The unforced rhythms of grace...

NOTE:  Here are my sermon notes for this week, July 3, 2011.  After being away from worship for two weeks I was totally blessed to find that the lectionary readings for this Sunday included both Romans 7 and Matthew 11: 28-30 - two of my all time favorite New Testament lessons - which inspired me to construct a lectionary summer series on "the unforced rhythms of grace." That phrase is one of the insights Eugene Peterson gleens from his reworking of "come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden."  It is one a brilliant and poetic reworking of the ancient text in a way that makes it come alive - at least to me.

A few songs - including two of my own - strike me as valuable:  "Thank You" by Alanais Morisette and "Grace" by U2.  Others would be:  "Jubilee" by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, "A 1000 Beautiful Things," by Annie Lennox, "Beautiful Day" by U2, "Grace is Rising Now at Last,"Come On In" and "Grace Be My Guide" by... me.  (I hope to record my tunes over the summer - along with a few others - and we'll see where that goes, yes?)   So, here we go towards Sunday... BTW if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please stop by.

Today I am going to share with you a few thoughts about grace – it is not only my favorite theological concept – but I believe its primacy is what makes Christianity unique among all the religious of the world. Not that other faiths don’t celebrate the grace of God – they most certainly do – and not that Christianity is any better or more grace-filled than any other religions.

• Truth be told, that is not for me to say: that’s up to the Lord and I hope I realize that I am neither smart enough nor spiritually pure enough to ever make such a judgment call.

• But I do think it is true that grace holds a unique spot in the Christian faith that is neither incidental nor buried, but right at the core of everything Jesus said, taught and did.

How does today’s gospel lesson from St. Matthew put it: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it – and you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

I LOVE that expression: the unforced rhythms of grace – it comes from the poetry and wisdom of Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Matthew’s gospel and that’s really what I want to consider with you today. Because not only are the unforced rhythms of grace so profound, they are also salvifc - life-change and healing – the heart of hope and new life born of God’s love. And most people just don’t seem to get what’s going on when it comes to the unforced rhythms of grace.

• That COMBINATION of words – the unforced rhythms of grace – really throws some folks who say to me: what in God’s name are you talking about?

• So let me try to share with you three insights that might help: 1) Why people are so confused about grace; 2) What Matthew’s gospel tells us about grace; and 3) How we might reclaim the unforced rhythms of grace as the heart of 21st century Christian faith.
You see, I think my boy Bono and U2 were right when they sang: Grace may be the name of a girl, but grace is also a love that can changes the world because… grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Think about it with me… 

You see, most people don’t really want to trust God – we don’t like giving up control over our lives to live as if God were the Lord of heaven and earth - so we construct religions filled with rules and regulations. And rules and regulations require gate-keepers – morality police – judges and all the rest who get a kick out of deciding who is good enough to deserve God’s love. I mean that: we love being in charge of who is in and who’s out and we can’t seem to help ourselves – we almost do it in our sleep – we like it so much.

But grace is the polar opposite of control. Philip Yancey writes that:

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more – no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminars or divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous cause. Because grace also means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.

And what I’ve discovered over the years is that most of us hate that truth about God: we hate that God’s love is not under our control – because that means we’re not really in control – and we love being in control. Back in 1934, a delegate from the United States to the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin wrote this letter back home that I think makes this clear:

It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries. What’s more Hitler is a leader who neither smokes nor drinks and wants women to dress modestly. He hates pornography.

See what I’m getting at? We love religions with clearly defined rules and moral codes – black and white lines to tell us who is in and who is out to say nothing of who is good and who is bad – because like Mark Twain said, “In the beginning God created man in his own image and we’ve been returning the favor ever since.” We love to define God on our own terms – terms that we control – so we can remain in charge.

And I think that’s the fundamental reason why people don’t get grace: it calls us to let go and let God – it asks us to trust that God knows more than we do – and act like God is in charge and we’re not. And we really want to be in charge… Well, that’s my first insight – so let me stop and ask what you think – how does that resonate with you?

• Don’t get me wrong, while I do think that God’s grace is such a counter intuitive spiritual insight that it is mind blowing…

• … I don’t think that is the major reason why people don’t get grace – I think it has to do with not wanting to give up control.

That seems to be part of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11 – and what St. Paul found himself bumping up against in Romans 7, too – the consequences of being stubborn and controlling. St. Paul is in anguish when he tells us that no matter how hard he tries to follow the rules and be a good boy, he still screws up – sometimes in spades – and does more harm than good trying to follow the leader:

It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?

So let me try to give you the context for today’s gospel because I think it offers some deeper insight into both Paul’s lament and why Jesus insists that real rest comes only from being embraced by the unforced rhythms of grace. Our lesson begins with Jesus saying: How can we make sense of this generation when the people have been living like spoiled children whining to their parents?

• This isn’t Jesus meek and mild – or irrelevant and passive – this is the Christ calling his contemporaries cry babies – not adults who live in childlike innocence, right? He’s talking about those who insist on following their selfish, noisy, controlling ways.

• And he explains his challenge like this: The cry babies say, “We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.” Remember: John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. So let’s get clear: opinion polls don't count for much, do they?
I think Jesus is calling our bluff here: like a worldly-wise sponsor at an AA meeting he says John the Baptist came with a strict spirituality and you called him crazy so you could ignore him; and when I came with a spirituality of the feast and you called me a glutton and drunk so you could ignore me, too. But you can’t have it both ways, people, so quit trying to put limits on the Lord. You can carp and complain all you like, but God is the Creator of heaven and earth – and you are not – so quit acting like you are in the center of the universe!

• Are you with me here? I think he is saying: look, you say you want some sacred guidance so the Lord sends the Baptist and you reject him. So then I show up – the life of the party – and you toss me out, too because I don’t act like you think a minister or holy person should.

• But pay attention – the problem isn’t John the Baptist or me – the problem is you don’t really want to follow the Lord – you want to call the shots, right?

And these additional insights from Matthew 11 could be helpful in sorting this out – so let me invite your careful attention.

• After Jesus calls us out for being so stubborn the text tells us that out of nowhere he bursts into a spontaneous prayer thanking God that true spiritual wisdom is NEVER revealed to those who like to be in control: “Abruptly” Matthew’s gospel says, “Jesus broke into prayer saying: "Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You've concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled it out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that's the way you like to work."

• So it would seem as if the sophisticated and wise Jesus is talking about “are those who felt that they were the privileged children of God” – those who practice control over who was in and who was out of favor with God – people who refused or were “unable to admit their powerlessness” (Brian Stoffregen) and kept trying to live like they were in charge of everybody’s lives.

Now here’s something fascinating to me: apparently the Greek text tells us that there are two types of understanding going on here. There is information or awareness – ginosko – and that type of understanding has to do with the facts and rules and creeds. But there is also revealed and even experienced sacred wisdom – epiginosko – that has to do with encountering the peace that passes all understanding – and that type of understanding doesn’t come from rules or study or anything external, ok? That wisdom comes straight from the heart of God – and apparently those who choose to try and live like their in control never open their hearts enough to let God inside – and they miss the blessings of grace. 

• Jesus says, “Come on – let go – and I will take away your burden.” Literally he’s talking about taking away the physical and emotional fatigue that grinds us down whenever we live like everything rests upon our shoulders rather than trusting God.

• I will give you rest – I will teach you the unforced rhythms of grace – I will bless you with a new way of living that frees you to trust God… but this new life requires a death – a loss of control – the putting of Christ’s yoke – becoming a disciple who is willing to learn and trust and not be in charge.

Most scholars say that Jesus was really speaking about apprentices not pupils – do you know the difference? So this is an invitation to become an apprentice of grace:

• To practice letting go – to practice trusting God – to practice welcoming forgiveness and living like God’s love is never earned.

• Can you see why they called such a gift “rest” – come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden and I will give you rest?

The unforced rhythms of grace is living like God is God we are not: we are not in control, we are not required to earn God’s love and we are not obligated by our religion or anyone else to do anything but respond to God’s love with… gratitude – thanksgiving – trust.

Are you still with me?

I’m going keep coming back to this insight throughout the next few months because it is so important to reclaim. So much of Christianity is currently defined by fear and hatred and shame that we need a third reformation – a reformation of grace so that we can all become apprentices. Like a cartoon I came across last week put it:
• It showed a small child looking up at her father saying, “So, dad, if I keep the faith will I grow up to be as grumpy and hateful as you?”

• Lord, have mercy.

So here’s a way to keep reclaiming the deep unforced rhythm of grace right here – and it comes from St. Erma Bombeck who told this story shortly before her death. It seems she was in worship on Sunday and kept looking at a small child who was turning around and smiling at everyone.

He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. In time, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theatre off Broadway said, “Stop that grinning! You are in church!” And with that, she gave him a belt on the bottom… and as the tears rolled down his cheeks added, “That’s better” and returned to her prayers…

Without thinking I found myself furious. It occurred to me that the entire world is in tears and if you’re not, then you better get with it…I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face and hold him close and tell him about my God. The Happy and Loving God. The smiling God – the God of grace… The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us…

By tradition, one wears faith with the solemnity of a mourner, the gravity of a mask of tragedy and the dedication of a Rotary badge… What a fool, I thought: here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization – the only hope, our only miracle – our only promise of infinity. And if he couldn’t smile in church, where was there left to go?

No wonder Jesus said to us – then – as well as today: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it – and you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace. The time has come for us to reveal in the way of Jesus – and St. Erma Bombeck, ok? So let all of God’s people say: amen!

1) naked pastor @


Black Pete said…
Look forward to hearing your tunes (and perhaps covering them, James). BTW, there is now a usb microphone that plugs directly into your computer--no need for adaptors, etc. Roger McGuinn uses one.

How kairotic (neologism?) is it that I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World and David Adams Richards' God is., right now--both speak about the opposing notions of love (Grace) and power (control).

RJ said…
Ah yes the synchronicity of it all - thanks, my man.
RJ said…
and i love the new word, too

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