… but for the grace of God

While reading the Prairie Star the other day, I came across the traffic violations in Elk and Chautauqua Counties for the past month. I’m happy to say that none of you nor I were listed among those ticketed.

Now, there are those of us who are conscientious rule followers, and there is no doubt that these names will never appear on these rolls. But there are others of us – present company included – that fall into another group.

It may not be that this group doesn’t deserve tickets, but that we aren’t caught, or that we have learned how far we can stretch the limit without getting stopped. You see, every violation listed in the Star was for at least seven miles an hour over the limit.

Many of us have figured this out over the years and we use this window of tolerance to our advantage. Nonetheless there are limits, and when we push them too far, there are consequences.

Other examples that come to mind are missed classes at school, unpaid credit card bills, or deferred maintenance on the house or car. These things have consequences for us, but for whatever reason the consequences are not real enough, not pressing enough, or not bad enough to discourage our taking advantage of them.

Bottom line, some of us tests the limits of rules or prudent behavior when it suits our purpose. But what about when it suits the purpose of another person as seen from their perspective; are we so tolerant?

If this is the case, we may be inclined to draw a clear line in the sand and say no further or no faster, especially if we are not the one facing the consequences!

This is the setting confronting Jesus today in Luke’s account of his healing of a crippled woman in the synagogue. In this story Jesus stretches or tests the limits of a triple play of prohibited behaviors.

First, he heals a woman during a service of worship in a public space that is segregated by gender – he encourages her to cross the boundary.

Second, Jesus lays hands on a woman who is not a family member – he is putting his hands where they do not belong.

And third, he does all of this on the Sabbath – a day on which work is not permitted. How dare he?

The synagogue leader is infuriated by this violation of the rules that are intended to preserve the morality – the propriety – of the worship community.

As a worship leader, I really feel the synagogue leader’s indignation over the disruption of the worship service. But then Jesus’ reply of “You hypocrites” brings me up short. Am I really a hypocrite? Well – honestly – yeah, sometimes I am.

While pondering this, I realize that there is another way of expressing Jesus’ reply. “There but for the grace of God go you. Remember that you choose to bend the rules to your own advantage, but you hold others to a different standard.”

What is our own modern-day triple play of stretching the limits of moral behavior? Is it speeding, neglecting the common good, and exploiting a circumstance for our own advantage?

Perhaps we rationalize our behavior by saying, well if I’m not caught I can’t be found guilty – it’s a victimless offense. Or perhaps if we have enough resources, e.g., money, influence, and a good lawyer, we can beat the charge. “There but for the grace of God go we.”

We do live in a world full of double standards. But when we knowingly choose to exploit these double standards it is inappropriate. But there are far more situations that are less obvious, or of which we are blissfully unaware.

Jesus is speaking to these less obvious situations today – the social systems or structures that we are so accustomed to that we fail to see the offense; particularly if it does not affect the course of our daily lives.

In our comfort we can become blind or oblivious to the reality that these systems hopelessly bind others, who have neither the resources nor the privilege we take for granted.

If our circumstance has become one of blind comfort, Jesus is calling us hypocrites – not to insult us – but to get our attention – to draw our attention to those seemingly benign institutions or systems that perpetuate injustices such as, trapping people in circumstances that deny them the same liberties and dignity we take for granted.

If Jesus were to publish the list of hypocrites in Elk and Chautauqua counties in the Prairie Star we would be appalled by the names on the list. Thank goodness it is not a matter of public record. Nonetheless, we know well enough that we are all on that list from time to time.

But we also know that we have access to forgiveness. This is the reason we gather as a community every week. Individually we are incomplete – imperfect. But during this weekly immersion in prayer, sacrament, and the Body of Christ, we are – bit by bit – made a little more whole; we become a little more like the One we bless, praise, and offer thanksgiving to.

In gratitude for this grace, we become better about liberating other children of Abraham, who like the crippled woman, are bound by systems that we are blind to. Remember, there, but for the grace of God, go we.

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What Does The Lord Desire?

This morning, we stand in the residual brightness of yesterday’s feast – The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yesterday Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray, and while they were “praying the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”[1]

To have witnessed this must have been awesome. The power and wonder of this story is that it gets our imagination revved up as we try to visualize it.

There is some deep-seated urge within us that wants to tap into that transformative power. I think one of the reasons we like magic tricks and illusion is that they tap into our desire to be part of something transformative.

Crazy as it sounds, my imagination takes me to alchemy; that craze of the middle ages that was a precursor to modern chemistry, which sought to transform base metals and materials into treasure. In many respects we haven’t lost this desire to transform ordinary things into extraordinary things.

But when we dabble in this kind of worldly alchemy are we able to create extraordinary things that last? The short answer is, no. We have a case in point right now in Brazil.

The Rio Olympics committee has invested $12 billion of treasure to create glittering venues for our entertainment so we can watch extraordinary young people strive for glory.

At one level it is audacious, daring, and commendable; yet at another level it is disheartening. Disheartening because it calls into question the use of treasure for such a fleeting purpose.

Again, call me crazy, but I think this is the gist of our lessons today.

In Isaiah, God is railing against his people who have taken divinely inspired worship – a gift from God that is intended to transform our hearts and spirits – and have made the ritual and the venue the treasure.

The ritual and its setting have become the objects of worship as opposed to the vehicles or means for creating an attitude within us that seeks to be drawn closer to God.

In this lesson, God is clear that he wants us to be transformed, or cleansed by the ritual so we can seek to do God’s will, which is to do good and seek justice.

And God reveals what that transformational alchemy looks like: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”[2]

Then in the psalm, God again brings his glory to bear in judgment upon us. It is not the sacrifice that is the transformative thing, rather it is the attitude in which the sacrifice is offered – an attitude of thanksgiving and the desire to follow God are the transfiguring things because they reflect the character of the disciple that God is seeking and will reward with heavenly treasure.

As the psalm says, “Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; * but to those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God.”[3]

It is not the tangible treasures of the world that God desires for us. Rather it is the intangible – the things not seen that are the treasures of the kingdom of God that we are to desire.

The author of Hebrews tells us, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”[4]

All the tangible things of the world that we desire have their origin in the word of God; a kind of ultimate alchemy if you will.

Therefore where our attention needs to be turned is not toward the stuff of the world but toward the source that makes it all possible.

This has been the legacy of God’s people from the beginning of time – the promise of the eternal treasure to those who are faithful in their search for God.

And then there is the Gospel. How we respond to the first two sentences of the Gospel lesson may reveal where our treasure is. Which of the following statements captures your attention?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”[5] Or, …

“Sell your possessions, and give alms.”[6]

If we’re a little hung up on “sell your possessions,” it’s an indication that we need to make some prayerful inquiry into why this is hard for us.

However, if we are more inclined to rejoice in the promise of “the kingdom,” this may be an indication that we have already begun to accumulate treasure in heaven. Our lamps may already be lit, or at least are being trimmed and prepared to be lit.

But the Gospel lesson goes on create a sense of urgency about the timing of the Son of Man’s coming. While I agree that we need to prepare ourselves; I think the urgency of preparation can lead us to focus too much on time and process and not enough on an attitude of thanksgiving as described to in the psalm.

Focusing energy or treasure on time or deadlines does not lead to fundamental change; preparation for an event does not lead to a change of heart – a fundamental change of nature – or alchemy if you will.

Consider the Rio Olympics. Years of planning and $12 billion dollars have produced a glittering set of venues built in haste upon a crumbling, disease infested, and economically ruinous infrastructure.

When the Olympics have passed, and the glittering infrastructure falls into disrepair because the treasure has been exhausted without addressing the urgent needs of those living in Rio, will we be able to say, well-done good and faithful servant? I think not if the exorbitant investment of worldly treasure neither does good for those in need, nor seeks justice.

When the Olympics have passed, there will be no residual light of transfiguration, just the emptiness of an illusion that leaves the children of God untransformed in a world hungry for the transfiguring power of God’s love.

What lesson is there in this for us?

You and I need to be intentional in the use of our treasure in this place to create an attitude of awe and thanksgiving so we in turn can do good and seek justice, and reveal the transfiguring power of God’s presence and love to those in our community.

[1] Luke 9:29

[2] Isaiah 1:18

[3] Psalm 50:24

[4] Hebrews 11:3

[5] Luke 12:32

[6] Ibid. v. 33a