Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

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God acts, we respond, und wiederholen

One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace.  Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness.  Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.

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God’s grace is sparkly

Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work?  And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded?  Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it?  I have my doubts about that.  How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire?  I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:

God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)

After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”  God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.”  Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession.  It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition.  That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness.  Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives.  In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power.  God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again.  This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace?  Of course not.  It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us?  It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent?  It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart?  Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.

Jesus’ Yoke Isn’t Easy Either

It is true that the Revised Common Lectionary has, by way of Matthew’s Gospel, yoked us to an uneasy set of lessons for Sunday.  It is also true that the though Jesus assures us that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light,” follow him really takes some work.  Hard work.  I’m often reminded of the cost of discipleship in my day-to-day life as a priest in the Church.  I’m keenly aware of the things my family and I have given up to follow the Lord.  I see and hear from people all the time who are seeking after the Kingdom knowing full well that life would at least seem easier if all they had to care about was their own well being.  It was Sunday’s Collect, however, that brought the difficulty of discipleship into sharp focus.

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Preachers often try to make the Great Commandments sound a whole lot easier than they are, but the reality is that loving God and loving neighbor are downright impossible.  Day after day, we seek after our own gain.  Day after day, we find new ways to strain relationships.  Day after day, we know the right thing to do and don’t do it.  As the Psalmist says, “my sin is ever before me.”  The yoke of following Jesus isn’t necessarily easy, but the good news is that we have someone to share the load.

The Collect for Sunday goes on to ask for help by way of the promised Advocate who will walk with us in Jesus’ absence.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, which is a free gift of grace by faith in Jesus Christ, we are able to bear the burden of the yoke of discipleship.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible to have our hearts, our whole heart, devoted to the Kingdom.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible to have pure affection for our neighbor, even and especially the one who really gets under your skin.  The yoke of Christ isn’t easy.  In fact, it is impossible to carry on our own.  However, the promise of Jesus is sure, his yoke is made easy by God’s gracefilled gift of the Holy Spirit.

Strength, Wisdom, and Favor

My wife’s maternal grandmother is a saint.  She might even qualify to be a Saint according the rules of Roman Catholic Sainthood, except she isn’t Roman Catholic.  She’s a Pentecostal, who loves the Lord with all her heart and seeks to do his will in every way.  I always assume I’m on the right path when she “likes” a post on this blog over on Facebook.  We don’t get to see her very often these days, but I’m glad she gets to keep up with her great-grand-daughters through the marvels of social media.  One of my favorite memories of the short time in which we lived close enough to see her often comes from when we would say goodbye.  She’s always good for a hug, and without fail, she’d stand up on her tip-toes to whisper in my ear, “May you grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.”  Which is, very obviously, a paraphrase of Luke’s concluding comments about the infant Jesus following his Presentation and his Mother, Mary’s Purification.

“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40)

It is prayer that I hope to live into.  I’m not doing very well in the strength department, mostly because my schedule only allows time for running as exercise and I HATE RUNNING!!!  Still, I’m signed up for another Color Run in April, and I’m on the lookout for a treadmill to keep me from having to actually go outside, so I’m working on it.  The wisdom piece I take very seriously,  and I pray that will continue to do so throughout my years in professional ministry.  While I strongly believe that every Christian is a theologian, I think it is the duty and responsibility of the clergy to act as “Theologians-in-Residence” in their congregations.  To assume that everything I need to know I learned in Seminary is a foolish way to live.  Finally, the favor bit.  Realistically, the prayer can’t that I will “grow in favor with the Lord” because that’s just impossible, instead, I think it means that I will grow in my understanding of God’s grace (my translation of favor) in my life.  The assumption sometimes is that the deeper one walks into their spiritual life, the less sinful they become.  That’s a nice thought, but the reality seems to be the deeper one’s relationship is with God, the more aware they become of their brokenness and need for a savior.  I’m doubtful that I’ll become less sinful over the years, though if I do, that’ll be because of God’s grace and not my own actions, but I do pray that I’ll continue to grow in my relationship with God from this day forth and for ever more.

Chapter 2, verse 40 seems like almost a throwaway verse, a transition from baby Jesus into his adolescence, but thanks to Grandma S’s prayer, it has come alive for me this morning.  And so, I’ll pray it for you, dear reader, as well.

May you grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.  Amen.