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Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning



Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sin and Grace

When I was in the 7th grade I took a class that was supposed to prepare us as young obedient Presbyterians to be members of the church.  Rev. Tesche was waxing eloquent about how we are all sinful and need God’s forgiveness.  I promptly replied, feeling it obligatory to be difficult, “not me.”  I think I am the only Junior High student ever kicked out of Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church, Lakeview, Oregon.

At some level I was offended by all this gloom and doom. By this focus on the negative.  “Why do we have to go there?” I wondered in my na├»ve Junior High mind.  I mean seriously.  Life is hard enough as it is, when you are short, skinny, have a crew cut, clothes picked out by your mother, and ugly black glasses…

I was already down!  I didn’t need any more downers.  I was all too aware of my shortcomings…

Actually, thinking back on it, I think Jesus would have understood.
Think about today’s story, that of the woman caught in adultery.
Think that woman didn’t get her predicament?

There she was, called out in front of the whole village…
I can just picture those righteous men… having exposed her, accused her, shamed her,
now bringing her before Jesus that her humiliation might be complete
And punishment, in this case death by stoning, might be administered

I can see them, strutting, pointing,
I can hear the scorn in their voices…
The snide laughter of bystanders…
I can see the bowed shoulders of the woman
And see her tears

Think she didn’t have a sense of her weakness?  Her vulnerability?

By the way, that scene is replayed far too many times!  I have seen far too many people like that woman in my time.   People crushed and shamed by the church.  I am not alone in this observation.  Philip Yancy, a wonderful Christian author describes himself as a “survivor”, insisting that it was a hard fight, but his faith “survived the church.” “Although I heard that ‘God is love,” he writes, “the image I got from sermons more resembled an angry vengeful tyrant. 

He is right.  All too often the church is a wasteland where the language of “should and must” predominate.  I don’t have to give you examples because you know exactly what I am talking about.  So often the church is the House of Fear, full of the language of Law.  Full of bitter people trying to control their own lives, and the lives of those around them.  “Obey!   Be Accountable!  Do this!  Don’t do that!  Follow our rules or go to hell.” 

So it was here.  The religious community was out for blood.  They looked at this woman and saw a person worthy of scorn.  A sinner.  A person to be judged. Jesus saw this woman too.  What did he see? He saw the fear!  The humiliation.  The shame.  And he saw more! (We will get back to that).

And he said nothing, at least at first,  He knelt and played in the dirt.  And then he turned to those haughty accusers and simply said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And no stones came.  Not one! Instead they all left, beginning with the accusers, the elders, until only Jesus and the woman are left.  And Jesus says to her, Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “Neither do I condemn you, go your way!”  And think about this.  Jesus never asked her if she were sorry!  He didn’t ask her if she repented.  He asked for nothing from her!!  He just forgave her, even before she asked for forgiveness.

Wow!  Some people struggle with this.  “But what about God’s justice?” they ask?

Therese of Lisieux, recognized as a “Doctor” of the church because of the truth and depth of her spiritual life, wrote these words.  “I hope as much from the justice of God as from his mercy.  It is because he is just that he is compassionate and full of tenderness…. FOR GOD KNOWS OUR WEAKNESS.  He remembers that we are dust.  As a father has tenderness for his children, so the Lord has compassion for us.  I do not understand souls who have fear of so tender a friend … What joy to think that God is just, that he takes account of our weakness, that he knows perfectly the fragility of our nature.”

The short way of saying that?   God knows what he can expect.
He knows we will slip and fall
That we will make a mess of things….
And he chooses to love us, and forgive us
Because that is the way our God is!

Don’t believe it?  We see it in Jesus, right here in this story.  And in so many others.  Sinner litter every pages of the Gospels.  There are sinners, sinners everywhere!

But that is not what Jesus sees
He sees people who need to be loved and forgiven,
And whom IF loved and forgiven have an immense capacity for God.

I have no idea what happened to the woman in the story.
How the rest of her life turned out.
Maybe she became and wonderful woman who shared the love of God with others.
Maybe she went back to doing what she had been doing.
Maybe her life ended up somewhere in between.. a little bit of good, a little bit of not so good….

But I do know this…  From that moment on her life was lived in a different context.

In the context of compassion.
First she came to understand God’s compassion for her
I am not sure she understood it all, could get her head around this amazing episode
I am sure there was a side of her that still said, “I am bad. I don’t deserve this love”
But I hope she God a glimpse of God’s compassion and could hold on to that, at least a little

Then, I hope, she learned to have some compassion on herself
As I said, I am sure that she had a lot of negative thinking going on in that head…”I don’t deserve love.  God thinks I am trash.”  I hope that Jesus helped her alter that thinking.

And finally, I believe she might have had the ability to have compassion
And having self compassion, I hope she then had the ability to have compassion on those around her.
Compassion on those upright, miserable elders
Compassion on the men who wanted to use and control her
Compassion on the women around her who judged and scorned, but who, in their hearts, were also fearful, and hungry for love.

You know, it is a lack of compassion that is killing us.  It is a lack of compassion in dealing with our enemies that perpetuates wars.  Remember the images of people in the middle east celebrating terrorist attacks?  And of drunken Americans celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden?

It is a lack of compassion that allows human beings to torture other human beings
That allows genocide in Bosnia.
That allows one out of five American children to go to bed hungry, while politicians talk about class warfare.

Yes people make mistakes.  Yes people act in hateful ways
Yes some people take advantage of the welfare system
We can always focus on what is wrong with the other….
But that is not what Jesus does

With a realistic love, he sees us as we are
As we squirm in our own shame and our own self-awareness of our limitations and our failures
He kneels in the sand and writes in the dirt…
And then says… “does no one condemn?”  “Neither do I”
On with the journey!

Donald Miller tells of a time when a church he was part of came alive.  What made it happen?  Great preaching?  An amazing ministry?  No 

This situation was this.  The church was stuck.  Very stuck.  It had started up and gotten to like 30 people.   And it was stuck right there. 

Then the pastor came into a prayer group, discouraged.  Don says the prayer group “felt like an AA meeting gone bad.”  Finally the minister said he thought they needed to just “start loving people who were very different from “us”.  He suggested they should live what he called “missional lives” and intentionally befriend people different from them.  He said he was talking “about loving people just because they exist”.  All kinds of people.  Homeless. Goth.  Homosexuals. Poor.  Drunk.  Sinful (whatever that means).  He said they just needed to notice people WHO NEEDED TO BE LOVED.

Isn’t that what Jesus does her?  He just loves someone different from him. Really different.  Someone many were not prepared to love.  He just loved her…Isn’t that, in the end, the core ministry of the church?  To just love people who need to be loved?

So happened to that little group of 30 who decided they just wanted to love? Within a couple years it had grown to 500 people.   They stopped trying to sell Jesus.  Sell righteousness.  The law.  And they just loved people who needed to be loved.  And people responded.

Brennan Manning poses and important question in his book the Wisdom of Tenderness….In a moment of naked honesty he says, ask yourself.  DO I wholeheartedly trust that God likes me…no loves me because theologically God can’t do otherwise.  And do I trust that God likes me not after I clean up my act and eliminate every trace of sin, selfishness, dishonesty, and degraded love; not after I developed a disciplined prayer life and spend 10 years in Calcutta with Mother Teresa’s missionaries; but in this moment, right now, right here, with all my faults and weaknesses?

Well do we trust in that love?  And then, as those who are loved, do we pass it on?

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