Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137

Getting drenched

Nine, good people praying and studying in the church were brutally murdered this past week in Charleston, South Carolina. What tragedy. What loss. What a deep wound inflicted on our society. What awful pain the Christian community has suffered for the loss of those individuals, and for the loss of feeling secure, in church and in public.
In reaction to such horror, our ‘fear-meter’ may very well continue to rise. The storm clouds are thickening. We fear for others lives’ in a culture still troubled by racism. We fear for our own. Why would anyone ever want to enter the public square anymore to study the bible, pray and engage in social interaction? In reaction to the increasing anxiety in us, we may bolt our gates shut, close our borders completely, and cower to any anticipated conflict with others on account of our identity as Christians, as white people, as black people. This, too, would be tragic.
What the gift of faith does not do, however, is dis-spell fear. Having faith does not get rid of the reasons for being afraid. Rather, faith helps us cope with the fear and insecurity we must live with. Notice in the Gospel text for today, Jesus does not say, “Have no fear”; instead he says, “Why do you fear?” (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus does not deny there very well may be good reason to be afraid in life; at the same time, he suggests that faith gives us reason to embrace our fear with hope. And then act boldly, despite that fear.
Faith gives us reason to see beyond the fearful circumstance. The purpose of faith is to live with the hope that the present circumstance, fraught with anxiety and fear, has not the last word on our lives. Only by going through it, risking vulnerability in that circumstance, is the way to that hope, on the way to that new day.
I can imagine when Jesus calmed the storm and the wind ceased, the clouds above them broke open and they saw the sun shine again. Faith is about painting the sun-shine picture in our hearts, minds and souls, while in the middle of the storm. Faith is singing with confidence while the rain is falling (modifying slightly the words of an old song): “Someday when our crying is done, we’re gonna walk with a smile in the sun.” (A-Ha, “Crying in the Rain”)
When we are tempted in our fear not to do anything.

When we are tempted in our anxiety to turn a blind eye to the racism that continues – evidently – to be a blight on our culture.

When we are tempted in our fear to build fortress walls around us instead of welcoming the stranger …
The disciples were afraid, not awed, by Jesus’ calming the tempest. A better English translation of the Greek (phobos megas) in verse 41 is “being filled with a great fear”. Why? Probably because they knew deep down in their hearts, that living in the presence of Jesus will change them, will challenge them and cause them to behave differently in the future: boldly — no longer according to their fears, but taking risks of reaching out based on the faith — the vision — of the kingdom of God where all people are welcome.
Don’t forget that the journey across the lake was more than simply a change in venue. When Jesus said, “Let’s go to the other side”, he had in mind the actual geography of the place. He wanted to go to Gentile territory, the “country of the Garasenes” (5:1) — this is the context of the story that follows the Gospel for today. And, this represents Jesus’ first visit to what would likely have been considered a dangerous, risky mission field. Coming from his Jewish background, this would even be considered an inappropriate destination.

All this is to say, following Christ means, reaching out to others despite our fears and amidst of the storms of life. And doing so, never letting go of the vision and promise of Christ-with-us.
On my way home from Kitchener-Waterloo last week I chose to go the longer route north through Algonquin Park — and yes, I stopped at Gravenhurst to fill up with gas! I was looking forward to ‘try before I buy’ a canoe I had researched. They had a demo for sale at a reduced price, and I wanted to take this canoe for a test-paddle. I wasn’t making a commitment either way. I wanted to be open to not buying, or even finding another boat there that may have been more suitable. So, I had packed all my gear and was ready for a morning paddle in Oxtongue Lake near Dwight.
It was raining. And it wasn’t just a passing shower. It was a steady downpour. When I mentioned to the sales person that I really would like to paddle this canoe, he looked at me and smiled — “That depends”, he said, “on whether you are ok getting drenched.”
Earlier that morning when I had got up and looked at the weather forecast, I was a bit discouraged. It was cool and wet and dreary outside. And the forecast had promised a day-long rain. I hummed and hawed for a while. “Is it worth it?” “I could wait until the end of summer for the end-of-season sales.” “I don’t have to buy now”. 
Then I brought an image — a vision — to my mind. I imagined paddling this canoe on a sunny, calm-water day in some of my favourite places. I imagined the joy this would bring me, the adventure and the peace of mind and heart. Holding this vision before me, I decided it would definitely be worth the test paddle in the pouring rain.
I realize how easily discouraged I could be if the present circumstances are less than ideal. I realize how so much of life is led from the perspective of the stormy seas — as if that is the only reality we know. I also realize that if I were not able to hold firmly the vision of hope and faith and goodness before me, how life can be a negative and rather sad existence. Imagine the joy I would be missing out on had I listened to the voice of fear rather than the voice of hope.   
Another lesson I learned from my new solo canoe, is the vital importance of relaxing, of trusting, into the insecurity and uncertainty. You see, for the first time I have a canoe with a tumblehome design with no keel underneath. In other words, it is a flat-bottom boat with sides that bubble out before coming in to the gunnels on the sides. 
What this does, is make the boat extremely tippy. Unless you are sitting with your weight centred in the exact middle of the craft, you will start rocking back and forth. Unless you ‘settle down’, you will get wet quickly!
This boat is like a horse. I am told horses can read, intuitively the anxiety level of the rider. If the rider is nervous and anxious, the horse will respond in kind. The result can be an unpleasant experience for all concerned. The key, is to relax into and trust the experience. And when I do, this canoe can track with speed and is very good to manoeuvre in tight.
The Gospel for today opens to us the possibility of living through the storms of life holding onto the vision of Jesus. The only ‘condition’ of faith, is the presence of Jesus, quietly and faithfully resting in the back of our minds, in the bottom of our hearts, at the core of our being — always there, always pointing to the sun shining even above the storm clouds.
Thank you, Jesus. Help us act out of hope and faith knowing you are always there for us, always bidding us to reach out, to take the risk, and from time to time, getting drenched in the process. Amen.