Tag Archives: grace

Grace in the wilderness


[A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 22 June 2014]

SCRIPTURE:    Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

The Christian calendar
Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost; it is also the beginning of a new season in the Christian calendar.

Is that particularly important? Does it really matter? And more to the point, why should we or the world care. We have much more pressing issues: desperate unemployment, HIV/AIDS and the evils of poverty and crime. The Christian message of love and hope, and of salvation itself, is lost in the noise and turmoil, what do the seasons of the church matter?

When Jesus spoke about proclaiming the message from the rooftops, he wasn’t talking about the Christian calendar. But the themes and the readings set down for each Sunday do help us understand who we are and what we have to say to the world.

During the past six months, the Bible readings in the lectionary have led us through the great events of the New Testament: the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit.

Those are the dramatic events we know and love and sing about.

Ordinary time
But now we enter a long season lasting five months, where we simply number the Sundays after Pentecost all the way to Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Catholics call this ‘ordinary (or numbered) time’.

During these weeks, instead of looking at the great events of Jesus life, we look at the way Jesus lived his life as we follow his work and teaching through one of the Gospels.

John van der Laar says this a time for ‘a change in our focus from God’s Story to our story – how we will now live our story differently because of who God is and what God has done; how our lives will become one with God’s story as we seek to follow Jesus.’ (Changing Seasons – So What?’ Sacredise)

But it’s not the first-century Jesus we are trying to follow. It is Jesus living here and now in this poverty-stricken, AIDS-smitten, educationally-challenged, wounded and weeping country of ours.

Because this is where we are called to live – not within these four walls, but out there, in the world, today.

Matthew 10
And today’s readings? Well, in Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his disciples for the mission field, and he tells them (and us) what following him will involve. And it doesn’t make easy reading.

Jesus says that people will swear at us – and they’ll mean it.
Then, as if to comfort us, Jesus says, ‘But don’t worry about them. What can they do to you? They can only kill you.’
‘Oh!’ we might say. ‘I wasn’t planning on getting killed.’
‘But if you want to follow me,’ Jesus will tell us, ‘you must lay down your life and take up your cross.’
Because the cross is not just a heavy burden, it’s an instrument of torturous death. If you take up your cross, you’re going to die.

So, living a Jesus life here in 21st century Africa means we are going to be sworn at, by people who really mean it, and it means giving up our lives. The end is not a nice comfortable seat in church and a friendly Bible study. Far from it. Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword. Families and friendships will be torn apart. Your enemy isn’t the devil, he tells us; your enemy will be among your family and friends.

‘This isn’t what I signed up for’
What happened?

What about all the ‘peace and goodwill’ the angels sang about at Christmas?
What about the warm fuzzy feelings the Magi experienced when they gathered around the baby?
What about the love poured out on the cross? What about Jesus dying in our place?
What about the power of the Holy Spirit, of the fruit of love and joy and peace?
Where is the Good News in all of this?

No wonder John van der Laar said when he read this passage, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’. (‘I Didn’t Sign Up For This’, Sacredise)

A two-a-penny sparrow
But that’s not all Jesus says in Matthew 10.

He also tells us that not even a two-a-penny sparrow is out of God’s sight and care. And he even knows how many hairs are left on your head. And, what’s more, ‘if you tell the world you belong to me,’ Jesus says. ‘I will do the same for you before my Father in heaven.’
‘This one belongs to me,’ he’ll say. ‘That one is mine.’

In other words, Jesus is saying that, no matter what happens here, good or bad, we are claimed by God. We are his.

Life is not easy
Life is not easy, for anyone. That’s not the promise. And for those of us who want to follow Jesus, there will be additional burdens. As we reach out to the poor, as we sit next those in pain, as we take up the struggles of those who have no voice, as we challenge those in power, we will risk the dangers Jesus warned us about.

Yes, we pray for peace. Yes, we pray for healing. Yes, we pray for mercy. Yes, we pray for justice. But these things are in God’s hands, not ours. They don’t belong to us as our right. And they don’t arrive in the form of a world cruise or a tropical island trip. We don’t win the lotto and give up the daily grind. That’s where the world finds its peace and joy and comfort – for a while, anyway.

In the middle of the darkness
For you and me, much more meaningful peace and joy and love are to be found not by running away but in the middle of the darkness and pain and suffering.

I’m pretty sure I could randomly point to people here, and they would tell us how they have found God to be most real and closest to them, when the darkness was the greatest, the pain the hardest to bear, the mountain impossible to climb.

Genesis 21
Let’s look at the Genesis reading for a moment. Genesis 21 is not Sarah and Abraham’s finest hour. It is a very dark moment.

Sarah and Abraham were never perfect examples of faith and saintliness. But God chose this broken, struggling couple and enabled them to become better than normal in critical moments of their lives because their greatest desire was to walk with God.

But they sure got it wrong at times. God promised them so much, but like us, they would take matters into their own hands and hurt themselves and others in the process.

Abraham and Hagar
Among other things, they decided to help God with his plan to give Abraham an heir. After all, time’s marching on. Abe’s already nearly 90. So they agree that he should sleep with Sarah’s maid Hagar and get his heir that way. We can’t point fingers. In thousands of years, we still don’t understand sex, and still we haven’t learned that there is no such thing as a one-night stand. The repercussions (baby or not) are long lasting.

When Sarah finally had her own son, Isaac, the true heir, all the bitterness and jealousy of the past ten years or so began to emerge and be dumped on Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Hagar and Ishmael thrown out
Finally Sarah succeeds in having Hagar and Ishmael thrown out. But don’t blame Sarah. Abraham was no saint in this matter, and Sarah’s life had been hell. Be that as it may, Hagar is out in the wilderness with just enough food and water to take them out of sight but not enough to survive.

And when it was all gone, Hagar left Ishmael under a bush because she couldn’t bear to watch him die.

But God…
And then it happened. One of those, ‘But God,’ moments we come across so often in the Bible. They were dying; this was the end; they couldn’t take any more.

How many of you have been there, or are there now? Who do you know in the same boat?

They were finished, but…! God heard the boy crying.

Of course he did! Ismael was named for this moment. Ishmael means ‘God hears’. And God heard.

As Dawn Chesser put it:

God hears, even when we are alone in the wilderness
God hears, even when we don’t know what to say to God
God hears, even when the tension of living remains unresolved
God hears
(‘Preaching Notes’, General Board of Discipleship)

God opened her eyes
And God provides. Not that God brought banquet, or a tea trolley. He didn’t even bring a well. In verse 19: ‘God opened her eyes.’ She was able to see what was hidden by her pain and her tears. She could see the well, and as she drank, she began to see the way forward.

But they never left the wilderness. Terrible though it may seem, God didn’t rescue them from the wilderness. He helped them find a way to live in the wilderness, to live through the rejection and hate, to survive and prosper. Not what the world calls successful. Not the ‘happy ever after’ that Hollywood pretends money can buy. But peace and the presence of God and a promise still being fulfilled today.

There are people around us, like Hagar, desperate to find a well that will see them through, that will sustain them, that will give them hope. There are people in this church community; people in our neighbourhood; people at work and in our families. They are within touching distance of us, a phone call away.

Called to be a well
Jesus warns us that the journey will be tough and thankless. It’s not that we are trying to die, though that might happen. We are not looking for abuse, though that might come our way. We are here to help people find a well. To be a well to the people around us. To support, to sustain, to share the hope we have in Jesus.

The message for us and for the world around us is not that all will be bright and sunny.  But that God hears. God hears.

God hears
God hears you and me and the people around us as we cry to him in our own pain and for the pain of others. And we discover that his presence is worth far more than worldly wealth and peace. I can’t prove that to you, but there are people here who have discovered its truth for themselves and are living it out today.

As Chrystal Rodli, put it:

‘If we define success as having engaged in an honest pursuit of God’s heart, and having endeavoured to sacrificially give of ourselves and our resources (to further) the kingdom of God, then there is nothing that can stop us from being successful. The world may insult us, mock us, fight us, and hate us, but it cannot stop us.’
[‘Babylon the Great: in or out’, Treasure Contained]

Which is just what Paul said in Romans 8:38, ‘Nothing can separate us from God’s love.’ Nothing.

Amen

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Love in action: a mother’s cry


Mother and ChildI wrote last week about the grace Victor Hugo captured in his novel, Les Miserables.

I cannot describe such unconditional love in action more effectively or more beautifully than does Helen in her post: “The Tantrum Queen“. (The picture is hers). Please head over to her blog, Are we nearly there yet? and read what she has written from the heart.

Helen has also given a very helpful interpretation of Psalm 139, which I also encourage you to ponder over.

Do click on the links and be blessed.

What stories of grace do you have to share?

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Les Misérables and the folly of grace


Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill;
And the righteous hurry past,
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’

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Reclaiming Christmas with Grace


Tinsel town?“Mine! Mine! Mine!” squawked the gulls in Finding Nemo.

“Mine! Mine! Mine!” I hear Christians cry as a marketing frenzy warps the Christmas message; as the god of our consumer society replaces the mystery of the Christ child with the clamour of the cash register, the jangle of canned carols and the lure of the sale.

“Christmas is mine,” we say as we seek to reclaim Christmas and redirect the celebrations from the Santa of the shopping malls to the child of Bethlehem.

The “spirit of Christmas” is spread liberally around, but the mystery of Christmas is lost in the clamour. I can understand the frustration of Christians who denounce it all, give up the fight and choose not to celebrate Christmas at all.

But is that really an option? Can we opt out of the celebration, of this time of remembering? Can we pretend it didn’t happen, as some do? They say 25 December was a pagan celebration anyway, so it’s not Christian to celebrate. But, whatever date we choose, sometime during the year we have to stop and recognise the incredible gift of our incarnate Immanuel–God with us.

All rushed outOthers just want peace and quiet, to be able to celebrate the coming of Jesus in meditation and prayer, without the requisite gift-buying frenzy. Ah, what bliss that would be.

But would we? Would we remember at all, if the rest of the world wasn’t involved? Unless we worship in a church that uses lectionary readings, the great festivals of the church generally pass us by. How many of us celebrate Epiphany, or even the Ascension? And Pentecost? My guess is that we only celebrate Pentecost because it falls on a Sunday.

I know it’s a mad rush, I know the world’s involvement raises expectations and anticipation of an entirely materialistic nature. I know that we are so rushed by the commercialisation of the season, that we have little time to think of the meaning. But on this day, shared with pagans, perhaps, but on this wonderful day, we invite the world to stop, to reflect, to notice Jesus amidst all the tinsel and the jangling and the food. On this day, we say to the world, it is all because of Jesus, because of the most wonderful gift of all. Most of the world won’t hear us, will ignore us, will miss the point. But did rejection ever stop Christians from pointing the way, or from celebrating the life and death and resurrection of Jesus? Did rejection and misunderstanding stop Jesus?

As someone put it:
“Nations have their red-letter days, their carnivals and festivals, but once in the year and only once, the whole world stands still to celebrate the advent of a life. Only Jesus of Nazareth claims this world-wide, undying remembrance. You cannot cut Christmas out of the Calendar, nor out of the heart of the world.” Anonymous(from CrossQuotes.org)

Accepting the full meaning of Christmas, beyond the tinsel and the carols, would mean a commitment that even we find difficult to give. Can we wonder that the world would rather trivialise this event than celebrate it.

Christmas CarolsSo let’s sing our Christmas carols, and let the world join in. Let’s worship together with those who never come to church at any other time. Let them have our seats and get the words wrong, and eat our mince pies, and even go away unchanged. Because grace is the gift that was given at Christmas, not “peace on earth.” The peace the angels sang about will come when we learn to share the grace we have received.

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Where the Outcast Weeps


This is a deeply moving piece that just absolutely had to be shared. Do pop over and visit Debbie’s blog. Each post is Two Minutes of Grace, and well worth the ten minutes you’ll want to take pondering over her words.

Two Minutes of Grace

Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps. ~ Brennan Manning

I loved this when I first read Abba’s Child. I loved the poetry and imagery. I loved the idea of it. But I didn’t get it – not really.

The day came when I knew I didn’t know. How do you learn where the outcast weeps? I’d heard things like: Look at Jesus. Do what He did. He hung out with the outcasts. Go and hang out.

And that’s true, but there’s more.

Jesus was an outcast. So was His Father. They still are. That’s the mark of  grace.

For a very long time, I did all I could do not to be an outcast. I tried so hard to do everything right. I was afraid of being broken. I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of…

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Grace: He knew you’d want to come back


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Image via Wikipedia

My favourite line in the Harry Potter series comes in the last of the seven books, Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsThe three friends are on the run, confused by the seemingly inadequate clues left by the late Professor Dumbledore, and unsure of what to do next.  They fall to squabbling among themselves, and partly in anger and partly in fear for his family, Ron runs out on Harry and Hermione.  The problem was that, given the nature of their nomadic existence, once Ron had left them there was no way he could find them again.  A deluminator, a gift left to him in Dumbledore’s will, provided the way.  It picked up Hermione’s voice like a radio transmitter and allowed him to home in on where they were.  When he told Harry how he had found them (just in time to save Harry’s life) Ron said, “He – well, he must’ve known I’d run out on you.”

“No,” Harry corrected him.  “He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”

I find myself deeply moved by Harry’s correction.  What a gift to give his friend.  It speaks volumes of grace and forgiveness, of welcome and belonging.  How easy it would have been, how natural, for Harry to have said, “Yeah.”  In the film version, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Ron simply says, “Dumbledore must’ve known I would want to get back.” I think they missed it.

I wonder how often we have the opportunity to offer grace and forgiveness, welcome and a sense of belonging, but end up agreeing with another’s sense of failure and despair.  Sometimes we have grace in our hearts, which we fail to express.  Sometimes words get in the way and there is misunderstanding; sometimes our pride or sense of fairness, perhaps, gets in the way and we fail to bridge the gap or offer hope.  At work managers are just too busy, and we fail to recognise the significance of such moments in employee’s lives.  We confirm an employee’s failure without offering any understanding or any way forward; we focus on mistakes and ignore the positives and successes as unimportant or insignificant.  We leave others hanging with, “he must’ve known I’d run out on you”, when there is so much more we could offer. 

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