Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Doorways to Greater Grace


Proper 21+A        28 September, 2014       The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+

                       Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32                                                          Psalm 25:1-8
                    Philippians 2:1-13                                                                  Matthew 21:23-32


The man began his prayer that morning:

"Dear God, so far today, I've done all right. I have not gossiped, and I have not lost my temper. I haven't been grumpy, nasty or selfish, and I'm really glad of that! But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed, and from then on, I'm probably going to need a lot of help. Thank you! Amen."

I'm probably going to need a lot of help…The readings today have many themes but what I felt led to preach on are the themes of repentance and humility.  These are simple words but not simple in their application.

Look with me at the Collect this morning if you would:

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure…

How strange if is. Don't we usually think of God's power in terms of Moses at the red sea or Elijah calling down fire from heaven or some other manifestation of might?  Yet this prayer this morning challenges us to look in a differing direction.

What are mercy and pity according to God's standards and definition?  I think the clues may be in the words repentance and humility.

What is repentance?  The Greek word is a simple one "metanoia". What were John the Baptist and Jesus calling the people to?  What is some great display of sorrow?  Some dramatic gesture of grief? It was neither of these things, rather it was this according to Merriam Webster from two Greek words "meta" and "nouein" meaning to change one's mind or literally "mind-change".  God speaks of a transformative change of heart, a spiritual conversion.  Why this?  Because when we change our minds we begin to change our behaviors and that begins a change of our lives.  Life change!  Isn't that what we are all about in the church?  We are not after some rigid legal conformity to a set of rules like some form of spiritual bondage, scripture says: "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free!" (Galatians 5:1)

This is demonstrated in the first reading when God laments over his people.  They apparently have had a very negative and accusatory attitude with God.  They say "unfair".  You remember "unfair" on the playground as a child, maybe with your own children.    Yet we have a very skewed perspective of "fair."  Former Roman Catholic priest and psychologist, Dr Dale Olen once said he had learned that the definition of "fair" is "the means by which I got my way." That's fair!  Sins, transgressions, iniquities: all have a similar meaning and result: destruction.  All lead to some form of spiritual, moral or physical death. That is why God laments it when his people sin and it separates them from God and the experience of God's love in Christ. That breaks the heart of God who is certainly as sensitive a being, a person and any one of us are.  He says to them: "get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?"

As many of you may know in 12 step programs, the issue is "wrong choices".  The walk with God is about choices. In the 1950's, a book was written by psychiatrist "Eric Berne." It was titled "I'm OK, you're OK." It was about how we regard others and ourselves and how that shapes our lives and perspectives. Mind change is not all that repentance is about but also change of heart.  My behavior reflects an inner change of attitude and emotion.

The gospel presents us with a different scenario.  Jesus is teaching in the temple and is verbally attacked by the religious authorities.  they "said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority'?"

There is an accusatory tone, a presumption of guilt and a judgmental tone in their address.  "How dare he?  After all, we're the teachers.  Who is that vagabond Galilean?"

Throughout Jesus' life, for the most part, the scribes and priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the religious power-brokers are a thorn in Jesus' side. They were offended by Jesus' popularity and felt their power threatened.  Were they really about God's honor?  They lacked humility. In order to show humility, we must have a radically honest view of ourselves before God.  God never says for us to compare ourselves with our neighbor.  That never turns out well.  We compare ourselves to Christ.   James, the Lord's brother, writing to a troubled congregation wrote: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." (James 4:10)  St Augustine of Hippo wrote: " Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I should reply that the first, second, and third thing therein is humility."  We must have a realistic, an authentic view of self in the eyes of God.  Martin Luther once penned: " God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us." Our self-esteem if you will is in God.  Why do we care so much about what others think of us rather than what God thinks of us?

After Jesus answers a question with a question and in a masterful way traps his enemies, Jesus tells a parable that is designed to hold up a mirror if you will to the religious authorities that they may see themselves as they really are.  He speaks of two sons: their father says to the first: "`Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, `I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?"  Begrudgingly no doubt they replied: "the first". The parable was about them!  The temple authorities were often reproved by Jesus for their attitudes of : "do as I say and not as I do." That is called hypocrisy and is constantly condemned by scripture. Face it:  none of us like hypocrisy either!  Then Jesus says in essence, "it isn't that you don't know what is right and embrace it, it's that you see it and deny it because it changes the way you have to see yourselves!"  Change of mind: repentance: mercy.  Change of attitude: humility, pity. Our journey is Christ is indeed about change for the better.  As we learn repentance, mercy, humility and pity, we become more like Jesus, who humbled himself that he might raise us up with Him.  

The Rev. John Ortberg, Jr said this: "Low self-esteem causes me to believe that I have so little worth that my response does not matter. With repentance, however, I understand that being worth so much to God is why my response is so important. Repentance is remedial work to mend our minds and hearts, which get bent by sin.” Mercy and pity, humility and repentance are the doorways to greater grace.   AMEN

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