“Telling the Story: Grace is Enough” by Peter Bankson

June 3, 2018

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 5:12: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.2 Corinthians 4:6-7 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.Mark 2:27 “… the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”As we mentioned last week, Celebration Circle has decided to change the name of this worship “season” in our life together to “Telling the Story.” We decided to do this to help us all remember that during these weeks our worship will focus on the time after Pentecost, a time when the early followers of Jesus were calling forth families of faith in many places, traveling to new lands, and telling the stories of their encounters with God in new ways to different cultures. This year our chosen theme for “Telling the Story” is to ponder the idea that grace is enough.

That’s a lot to think about!  So it’s been fortunate that over the past few days I’ve been home alone with a bit more time than usual to think about it. Part of that was a choice to try to let rest be a healing practice from whatever stole my strength about a month ago. Part of it is the fact that Marjory’s been in Colorado this past week getting ready to lead a retreat that’s just finishing up in Estes Park. Both my illness and her absence have offered me more quiet time. And, as a result, I’ve had to look for some fresh motivation from within to get up off the couch.

After Marjory left on Monday I decided to supplement my motivation by increasing the use of a practice that I’ve tried before: decide what I will do next; then give myself 5 minutes of horizontal reflection time with an alarm set to make sure I don’t oversleep; then, when the alarm goes off, jump into action whether I have a plan or not. I haven’t been wiling to call it a Sabbath practice, but it is contributing to my willingness to let go (of my worries) and let God (use me as a channel in often unplanned ways).

As I’ve followed that process in working with our Scripture readings for the week, I discovered a big pile of interesting rough nuggets – fresh ideas about treasure, fragile vessels, grace, Sabbath, and what it means to be part of a larger family of faith. By the time I got to Friday, three nuggets seemed to have holes in them big enough for the connecting thread that I was carrying for this sermon, the thread of “Telling the Story: Grace is Enough.”

  • What is the “treasure” we have in clay jars?
  • If we’re made to be channels of God’s love, why are we so fragile?
  • How IS grace enough?

So, what is the “treasure” we have in clay jars?

It seems to me that the treasure we have deep within us, flowing through us and among us and out into the world – that treasure is the love of God. That is, God’s love for us, not our love for God. It is the deep knowing that we loved by God just as we are, that is ours to bring us comfort, and to share with the world.

At the core, ALL of God’s Creation is beloved by God. But my sense is that as sentient beings, made – as we understand it – in the image of God, our recognition of this treasure plants in us a call to love God’s Creation no matter what, just as God loves us, no matter what. And one important way to express God’s love is to let ourselves be channels of that love … to lots of different people, in different ways, in different places.

The treasure of God’s love isn’t the payoff for what we’ve done, or the profit we got from hard bargaining, or the incentive bonus we get for doing good work. No, as I understand it, the love of God is poured into us because that’s the way God wants it. It’s a gift. And that’s where “grace” comes in. But more on grace a little later…

One way to get a hint of the treasure of God’s love is “harmony.” Last week during the Taize service, there were moments when we were all together – singing together, breathing together, being together. When we sing together we can often tell when our voices blend together and we’re in harmony. At times like that, and often in times of silent prayer in worship, we can sense that we are all being held, together, in something mysteriously comforting and healing: God’s love.

That’s how love can surface in a group that knows deeply that it is “one.” But the kind of harmony that surfaces in a group isn’t always love. It’s quite possible for a group to be in harmony, but in a key that doesn’t really serve the greater good beyond the group. We’ve all heard of times when it’s possible for a group to be all together in the key of hate, or fear. That seems to be “trending” these days, in lots of places.

Hate and fear harmonize in different keys, each with its own power to create a sense of belonging. That’s not the treasure of God’s love. No, it’s a kind of sin that flows out of the way we sentient beings narrow our communities or focus on our own self-centered needs for security and recognition. When I think of increasing harmony for the common good as another way of saying “working together for peace and justice,” I think about standing for, and moving into the greatest good I can envision for the largest body I can imagine. That sounds like trying to shape our life together so that it is welcoming and inclusive.

In a sense, it would be a prophetic witness to serve as a tuning fork for the key of love wherever we find ourselves in a strident culture with this perspective. That way we could help those around us recognize what needs to be changed to get in tune with the life Jesus came to model for us so we can model it now by serving as channels for God’s love.

(Ring the tuning fork)

If we’re made to be channels of God’s love, why are we so fragile?

As this week’s Epistle reading reminds us, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We can be the channel, but we’re not the source … the cup that shares the treasure of God’s love is the channel, but not the source of the love. It seems to me that sharing the Good News by passing the cup of forgiveness as we celebrate Communion is one important way we help remind ourselves of the story that is ours to tell. But the epistle reminds us that cup is not the grape: we are the channel but not the source.

But why do we have to be so fragile?!! At one level, the answer is also in the text: we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

Maybe being so fragile is an invitation to grow beyond being so fixated on being right, or popular, or envied, or able to decide when and how we will be helpful, rather than let God’s love flow through us as it will. Maybe it is,, as Richard Rohr mentions in today’s on-line reflection: “When we are centered in our True Self we are most in touch with our creative source and most open to be a conduit of Love.” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, June 3, 2018)

“I’s da GREATEST!” isn’t a new slogan. And, lots of us know perfectly well that we’re not the greatest. And some of us are even able to confess that to others. But beyond confession, what can we do about our broken-ness?

Fragile clay channels of God’s love, kept full to overflowing by the Grace of God, can be broken and whole, all at once. Look at our Communion vessels. The chalice and paten have both been repaired. They both still support our life together in the ways they did when they were young and unblemished. We often point to them as little examples of what it can mean to be “broken and whole all at once.”

Broken as we are, each of us needs to be maintained, mended, helped to heal, glued back together in order to keep passing along that gracious love of God that can flow through us for the healing of the world. As we are mended, we can carry our load again. I’m reminded of a maxim from my old Army first aid training: A bone that’s been broken and healed will be stronger after the healing than it was before the break.

I suspect that’s true of our spirits, as well. At least the lives of a lot of the AA members I know bear witness to that reality. As we are able to heal from our brokenness, we are made stronger for service to the God who calls us (who made us as we are and loves us … no matter what.)

Being a channel of God’s grace isn’t always graceful. Around here – and in most families of faith where honesty has found ground enough to stand on its own two feet, being a channel of God’s grace feels like a duty at least as often as a delight. That’s how I understand Paul’s encouragement:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

As I thought about the endless work of maintaining ourselves and our family of faith as a non-corrosive channel of God’s love, I realized that at the level of community spiritual life we’re probably always needing to be aware of our need for respect, repair, and re-creation. As part of our Time & Space Mission Group, I can testify that our building needs that kind of ongoing care as well:

  • Respect for what we can do – and host – here in this space, and what we can’t;
  • Repair to keep the building able to handle the daily energy of everyone who calls our space “home;” and
  • Re-Creation, or rebuilding when things wear down, like the back porch right now.

The thought experiment here is “what do respect, and repair and re-creation look like for us in the spiritual/relational dimension?

If we’re committed to keeping our fragile channels working, it helps to have regular maintenance – daily spiritual practices, annual silent retreat, and deep, accountability for our commitments to be on the Way, and loving support when we need to let go, and let God start all over again.

In my timed quiet I dug into this a bit, and I want to share a bit about respect. I’ll save repair and re-creation for another day.

Respect: By “respect” I mean respect for the diversity of compassion, support and commitment on one hand, and the diversity of fear, anger and pain within the human community. These are part of the diversity of God’s Creation.

If we are to be channels of God’s love, we’ll need to learn to let that love flow through us even when it looks and feels unfamiliar. I’m reminded of Faces of the Enemy, a book by Sam Keene that helped me understand the importance of recognizing and dealing with cultural diversity and cultural prejudice. He was writing about America’s cultural fear of our “enemies” in World War II, and how those fears were used to get us come together and tune our lives to be “on key” to fight the war.

I grew into consciousness during World War II. The Germans and the Japanese were seen by our culture as the “enemy. My father was in the South Pacific for four years straight, fighting from island to island against the Japanese. My mother and I lived with her parents, in Spokane, Washington, 300 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. There I had a weekly overnight with Dad’s maiden aunt, where we often spent hours hiding in the house with cardboard covers on the windows and no lights on anywhere, to keep the enemy from bombing us. I don’t know if that made us any safer, but it did raise our fears about the enemy. A decade earlier during World War I, that aunt, Orpha Henneck, whose parents were immigrants from Germany, had lost her job teaching German in high school because schools stopped teaching “enemy” languages.

So, when I moved with my parents to Tokyo, Japan when I was in the 8th grade I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was surprised and delighted  to learn that the Japanese were a lot like us: similar but with some really cool cultural differences. I was delighted to learn about tatami, and geta, and hashi, and sushi! I was excited by the diversity, but a lot of my 8th grade classmates hated to be living away from American TV. There were pretty strong cultural warnings, as I remember, not to get too close. Meanwhile, back here we were still singing in the key of fear … or hatred, and ignoring the outrage of segregation.

Today there are some signs that, as a wider community, we’re waking up to the fact that we’re off-key. The growing awareness, attention and action around racial, gender and sexual prejudice – read #MEETOO, Monday’s Starbucks training day and the cancellation of Roseanne – is just the beginning of raising the consciousness of many  of us to the places where we’ve let ourselves be comforted by “selective awareness.” It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go. We need to help retune the choir.

Prejudice feeds on fear and hatred, and it’s a challenge to sound a tuning fork for love in the midst of a chorus of fear and hatred.

(Ring the tuning fork)

Still, there are glimpses of strengths and talents that help the flow of God’s love, opportunities that we might never expect. That’s one reason why personal relationships and a chance to walk a mile in another’s shoes are so very important. The work of New Story Leadership, housed here at Seekers Church, is a wonderful example of learning about how respect, based on personal relationships and shared stories, can help retune community.

As we gather for Communion I invite you to look around the circle. Notice the diversity. And imagine what you might learn from a deeper conversation with someone who SEEMS different. Respect for our differences can start right here.

Finally, the third “bead:” How IS grace enough?

Webster begins the current definition of grace as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification; a virtue coming from God.” So, if I understand this, the treasure is God’s love for us (and all Creation) and God’s grace is the reality that it’s already there: no need to earn it.

For me, Grace is enough because it gives me access to God’s love. What I should do with that love in any given moment is often a mystery. Deborah has been suggesting that we’re called to do “the next right thing.” That makes good sense to most of me, but the strategic planner deep inside me still wants to know more about the vision, the mission, the concept of operations, and the “TO DO” list for each of us.

I’ve been part of this family of faith for 42 years, now, and I’m still learning to let go, and let God. And it’s probably no surprise to those of you who have put up with me for all these years, when my alarm goes off after 5 minutes of meditation (or worry) and I place that call, or wake up the computer, more often than not the Holy Spirit has some right thing right there in front of me.

The longer I live into this emerging understanding of treasure in earthen vessels, the more I can see how little I understand. In that sense, grace is enough because that’s all I can handle. I need to keep my channel clean and functional and do what I can to stay ready to offer the greatest good I can envision for the largest body I can imagine, and steel myself for the likely possibility that my next greatest good will be some unexpected little thing than won’t look like much.

Might that suggest that I’m being called to be a “first responder” for Jesus? Wow! I need to spend more than 5 minutes reflecting on that!

In a moment we will be gathering in a circle to share the elements of Communion. We will be serving one another, giving and receiving tiny tokens of the love that God is pouring through us. All the while, we are being soaked by the love we are passing along.

I invite you to look around the circle and give thanks for our differences. I think that kind of thankfulness helps us become more of a community where we can deepen our respect for diversity and help us get tuned up in the key of love. And that, my fellow pilgrims, may help, just a bit, to change the key of the culture from hate toward love. Let the love of God fill you to overflowing, then tilt yourself to let it flow out into places of pain and fear and anger. As Paul reminded the people of Corinth:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Thank God we’re in this together! Amen.

(Ring the tuning fork)

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