Living God’s Image

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:1-11 and Ephesians 5:3-20 preached on August 6th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve owned several cars in my life, but none will be as memorable as the second one—the one I drove around town when I first got my driver license: a 1986 Ford Mustang LX.

My first car was a 1980 Mazda RX-7 in black. The one with the headlights that flipped up out of the hood. It was a 2-seater. I owned it for a few months, but I only drove it on the road once. It looked terrible. The rear quarter panels on both sides had rust holes in them big enough to stick your fists into. The black paint job was worn down to the metal all over that car. But as old as it was, it ran like like a dream. The engine was as solid as the body was rusty.

Looking back now, I wish my father and I had stuck with the RX-7, but when my 16-year-old eyes met that ’86 Mustang. It was love at first sight! It was bright cherry red. It gleamed in the sunlight. The stereo in the dash was missing, but that was okay because I had plans to upgrade whatever was in there anyway.

I drove that Mustang around for a little over two years. By then, my Dad and I had well figured out that we had overpaid for it. We had been taken in, fooled, by its brand new paint job. That stunning red paint covered a multitude of problems. In the ensuing months and years, I had to put that car in Park or Neutral every time I came to a stop, or the thing would stall out. I carried a 5-quart container of motor oil in my back seat, because sometimes I had to jump out while waiting at a red light to refill the oil that constantly leaked out. It turns out that you can polish junk and pass it off as something it isn’t. Window dress the insubstantial and make it look meaningful and purposeful.

At the beginning, I couldn’t wait to make that Mustang my own; at the end, I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

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In the life of faith, paint jobs don’t matter. God knows how we run underneath. All the window dressing in the world can’t hide, and will not cover up, the problems inside. And we don’t get by well—or for long—on how impressive things look on the outside, on the surface of things. In the end, we only get by—find our energy and vitality, our worth and worthiness—because of the quality of what’s hiding underneath our gleaming paint jobs. What matters most is what’s in our guts, our hearts, our minds. And it doesn’t take long for others to see past whatever shiny coat of paint we put on our exterior. We are only as healthy as what’s going on in the parts of us that are hidden away—much deeper.

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We carry on in the back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in pursuit of some vision of what the spiritually mature Christian life is like. Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship

Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship to God’s love and grace and majesty. Our right response is to live well, to pursue those things that only God can give us, to live in search of peace and wholeness and love so that we might better reflect who Jesus is to all those around us.

There are people all around us who know how to look past our nice looking exteriors and see what’s really going on. Who can see past the fleeting light of our smiles and peer into our very character. Just as Paul says, sometimes what we keep hidden away in the dark gets exposed to the light. Here, we are invited to live in such a way that our insides match our outsides. And we do that by continuously making choices that are consistent with our faith. Our faith, Paul writes, is not window dressing. Our faith is never only lived on the outside.

Sometimes we try to get away with throwing on a shiny coat of faith on the outside in an attempt to hide something from God and others. We throw something like glimmering red paint on some shame-filled part of ourselves that we want at all cost to keep under wraps—in the dark. But we are called by Christ to be Children of Light, and our lives will be barren pursuits if we’re unwilling to let God inside and examine us. Sometimes we don’t let God in because we presume that God will judge us harshly. If God sees how shameful or dark it really is inside, He’ll get angry and there won’t be any relationship left at all.

But there’s something wrong with that: scripture, over and over again, tells the story of a good and gentle God whose love for us is infinitely wider and deeper and higher than any love we could ever ask for or imagine. It’s a love that heals and repairs every part of ourselves that’s dark and broken. The invitation here is to trust this. To trust that if we hand over every bit of who we are to God, bring it out into the light, God will get to work in us, through us, for us. And through His grace, God will carefully and lovingly piece us together into the whole beings that He wants to make of us.

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Why do we resist this? Why is it such a daunting thought to open ourselves up this way? Perhaps one reason is that we often fear that if we look too closely at our lives, we’ll see too much that has to be fixed. We might say to ourselves that we’re getting down the road okay just as we are, so why bother opening up the hood—peering deeper into what’s going on beneath the surface of things. Wouldn’t that work be too hard, too much to confront or pay attention to? Too painful to visit or sort through? Some cars aren’t worth repairing, but there’s not one life that isn’t worth redeeming—bringing back to life, getting elbow deep into repairing, making whole, complete.

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Paul tells us to steer clear of a few things: religious smooth talk, useless work, the barren pursuits of darkness—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, drunkenness. He warns us of the many useless ways we can speak—our mouths filling the air with empty words, gossip.

On the surface of things, this appears to be a list of requirements, things we have to either accomplish or effortfully avoid in order to make ourselves shiny and good-looking to God. We can see this entire passage as a word of admonition, a bunch of must-do’s—moral obligations we must fulfill—in order to prove our goodness to God, to live up to His love for us.

There’s nothing wrong with living a moral life, in fact, I encourage it, but ignoring any of these instructions described here doesn’t only result in bad or immoral behavior, it also cheapens us. If we live our lives in any of these ways—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, get taken in by religious smooth talk, live carelessly, unthinkingly—we ignore our value as people made in the image of a loving God. We cheapen ourselves. We live beneath our worth. The image of God that lives deep inside of us must be nurtured to the surface through the right use of our bodies, our words, and our lives. Living our lives away from these dark actions and in the light of God’s love and life is the way we become full and whole human beings. They are the way in which God makes more of us.

These aren’t a bunch of soulless rules. Together they paint a picture of what living in right relationship with God, ourselves, and others looks like—the great value we have because each and every one of us has been bought at a price and rescued in a priceless way: through the cross of Christ. And living our lives in the way of the Cross means in part steering clear of any action or behavior that makes less of you and I and others, that minimizes who you and I and others are in the loving sight of God. We are worth more than we know.

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It’s easy to live in cheap ways, to make choices that end up dehumanizing us. We give ourselves away to lesser things all the time. We chase after shadows and things that glitter, and we lose ourselves in these things. We think they matter, but all they do is distract us, pull us away from true life. When we do this, we suffocate the breath of God’s Holy Spirit inside of us. These things and these ways, they cheapen our worth as the expensive and invaluable Children of God, and that is exactly what we are.

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Sleepers awake!  Climb out of these coffins, these too-tiny ways of bestowing upon ourselves empty forms of meaning, purpose, self-worth! Christ is the Light who will show you the light! Now that’s a Call to Worship! A wake-up call to worship!! A call to enter into the deep life of God, to get out of ourselves and into God—to walk away from the superficial life, get taken in by shiny paint jobs, those life pursuits that do nothing to give real value or purpose to who we are, that do nothing to draw us closer into the meaningful and purposeful holy life that God invites us to live in Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is a life that calls us to more life. One that both on the surface and from deep inside will grow us into people who reflect the glorious and holy image of God, so that others may see.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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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.

The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Place to Belong

A sermon based on Psalm 32 and Luke 15:11-32 preached on September 25th, 2016

Sermon audio

We all want a place to belong. Whether we realize it or not, even in our hyper-individualized world that celebrates the accomplishment of self-starters and self-doers—at heart, we human beings have been created for communion—to share life with others, to be a welcomed part of something bigger than ourselves. To belong to a family.

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At Montreat this last summer, Harper, Tatum, Andy, Karen, and I woke up way too early in the morning after going to bed way too late the night before, to make our way to worship. Each morning, we sang and danced, and prayed, and listened for another message from God.

That very first morning, the keynote preacher, Robert Alexander, hung a sign from around his neck—a big one that couldn’t be ignored. In giant, bold letters, it read Child of God. He wore it like a badge—like a gigantic nametag, each and every morning as he preached. He talked about how everywhere we go, you and I belong. We belong to a family of which everyone we see—neighbors, friends, strangers, enemies, all!—are beloved children of God.

After that first worship service, the five of us went our separate ways to gather together in our Small Groups, where among of things, we had a chance each morning to discuss what we had heard in Robert’s morning message. And I asked my small group what would it be like if everyone wore a sign around their necks that said Child of God?

Imagine that with me. What if, wherever you go, no matter in what direction you looked, everyone you encountered throughout your day wore a sign like that? How would it change things? Would we treat one another differently? How? Would we be kinder, more joyful? Would it open us up to one another more? Make us feel safer in each other’s company?

And if you were wearing the sign, too, how do you think others would treat you? Would it make you feel uncomfortable? Would it make you feel more vulnerable? Vulnerable in a bad way, or vulnerable in a good way? Would you wear the sign proudly and boldly, or would you want to tear it off or hide it somehow? Would it matter if everyone around you was wearing the same sign or if you were the only one wearing it?

The youth in my small group were quick to answer my question. They thought that if we walked around wearing a sign like that around our necks for everyone else to see, it would only cause problems. They thought that people would see the sign and ostracize them for declaring their faith so publicly. And if everyone wore the sign, then it would be just as good as if nobody at all wore one. Almost like all our Child of God signs would cancel each other out, or after a time, we would all easily overlook them, so they wouldn’t matter at all. I was disheartened by these answers. But, spoken by the mouths of teenagers, these answers hint at the honest truth about our humanity.

Being human means dealing with a host of complex and complicated relationships, sometimes—or even most of the time—within our own families. Relationships that are far from ideal. We all seem to know, at least in theory, that our relationships with others are supposed to be safe and whole and satisfying—that in a perfect world, they would be places where we would belong, exactly how we are, no exceptions. But, we all are very well aware of our imperfection and the scars in our relationships with one another, how far off from ideal things really are, both within our families and within the greater families of our friendships, our neighborhood, our community, certainly our world. We have hearts that often refuse to regard others as beloved. It’s almost as if we think that God’s love is a scarce commodity—there’s only so much of it to go around. That in order for some of us to belong, there have to be others who do not.

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I want you to find a pencil or a pen. Hopefully you find one or the other in the pew in front of you. Find the bulletin insert with this parable on it. At the top, it reads, Parable of the Lost Son. Cross out the words “Lost Son.” I want you to write this instead: “Dysfunctional Family.” Go ahead, write it: “Dysfunctional Family.” …There, that’s better. Religion Professor and Christian author, Barbara Brown Taylor, refers to this story as the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Thank God for that!

If ever we thought the people in the bible had it all together—or at least more together than we do—here’s a story where God’s Good News works through a family that seems to have no idea how to be in relationship with each other. The father has no backbone. For some inexplicable reason, he caves whenever his ungrateful younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, which basically means he’s wishing his father were dead. And whenever one son gets his inheritance, all the other sons in the family get their slice of the pie at the same time, too. Which leaves the father without any liquid assets at all. What was he thinking?

The older brother lives in silent resentment, perhaps long before the younger brother ever left, he had this notion that the only way to get the love of his father was to earn his way into it, as if love was ever something to earn. As if the only way to belong is to carve your own rightful spot in the family, to prove to your own father that you deserve a place in the family. The older son seems to think of family as some sort of business deal. There’s no understanding of love here at all. His relationship with his father is some sort of contractual agreement. Carl Jung would have a field day with that one!

And the younger son. How selfish and ungrateful could you be! He seems to answer that question in one fail swoop! If Jesus was right, that your heart is always where your treasure is, it’s clear where the younger son’s heart is. What a jerk! But then again, as far as that goes, isn’t his older brother giving him a run for his money?!

And where’s the mother in all this? Had she passed away? Was she upstairs completely oblivious to what’s happening here? Why didn’t she have a say in the matter? Since her husband just handed their two sons their inherence, when he dies, there’s nothing left for her to survive on. This is an astoundingly broken family! Secrets and schemes abound!

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In order to understand what Jesus is trying say by all this, we have to back up to the first 3 verses of Luke chapter 15. They serve as the context for last week’s two, small parables as well as this one.

Jesus was inviting to dinner all these folks of dubious and doubtful reputations. Prostitutes, tax collectors, who knows who else. Riff-raff. They were the scum of the earth. The Pharisees and Sadducees saw them hanging out with Jesus—he invited them to breakfast, lunch, and dinner—treating them with kindness and respect, as if they deserved such treatment. They saw this, and they were furious! Certainly God doesn’t approve of these sorts of people, the Pharisees and Sadducees believed! God loves the folks who make more of themselves, who at least make an effort to behave and live reasonably! God helps those who help themselves, does He not? Apparently it’s not that simple.

There are two different reactions to the grace of God. The first reaction is utter surprise and joy, because you have an acute sense that you’re completely unworthy of God’s favor. That happens when you’re down and out and you’re well-aware of it. The second reaction to the grace of God is resentment and bitterness. That happens when you’ve worked your tail off all your life, understanding that your hard work and devotion should earn you a leg-up with God. And whenever we witness another being welcomed so joyfully and thoroughly into God’s family despite living a life of questionable or downright offensive character, we come off looking a whole lot like the older brother. We throw up our hands and say, “What about me? Don’t I deserve more?” I wonder, Do we really want God’s grace to be amazing?

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The truth is, of course, both sons are lost. There’s one who strayed off for miles and miles and years and years, and then there’s the other who stayed close by but whose heart grew too bitter and resentful for him to ever feel like he still belonged.

This is the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Both sons, in drastically different way, had fallen out of relationship with their father. Both had burned their bridges in one way or another. But by the end of Jesus’ story, the father does something remarkable. He sees both of his sons in their brokenness. He comes running after both of them, across all of their burnt bridges. He embraces both of them, and reaffirms their place in the family. The father restores them both to full relationship. Calls them both “Son.”

See, friends, there are no burnt bridges in the Kingdom of God. Whether, like the younger son, we’ve wasted opportunity after opportunity or whether we’ve always played it safe (maybe all of us are both at different times), God’s arms are always outstretched to welcome us back into full relationship, restoring to us a place in the family of things, showing us that we belong. And it’s all—every bit of it—a gift. Entirely unearned. Completely undeserved.

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The opportunity for us, as we all stand unworthy but still completely immersed inside, of God’s gift of grace, is to turn outward. To spread out our arms in gratitude and openness in response to the grace of God, and in turn, welcome in the prodigal and the messy among us—those, who like the younger son, think they can do it all on their own, but are failing, dirty and tired, hungry and spent. And those out there who, like the older son, are also failing in their individual efforts to live impressive lives, who have no notion of grace. Who are lost in their own pride, unable to trust in anyone but themselves—and are exhausted, but can’t find a safe place to exhale, a place to be imperfect; who have no idea how loved they are by God, not for what they do, but simply for who they are: a child who belongs to a God who will always run out to welcome us home!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Faith, Untangled

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 13:10-17 preached on August 21, 2016

Sermon audio

Journalist and author Philip Yancey starts his book about the grace of God by sharing the story of a prostitute. She came to one of Yancey’s friends in a bad shape. She was homeless and sick, addicted to drugs, unable to afford food for her 2-year old daughter. Yancey’s friend said he had no idea what to do for her, no idea what to say.

Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?

he said.

Church!

she cried.

Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!

A comment like that is a stunning indictment on the Church. When others look at us, they don’t see the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They see a finger pointed and wagging at them in judgment. They see a bunch of people who couldn’t care less about the down and out, because we’re too busy convincing ourselves of how much God loves us. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable like Jesus did, there are far too many churches that further afflict the already afflicted, and further comfort the already comfortable.

It’s fair to look at the Church and ask, “Where has God’s grace gone?” Haven’t we overlooked it and focused more on improving our own efforts to live upright and moral lives? When did the Christian faith get so tangled up in rules? When did we start thinking that our own efforts and upright behavior bring us closer to God, and that grace is only the backup system we’ll use if our good behavior isn’t enough to get us there? All this is to say that there are many Christian who know of grace but do not know grace. Who do not want to rely upon it. As C.S. Lewis has written,

To some of us grace is only a word; a nice idea, the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, or news from a country we have not yet visited.

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Imagine what life was like for the woman in our story. For 18 years, she’s been hunched over, staring at the ground. Only able to look into the eyes of her son or daughter if they were kind enough to crouch down to her level or if she strained her neck upwards to meet their gaze. But most of the time she stared down at her own feet. Bent over—living on a lower level than anyone else around her. Everyone in her town knew of her, but because they never could see her eyes, what her face looked like, her smile, she quickly became invisible to them. And nobody ever looks in the direction of an invisible person.

For 18 years, her body has been tangled up and twisted in a knot—that’s at least what it felt like to her, and the words “crooked,” “crippled,” and “contorted” don’t just describe what her body felt like; they were also good words to describe how everybody else regarded her. And after almost 2 decades of that, it’s not hard to imagine how she began to regard herself the same way. As hard as it was to walk around in public this way, she braved the journey anyhow. It was the Sabbath, and she made her way slowly but surely to the Temple for worship. “Church!” We can imagine her crying, “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” But she went anyway. That day, she hobbled into the Temple just as she did thousands of times before. And as she made her way into the crowd gathered there on that Sabbath day, there was a man teaching whom she had never seen before. Little did she know, she had staggered her way into the very presence of God.

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In the BBC movie, The Mission, Robert De Niro’s character, a mercenary and slave-catcher named Rodrigo Mendoza, makes his living kidnapping natives of the Guarani and other tribes who live along the Amazon River in South America in the 1750’s. Mendoza takes those he’s kidnapped to Spain and sells them to plantation owners. Mendoza comes home from one of these trips to find a man in bed with his fiancée, and kills him. Although acquitted for the murder, during the time Mendoza spends in prison, all the weight of his murderous ways catches up to him and he spirals into a deep despair. The only way Mendoza can see his way out of the darkness of his past is by changing his ways. A priest, whose name is Father Gabriel, visits Mendoza in prison and challenges him to undertake a suitable penance—a punishment to atone for his past. Father Gabriel takes Mendoza out to the Guarani tribe, the very tribe whom he killed and maimed and captured his last slaves from. But this time Mendoza would go the them as a missionary—to live life with them, to share meals with them, to understand their culture.

As a part of his penance, Mendoza has to make the long journey by boat and by foot carrying all of his old armor, artillery, and swords. He carries them in a net he drags behind him, the weight of it tied around his waist. He drags it up the side of huge waterfalls, literally bearing the heaviness of his past behind him with each and every step upwards. Mendoza does this for the 100’s of miles of their journey through the Amazon rainforests.

In a poignant scene in the movie, as the missionary team make their way into the territory of the Guarani tribe. They had just climbed up the rocks of a waterfall, and they are met by some of the tribes’ elders. Mendoza slowly hoists his way up onto dry ground, his net full of his past hanging over the side behind him. He recognizes the very natives whose family members he had stolen away from them.

One of the elders of the tribe comes up to Mendoza, who’s curled up on the ground in exhaustion. He holds a machete up to Mendoza—but instead of cutting him with it, the elder takes the rope tied around Mendoza’s waist, and slices through it, freeing Mendoza once and for all from the weight and burden he had been lugging around for all these miles and all these years. And once freed from that heaviness, Mendoza begins to weep.

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Friends, that’s grace.

Both Rodrigo Mendoza and the woman in our story from Luke 13 would tell you that grace is that amazing gift of having all of the weight of our own past—all that we’ve been dragging behind us for years and years, for miles and miles—suddenly cut away from us, and dropped for good. They and thousands of others like them would tell you from their own experience that God’s grace is that straightening of all that once bent us over or dragged along with us, so that we can be freed to walk forward, loosed from bondage, made it a new person—no more burdens crippling our journey.

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I wonder what the woman saw once Jesus placed His hands upon her back. It was at that moment that she could straighten up. Consider how her entire perspective changed. What did her first few breaths feel like now that her lungs could fully expand in her chest? For the first time in almost two decades, she could look straight into the eyes of a friend. She could hug her husband and her children. Imagine her staring up into the sky, taking in the clouds. Feeling the rain fall upon her face. Untangled, finally, standing tall and facing the world directly, this woman took the world in and enjoy it!

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I wonder, though, who are the ones in bondage here? Whose sight was really obscured? Wasn’t it really the Pharisees who are the ones bent out of shape? Weren’t they the ones unable to recognize Jesus for who he is? The ones unable to see what’s happening right in front of them?

The Pharisees had no notion of grace. According to them, God’s favor was all tangled up with their own efforts to make good with God. The way they saw it, it was up to them to impress God. Climb your way up the waterfall all on your own and God will notice how great you are and will reward you in spades for all the back-breaking work you do! The Pharisees thought holiness is what happens when you put rules of purity and goodness at the center. Jesus’ idea of holiness is what happens when God’s mercy comes first.

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Lest we think it’s those other people, like the Pharisees, who don’t understand grace, we need to turn our gaze inward and pay attention to our own tendencies. We get tangled up in this, too.

Today, it’s something called moralism that trips us up. Moralism is the notion—all too pervasive these days—that good Christian faith can be reduced to improvements in our behavior. Moralism says that God will love us if we behave, act right, and shape up. It’s the rigid obedience to rules that says above all else, our faith is about moral instruction and moral obedience, and as long as way behave, follow all the rules, we stay on God’s good side. Straighten up, fly right, be nice, and God will love and reward you for it.

We find this message in churches, we hear it in political rhetoric, on the radio, in advice columns of our newspapers. Moralism is so pervasive today that most people who call themselves Christian are actually moralists. We’ve traded in our Gospel faith for a lesser model. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Galatia that He was amazed that they were so quickly deserting the God who called you by the grace of Christ for a different and lesser gospel. Moralism is one of those different and lesser Gospels. We should know by now, through Gospel stories like this one, that rigid obedience to rules blind us to God’s reign in the world.

Moralism isn’t Gospel; it’s just a new sort of Pharisaism; just another tangled mess of our own making that has us convinced that God is happy with us when we do all the right things. And it makes a mockery of the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ. God loves us not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.

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It is only when we know—profoundly and deeply know—that the grace that God has brought to us is far more powerful than anything we could ever bring to God, that we can stand up straight in God’s presence, be unbound, untangled, and freed to celebrate all the extraordinary ways that Christ is moving in our midst and setting us free to live full lives!

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

Alleluia! Amen!