Kind and generous apprentices of grace...

NOTES:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 24, 2100 - the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  I am deepening my "apprentices of grace" series using Matthew 13: 44-46 and the closing verses of Romans 8.  If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 am.

There is an old story told about the Prophet Mohammed, blessed be his name, who was once offering Morning Prayer at his local mosque. Among those who had gathered was a poor spiritual seeker from the desert. It seems that:

… as the Prophet read from the Quran, he recited the verse in which Pharaoh makes the claim that “I am your true God.” (Now you have to remember who Pharaoh was in order for this to make sense so…?) And when the desert peasant heard the blasphemous words of Pharaoh, he spontaneously broke the silence of prayer with his anger, shouting, “That boastful son of a bitch!”

The Prophet said nothing, but after prayer was over the other began to scold the man saying, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Surely you have displeased Allah because not only did you interrupt the holy silence of our prayers, but you used filthy language too in the presence of the Prophet.” As you might imagine, the desert wanderer began to tremble with fear when all of a sudden the angel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed and said, “Allah sends greetings to you and wishes you to tell these people to shut their mouths. Stop scolding this simple Arab because his spontaneous profanity has moved my heart more than all the holy prayers of the others combined.”
The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz, p. 30

Intimacy with the Lord – the kingdom of God – the teachings of Jesus and many of the sacred stories of faith all suggest that that the point is “always beyond: beyond the ordinary, beyond possession, beyond the narrow confines of self… or expectation” – beyond even spiritual propriety. (Kurtz, p. 31)

• That’s what the parables of Jesus for today sound like to me – a call beyond what is obvious – an invitation to live in such a way that we are saturated in God’s grace.

• Think about it: a dirt farmer becomes joyfully obsessed with a hidden treasure and devotes the rest of his life to it; a merchant travelling the Silk Road discovers a pearl of great value and gives up everything else to hold it?

Something beyond the obvious is taking place in these stories, yes? Too often the parables of Jesus have been domesticated – turned into middle class morality tales – when, in fact, they are funky and strange and challenging. Back in 1935, biblical scholar, C.H. Dodd defined a parable like this: A parable is "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought."

• Pretty good, don’t you think: the use of ordinary images in a strange way to purposefully stimulate both doubt and active thought?!?

• Sounds like that rude Arab in the mosque got it right to me because something strange and funky is taking place in these parables that points beyond conventional wisdom towards God’s grace.

And I sense that whatever Jesus is talking about in these stories can help us take another step towards living as “apprentices of grace.” That’s been my theme this summer – learning to live within the unforced rhythms of God’s grace – as apprentices. Not scholars trying to gather more arcane knowledge for publication, nor students cramming for some spiritual achievement award, but apprentices practicing the rhythms of grace until they become unforced.

Each week this month I’ve emphasized a different insight into grace: it is the way of Christ’s rest, it is how we let God be God so that we don’t have to carry all the burdens of life, it trains us to trust that there really is NO condemnation in God’s love for us no matter WHAT the television evangelists have told us and it includes you and you and you. How did Jesus put it do his disciples? “I have come so that your joy may be full? Complete? Filled to over-flowing from the inside out?”

That is what I have been trying to communicate this month: that God’s rest and joy can be fully yours. Today I want to try to give you some clues about how to receive this gift because a number of you have told me, “Ok, I get that God’s grace is a wonderful gift – but how do I accept it? Receive it? Let it come to me?”

Well, there is a long answer and a short one – and being dedicated to my craft – I’m going to give you both, ok? But here’s the short answer first …

Throw assorted hard candies to the congregation

Alright, now what did you do when I threw those candies out to you? Really, tell me clearly just what did you do?

• You spontaneously opened your hands and… received them, right? You didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it – analyzing and fretting – or wondering what the devil was happening or whether or not you even wanted to participate in the gift giving.

• You just opened your hands – that’s part one of the short answer – and… took or caught or received the gift – that’s part two.

To receive the gift of grace – to practice being an apprentice of grace – means you have to apply the unforced rhythms of God’s loving presence to yourself just as much as you do your neighbor or those in need. And a lot of us are pretty bad at doing that: we know – and enjoy – giving and caring for others (at least most of the time) but we are pitiful at receiving love and care ourselves – and it doesn’t seem to matter whether that love and care comes from God or some of God’s people, right?

• Sometimes we feel awkward – or ashamed. Sometimes we feel undeserving – or like others need it more.

• Sometimes we’re embarrassed that we can’t fix it ourselves and really need someone else to help us out – and God knows we don’t want to appear dependent and needy. Are there other reasons we find it hard to be open and receptive to God’s love and the caring of others?

Ok, then let me give you the longer, more theological answer about how to practice opening your hands and hearts to God’s grace and it starts with two key words: rhythm and unforced. What comes to your mind when I say rhythm? How would you define it?

There is musical rhythm that includes a beat and the intensity of the layers of a song – the pulse and energy of it all – for sure. What about in nature: is there a rhythm in nature? In the seasons? Each day? In the waves – or even the wind? Do you see what I’m getting at? There is an ebb and flow to rhythm in music and nature and in life and love – and that is true for practicing grace, too. 

There are ups and downs and intense and quiet times and everything in-between which suggests that sometimes you’ll get it right and other times you’ll miss it completely. Do you remember what the Apostle Paul told us about the rhythm of living into grace in a restful and trusting way? Romans 8: 26-28 says:

The Spirit of God helps us in our weakness; for sometimes we do not know how to pray as we ought, so the very Spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit has been alive in all the faithful according to God’s will since the beginning of time. That is why we can trust that all things work together for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.

All things – not just the things we get right – or the times we are at our best; but also those times we fail – or sin – or live out of our fear or addiction or shame. There is a rhythm to grace and we have to trust it just as we trust the rhythm of the light and the darkness or the coming of the seasons. That’s the first word…

… and the second word that speaks to trusting and living into the rest and joy of God’s grace is unforced: the rhythm of grace is unforced. What does that say to you?

Once in a former rock band I worked with a drummer whom I loved – he was a great guy – but when he tried too hard he lost the beat. Now in rock and roll that’s crazy making, my friends, because without that monster back beat pushing the music forward, the song can become a train wreck real fast. So in my frustration and desire to keep the song from moving away from auto-destruct, I would stomp my cowboy boot with the big heels on the hardwood floor to reclaim the beat. And I would use my bass guitar like a club to act out the beat in pantomime. All of this made great sense to me – if the drummer could see and hear the real beat he could get back into the groove – right?

But it never worked. Apparently my agitation was contagious – and instead of helping him with all my jumping around, I made him even more nervous – and things got worse not better. And the only thing that helped was when Dianne played the beat in a gentle and unforced way on the tambourine – that was golden – it always rescued the music. Because… it was unforced – gentle – tender and respectful.

That’s what Jesus was telling us about practicing and learning to live into the rhythm of grace: he, too, will always be tender and respectful so that we come to experience the beat in an unforced way. And here’s where the parables and their strangeness might come in handy – so I want you to pay particular attention to what is funky or strange about them. That “is where you will find your window into the kingdom of God.”

So, in the story of the man who finds a buried treasure and then devotes the rest of his life to buying the field, what is strange here? Preacher, Brian Stoffregen, asks:

If discovering the treasure entitled the finder to own it, why sell everything to buy the field? And if finding the treasure did not entitle the finder to own it, why did h find it necessary to sell everything to buy the field? This story seems to illustrate not so much a man possessing a field and its treasure, but how the treasure grasped and possessed him. His only concern in life seems to be getting that treasure no matter what it might cost him.
The key here is not possessing, for God’s kingdom is a gift, but rather letting ourselves be possessed by a passion for grace. Sometimes we’re too linear, too proper, too staid and on automatic pilot. Grace pushes us to be more like the Arab in the mosque – spontaneous and alive and earthy – as we ache for a taste of grace. So I think that’s part of it: letting ourselves be wooed and swept off our feet by God’s grace – admitting/confessing we are need – so we can let the Lord be our lover.

Dare I say that this has something to do with taking a risk in a bold way? Staking your heart and soul on God’s grace without counting the cost and playing it safe? One preacher put it like this: “I wonder, have we (myself included) become so comfortable in our congregations that we no longer risk doing new, joyful and costly things because of the kingdom?”

At how many council meetings has something like this been said, "We don't have the money to do that."? In contrast, I heard of a family who was so committed to a project at their congregation that they took out a second mortgage on their house to pay for half of it.

Part of practicing opening our hearts and hands to receive grace as an apprentice means letting go so that our souls can be on fire for grace – not just being polite during worship – but on fire for grace. And that sometimes means searching for it – actively getting out of our own way and recognizing the possibilities in each moment for grace to break in.

The merchant who discovered the pearl of great price wasn’t just hanging out waiting – he was on a quest – he knew there was something beautiful out there and kept his eyes open for when it might show up.

• How often are we that alert and attentive to grace? I hear people make excuses all the time – and they are real and valid and I’ve said them myself – but they don’t help.

• Things like, “I had a really bad childhood.” Or “I’m just too tired most of the time to really care or pay attention.” Or “I did that when I was younger now it is another generation’s turn.” Or even “I am really too busy and overwhelmed right now to give much attention to God.”
Look there are a million excuses – and the unforced rhythm of grace is NOT about making your burden heavier – is that clear? I’m not talking about giving you MORE to do – or making you feel guilty – or anything else the church too often lays on us. No, what I think Jesus is after is simple: are we awake and paying attention to the multiple miracles and moments of grace that fill our everyday, ordinary walking around lives as gifts?

• What happens at work? With our children? Eating? Drinking? Waiting? Are we awake and on fire – or more like zombies?

• How does the saying go that for most of us the real question: not is there life after death but is there life for us before we die? Real life? On fire and grace-filled life?

Some of us are too easy on ourselves and make excuses about why we’re not on fire and awaken to grace. Some of us are too hard on ourselves, too, believing that we aren’t worthy or deserving. Neither leads us into the joy and rest of the unforced rhythms of grace. 

So here’s what I want you to do – try the short answer again with me as a model for being an apprentice of grace – and just open your hands and receive this gift. Do it spontaneously and with joy – like a child in trust – for this is part of God’s good news for today for those who have ears to hear – and eyes to see – and hands and hearts to open…

credits:
1) harvest @ jvcartworks.com
2) sower @ bullartistry.com.au
3) van gogh @ canvaz.com
4) open hands @ itsoutofhand.com
5) van gogh @ abcroomsinrome.com
6) van gogh @ lava360.com
7) picasso @ maryadamart.com
8) picasso @ livelearnloveleave.com
9) matisse @ henri-matisse.net
10) matisse @ adatshalomecc.com
11) cezanne @ ricci-art.com

Comments

Black Pete said…
http://www.flickr.com/photos/timlowly/2784215327/in/set-72157603236214995
RJ said…
What a perfect picture, Peter! Thank you...
Black Pete said…
He is, to say the very least, brilliant: it says it all...

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