The Ragamuffin Gospel

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:21-28 and Ephesians 4:17-5:2 preached on July 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve spent time reflecting on Ephesians, so a little bit of a refresher for us may be in order.

We’re a little more than half way through. With the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4, we talked about how Paul shifts the discussion. The first half of this letter is full of big words, ideas about God and what God has done, and is still doing, through Jesus Christ. Paul wows us with Divine ideas that are as deep and wide as eternity itself.

Paul is inviting us into a new way of seeing absolutely everything through and in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that we have been invited into nothing less than the immensity and mystery of a God who is beyond our reach or knowledge, and every bit of our comprehension. And the only way we can ever properly respond to a God this big, an invitation to enter this vast Divine life, is to worship. To stand in awe. To stop right where we are, to cease being distracted by all the small things that take up most of our time, and look up into the heavens with eyes and ears and minds wide open, and start paying attention to something—Someone—much bigger than ourselves. Our tiny little lives and everything that takes up space inside of them are not what we’re made to live for. We are made for so much more. This is news that should startle us awake. Push and pull on our hearts and minds. Throw us out of our ruts.

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The back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about how to properly respond to this immense invitation to live bigger lives. Here’s when Paul’s words get a whole lot more specific. Ephesians chapters 4-6 are all about what it looks like when heaven comes crashing down to earth. What it looks like when the ways of God begin to change the ways we live and relate to one another.

If you’re of the sort who prefers practical advice and instruction about what to do, what to say, how to act in ways that are faithful and responsive to God’s call upon our lives, this is the part where you can start paying attention. All the sudden, Paul is done speaking in poetry. Our passage for the morning is full of  specifics. Short, instructional, no nonsense directives:

Take off your former way of life,

he writes.

Take a fresh breath and let God renew your attitude and spirit.Put on your new self (ok, that’s poetry). Speak truth. Work honestly with your hands. Share with anyone who has a need. Offer only words that build up. Take all the words that are used to tear others down and yank them out of your vocabulary. They have no place in this new life we’re given. Communicate grace, be kind, compassionate. Forgive one another. And, in so doing, you will do nothing less than imitate God—living all your life in all of God’s love!

Easy for him to say. Much harder for us to do. But in the very center of what Paul is saying is a word of grace. This is not so much a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt as it is how our lives, our relationships, our hearts will change as we take off our old self—our conventional attitudes and ways of seeing and engaging everything—and dress up in the life God has for us in Christ Jesus. We don’t do any of this. This—all this—is what God does in us as we put Him on, clothe ourselves in Him.

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This is The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book has changed a lot of lives. And like any good book, it’s also made a lot of others furious. It’s written by a former Franciscan Priest whose name is Brennan Manning. The entire book is a testimony to the goodness and grace of God.

Father Manning, for all appearances, had it all together. He was well-revered by his fellow Priests. He lived a contemplative life among the poor in France. At one point, he spent six months in a cave in the middle of no man’s land as a desert mystic—living in silence and prayer. After that, he became a campus minister at Broward Community College in Florida. It was there that he became an alcoholic. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved through his work—some notion of God-belovedness—he medicated himself with booze. He lost himself inside the bottle. He left the priesthood and got married. He went into a six-month addiction treatment, and in the years that followed, he had two relapses. After 18 years, his marriage ended—a casualty of his alcoholism. And then one day it hit him: Alcohol wasn’t the real problem. It was the thing that he used to cover up the problem. Brennan realized that the problem was this terrible life-long, effort-filled, exhausting, graceless pursuit of God—he had always tried his best to prove himself worthy to God.

All the sudden he found out that in an effort to find God, he has lost himself. This is why he was a broken man. Then, the grace of God invaded him. One of the greatest regrets of his life, Manning says, is all the time he wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.

This is what he writes in his Preface to his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

The Ragamuffin Gospel is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero. It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of biblical scholarship. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.

It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’ It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Manning continues,

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting their heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid, and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.

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Take your former way of life,

Paul writes, your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your

your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your new self: truthful, righteous, holy.

The old way has to go.

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In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear God speak words of frustration to the young prophet. Jeremiah has a tough job to do. Here, God asks him to hold nothing back, to relay to the Israelites how God feels about their actions. They have not listened to God. They have not followed God. Instead, they have chosen their own way, and in so doing, they have not moved forward. They have slid backwards.

Speak to the people, Jeremiah. But they won’t hear you. This is a people who have refused to be taught.

Words like these occur throughout scripture. Even the most faithful among us have a tendency to trust our own wit and wisdom to make it through our days—to live our lives under our own power. To practice this self-help-centered Gospel, a life that, as Brennan Manning would say has much more to do with John Wayne than Jesus. No more of that, God says!

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It’s remarkable that in a letter all about spiritual maturity, we have these words: Stop trying. Even among all the imperatives in their passage, it should be clear to us that it is not we who do the work. It is not we who make the effort to arrive or achieve anything. All Paul is asking us to do is take off all that covers up and keeps us from sharing life with God and to put on something new and renewing. The way into new life starts with simply say Yes to God, letting him dress us with Himself, with truth, and righteousness, and holiness.

Stop trying to catch up to God—that’s the former way of life: trying to be your own God under your our effort, like Brennan Manning was doing. He destroyed himself from the inside out living that way.

All the effort here is God’s. We simply stop and let God catch up to us—take us over. Form us. Renew us. Change us. This is grace. So that we might not be filled with our own fullness, but be emptied of ourselves and then filled with the fullness of God.

The Christian life doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t even continue with us. It’s all God. Living the Ragamuffin Gospel means continuously growing into the truth that I am who I am, you are who you are, because Jesus is who Jesus is. We don’t become good in order to get to God. We are made good because God gets to us.

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The Jesus life isn’t about what we can accomplish for God. It’s about what God can accomplish in and through us when we stop trying to matter to God. So, let’s get out of the way of what God is doing in and among us.

This is the Ragamuffin Gospel.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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