First Congregational Church
March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent
“Metamorphosis: Taking Off the Old Self”
Catherine St. Onge, preaching
When I came across the idea for this Lenten series on Christian Character, I had another idea that it might be a nice time to hear about how other people deal with this idea of spiritual maturation. Somewhere in that same timeframe, I was getting to know a bit more about our “preacher” today, her call and journey to this point. Catherine St. Onge is nearing the end of her teaching career with Senior English and French at Benzie Central High School, and is exploring where God will have her go after the last snow day is made up.
Adding to all this mix is my own experience of entering ministry, being supported by a good many friends, but not really having much opportunity to get my feet wet in the places that most counted. Even within our own national association, I struggled to get a sense of belonging. So this morning, we can stand in Catherine’s balcony, to cheer her on - along with the the opportunity to hear what God has to say to all of us.
Colossians 3:1-14 (especially 9-10)
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your[a] life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.[b] 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
March 1, 2015
Frankfort Congregational Church
When first taking on writing this sermon, Dinah gave me any number of websites to help in my research. In the course of reading these articles, the sentence that jumped out at me was how the speaker should include accounts of people who have struggles with anger, pride, gossip, bitterness, or addictions and replaced these things with Christian virtue. The words that especially stood out for me were anger and bitterness.
I guess I don’t mind talking about my own experiences in this address because for the most part, I’ll use myself as the horrible example. I have wanted to go into the ministry since I was in high school, but as a Catholic and a woman, I had almost no options. I realize now that my anger at the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women slowly evolved into bitterness that I was denied the opportunity to respond to God’s call for no other reason than my gender. For decades, I was spiritually dead. I never prayed from my heart. I repeated by rote prayers I learned as a child while at the same time occupying my mind with topics of more interest to me. On an emotional level, I didn’t even believe in God’s existence. Figuratively, most of my branches bore no fruit.
The one branch that still lived was my love for my family, so that was the one that God pruned. He made a painful cut in it, and that was my mother’s illness. When fruit farmers prune trees, they cut away dead branches so that more sunlight will reach the live ones, and they cut back living branches so that they will grow back stronger. The branches that receive the most sunlight produce the largest, sweetest fruit. Over time, God cut away the dead branches in me so that his light would more easily shine on my heart, and his painful cut would make my love for Mom and humanity in general grow back stronger than it had ever been.
At first, though, watching helplessly as Mom suffered increased my anger and bitterness. I remember thinking, this is how God treats his faithful servants, by placing them in daily pain? You know what, Mom? I think you can take you God and you can keep him because I’m not interested. I never said that to her, though, because I didn’t want to add a broken heart to her suffering.
In 1993, four years before Mom died, I had the opportunity to spend most of my summer vacation in France. Mom asked me to bring her back some holy water from Lourdes, which is a Catholic religious shrine. Catholics believe that in 1858, Christ’s mother Mary appeared on 18 occasions to a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. During one of the apparitions, Saint Bernadette, as she came to be known, uncovered an existing stream, and since then, contact with this water has been credited with around 70 unexplained cures, miracles, if you like.
I wanted to go to Lourdes about as much as I wanted to sever a limb. After I had been in Paris for several weeks, I knew it was time to get this chore over with. For a brief time, I actually considered buying a bottle of mineral water, opening it, pouring a little out, and telling my mother I’d gotten it from Lourdes. “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self…” Saint Paul tells us in today’s reading, but I hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
I grudgingly bought a train ticket and traveled south, almost to the Spanish border. As it turned out, no trip in my life was ever more meant to be. Everything I tried to do fell into place. On the train, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a hotel room, but I walked across the street from the train station, entered the first hotel I saw, and secured a room in 15 minutes. I worried I would have a hard time getting to the grotto, where the apparitions occurred, but I looked out my hotel room window and saw a large sign that said, “Bus—Direction Grotte.” “Bus—Direction Grotto.” At the end of the bus route, I easily found the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, under which the grotto is located. It would have been kind of hard to miss, actually!
As I approached the grotto, I know now that that was the moment God began cutting away the fruitless branches from around my heart. My anger and rage and filthy language, born from years of frustration at being forbidden to respond fully to God’s call and grief about Mom’s condition, began melting away. Surrounding the virtually silent grotto were probably 500 people, 100 of them in wheelchairs or prone on gurneys. Most of them seemed sicker than my mother, but they came to Lourdes with humility and gentleness and patience in their suffering. Their attitude stunned me, and I felt ashamed of my own resentment toward God for my mother’s illness. God filled my heart for compassion for them. I wanted so much to show them some act of kindness. I wish I could say I prayed for them, but I didn’t. I was incapable of prayer at that time.
Each sick person had an accompanying caregiver, so I focused on doing an act of kindness for my mother by collecting water from the spring. I went to the nearby bath house and bathed in it, too. I must have drank gallons of the water during my three-day stay.
At one point, I went up into the basilica and stood in awe of the church walls. They were almost completely covered with plaques left by Lourdes visitors. The plaques were printed with words of praise to God and thanksgiving for cures received. At that moment, it was as if I could hear the voices of these people. They were loud and exuberant and joyful. Something akin to a shock went through my body, and I remember thinking, this stuff is real. God is real. I had never actually believed that before. I had believed intellectually, but not from my heart. All trace of doubt was gone. I sat in a pew and bawled my eyes out. For me, it was perfect bliss.
Did the water produce this effect in me? No, God did. He took away my old self, and I have literally never been the same. My spirituality has grown and deepened to the point where I can no longer be timid and hide behind Catholicism and say to myself, “It’s probably just as well the church won’t ordain women. Would you really have the guts to be a priest anyway?” God has given me the courage to put my old life of restrictions behind me and to pursue a new life of freedom to love and serve God’s people than I ever did before. He has given me the courage to respond in any way he calls me. My gratitude to God in this is boundless.
Let us pray. Sweet Lord Jesus, sometimes you lead us down paths we don’t want to travel. We don’t understand your purpose at the time, and our human pride interferes with our being responsive to your call. Help us to make doing your will the focus of every day we have on earth. Strengthen us with your love so that we will not hesitate in following wherever you lead us. Strengthen our sometimes weary hearts and lukewarm faith so that we will gladly embrace your vision for us. Help us to know that our every journey has a plan and you are its loving author, however painful it may be at the time. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Thank you so much, Dinah, for loaning me your pulpit for the week-end so that I could “test my wings,” as Mom would have said. Thanks to all of you as well for your warm welcome and your kind attention. God bless you.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.