Home Worship Planning Seasons & Holidays Preaching Notes for the Third Sunday in Lent (February 28, 2016)

Preaching Notes for the Third Sunday in Lent (February 28, 2016)

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.

“The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up.” -Henry Louis Gates

Whenever we oversimplify things, underestimate an opponent, or generalize too broadly, we miss the essence of the lessons and risk hastening past much-needed reflection and wisdom. That is why Lent is the perfect season for creating a new spiritual rhythm and making new relational connections. In our times of reflection, we can discern what must change about our thoughts and our words so our behaviors and our lives will be transformed. As we are transformed, our world will experience transformation, and the barriers that divide us and separate us from God and one another will begin to dissipate.

Most people know change is a natural part of life because they see it on a daily basis. Change is constant and unavoidable. It is often not even recognized, specifically when it is slow and incremental. When change is expected and demanded, the empowered and transformed persons who speak out and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves can grow weary from the endless demands that working for change requires.

Jesus challenges his listeners with an urgent call for a radical change in both behavior and attitude: “…unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did” (verse 3, CEB). He then points out a change of heart is not a suggestion; it is a requirement.

Although change is constant, unavoidable, and necessary, there are times when change does not come quickly enough to satisfy the masses or soothe the wills of the impatient. Imagine those struggling to pray twice a day, read their Bible verses each day, fast from chocolate, or perform some random act of kindness as examples of a spiritual discipline they hope will lead them to be more grounded in their faith and more faithful in their service. The change from doing little or nothing to forming a daily habit requires a change in priority and schedule. The naturalness of such practices is not as organic as most would prefer. These are all examples of self-imposed practices one may choose to observe.

Now imagine being people in a situation or circumstance that was not their choosing and they were seeking a change that would result in their freedom. An example of this comes from my own family of origin. When my mom was in her last year of high school, she was aware her future was set to follow the path established by her mother and her mother’s mother. She was expected to remain in that general geographic area, obtain a job, get married, raise a family, and hold that same job for life. That was considered success; but for my mom, that was not the choice she wanted for her life. Somehow she found information about the army and brought the option of enlisting in the army to my grandmother for her approval. In those days, the parents of women had to consent to their daughters enlisting in the army. My grandmother believed women in the army were there only to take care of the men. For that reason, she did not give her consent. My mom saw the army as a way out of poverty, a departure from a path of servitude and complacency of her rural surroundings.

When my mom celebrated her 38th birthday she said to her mother, “If you had allowed me to go into the army, I would be retiring now.” As a 14-year-old child, I could hear the lament in her statement. My mom did follow the path set out for her long before her birth: She worked the family farm until she graduated from high school, took a job at a nearby factory, met and married a man, gave birth to three children, and worked in the factory for 30 years. I believe my grandmother loved my mom, and my mom loves all her children and family with her whole heart. However, it was not until she retired from work and moved three states away that she really began to live free of the expectations of her family and immediate environment. She does not view her life or career as a failure, but she can see how taking a different path would have made life easier for her and would have freed her from others’ expectations much earlier in life.

These are not self-imposed choices. Rather, these are examples of practices brought about by outside demands. The gospel calls us to consider the stories of persons, families, and communities who have sought change, but experienced disappointments and setbacks and to hold those stories in tension with the stories of those who have overcome obstacles and have experienced success and victory.

Jesus asks, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans…What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?” (verses 2, 4, CEB).

This statement makes clear that for Jesus, the true difference is shown not by actions, but by what is in the hearts and lives of people. It points us to the need for something deeper than a shift in actions and words because Jesus demonstrates the fate of all is the same in the two accounts. It was not about what they did or did not do.

Even in the parable of the fig tree, the reason for “cutting it down” was because it was not bearing figs. The tree was not doing what it was supposed to do. It had not borne fruit for at least three years. By telling this parable, Jesus was illustrating the need for all to do what they were created to do. The gardener acknowledges a change has to take place and something else can be applied to possibly produce different results. The actions required by Jesus ultimately point to a deep change in behavior and attitude, which is an expression of transformation.

We move past trite quotations from Scripture and bumper stickers when we experience transformation. We shy away from lukewarm expressions of faith when we experience transformation. We abhor racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the zillion other “isms” and phobias that stunt our abilities to produce godly fruit.

  • Transformed hearts and lives allow us to repent of our sins and receive grace in times of trouble.
  • Transformed hearts and lives allow us to extend mercy and seek justice for all because we know it is but by the grace of God that we are able to express such needs for others.
  • Transformed hearts and lives allow us to look beyond the color of people’s skin, the place of their birth and lack of pedigree and see every individual as a creation in the image and likeness of God.
  • Transformed hearts and lives do not rest on their laurels but they look for ways to find peace and joy for and within others.

We are in the final few days of African American History Month, the Third Week of Lent, and the middle of presidential primary season. The Super Bowl is now but a distant memory. It is a Leap Year. Easter is very near. By now, some have abandoned their commitments to take on a spiritual discipline or to fast from various vices or activities, while others have stayed the course. Yet this Scripture makes clear: none can be judged by anyone but Jesus to be more righteous than another.

Regardless of political or theological perspectives—whatever your view of gun rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, divorce, gender roles—no matter how you came to the place you are now—the text clearly calls for constant examination of our positions and our propositions so we can be open to the possibility that we must change our hearts and lives so we may find ourselves ever closer to the ways of Jesus. All must be encouraged and challenged to read and to hear the words of Jesus calling us all to transform our hearts and lives, because that is what really matters.

Quotes about change »

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When I was in college, I was what they called a "starving student.” I had to rely on God for everything. Things were so bad at one point that I went downstairs to get in my truck, in which my gas gauge was on "E” (for Empty) to drive those four miles to school and found I had a flat tire due to a nail puncture. Under normal circumstances, this would not have been a problem. I would have replaced the tire with the spare and moved right along. However, a week earlier I had to use that little donut spare, and it was what was getting me to pay day.

I recall sitting there in the parking lot sobbing like a baby. I was scared, disappointed, and hopeless. Somehow I managed to drive that truck on fumes, and with the flat tire, to a tire store a few blocks away. I had gone through my change cups and had scraped the floorboard of my vehicle to gather a whopping $6.35, mostly in pennies. I seemed to have recalled a $5 spare tire sale sign at this particular store, so I drove in there and told them I needed a $5 spare installed. I sat there patiently, praying prayers of thanksgiving and singing little praises like: “Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed your hand has provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me."

When the attendant came over and informed me that my truck was ready, I was getting ready for the embarrassing "clump" of all the pennies onto the counter when the man said, "That will be $18.20." He might just as well have told me the total was $5,678,234,987.19, because I had only $6.35. So, I did what any other self-respecting person would do. I clumped my change onto the counter and began to count, "One, two, three, four, five, and six ..." His patience was greater than mine because he stood there while I counted and at about two hundred twenty-two, the man said, "Son, that one is on me."

Suddenly I knew what it meant to dance like David danced. What a day and what a way for God to again lead me through that valley of the shadow of whatever that was to a clear place of light.

Since that experience, I have learned that for there to be shadows, there must be light somewhere. Even if it is in the distance and cannot be seen by the naked eye, the light exists. Many things we see in life are mere shadows of true realities.

I have shared this story many times and share it here as a primer for you to think of the times in your life when you were blessed by the toil and labor of another. Think of and share a testimony of an opportunity you had to feed or to be fed where you were not the one who planted or harvested the meal. Ponder the plight of those who paved the roads you take to and from church. Who gave their lives in the fields and mills in your area? What about those faithful few who gathered in someone’s living room to dream a dream that is now the faith community you call your spiritual home? This text from Isaiah 55 is a reminder of the gifts, blessings, and opportunities we have that were not brought into being by our own doing or of our own strength.

We do not see things as they are. We see them through lenses of fear and doubt that have been formed over time through disappointment and despair. Sometimes what we see is blurred by our need to see things as positively as possible. Sometimes we believe our good deeds are synonymous with righteousness. Regardless of the extreme lack of clarity we have, light is the necessary element that brings all things into focus. That day in the tire store, God used that attendant as a source of light. The pennies clanging on the counter were shadows of a reality that lurked behind the eyes and in the heart of a man willing to be generous to a starving student.

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As a matter of course, most people who venture to observe new disciplines during Lent or other times in life find the urge to break the covenant quite strong. It is also true that when someone experiences a hardship, falls into sin, or comes up short of what God may desire, there is a tendency to feel as though the temptations are too great to overcome. Some will even believe the presence of temptation is sinful and as detrimental as acting upon the temptation.

We can spend many hours debating the finer points of temptation and the impact temptations have on one’s choices and the consequences that may follow. The author of 1 Corinthians shares a litany of consequences and responses waged as a result of actions taken and not taken by God’s people. There are instructions for right behaviors and encouragement for those who “are standing” (verse 12). Although there is great detail given to the reader, the entirety of the text hinges not on what the hearer and readers can or will do, but it hinges on what God will do: “…God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it” (verse 13).

The text could be reconstructed as a call-and-response litany so the hearers will understand the help God provides in every situation. This could be used as a Call to Worship or a Response to the Sermon. For example:

Brothers and sisters, I want you to be sure of the fact that our ancestors were all under the cloud and they all went through the sea. All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. However, God was unhappy with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

These things were examples for us, so we won’t crave evil things like they did. Don’t worship false gods like some of them did, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink and they got up to play.

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

Let’s not practice sexual immorality, like some of them did, and twenty-three thousand died in one day.

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes.

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer.

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come. So those who think they are standing need to watch out or else they may fall. No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation,

God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

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