July 14, 2019: "No Idle Boast"
“No Idle Boast”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 13, 2019
We’ve come today to the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and as we’ve studied this letter over the past several weeks I have been thinking a lot about the people who have the most influence on my life. Two weeks ago, I told you about Thomas and about how he taught me and so many others about the freedom Paul writes about in Galatians. Today I want to tell you about Mildred. I hadn’t thought about Mildred in quite some time, until this week when I was doing some cleaning in my office desk and found a birthday card from her from last year. Mildred has sent me a birthday card every year since we met in 2005, and taped inside each birthday card every year is a small latex balloon under which she writes, “Make today fun.” I met Mildred at Fallston Presbyterian Church, the church where I was ordained in 2012, where she is a life-long member. She was old enough to be my grandmother when we first met, and though she is on the smaller side and quiet, she is a strong and central figure in the life of that church.
Mildred’s story is one of triumph and sorrow. Mildred’s husband died young, drinking and smoking himself literally to death. He was a World War II veteran and the drinks and the smokes were his way of coping with the trauma. Mildred was left to raise her two children by herself in the tumultuous years after World War II, a time not that long ago in our country when being a single woman with children was almost a death sentence. Mildred worked at the local post office during the day and she waitressed at night when the kids were in bed. She barely scrapped by most of the time. But her children wanted for nothing and she ensured that they lived in a good home and received a good education. Once the children were grown and had moved out, Mildred fought and won against breast cancer twice and survived surgery to remove a golf-ball-sized benign tumor from her brain. She always smiles even though her life has been terribly difficult at times.
I got to know Mildred not at church but at a homeless shelter. Welcome One Homeless Shelter in Harford Country, Maryland, is a safe place for men and women and families to live in the time between jobs and housing. Mildred was one of the founders and in the two decades Welcome One has been open, 96% of the men and women who have come through their doors have found and kept gainful employment and permanent housing. Welcome One is privately funded and run entirely by local churches. Every day, a different church in the area sponsors the shelter. Sponsoring the shelter means that the church provides the guests with three meals that day, laundry services, transportation to and from work or job training, counseling and spiritual care. And to make the shelter feel a little less foreign, three men and three women from the sponsoring church spend the night in the shelter every night until the next church arrives the following morning.
The first time Mildred asked me to serve at the shelter I was a bit scared, to be honest. But she assured me that I would be fine and she was right. After the first few hours, I was quite comfortable and found it easy to interact with the guests. The first time I stayed overnight in the shelter, there was a family there with two boys a few years younger than me. We stayed up pretty late that night, playing games and watching TV. It was heartbreaking and fun all at the same time. But the real brilliance of my work at Welcome One—and I served with Mildred probably ten or fifteen times over the years—was that Mildred put me to work doing something I love to do: cooking. Mildred knew that I had some skill in the kitchen, so she always engaged me in preparing the meals for the shelter. It brought together something that I love and something that was needed by the guests, and as theologian Frederick Beuchner has said, that’s the definition of God’s calling.
In spending time with Mildred at the shelter, I learned a lot about her. I learned that she came to faith later in life. I learned that she had wanted more children but that never came to be. I learned that she didn’t really have a whole lot in terms of money or things. I also learned that she had been leading an Al-Anon meeting at our church since 1952. That, of course, sounded like a long time to be leading a meeting. But when I did a little research into Al-Anon, I found out that she began leading that meeting at our church only a year after the national organization had been founded. Mildred’s whole life had been affected by the tragic drinking of her husband and so she started a group for people like her. In those years, Mildred trained almost 100 other Al-Anon members to go and start groups of their own. She estimated that her group had touched the lives of over 5,000 people and, really, that number could be infinite when you think of all the groups that where started by someone she trained and helped.
This is Mildred’s life. When she wasn’t serving at the homeless shelter, she was leading an Al-Anon group at our church. But she is also a ferocious knitter, making hats for premature babies at the hospital and blankets for children who had to ride in ambulances. Mildred delivers mobile meals to the elderly and veterans, she sings in the church choir, and she could be found some Sundays pulling weeds from the gardens around the front doors of the church. She visits the sick and lonely and she volunteers whenever she can. She was 88 when she went on her last mission trip, and when she could no longer go on mission trips, she would make casseroles, freeze them, and then ship them on dry ice to wherever the mission team was going. Beyond all of this, Mildred is one of the kindest, gentlest, most holy, and strongest-without-being-arrogant person I’ve ever come to know.
I think of Mildred when I read Paul’s final words to the Galatians: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Of course, Mildred never boasted about her faith. In fact, so many of the conversations I had with Mildred over the years had nothing to do with faith. At least, not specifically. But Mildred’s faith grounds everything she does, and even though her faith may not be the topic of every conversation, it is moving in every word and action. The boasting that Mildred does, she does with her life. She boasts of the cross of Jesus each time she gathers with others who have been affected by someone’s drinking. She boasts of the cross of Jesus each time she assembles a volunteer team at Welcome One Homeless Shelter. She boasts of the cross of Jesus in every meal she delivers, in every visit she makes to someone who is lonely, and in every birthday card she sends with a latex balloon taped inside.
A cross seems to be something silly to boast about, doesn’t it? Why would anyone boast of a cross, especially the cross of Jesus? The cross is a symbol of defeat and death. The One who was nailed to the cross did not live a life luxury and fame but of derision and ridicule. The One who was nailed to the cross became the subject of cruel jokes—they wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” on a plaque at the top arm of the cross to mock what Jesus had said about himself. Kings and queens drink precious wine from beautiful goblets, but Jesus drank sour wine from a sponge as he was hanging there to die. But for those of us who stand on this side of Easter, we know that the cross has been transformed. We know that the victim became the victor. We know that the Lamb of God who was slain became the Lamb of God upon the throne. The Lamb who was slaughtered at Passover is the chief Shepherd of Easter, and so the cross has no shame, no death, no defeat. For those who believe, the cross is the power of God and the calling to identify with and serve the least among us. The cross is our boast, not with our words only but also with our actions.
According to Paul, the cross should be the very thing that motivates us to live as Christ commanded us to live. We do not boast of our wealth or power or influence or ingenuity or strength or enlightenment; as people of Jesus, we boast of the cross because it changes things. Paul came to know the power of the cross, intimately. His name used to be Saul, and he was at one time a persecutor of the church. But one day, as he was walking to another stoning of some followers of Jesus, Jesus struck him blind. In a real ironic twist, Paul had to rely on the help of a follower of Jesus to feed him and take care of his needs. Eventually, Paul’s sight was restored and he devoted his entire life to spreading the good news of Jesus. He changed his name because he had no other choice after coming face-to-face with God. That’s the power of the cross—it has the power to turn a hater, a persecutor, and murderer of the church and Jesus’ people into its chief and most important evangelist.
The cross still has that power today. It has that power over you and me and all people, if we let it. In our lives as Reformed and Presbyterian Christians we don’t talk a lot about the cross. We stay away from the hymns that are about the blood of Jesus. We recognize the cross but we keep it at an arm’s length. It is a messy thing and messy and complicated things happen at the cross. Power is unveiled as a sham. Influence becomes irrelevant. Wealth and worldly goods melt away or burn up and blow away in the wind. The cross disarms us and dismantles us so that we become fertile ground for the work of God’s Spirit. That’s kind of scary. Giving ourselves fully over to God is scary because we know, from the life of Jesus and so many of his followers, that often God takes us to places we would rather not go. But in these places, we see God. In these place, we see the face of Jesus. In these places, we watch as heaven and earth shake hands. In these places, we are changed and so too is the world around us.
The cross is no idle boast, and today I call you to once again commit your life to the cross and to the One whose life was given upon it so that we might have life forever. If you’re wondering how to go about doing that, how to make that commitment once again, look to Mildred and the Mildreds in your life. I know you have them. God blesses us all with Mildreds, and though their lives may not be easy or simple, their lives are the epitome of boasting in the cross of Jesus. We must look them and then we must act just like them. But let’s be sure we’re clear—it is through our faith in Jesus Christ that we are saved by grace. There is nothing we have done to earn it and it can never be taken away. Our actions will never save us more than we have already been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But we must never get lazy in that grace in that salvation. Our actions in response to grace, our actions in response to the cross, will make salvation known. And when salvation is fully known, that’s when the new creation becomes fully visible. We have been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to us. May we never boast in anything except the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen.