Sunday, November 15, 2015

Living as People of Grace: Gathering the Resources We Need to Follow Jesus

My first sermon at Grace Episcopal Church in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Audio of the Sermon can be found here.

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Going on a Journey
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are going on a trip, and you are packing. What are you going to take with you? Pause… Well, that’s a hard question to answer because it all depends on where you are going and what you will be doing? For example, if you were going to visit castles in Scotland, you would pack differently than if you were traveling to Nepal to climb Mt. Everest. Something that would be essential on one trip, might be unnecessary and even burdensome on a different trip.

The people of Grace have been on a journey for over 135 years. Like the Israelites, who spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, their journey has taken place in stages. There have been seasons of travel, and there have been periods of camping in one place. This past year the people of Grace have been in a period of transition. They have been gathering resources, as they prepare to set out on a new leg of their journey with God. But what will we take with us? Well, it depends upon the nature and purpose of our trip. It depends upon what God is calling us to be and do. It depends upon what gifts and resources God has equipped us with.

Now I am not exactly sure what the next stage of our journey holds for the people of Grace, that is something for us to discover together. But I do know one thing. It won’t be sight-seeing adventure. Oh, there will be sights to see, and we will have adventures on the way, but we have not been called to go sight-seeing; we have been given a mission.
How do I know this? Because our world is broken and hurting, and so it needs us to be more than mere tourists taking in the landscape. Our world needs us to become the people of God, people who draw so close to God and God draws so close to them that they acquire, embody, and reflect the very character of God, people who are so transformed through their connection with Jesus that they are able to mediate the presence, forgiveness, and love of God to all peoples everywhere. We have been given a mission, and should we chose to accept it, our mission is to participate in what God is doing to heal and restore our broken world.

A World Waiting to Be Reborn
We get a glimpse of the brokenness of our world in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. As Jesus and his disciples leave the Jerusalem temple for the last time, his Galilean companions stand in awe at what they are seeing. The temple mount was truly one of the marvels of the ancient world. One of his disciples says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”[1]
“Do you see these great buildings?,” Jesus says. “I tell you the truth, not a single one of these stones will remain where it is now, all of them will be knocked down.”
“When will all of this take place, Jesus? What sign will warn us that these things are about to happen?”
Jesus then proceeds to speak of a world in chaos, of false messiahs and deceptions. He speaks of wars and rumors of wars, of nations rising up against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms. He speaks of earthquakes and famines. And then he says something surprising, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” In other words, these upheavals are not the end in themselves, they are merely the beginning of the end. Moreover, these political, economic, and geological upheavals are the signs of a world waiting to be born, or rather, the signs of a world waiting to be reborn.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Hannah longs to conceive and bring forth a child. Likewise God longs to bring forth a new world. But our dark, broken world cannot contain the light, life, and love of God’s new world. So our world groans and shudders in the throes of childbirth as the kingdom of God breaks into a world that cannot contain it.
And we see and hear these birth pangs on a daily basis—terrorist attacks in France, sectarian violence in the Middle East, refugee crises in Eastern Europe and Central America, genocide on the African continent, human trafficking throughout all parts of the world, racism and injustice in our own country, poverty and homelessness in our own community. And if we are honest, we also experience these birth pangs in our very own souls. How often are our choices dictated by the forces of consumerism and materialism? How often do we find ourselves subject to hatreds, fears, and addictions, which make it hard for us to love God, which make it so hard for us to practice forgive and to exercise compassion on a consistent basis.

It’s all rather depressing, and it would be a hopeless situation except for the fact that the kingdom of God is at hand, and God is at work to bring life and health and salvation to our world. Moreover, God has called us to participate in what God is doing in the world. That is what ministry is; and that’s what our mission is… but it takes grace.

The Nature of Grace
Grace as Gift
But what is grace? Grace is lots of things, but first and foremost, grace is gift. Grace is not something we deserve; it’s not something that we can earn. Grace is not something we generate or manufacture. Rather, grace is something that we receive from God. Grace is a gift.

Grace as Abundance
Grace is also abundance. We live in a world where we can’t get enough of what we don’t need. Yet, when God grants us grace, it is always more than we need, much more than we need. For example, when God loves us, his love doesn’t just fill us to the brim, it fills us to overflowing. And when God forgives us, his forgiveness doesn’t just match our sins tit for tat; it overpowers them; it drowns them and washes them far, far away.

Grace as Empowerment for Ministry
Grace is also empowerment. When God gives us grace, that grace overflows in an abundance that is meant for others. Remember when Jesus fed the five thousand? Everybody who dined that day had their fill. Yet, there was an abundance of left­overs afterwards, more leftovers, in fact, than what Jesus originally began with. Jesus had his disciples gather the leftover loaves into baskets, and then he sent them off in a boat to the other side of the sea. Why? Because he wanted them to share the leftovers with those who were hungry for God’s grace. That’s the nature of all ministry, sharing with others from the overflowing abundance of what God has given to us.

Our world is in desperate need of God’s grace, and God has called the church to be the means by which his grace reaches the ends of the earth. Church is the place where we learn how to receive the gifts of God’s grace; and church is the place where we learn how to share the gifts of God’s grace with others. In short, church is the place where God’s people gather the resources they need to participate in what God is doing in the world.
Our broken world needs us to learn to live as people of grace, people who have not only been touched by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness, but people who are also committed to learning the habits and skills of grace, which would allow them to extend God’s hospitality to everyone they meet. This sort of learning takes a community. That’s why the author of Hebrews writes, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (1356)

An Assignment — Gathering the Resources of Grace
As some of you know, I had a birthday this past week. I got a number of birthday cards, and there is one in particular that I would like to share with you. The front contains a quote by Max Lucado, “We dare to hang our hat and stake our hope on the gladdest news of all: if God permits the challenge, God will provide the GRACE to meet it.” On the inside the card reads: “Praying his grace will amaze you every step of the way.”
The people of Grace are embarking on a new journey together. God has placed an exciting and challenging future in front of us, so we need to pack the resources we will need to participate in what God is doing in this place and in the world, and one of those resources is grace. So I have an assignment, a task for us.
Following the sermon, we are going to observe a minute of silence. During that time, I want you to think back and recall your best experience of being here at Grace. For some of you this won’t be easy because you have been a part of Grace for a long time, and you have had lots of best experiences, lots of times when you were amazed by Grace. Just pick the first one that comes to mind.

Now if this is your first time at Grace, feel free to pick this sermon as your best experience. Or perhaps your best experience is how you were greeted when you arrived. Perhaps it is the beauty of this place, which helps you draw close to God. Whatever your best experience is, reflect upon it, and then after the service tell somebody.

Share your best experience with people throughout the week. Share it at the potluck today. And ask someone else to share their story, “What has been your best experience at Grace? Where has God’s grace amazed you?” Listen, what we water with our attention grows, and as we travel into the future, we want to take the best of our past with us. And so, let’s take the time to recall and tell our stories of grace, for this is how we can begin to gather the provisions we need for the journey that lies ahead.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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