Black History Month, Black History Month, Weekly Lectionary Preaching Notes, Lectionary Preaching, Lent