Seeds of Renewal
If we only live by laws that are written on stone tablets, our lives and our faith can become stagnant, legalistic, judgmental and joyless, like the town mayor in the film Chocolat. Jesus came to offer us a law of love that is written on our hearts, and if we are willing to die to the attitudes and behaviors that are not loving toward ourselves and others, our hearts can be changed and we can experience renewal, growth and joy.
One thing I love about living in Northern Virginia is all the green spaces in the region. The county planners have done a great job of preserving areas where there are bodies of water, and there are lots of paths for walking around lakes or alongside streams and creeks.
When I’m out hiking near water, it brings me back to my days in the Boy Scouts in Southern California and all the hikes we did with our troop. One of the many things I learned in Boy Scouts was how to find clean water to drink when you’re out hiking and are low on water in your canteen.
We learned that the cleanest, safest and healthiest water to drink was where the water was flowing the fastest.
The more stagnant the water, the more chance that it would be harmful and unhealthy because there would be more bacteria, and a greater chance that mosquitos and other insects would pollute it. So we’d find the water moving the fastest and fill our canteens in those spots.
(Nowadays it’s probably harder to find clean water due to all kinds of pollution so I think it’s recommended that you use a filter or boil it before drinking it.)
In a way, our spiritual life is like water in a mountain stream. If we are stagnant and rigid, it can lead to unhealthy relationships with God and with other people. But if we are open to the Spirit flowing through us, we can become refreshed and renewed, so we can grow in new ways, and our relationships can be healthier.
If we resist change, and pretend that we have it all together, pride and complacency can set in and we can end up living life superficially on the outside, a life that is characterized more by duty and obligation rather than compassion and joy.
The words from Psalm 51 give us a moving portrayal of King David’s spiritual state, and how he was brutally honest with God after he had given in to his selfish desires and taken advantage of a woman named Bathsheeba.
Instead of covering up his sin, or denying it, or minimizing it or blaming it on someone else, David took responsibility for his actions and confessed it to God.
David’s transgressions had crushed him, they had robbed him of joy, and he prayed to God for a clean heart, for a renewed spirit, and for the joy of his salvation to be restored.
In the passage from the prophet Jeremiah that we heard, God is lamenting the disobedience of the people of Israel for breaking the covenant, the agreement that God had made with them through the Ten Commandments through Moses, a law that was written on stone tablets, a law that was based on outwardly following certain rules of behavior.
Jeremiah then speaks of a new covenant that God will make with His people, a covenant where the law will be written deep inside their hearts. Jeremiah was pointing to the coming of Jesus, who would teach about and model with his life this new law,
It was and is a law that can be summed up in loving God with your whole heart soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
It is a law of love that grows out of a deep place inside a person, a place of intimacy with God and gratitude to God for the gift of His love,
and this love manifests itself in showing compassion and empathy and hospitality and forgiveness and grace to all people, friend, foe and stranger alike.
It is a love that brings us a deep sense of joy and spreads joy to others like seeds that are sown across a field.
Jesus said the law of love was the summary, the fulfillment, the root of all the other laws, and sometimes this new understanding of the law, the covenant, came in conflict with the old law that was written on those stone tablets.
Jesus was constantly butting heads with the Jewish religious leaders when he placed the law of love above the law that was given to their patriarch Moses.
For example, one day Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath who had been unable to walk for 38 years. This infuriated to religious leaders, whose laws and traditions were the most sacred thing to them, so they began to persecute Jesus.
But to Jesus, the Law was made for people, not people for the Law. In other words, following the law of love by showing compassion to someone in need took precedence over the legalism of not doing any work on the Sabbath.
There’s a movie that I love that gives a great example of church laws and traditions butting heads with the law of love. Have any of you seen Chocolat?
Let’s watch part of the trailer.
So as you can see, the wind literally blows an outsider woman and her daughter into this small French town, and the woman Vianne, doesn’t conform to the mindset and the traditions of the town’s residents, whose life is controlled by their mayor.
The mayor even edits the sermons of the young priest in the Catholic Church in town, where most of the residents attend.
Now don’t get any ideas—there may be some of you who are thinking, that’s not a bad idea—we could use someone like that here in our church!
Anyway, the mayor’s brand of religion is one that goes by the book, so much so that it’s repressive, joyless and strictly enforced, especially in seasons like Lent when this story takes place.
It’s bad enough that Vianne is not a churchgoer; but how dare she open up a gourmet chocolate shop in the middle of Lent, when people were supposed to be fasting from such earthly indulgences!
But Vianne is not intimidated, and she goes about her business of opening up the shop and building relationships with people in the town, especially those who were seen as outcasts who experienced the burden of judgment from the mayor and others who saw them as second-class citizens and sinners who were unworthy of God’s love.
Vianne shows gracious hospitality and love to these people on the margins by inviting them into her shop for tea and chocolate, providing them a safe space to share their lives, by offering them a listening ear and showing them empathy and compassion.
When a band of gypsies rolls into town and she treats them with the same generosity and hospitality, it pushes the mayor over the edge and he starts spreading malicious rumors about Vianne.
He is hell bent on closing down her chocolateria and running this infidel out of town.
This movie is a classic example of how people outside of the Church sometimes are better Christians than those who are faithful churchgoers
Sometimes people who aren’t Christians are more loving and less hateful, more hospitable and less closed off, more gracious and less judgmental, and live with more joy than people who pride themselves on being good Christians.
And if we are open to it, then can point out our blind spots and teach us some new things.
Chocolat shows us what it looks like when Christians and the Church get sidetracked from our true mission, when we value the legalism of following traditions built on the written law and lose sight of the law of love that a relationship with Jesus should form in us.
The movie ends inside the church on Easter Sunday, and the priest gets up to share his message to the church, a message which he wrote without the mayor editing it, and he says:
We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
Now everything doesn’t get tied up neat and tidy in the movie, but it’s clear that through the witness of Vianne and the Christlike love that she showed to people,
That some seeds of renewal were sown in that church and in the hearts of the people in that town. And as a result, a stagnant and joyless church experienced new life as people started treating each other with more dignity and respect, with more grace and more love.
And they give themselves permission to enjoy life, and enjoy each other’s company.
In the words of David in Psalm 51, the joy of their salvation was being restored.
Earlier we heard Jesus say unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
Most often, in order for seeds of renewal to take root and grow to the point of bearing good fruit, something has to die. Something has to be released, let go in order for something new to grow.
For the mayor and the church people in Chocolat, in order to be more like Jesus and be known by their love, they needed to let go of their judgmental spirit, they needed to release the rigidity that kept them stagnant, they needed to die to their pride that caused them to look down on other people who didn’t think and act as they did.
Change is hard, especially deep change that cuts to the heart of how we view other people and how we interact with them. It’s hard to change our attitudes and our actions, especially if they’ve been ingrained in us from an early age through our families, our communities, and maybe even our churches.
Change begins with confession, just like David’s road to renewal began with confession. Coming face to face with our sin and our shortcomings, owning up to them before God . And then praying that by the power of God’s Spirit, to be transformed from the inside out. That’s when the seeds of renewal start to take root.
And then we start taking steps of living into a new reality by the way we treat other people.
In closing, I’d like to share some thoughts on what it could look like to have more, life-giving, more mature and loving relationships with others, based on this book, “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship” by Peter Scazzero.
This book is kind of similar to the book by Rich Villodas that our discipleship group is going through; in fact, Scazzero was a mentor to Villodas, and Villodas took his place as pastor of the church that Scazzero began, New Life Fellowship in Queens, NY.
There’s a lot of overlap in the material of the two books, and as you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of this stuff and how they understand discipleship.
Anyway, Scazzero says that there are 7 marks, signs of healthy discipleship, and one of them is “Make Love the Measure of Maturity”. As a foundation of this mark, he uses the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I and Thou” relationships.
I-Thou relationships are different from I-it relationships in that in an I-it relationship, one person is the subject and the other is merely an object that the subject uses for his/her own benefit. It’s a dehumanizing and controlling relationship.
But in an I-Thou relationship, both people are subjects who have equal value and who equally contribute to the relationship, and there is mutual respect. The needs, wants and feelings of each person are taken into account. Both people can learn from each other.
Buber says that it’s only in an I-Thou relationship where love and intimacy can be experienced. And there’s this sacred space between two people where God resides, linking them together.
So Scazzero takes this idea and suggests three questions that we should ask ourselves in order to practically live out the I-Thou relationships so they will bear the fruit of love.
As I ask the questions, I invite you to think of a relationship that you have with someone that you’d like to work on, and I will pause a bit between each question to give you time to reflect on it.
The first question is: “Am I fully present, and really listen to them, or am I distracted?”
The second question is: “Am I being loving or judging?”
And the third question is: “Am I open to learning something from them that can help me grow, or closed to being changed?”
By examining ourselves through asking these questions, we can learn to love others well in the way that Jesus loved people.
When we are honest with ourselves in asking these questions, it may mean that something inside of us has to change, we have to let go of something, we need to die to an attitude or a behavior that has been deeply ingrained in us.
And through God’s grace, we will be willing to give those things up and seeds of renewal will begin bearing new fruit, good fruit in our relationships.
We will experience more joy as we grow in love, and God will bless us with deeper and more life-giving relationships with others. AMEN.