Sunday, August 14, 2016

Grace: It's not Just a Table Blessing

John 8:1-11    (NRSV)
while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]]

Last Sunday Matt shared a great introduction to our series that is loosely based on the book by Rev. Martin Thielen called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”

The title of the book is actually a play on trying to help us focus on what is truly the CORE of being a follower of Jesus.

And Matt nailed it.

Jesus very clearly tells us that the core of his faith is the SHEMA, found in Deuteronomy. 

For our Jewish sisters and brothers, the Shema is the prayer that they are called to pray four times a day --- twice during morning prayers, once during the evening service and before going to bed at night.

Rabbi Teluskin in his marvelous work “Jewish Literacy” notes:
Although Judaism has no catechism, the biblical verse “Sh’ma Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad --- Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One” comes closest to being Judaism’s credo.  In just six Hebrew words, it sums up Judaism’s belief in monotheism, and its rejection of all idols.

This prayer would have been at the core of who Jesus was.  But Jesus does something interesting.  He takes this famous creed and modifies it, as Matt shared last week, by adding to it.

Jesus is confronted by some of the teachers of the law following what appears to be a rather heated debate.  They want to know if Jesus has proper theology so they ask him:

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 

He answers with the Shema --- but he didn’t stop there.

The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Loving God with our whole heart, soul and mind is hard enough --- but loving our neighbors?

How in the world can we do that?

For me, the key is understanding who we are --- and maybe more importantly who we are not!

In other words, stop thinking that the world revolves around me and my agenda and recognize that God is God (and I or you are not!)

And the only way that we can really do that is when we understand GRACE.

Grace, in my mind, is one of those difficult words because in the English language it has many different meanings.
          Miriam Webster’s helps demonstrate this with their simple definition of grace
: a way of moving that is smooth and attractive and that is not stiff or awkward
: a controlled, polite, and pleasant way of behaving
When we talk about grace in the church --- I don’t think that is what we mean.

Miriam Webster’s gives 7 additional definitions from
·         A title for a duke, duchess or archbishop
·         A special favor
·         A sense of propriety
·         A musical trill
·         A table blessing

But the one that is most important to us is also the most difficult to understand.

·         unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification

The problem is WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Most middle and upper middle class followers of Jesus struggle with grace.

Not that we don’t on a certain level like the idea --- but there is one word in the definition that tends to trip us up.

Anybody know what that difficult word is?


That one little word goes against everything many of us have been taught our whole lives.
·         There's no free lunch
·         You get what you deserve
·         You want money? Work for it.
·         You want love? Earn it
·         You want mercy? Show you deserve it
·         Do unto others before they do it unto you.

I was down at the Family Promise/IHN day center and their executive director was giving me a tour of the facility.
We walked past a room with a huge 10 year old Big Screen TV (Not a flat screen mind you --- one of those big 500 pound TV's) and as we walked through he apologized to me for it --- I must have looked surprised because he said many people judge and say "Why do they have a TV?"

GRACE --- unmerited assistance --- unmerited love --- that is a hard thing for us to do.

But at the core of Jesus was GRACE.

Our Gospel story this morning is a powerful illustration of God's unmerited love.

A woman who has been caught in the act of adultery is brought before Jesus by the Pharisees to try and trap him.

My first thought on reading the story is --- Where is the man?  Why wasn't he brought before Jesus also? --- but that is neither here nor there.

What the story tells us is rather mysterious.

Jesus bends down and begins to write in the dirt as the Pharisees demand justice
          What did he write?
                   We don't know

But after he finishes writing he says:
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And then we are told that they put down their rocks and walked away.

Jesus does not condemn her --- guilty as she may have been. 
Instead he offers her the opportunity of a new life.

A number of years ago the United Methodist Church adopted a new logo.
I think it is the best thing that we have done in a long time as a denomination because it helps to define who we are supposed to be.

Anyone remember what that logo or tag line says?
          Open Hearts
                    Open Minds
                             Open Doors

What would the church look like if we took that motto seriously?

Let me illustrate with a story that I think has framed my understanding of the Christian movement my whole life.

I heard Tony Campolo share this story probably close to thirty years ago.

It is also found in the book we are studying.

Tony tells a wonderful story about a trip that he made to Honolulu.

Now for those of you who have traveled any distance, you know that sometimes it takes a few days for you to get acclimated to a new time zone. (The one hour change from Central time to Eastern Time has been very difficult for me!)

Tony woke up his first morning in Hawaii, his body telling him it was time to get up, but the clock showing 3:30 in the morning.

Since he was wide awake he went out looking for someplace to get some breakfast.
As you can imagine, the only place that he could find open could safely be called a “greasy spoon.”

The cook/waiter came up to him and said: “What d’ya want?”

Deciding that the safest bet was a donut, Tony asked for one and a cup of coffee.

While he was sipping his coffee and eating his donut, the door swung open and in marched a group of provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

They sat down a short distance from Tony and he heard one of the women say:
          “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I am going to be thirty-nine.”

Her “friend” said, in a rather nasty tone:
“So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? You want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Come on!” the woman said. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you that it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

After a while the women left.

Tony said to the guy behind the counter: “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah!” He said.

“The one that was sitting right here, does she come in every night?”

“Yeah, that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya want to know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say that you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”

The guy said sure.

“Look, if it is OK with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!”

“No way,” said Harry (that was his name), “The Birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

At 2:30 the next morning Tony returned to the diner and began setting up decorations, including a sign made out of cardboard that read: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AGNES!”

At 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place.

And at 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend and everyone in the place shouted HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Campolo says:
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted . . . so stunned . . . so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday dear Agnes, Happy Birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the Candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.”

After a few moments --- he did!

Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I . . . I mean is it OK if I kind of . . . what I want to ask you is . . . is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s OK if you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at me she said, “I just live down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, OK? I'll be right back. Honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood motionless, she left.

Tony said: Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, ‘What do you say we pray?’”

When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, said: “Hey! You never told me that you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

“I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry sneered as he answered, “No you don’t! There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
That, to me, is GRACE.
          Unmerited assistance --- unmerited love

Brennan Manning, in his powerful book: The Ragamuffin Gospel, in 1990 wrote:
Something is radically wrong when the local church rejects a person accepted by Jesus: when a harsh, judgmental and unforgiving sentence is passed on homosexuals; when a divorcee is denied communion; when the child of a prostitute is refused baptism; when an unlaicized priest is forbidden the sacraments.  Jesus comes to the ungodly, even on Sunday morning.  His coming ends ungodliness and makes us worthy.  Otherwise, we are establishing at the heart of Christianity an utterly ungodly and unworthy preoccupation with works.

Open Minds
          Open Hearts
                   Open Doors

Come Jesus says --- not just the saints,
                             not just the righteous,
                             not just the saved,

Come Jesus says and know that you are loved.

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