Cheap Grace?

Readings for 9/8/13: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

[Luke 14:25-33] Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

This week’s Gospel reading from Luke is another one of those passages in which Jesus asks those who say they want to follow him to closely examine their motives.  If they [we] are just along for the ride, he basically decrees, “go home—this path is not for the fainthearted.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost Of Discipleship, says it this way: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cultivating Mutual Love

Readings for 9/1/13: Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

[Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16] Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

 “Let mutual love continue”…simply translated, the author of Hebrews is saying: “treat others the way you would want to be treated!”  In more detail, we find that this letter very much resembles the letters the Apostle Paul wrote to various communities.  Although scholars aren’t sure to which particular group this epistle was addressed, all agree that it’s clear the people living there are facing scrutiny as an early Christian community.  The passage could be read with, “be careful, you’re being watched,” as a preface.  The advice offered, however, does not need to be limited by that specific situation, rather it can be a guide post for our daily living as we help God’s love be more visible in the world: 1) be nice to people—ALL people; 2) honor the commitments you and others have made; 3) put God—not material things—at the center of your life; and 4) remember that the one thing that never changes is the faithfulness of God.

God is Good

Readings for 8/25/13: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

[Psalm 103:1-8] Bless the LORD, O my soul,
    and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins
    and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave
    and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;

He satisfies you with good things,
    and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

The LORD executes righteousness
    and judgment for all who are oppressed.

He made his ways known to Moses
    and his works to the children of Israel.

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy,
    slow to anger and of great kindness.

Over the past several weeks, there have been some heavy teaching stories, some of which really put the pressure on our faith—do we act in ways that demonstrate what we say we believe?  The readings for this week all offer a respite of sorts, which are exemplified in the words of the Psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!”  The other three readings echo this sense of gratefulness.  After Jesus breaks the rule of the Sabbath to heal a woman in the passage from Luke, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing,” and in Isaiah the sentiment is described as taking “delight in the Lord.”  In Hebrews, the Apostle Paul remarks that we ought to “offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.  This is what Psalm 103 provides for us…the words to help us acknowledge all that God has done for us, and to remind us on what our relationship with God is based: “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  AMEN!

Do it Anyway!

Readings for 8/18/13: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

[Luke 12:49-56] [Jesus said,] “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

This week’s reading from Luke marks a shift from explanations of how to live as a disciple of Christ, to Jesus clarifying his mission.  Although the words above can sound harsh, it’s Jesus’ way of drawing a line in the sand.  His bold language could be compared to any one of the marketing campaigns we’ve heard over the years: “Just do it!”; “You’re either with us or against us!”; “Just say ‘No’ to drugs!”; or “No child left behind!”.  Each phrase communicates that if we commit to one path, there will be a lifestyle left behind, and, let’s be honest, when you change your path that drastically, there will be people around you, who will NOT be happy with your decision.  Jesus is saying the same thing: “when you commit to a path of radical love, there will be many people who question your motives and loyalties…but do it anyway!”

Wide-open Hearts

Readings for 8/11/13: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Sunday Collect: Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The above scripture readings are filled with food for thought, so I encourage you to look them up when you can: bible.oremus.org.  This week, however, I’ve decided to focus on the Collect.  In the Episcopal tradition, usually at the beginning of our worship service, the priest, or officiant, prays a collect for us.  Found in the Book of Common Prayer, there is one for each Sunday of the year, and is then used throughout the following week.  They are called “collects” because they collect our thoughts, desires, prayers, etc., together as a community of faith.  With the assigned readings at their foundation, these collects were crafted to be a mini-lesson on a specific spiritual discipline.  This week, for instance, we are reminded that we wouldn’t even exist without God, so it’s not surprising that it’s hard for us to do those things we know to be right without God’s help.  The collect helps us come before God in our humility asking for God’s assistance in releasing our grip on our own ideas of how our life should be, and opening wider our hearts so that we are living more fully into the life God has called us to.

Breathe In…Breathe Out…

Readings for 8/4/13: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

[Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23] Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.  I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

There seems to be a very fine line between pessimism and being realistic.  The author of Ecclesiastes, apparently a sage teacher, who, in the Hebrew tradition, aligns himself with the king, has been accused, over the years, of having a very pessimistic view of the world.  Reading verses like those above can leave one feeling drained…yeah, life is full of hard work, and then it’s just gone, but we don’t really want to read about—or at least, we can agree, it’s not that inspiring to read about!  What the author is really up to, however, is pointing out the wonder of God, because without God at the center, everything in life is meaningless.  While “vanity” can mean pride or arrogance, the translation from Hebrew is “breath” or “vapor”.  With that in mind, try this: as you breathe out, imagine exhaling “vanity”—that which is empty and futile—and as you inhale, imagine God’s breath filling your body with meaning, with peace, with love.

Bridging the Gap

Readings for 7/28/13: Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

[Colossians 2:6-15] As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

As part of a letter to the Colossians, this passage ties many things together for this early Christian community.  For instance, circumcision is referred to in a metaphorical sense so that the gap is bridged between traditional Jewish practices and the new covenant.  At the same time, the community is reminded that, through Christ’s death, their sins have been forgiven.  In doing so, a powerful image has been left for us—the image of any religious/legal requirements—as well as any other human constraints placed on the abilities of God—being literally nailed to a cross, in order that we have a liberated and full life in God.

Unshakability

Readings for 7/21/13: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

[Psalm 15] LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
    who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right,
    who speaks the truth from his heart.

There is no guile upon his tongue;
he does no evil to his friend;
    he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,
    but he honors those who fear the LORD.

He has sworn to do no wrong
    and does not take back his word.

He does not give his money in hope of gain,
    nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    shall never be overthrown.

Sometimes, it is enough to simply praise God.  In the case of this hymn, that is the overall intention, and, yet, within it, we find a set of ideals.  The Psalmist describes how a model worshiper of God might behave.  Such a person would never do wrong on-purpose, rather always strive to live an upright and sin-free life.  But, as I said, these are ideals…none of us will ever be able to maintain such standards over our whole life.  Like other areas of our life, however, having ideals gives us something for which to aim.  What we are promised—the place from where we can build—as we work toward this right way of living, in this unpredictable world, is that we will have peace of mind, or in the words of the Psalmist, “whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.”  In God there is a solidness—an unshakability.

Outside Boundaries

Readings for 7/14/13: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

[Luke 10:25-37] Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

As told here in Luke, the “Good Samaritan” story doesn’t require much comment—someone is hurt, and two out of the three people, who come upon him, pass by, while a third man stops to help.  Although it’s clear that the Samaritan was the who showed mercy, it’s also significant that the two religious people—the priest and the Levite—are not willing to break the purity laws in order to help, while the Samaritan, who would have been considered unclean to the injured man, was willing to step outside of the acceptable boundaries of his society in order to be of assistance.  That’s always when transformation happens—when we’re willing to step outside of the acceptable boundaries.