Apprentices of Grace: God in the Most Unexpected Places...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 17th, 2011.  (Hey wait a minute - how did THAT happen? It is the middle of summer - already?!?!! Impossible, but true.) Well, I am grateful to Fr. Thomas Keating, Philip Yancey as well as the scholars who worked on the new book about St. Paul, The Authentic Letters of Paul. 

If you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please stop by

One evening while flipping through the TV channels with my remote, I came across the most startling panel of talking heads I have ever seen. On the same dais at an International Monetary Fund conversation about world debt were: former President Bill Clinton, internet guru and philanthropist Bill Gates, human rights activist Ellie Wiesel, Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu and rock and roll social activist Bono from U2.

• “This is too good to pass up,” I thought to myself so settled back to see what would unfold. And within minutes of tuning in, I heard Bono say to Bishop Tutu and Ellie Wiesel: “When it comes to changing the way the world works we need to trust grace more and more… because ‘grace trumps karma.’”

• Did you hear that? “Grace trumps karma!” Forgiveness and hope create the possibility of healing instead of staying locked into a dog eat dog reality; whether we’re considering international debt, social sin or personal failure there is often more inspiration born of interrupting the suffering we humans so often inflict upon one another rather than just institutionalizing the consequences of our pain.

• Grace trumps karma… brilliant!

Now let’s be clear: my man Bono didn’t say that karma doesn’t exist – and for those who don’t know the word karma is a Buddhist or Hindu term referring to the total effect of a person's actions and conduct during the successive phases of your life that work to determine your destiny – what we might call fate or the experience of “what goes around, comes around. Like St. Paul said in this morning’s lesson: there will always be suffering – we will always groan both inwardly and outwardly – because life hurts and karma is real. A new translation of Romas 8 puts it like this:

We know that the whole creation has been moaning with birth pantes until now; and not only the creation, but we who have savored the first taste of God's power also sight within ourselves while we await our adoption and release and transformation of our bodies from their earthly limits...

But – and this is the key – there is a love and truth bigger than karma called grace – so let’s get down to it and explore the blessings of grace in ways that can help, ok? If you’ve been with us this summer you know that I have been talking about living as apprentices of grace.
I don’t think Jesus was kidding when he invited us to “come to him in our burdens and lay them down within… the unforced rhythms of grace.” I believe that at the heart and soul of Christ’s ministry in his day as well as ours there is a summons to joy. 

• When the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary, he didn’t say, “I have come so that you might be worried and troubled forever,” right? He said: “The Lord is with you, favored one… be not afraid, Mary.” (Luke 1: 26-30)

• When Jesus was talking to his apprentices at the Last Supper – just hours before his Passion and Cross – he didn’t tell them, “Well, guys, you are going to have to figure all of this out on your own with wailing and gnashing of teeth just like the French Existentialist will someday demand.” Not at all, he said if you rest and trust and abide in me then you will know the Father’s love from the inside out: “For I have come to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete and full and whole.” (John 15: 1-11)

• What did the angels tell Mary Magdalene and the mother of our Lord when they went to his tomb and found it empty? “Fear not!” What did the Resurrected Jesus tell Peter after the betrayal? “Fear not… if you love me then feed my sheep.”

And what does that old complainer, Paul, tell us in this rambling and at time complicated theological discourse from chapter 8 in Romans? Fear not – there will be hard times – there will be karma and suffering and confusion and even pain – and in the middle of it all you may not feel like God is with you.

• But here’s the deal: Paul wants us to know that those fears and groans are our old nature talking – our wounded and lower selves– who will always be with us because we are still human.

• At the same time, however, God’s Spirit has been shared within us, too and cries out to the Lord even when we don’t know what to say or pray.

Romans 8 puts it like this:

In support of God's love, God's power comes to the aid of our weakness - we do not know what we should pray for as we ought - but God's power intervenes with yearnings beyond words. The One who searches human hearts knows what the divine intention is; so God's love and presence intervenes on behalf of the People of God in accordances with the purposes of God.  We can know, therefore, that for those who love God - those who are called to live in accordance with God's purose - God always collaborates for a good outcome.

Not that all things ARE good – Paul isn’t an idealist or a romantic – there is pain and death and all the rest. There is suffering – and he names it – and at the same time there is the Spirit bringing us healing and hope by grace. So, like Jesus before him, Paul asks us to start practicing trusting grace more than our fears: I consider the sufferings of this present time, he writes, not worth comparing to the joy that is about to be revealed within us.

• Are you with me so far? What I am trying to say in this first part of my message is that fear – or suffering – or pain is not what God wants for us. Let’s be clear about that; we are not given pain so that we can become more faithful. That’s sadistic and not at all a part of God’s grace.

• No, pain is a fact of life – and what Paul is asking of us is that we use this fact to live beyond and through the pain. He want us to practice being apprentices of grace whenever we hurt – whenever we are burdened – whenever we are afraid.

And he tells us how to do it, too: let the Spirit work within you for God’s Spirit knows how to bring order out of our chaos and hope into our fears even when we don’t feel it. Mostly, you see, because it is GOD at work, not us. Did you hear that? It is God at work, not anything related to our effort. So, the first truth for today as apprentices of God’s grace has to do with trusting that God is at work within and among us whether we feel it, believe it or know it: the Spirit helps us in our weakness… and groans and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words. 

• How do you react to that? Any sense how such trust might be a way to let go of our burdens and start bathing in the joy of grace?

• What are you feeling and thinking?

Now before I go deeper and amplify this insight with some biblical interpretation born of today’s parable, let me use a sacramental prop called, “seeing the one whom Jesus loves,” ok?

(Take the mirror from the stand in the Chancel and bring it out to the people…)

This is an ancient and time-tested resource originally designed to help people comprehend something of God’s amazing grace. It was recently rediscovered – I think maybe in some of the ancient ruins in Turkey – with these words on it: THE ONE JESUS LOVES.

• Can you see that? Isn’t that what it says? The one Jesus loves?

• Now tell me something else, ok? What do you see when you look into this sacramental resource…

• YOU are the one Jesus loves – not because you earned it – not because you’ve succeeded in being holy – and not because of any tradition or habit. That’s the way grace works – it’s all about God – and what we have to do is trust that we truly are the ones Jesus loved.

Now, it is my hunch that this was precisely the insight Jesus was getting after in today’s strange little parable about the mustard seed or the pine nut in Matthew’s gospel. So, let me try to explain three key clues that he gives us because even though we’ve been talking about God’s grace for more than 2,000 years – and more than 4,000 years if we include our cousins in Judaism – most people still don’t get it. Most people don’t believe what they see when they look into that old sacramental prop, right?

Let’s see if this helps- and let me start be reminding you just what a parable is all about. Eugene Boring in the New Interpreter's Bible (Matthew) writes:

In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing little stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world – the world of assumptions by which we habitually live – the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data. [299]

These are not morality stories – or tidbits of linear information – but moments of mystical wisdom intended to challenge and wake us up to something important about God’s grace. Like one scholar asked: "What was Jesus seeking to threaten in the hearer's world of assumptions… and, what in our world… might Jesus be seeking to threaten today?" I think it has something with being able to see God’s in the most unexpected places… and here’s why.

In Christ’s day there was a huge gap between the mythology and assumptions about God held by many of the religious leaders in Jerusalem and reality. You see, the official ideology or party line was that Israel was God’s chosen nation – a people with a unique relationship to the Creator – which is probably a notion most nations and ethnic groups lay claim to throughout history.

• This myth – or assumption – gave Israel an identity – a unique self-understanding in history: we are God’s chosen people.

• The problem, however, was all too obvious: if Israel was the chosen people, how come they were living under the boot heel of the Roman Empire?

“From the heyday of national power and prestige during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, writes Fr. Thomas Keating, “Israel had been on a downhill slide for several centuries, its kingdom conquered and divided several times over.” (The Kingdom of God Is Like… p. 37)

If one lives in occupied territories, as the Israelites of Jesus’ time did, the question naturally arises, “Is this ghastly oppression by the Romans a punishment of God, or is our suffering just part of the human condition?” In this context – within this particular myth – the whole notion of the kingdom of God had specific connotations of power, triumph, holiness and goodness.

Sense the tension here? The dominant cultural symbol of this old myth in Israel was “the great cedar of Lebanon – something like the huge redwoods of California – used to rebuild the Temple in the age of Solomon.” In this symbol, “the kingdom of God would mean that the Jewish people would be the greatest of all nations just as the cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees.” (Keating, p. 37)

• To which Jesus said… “Probably not – for the kingdom of God is more like a mustard seed” or a pine nut to use Peterson’s rewording. And, this mustard seed/pine nut is not only the most insignificant seed to ever be planted in a garden; it is not really a seed that should be planted in a Jewish garden at all because it is a weed.

• The mustard seed was ritually unclean – it was not to be mixed with other vegetables that bear fruit – because as a weed it was fast growing and would choke all the other plants to death.

This parable gets even more disturbing – and perplexing – because even though Matthew tries to clean things up a bit by suggesting that the mustard seed would eventually grow into a mighty tree that could give shelter to the grand birds… this wasn’t true.

Mustard seeds are a common, “fast-spreading plant that only grows to about four feet in height. It puts out a few branches – and with some stretch of the imagination – birds might build a few down-at-the-heel nests in its shade” – but that’s all. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is NOT like the mighty cedars of Lebanon but more like an unclean weed that has been illegally planted in somebody’s garden.

• Now why in the world would he say such a wild thing? What was his point?

• Any thoughts or reactions?

Well, Jesus’ parables always point to the core of his ministry – a core I have called the unforced rhythms of grace – a heart filled with joy that trusts God’s Spirit beyond all the evidence, right? So does that help as you try to grasp what Jesus is trying to challenge and change?

• My hunch is that it is yet another story about grace – we aren’t going to get it in the ways we think – by working for it or trying to earn it. God’s going to give us grace in an almost unknown or mysterious way.

• And it is going to grow within and among us NOT like a cedar from Lebanon, but more like a mustard weed – low and close to the ground – and almost unnoticed. Maybe even in places we think are unclean, too.

• What’s more, this grace is NOT something we have to wait for at the end of time like some apocalyptic promises where God defeats all evil and rescues us from suffering. No, the kingdom of God is here-and-now – in our lives – in our church – in the ordinary and often unexpected places.

• Dare I say even… in the mirror?

We live in a time when 20% of our neighbors identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”Religion has fallen on bad times – and probably for very good reasons – like being obsessed about rules and judgment instead of joy and God’s grace. To live in a small but grace-filled way in our ordinary, everyday existence is one of the most important things you can do for God.

• It shows you trust God’s Spirit to be with you even when you don’t feel it.

• It documents to others that there is a love deeper than our facts and everything that is obvious; a love that heals our wounds and strengthens us when we are at our weakness.

• And it provides a little shade or comfort – like that old mustard weed – for others who are at their lowest, too.

So what I’d like for you to do – as we sing you this little tune from Bono and U2 – is to take one of the ancient archeological signs recently rediscovered in Turkey from one of our ushers now and affix it to your bathroom sacramental resource. So that every day – and sometimes more than once a day – you might be awakened to God’s grace within you: in this, you will be prayerful and playful - humble and graceful – and that is really good news for today - or any day, yes?


Black Pete said…
Emphatically, yes.
RJ said…
thanks, my man

Popular Posts