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Posts Tagged ‘grace’

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There’s no denying it, autumn is over and done with and we are deep in the heart of winter. There’s ice on the river, you dare not leave home without mittens and hat, and the eagles have returned, hoping for a meal.

We’ve been watching the eagles from our window. You’d think if you were at the top of the food chain, life would be a bowl of cherries – or fish, in this case – but it’s not. The poor birds are harassed from sun-up to sun-down, by every other flying creature along the river. The crows and gulls are almost like shadows, following them where ever they fly, in the hope one of the big guys will drop that fish they’re trying to swallow in mid-air.

None of us are very good at imagining what life is like for someone else. In the press of living our own lives, we forget that other people have demanding jobs, and family obligations, and bills to pay. We may be unaware of the worry they feel for loved ones who live in far away places, and we’re not likely to know much about the sleepless nights they endure because of their own pain. The tears of loneliness they weep when they are by themselves are invisible to us, and we hope we are never in the way of the anger they just can’t hold inside any longer. While it may be true that we all have different levels of tolerance for frustration, fear, and injustice, it is neither wise, nor kind, nor helpful to condemn a brother or sister when we do not understand the troubles they face.

A new year is beginning, a time when many of us look to recommit ourselves to a more Christian way of living. We promise to lay down our vices and pick up new virtues, but in short order, we’re right back where we were. That’s because our brokenness – our sin, to use an old-fashioned word – is inherent to our life. Accepting Jesus does not make us perfect, it makes us forgiven sinners. The kicker about that is that repentance and reconciliation then have to become the rhythm of our lives. We will always mess it up, and we will always need to ask forgiveness, and we will always need to reach out to our brothers and sisters, offering our forgiveness and understanding to them. When you think about it, this gift of salvation – the resilience to turn and turn and turn again, to cling tight to the promise that we are redeemed, and to refuse to give up on a brother or sister – is miraculous, plain and simple.

All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.                 Romans 5:20

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One in a Million

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My husband’s brother Michael died this week. It wasn’t really unexpected – he’d been treated for end-stage renal disease for more than 44 years. It’s just that, well, we never really expect death. It is a rare, unnatural, uncommon occurrence for death to pass so near, so close to us we can touch it – at least, it seems to be, when it’s happening to us. In truth, of course, it’s not. A million people died this week, the same as every week, and my brother-in-law was one of them. Just one in a million.

What did seem to be rare and uncommon to me was the extraordinary graciousness that welcomed and embraced everyone as the family gathered to say good-bye. I can’t say it surprised me, though. My brother-in-law was one of those rare people who were truly “grace-full”, so much so it couldn’t help but spill over and touch other people with its healing effect.

I don’t mean to make him sound like a saint, because he was just a human being like all the rest of us. Yet in spite of the grave illness that set so many physical boundaries for him during his life, he was a man bound and determined to live his life fully, and he did everything with a zest I still envy. Perhaps, in that respect, he was one in a million.

Many of us have Michaels in our lives – people who inspire and instill hope in us. We admire them; and we long for that illusive gift of grace they seem to have in their possession. But many of us also know people embittered by the hardship of life, people who seem to live in the shadows of pain or fear or loneliness. We pity them, for it seems they have been robbed of a great treasure – that graciousness we all desire. It does not seem to be circumstance or means that makes the difference. Grace can be found in the most dire situations, just as it can be absent in the most fortunate. What, then, can possibly cause such a difference?

I am convinced that faith – in its broadest sense – is what makes the difference. Faith is as simple – and as difficult – as accepting the fact of mystery in the world and refusing to waste time or energy demanding answers to pointless questions like “Why?”. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as recognizing the miracle in each breath, every heart beat, the full palette of emotion and thought. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as allowing your loved ones to walk with you to death’s door, and leaving them, when the time has come, with a smile and the surety of peace. I don’t know the odds of finding such faith – one in a million? – but I know the quest is worth everything.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”    Hebrews 11:1

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Ordinary Radicals

“Ordinary Radicals” is not my term, I lifted it from Shane Claiborne. It’s a gritty term, but one I imagine would make Jesus smile.  Reading Mark’s version of the gospel, I think he’d approve of the term as well, though I don’t picture him smiling. He took it all with deadly seriousness. For Mark, the grittier, I think, the better he liked it. This disciple stuff was not for the faint of heart. Tax collectors, and sinners, and sundry other unsavories. Oh, my! But now, as then, that’s where you’ll find Jesus hanging out.

Ordinary Radicals

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 1 July 2012.

(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems, right click and download the file to listen.)

I’m not sure why, but Leonard Cohen’s haunting song “Suzanne” feels like the perfect reflection. I love Judy Collins‘ version, and I imagine you will too.

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The societal pressures to change in response to technological advances were nerve-wracking. We think we’ve got pressure with smart phones, social networking, and global economies, but the move from Late Bronze to early Iron was serious. Makes me glad I live now instead of then, but then again, reading 1 Samuel, it seems eerily contemporary. If you were to substitute the phrase “big government” for “monarchy”, you’d think this came out of this year’s campaign cycle.

There are the conservative voices (Samuel, in this case). There are the progressive voices (the elders, whoever they were, exactly). And then, there is the divine voice, failing to validate either human faction, but holding out hope for a whole new, and fresh, direction.

Every now and then, you stumble across an elegant turn of phrase that seems to say it all. This is one of them – free as in beer (coupled, naturally, with its mate, free as in speech). It’s not original with me, of course. I most recently heard it from Landon Whitsitt (author of “Open Source Church“), but it’s been knocking around the open access community for a long time. You take the two together, and you have a pretty fair sense of the distinctive direction God has been leading in forever.

Free, as in Beer

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 10 June 2012.

(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems, right click and download the file to listen.)

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When I read the Bible, especially the New Testament, I’m struck at how remarkable the message is. God loves the world – the whole world! Now, you may find this peculiar, but the thing that really stuns me about this message is that the love extends to human beings. I have no problem thinking God loves “cats and rats and elephants” (to borrow the words of a favorite childhood song), but it mystifies me that he loves us. ALL of us. For me, the message that comes through loud and clear when I read the Bible is that God’s love for the world is inclusive – it’s already expansive, and still-expanding!

Yet, the germ of Peter’s third sermon here in Acts gets trotted out regularly as proof of the exclusive nature of the Christian faith: “no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, Common English Bible).  I do believe, firmly, there is salvation in this name – God has willed it so, and so, it must be.  But I also firmly believe the Bible’s revelation of God’s complete sovereignty and freedom. The most sensible (and humble) statement I’ve ever heard on the matter came from Heinrich Bullinger in The Second Helvetic Confession (1561), when talking about the preaching of the Word of God: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.” (5.007)  So, Christianity is exclusively inclusive?Or inclusively exclusive? How the heck is anybody supposed to logically hold both those things together?

Ah, there would be the problem. Logic is a great servant, lousy master. All we can do is confess the bit of truth that we’ve been given to know. Turns out, that job is plenty big enough.

In Jesus’ Name

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 29 April 2012.
(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems,
right click and download the file to listen.)

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I have to admit I’ve always had trouble getting into Peter’s sermons. The Peter in Acts is not the good old Peter I’ve come to identify with in the gospel accounts. This Peter cuts right to the chase, eloquently. It’s the eloquent part I find jarring, he was always pretty frank about whatever was on his mind. But when I listened to his sermon this time, in the context of the angst currently churning through our denomination right now, I heard it in a way I’d never heard him before. This sermon was certainly addressed to the troubles “in the family” back in Peter’s day, I don’t doubt that in the least. But the kind of troubles we experience “in the family” don’t, evidently, change all that much. We still can’t resolve the tension between law and grace on our own – but today, I heard a clear voice and simple, straightforward advice: stop, and turn around.

Times of Refreshing Will Come, Acts 3:12-26

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 29 April 2012.
(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems,
right click and download the file to listen.)

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