Monday, October 12, 2015

Telling It - The Gift, the Gifted, and the Givers

Preached on Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scripture readings: Isaiah 45:18-25; Mark 2:1-17

One of my favorite sentences or verses from the Bible is something I carry around in the form of a paraphrase. It goes like this: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God (not of works) lest any one should boast.” That is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter two, verses eight through ten.
I looked up those numbers just for you. Normally I am absolutely no good with chapter and verse numbers.
There are some good words in those phrases. They are deep words (short, and simple, and fancy at the same time): words like saved, and grace, and faith.
These words are part of the story of the life of any Christian. Any follower of Jesus has a life built around these words: words like saved, and grace, and faith.
But we forget what these words mean. They are so deep, and so wrapped up in who we are, that they become like shorthand. They become shortcuts for huge stories that reveal our whole identity, and yet we don’t think about what they really mean.
We use words like saved, and grace, and faith in the same way that we use the words awesome and wonderful. We use the word awesome without intending to say anything about being in a state of awe. We use the word wonderful without thinking what it means to be full of wonder.
You are called to share the good news of Jesus. The good news is a story that took place in history, two thousand years ago, but it is also a story that is really happening to you and to other people around you right now. How do you tell your part of the story when words like saved, and grace, and faith are shortcuts, shorthand, or code for much bigger things?
Let’s think a bit about the word saved and a bit more about the word grace.
The word “saved” means rescued. Have you ever been rescued? I have been rescued several times: three times from the water.
Once I was rescued in the swimming pool at a summer camp when I was eight.
There was the time when I drowned, when I was seventeen. At that time my body was rescued from the water and then, on shore, I was rescued from not breathing. I was rescued from an out of body experience. I was rescued from death.
The third time was about twenty years ago, when I was kayaking on the Grand Ronde River with a group from my church on a white water trip. I was in an inflatable kayak with a friend and I got swept out of the kayak at the top of a long rapids. I had my life preserver on, but the water was pretty strong and I got swept quite a ways along the cascades and boulders until the other kayakers caught up with me and saved me. I really felt saved.
Have you ever been rescued? Has Jesus ever rescued you? Long ago, Jesus rescued me from a splendid isolation that was not very splendid. Jesus often has to rescue me from pride, and from anger.
I have a lot of trouble with the temptation of anger. I need Jesus to rescue me.
Jesus rescues me from depression. That’s another place where I need rescue pretty often.
When I was sixteen, I was attacked by the Devil (or one of his minions). I believe he was trying to take control of me. This is interesting because (at the time) I really didn’t believe in the Devil at all. I had no fear of the devil, and I had obsession with him; because he didn’t exist.
In spite of all that, Jesus rescued me from the Devil. I have told this story to some of you. I told this story, about a week ago, to someone who needed to know that I could understand something that had happened to them. You and I need to be able to tell the stories of Jesus in our own lives.
Jesus has rescued me from myself. That is the most important of all the rescues that he has done for me.
In the seventh chapter of Mark, Jesus says this: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’....What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:14-023)
I don’t have to find the exact word on this list for what I need to be rescued from. I don’t have to find the exact word on this list for me to confess this list as the list of my sins. It’s easy enough for me to find my anger there, and my lust, and my fear, and everything else. It’s all covered there, whether I find it named there or not. The point is not the words on the list but the state of mind and the state of our heart that we must confess and repent.
Then there is the rescue, the salvation, and the grace. Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Jesus is not talking about sickness at all here. The Bible often speaks of sin as sickness and sickness as sin. Anybody in a twelve-step program knows the connection, when you need to cut off every possible avenue of escape from change. Every excuse needs to be covered and made impossible.
Jesus, in his own set of steps, said to Levi Matthew, “Follow me.” (People had more than one name. Matthew calls himself Matthew. Mark and Luke call him Levi.) Levi Matthew was despised by his own people because, as a tax-collector, he was either working directly for the Roman occupation of his own country, or else he was working for the puppet government of the Herod family. Levi Matthew was a traitor and, since he didn’t care what respectable and spiritual people thought of him, he was probably a lot of other contemptible things as well; and so were all his friends.
They didn’t have leprosy so as to be physically untouchable. They were, as a group intellectually and morally untouchable.
Untouchable Levi Matthew received the grace of God through Jesus, who is God in the flesh (God living in this world as one of us).
The salvation that was going to come from the cross and the resurrection was already at work rescuing Levi Matthew from himself: from whatever it was at work in his heart that separated him from his family and his neighbors. The grace of God was already at work saving Levi Matthew from himself. The grace of God was already at work saving Levi Matthew from everything in his heart and life that were separating him from God.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” There was grace. It was clear that Jesus was speaking for God. It was clear to Levi Matthew that Jesus knew all about him because Jesus had caught him, red-handed, doing his traitor work.
There is no mention of faith. Faith came in the form of the gift of words that said, “Follow me.” Levi Matthew did nothing to deserve the call of Jesus. He didn’t even ask Jesus to call him. In the Bible the word “grace” means gift. Levi Mathew’s life of faith began as a gift.
It’s the same gift as the forgiveness that Jesus gave to the paralyzed man. No one who came down though that hole in the roof asked Jesus for forgiveness; and it was probably Jesus’ own roof that they tore the hole in. Forgiveness came as a gift unexpectedly and unasked for.
No one, up until that moment, had any idea that Jesus might forgive sins. No one believed that anyone but God could forgive sins. No one knew quite how to take Jesus. Jesus simply gave forgiveness. It was a surprise. It was a gift.
It’s hard to tell the story of grace. It’s hard for Christians to understand it. We don’t find very much grace in the human world around us.
There is very little room for grace even among Christians. We are often in competition with each other between churches, and among ourselves within each church. We often judge each other and we take our own pain out on each other.
How can we tell our stories of grace to the people who don’t know Jesus yet?
If we understood anything we would know that everything is grace, in God’s hands. Everything is grace. In college I had a friend named Pat who was an excellent Christian. He wasn’t a hippy, even though he was as mellow as a hippy. And he didn’t do any of the things that the real hippies were supposed to do in order to get mellow.
What he had was the jolly mellowness of grace. Pat was a lot like Santa Claus, if Santa could have been a twenty-year-old college student.
Pat could be talking about hiking in the hills, or working, or playing around with friends, and he would suddenly, for no apparent reason, start to laugh. He would sit back, and put his arms behind his head, and laugh, and say, “We don’t deserve anything.” “We don’t deserve anything.”
We might say that out of self-pity. Pat was full of joy when he said it. We don’t understand grace very well.
If I ever tell you that you don’t deserve something I only mean it the way my friend Pat would. I mean that you have received the grace of God, and it is wonderful, it is awesome.
I have always loved Jesus but, for a long time, I insisted on following him only as the true and absolute introvert that I am. Jesus refused to accept my conditions. I was terrified at the thought of doing what I have been doing now for many years, and Jesus refused to listen to me. He refused to let go of me.
I am still afraid of doing what I do as a pastor. Jesus doesn’t care about what I fear, because Jesus is not about fear. Jesus is about grace.
My other objection to what I do revolves around the matter of gifts. When I dropped my conditions I didn’t think I had the gifts needed to be a pastor. I am not a speaker. People who knew me recognized that I had gifts as an artist (which I no longer use), and gifts as a poet, and some musical gifts. I had some gifts for writing which my professors recognized.
But I saw no gifts for the ministry. My friends encouraged me, but my church didn’t, and they were both right. I came to terms with the Lord in the matter of gifts. I would do my best both to stop thinking about gifts and to stop thinking about what other people think about my gifts. Both of these are very hard to do, by the way.
 I would live as if it was my gift to have no gifts. God said that he could work with that.
That is how it works, even now. But it’s a lesson that has to be learned new, every day (or at least every Sunday). That’s my story of grace. I will tell you that some people hate that story, but I live by it. This life of grace helps me to give grace to others.
Jesus forgave when forgiveness was unasked for and unacceptable. Jesus called the unwanted, and the rejected, and the unacceptable.
Jesus doesn’t wait to be asked. Jesus doesn’t wait for faith. Jesus doesn’t wait for acceptability. Jesus offers himself as a gift and makes our lives into a gift. Jesus gives grace. Jesus is his own ultimate grace, because he is God, and this is what God is.
The Church of Jesus Christ is called to share the good news of Jesus; which includes giving the gift of grace. If we are not people of grace, who give grace, then we can’t understand the story, and we can’t know how to tell it, and others will not believe us, even if we try.
That being said, we must be determined to be people of grace who give grace without measure and without waiting. There is no other choice. When we are comfortable receiving grace and giving grace then we will understand the story and be able to tell it, and not a bit before that.

Let go. Receive the grace of being rescued from yourselves. Receive grace. Give grace. Be totally people of grace. That’s enough.

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