When we were in Istanbul, Turkey with the Jazz Ambassadors just a few short weeks ago, one of the things that grabbed me whenever I heard it was the daily call to prayer: the “adhan” – أَذَّان – is chanted five times each day by the muezzin to invite the faithful to prayer.
• Not everyone in Istanbul is a practicing Muslim, of course, and officially the government is secular so people don’t rush to the nearest mosque or kneel for prayer on the streets as they do in some places.
• Still, the call to consciously remember that we are God’s beloved was striking to me; so much so, that I bought a set of Muslim prayer beads to use in my own devotions.
The prayer is simple and to the point:
Allahu Akbar – God is great – Ash-had al-la ilaha illa llah – I bear witness that there is no God but the One God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Come, now, for prayer: come now to blessing for prayer is better than sleep. God is the greatest – and there is no god except the one true God.
I think the words of St. Paul in the 8th chapter of Romans might serve a similar clarifying role for Christians if we were to chant them five times a day: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
No condemnation – nada – zip – null set on steroids: NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And that’s what I want to explore with you today under the heading “apprentices of grace.” You may recall that last week I shared some thoughts with you about why people are both so confused and resistant to embracing the gift of God’s radical grace. My conclusion is that most of us want to be in charge of everything in our lives – even our souls – so we feign ignorance and confusion when in fact we are just being stubborn and selfish.
Not that letting go to God is easy; it is simple but never easy because it is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Look we live in America – land of the bottom line where utilitarianism is king – and everything depends of our own personal initiative. So this grace business is NOT easy.That’s why Jesus speaks to us about becoming apprentices, so let’s give up talking about disciples and students for a season ok?
• Those words have too much baggage and don’t really help us grasp that when it comes to the unforced rhythms of grace we have to be trained.
• In fact, we have to be trained well beyond the confines of mere information and facts; we have to be formed by the Spirit into those who give substance to Jesus in our generation.
And that’s where Paul’s insights for today might be helpful when he proclaims: There is now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. So, here’s what I want to try to talk about today in light of becoming apprentices for grace:
• First, what Paul is getting at when he uses words like flesh, spirit and sin? My experience over the years tells me that we really don’t understand what the old apostle is trying to tell us – so let’s see if we can clarify his message – in pursuit of grace.
• Second, the parable Jesus uses also needs a little bit of commentary – especially when it comes to God’s extravagant abundance – so let’s see if we can grasp its deeper wisdom.
• And third, I want to ask you to affirm and rededicate yourself to a religion of NO condemnation with a body prayer.
So, pray with me now that I might be able to express something of God’s extravagant grace with you during this message:
Lord of heaven and earth, source of light and darkness and compassion, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We start with the words and heart of St. Paul in Romans 8 who tells the early church – as well as you and me – that there is NO condemnation for us by God if we are in Christ Jesus. There is no judgment – there is no separation – there is no chance of Hell – there is no possibility of rejection or refusal by the Lord in this life or the next. There is NO condemnation…
In the words of Lutheran theologian, David Lose, God loves us so profoundly that we are offered forgiveness, restoration, welcome, embrace, comfort and security by the Lord over and over again just as a loving parent welcomes back and errant child. In fact, according to St. Paul, that is why Jesus came to the world:
… Not to suffer in our stead. Not to show us how to live so that we merit God's love. Not to satisfy some weird sense of justice that makes it possible for God to love us only if blood is shed. And definitely not to have the crap kicked out of him for sin so that we can feel eternally and simultaneously guilty and grateful. No. Jesus came to show us through his cross just how much God already loves us. And to show us through his resurrection that his love is more powerful than anything – than death, our sin, our confusion, and even our sense of being condemned.
How did Thoreau put it? The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them? I think that’s true no matter what we say on the outside about trusting our faith in Christ Jesus; I think most of us hold on to some guilt – or shame – or fear – or disappointment – or something that was done to us that wounded and broke us so that we don’t feel worthy of God’s love.
And because we don’t sense that we can accept the gift of grace and healing – we don’t and leave the gift unclaimed. We want to be like the old Irish peasant that Brennan Manning described kneeling by the side of the road praying. When the local priest noticed him he stopped and said, “You must be very close to God.” To which the old man said after a moment of silence passed, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.” Man, we want that – we ache for it – but most of the time we don’t claim it because that’s not how our world works.
Like city dwellers who no longer notice the polluted air, we breathe in the atmosphere of ungrace unawares. As early as preschool and kindergarten we are tested and evaluated before being slotted into advanced, normal or slow tracks. Test papers come back with errors – not correct answers – highlighted in red. Ford Motor Company grades employees on a scale of 1 (clerks and secretaries) to 27 (chairman of the board). You must be at least Grade 9 to qualify for parking space;Grade 13 brings with it such perks as a window, plants and an intercom system. Grade 16 brings offices equipped with private bathrooms. Justice departments and mortgage companies cannot operate by grace. A sports franchise rewards those who complete passes, throw strikes or make baskets and has no place for those who fail. Fortune Magazine annually lists the five hundred richest people… but no on knows the names of the fin hundred poorest. (Philip Yancey)
See why I think we might want to adapt a call to consciousness five times each day in the church that chants and reminds us that:
• In Christ Jesus there is NO condemnation from God?
• Are you with me on that? And let me push a little deeper with the words of St. Paul in Romans 8 because so often they contribute to tripping us up rather than setting us free – and that wasn’t Paul’s intent. Paul himself had been liberated from guilt and empowered to live a new life of joy and integrity by Christ’s Spirit so he really wasn’t interested in rebinding anyone with a notion of fear or shame. But all too often small hearts – and imperfect English and Latin translations of New Testament Greek – create problems. Take the verse:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
• What do you hear in this admonition?
• What message is being communicated to you?
For most of us we sense a condemnation of the physical and the elevation of the so-called spiritual in these words, but that is not only a misreading of St. Paul it violates the heart and soul of Jesus.
Do you recall how the gospel of John begins? In the beginning was the Word – that is, Jesus – and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And then verse 14 proclaims: And the Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.
This is the theological foundation for the incarnation – that belief that in Jesus God took on human form – real flesh and blood – to bring blessing to ALL flesh and blood.
• Another way of saying is this is God was embodied to show us that flesh and blood can be worthy of God’s grace and that it can be a temple of the Lord.
• So we need to put away any notion that Paul – or Christianity – or even religion hates the body or treats it with shame. If God can be embodied… then our flesh can be sacred, too.
But sometimes it isn’t, right? Sometimes we get caught up in addictions or obsessions – or wounds or fears or sins – and just focus on our lowest nature. Our reptilian brain that is all about fight or flight – survival of the fittest – being effective and efficient and productive – and when this happens we block or interrupt the Spirit of grace God has given to us since before the beginning of time.
So Paul invites us to refocus – reclaim – even re-member the presence and promise of the Spirit and set our minds on it. Like the call to prayer five times each day in the Muslim world, we need a lot of help moving beyond our most base and fearful habits. That’s the first insight: St. Paul wants to teach us about experiencing the spirit of grace in our everyday, ordinary flesh and blood minds.
• He is NOT about scolding and shaming; rather, he seeks to remind us that if we only live like animals, we will die like animals.
• That’s part one – any questions?
Part two from the gospel of Matthew underscores the abundance of God’s grace – the extravagant blessing that always reject condemnation – in the parable of the sower. Now if you are anything like me, most of your life you’ve heard this story interpreted from the perspective of the people and the soil: some seed fell on good soil and produced while other seeds fell on poor soil and faded and all the rest.
And I think those words have some value …I know that some of us burn out and fade at times and others of us seem to major in burning out and fading.So there is some truth in this interpretation. But what really grabs me is thinking about God as the sower and the whole meaning of the seeds.
• Apparently God has a never ending supply of seeds and throws them out here and there without ever looking at who is going to be effective or efficient, right? Apparently this isn’t about good or bad or even helpful and faithful.
• God just throws the seed out all over the place – and keeps throwing out the seed – so that the potential for new life can happen all over the place – even in the most unlikely places?
• Like grass growing through the cracks of concrete: ever see that? Or trees sprouting up top of a stone ridge in the middle of nowhere? Or flowers in the desert?
In Christ’s spirituality, born of a mystical, prophetic and poetic Judaism, Jesus understood that God’s love is greater than all obvious usefulness, right? When a whole bull was being sacrificed on the altar, did the priests – or anyone else – pull out the best steaks to eat at a later time? Not at all – the whole animal was wasted – burned as an offering to God’s amazing grace.
• What about Sabbath? Twenty four whole hours are to be wasted when we could be productive and effective and efficient. Wouldn’t just an hour or two on a Sunday be better?
• What’s more, sometimes when we think things aren’t going to bear fruit God’s mysterious ways are more creative and extravagant than we could ever imagine.
Consider, for a moment those birds that ate the seeds: weren’t they fed?
Perhaps those seeds did fulfill a purpose – perhaps not the purpose of the sower – but a purpose of seeds. And what about those seeds, like wild asparagus, that are spread (and fertilized) naturally by ingestion and later expulsion by bird?. Perhaps the other seeds in our parables fulfilled some other purposes besides that of producing a crop for the sower. (Stoffregen, The Text This Week)
Part two of my thinking for today is that God’s grace is greater, more abundant and more creative than ANY limitation we can come up with – and the Lord’s parable of the sower adds support to that conclusion.
So, now before I ask you to reconnect and commit to God’s grace with a body prayer, let me pause to see if I have been clear. Do you have any questions or concerns so far?
• Ok, then I need a sacred prop for the conclusion of today’s message – a holy vessel to help us embody our prayer – so will my trusted servant please bring my blessed trash can into the center of the chancel?
• Inside your worship bulletin, you should all find two small blank sheets of paper, yes? That wasn’t an accident – it is a sacred tool for this next prayer.
Now what I would like you to do is write down on one piece of paper something that makes you feel horrible or insecure or unloved by God. It could be, “the one regret or misdeed or misfortune that you wear like a snail does its shell, the one part of your life that forever threatens condemnation.” (Lohse) It is your call.
• And after you write it down, then get up, walk over to the trash can and throw it away, saying as you do so: There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
• Beloved, Jesus and Paul and the very wisdom of our tradition insists that this moment – not just heaven – but right now is shaped by mercy, not guilt; by God’s promise and presence not by disappointment; by what God the abundant sower of grace has done and never by just what we have done with our lives.
So consider this an upside down altar call – a time to cast off your fears and all the rest – and renew your commitment to grace. We’ll sing something to encourage you, but now is the time to embody your commitment to praying and living in the Spirit of Christ’s grace…
Here’s one last thing: the other sheet of blank paper, let’s use that, too:
Let’s write on that what you are now free to do since you don't have the threat of inadequacy and condemnation overshadowing you. What deed might you dare, what challenge will you accept, what act of courage or generosity might you attempt knowing that you are beloved by God?
And here’s the blessing: whether you succeed or fail you have already been pronounced worthy. There is NO condemnation now… so write something down, fold that piece of paper and take it with you into the week ahead, a living remembrance of God's promise not only to be with you but to use for the sake of the people and world God loves so much. (Lohse, WorkingPreacher.com)
For this is the good news for today: let those who have ears to hear… hear.