Hammering at Heaven’s Gates

by Rev. Doug Gray

Anyone know someone who has trouble getting rid of their garbage? One magazine I read, had some ideas for classes someone could take if they were having trouble clearing out the junk.

     Class 1. Refrigerator Forensics:  Identifying and Removing the Dead.
     Class 2. If It’s Empty, You Can Throw It Away:  Accepting Loss, Semester 1.
     Class 3. If the Milk Expired Three Weeks Ago, Keeping It in the Refrigerator
          Won’t Bring It Back:  Accepting Loss, Semester 2.
     Class 4. Recycling Skills 101:  Boxes That the Electronics Came In.
     Class 5. Recycling Skills 201:  Styrofoam That Came in the Boxes That Electronics Came in.
     Class 6. Giving Back to the Community:  How to Donate 15-year-Old Levis to Goodwill.

According to Elizabeth Royte in her book, Garbage Land:  On the Secret Trail of Trash, we each create over 4 pounds of trash every day. Even with the recycling we do, many of the things we throw away—plastics and Styrofoam for example—are going to be around for centuries. Our world seems to have two kinds of problems:  1. Too much garbage that we don’t or won’t get rid of, and 2. finding a safe place for all the garbage once we do get rid of it. If we are honest, we have the same kind of problems in our inner lives as well.
     The first really big problem we have with trash is there’s just so much of it all the time. In each of our lives we have trash that is accumulating

     •    old hurts we received as children (perhaps from our parents)
     •    hurts we have done to others
     •    times when we let someone down
     •    times when we did something we know God wouldn’t like
     •    fear of failing
     •    fear of success

It’s this kind of trash that has piled up in the life of the person writing Psalm 130.

     1    Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice.
          Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

     When we find ourselves burdened with the trash of our lives, Jesus wants to help us find the trash and take it out. This is not a do-it-by-yourself project. Timothy Cargal notes, “We realize that we cannot maintain a solid stance in the shifting pile of refuse we have created. When we try to climb out, we simply lose our balance and fall deeper into the pile. The debris of our sinful actions creates a kind of quicksand that sucks us ever deeper in.” It’s out of those depths that we cry out, hammering at heaven’s gates. Sharing what we have done and want to be different really matters here, but ultimately, forgiveness cannot be complete until we receive it…and that means someone gives it to us. It’s something Jesus does for us and something we can, by God’s grace, do for each other. The psalmist writes to God, “But with You, there is forgiveness, that You may be revered.” To listen to each other and to forgive are some of the most profound ways in which we can be Christ for another human being, but the wellspring of all that forgiveness is the steadfast love of God.
     The second really big problem we have with trash is that has to go somewhere. In recent decades we have learned that part of the problem with physical trash is not only it’s immediate smell or danger to us, but that it goes somewhere and can become a health problem for others. Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s an area between California and Hawaii where lighter-than-water plastics have been swept by prevailing ocean currents. It’s twice the size of Texas! Closer to home, chemicals, paints, oil, electronics and nuclear cooling rods—we worry about the safety of where we put these things, because it’s so easy for these things to contaminate the water we need to drink or the air we need to breathe. The same is true in our own lives:  if we do not find a place for the trash of our lives, it can leech out into how we treat others, becoming a toxic hazard to the groundwater of our families and the atmosphere at work. Our lives can even be “re-contaminated” as our toxic anger, depression, and bitterness come back to us from those we love. Again we come to the end of what we can do. Our brokenness and trash seem to have us spiraling down, and all we seem to be able to do is to hammer at heaven’s gate, hoping God will answer. The psalmist writes in vss. 7–8, “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Timothy Cargal asks, “Where does our [life’s] garbage go? What is the final destination of our gossip and insults, half-truths and lies, lusts and longings, selfish manipulations and self-less wanderings? All this trash goes straight to the cross. And that’s where it stays, forever. No toxic stew. No environmental danger. No waste management problems.” That’s full redemption, and God Himself did that in Jesus Christ.
How do we solve the problem of trash in this world? Ultimately, by making less of it, and by making sure the trash we make is not the kind that sticks around. When it comes to our internal trash, the only way to make less toxic waste, is to stay close to God, to live the way Paul talks about in Ephesians.
     This afternoon, Clara and I are headed to Gavin House again. Every time we are there, I meet good people—people just like you and me—but the “trash” in their lives is completely overwhelming them. Many of them are hammering on heaven’s gates, not even really sure if there is a God, not really sure they want there to be a god, but knowing they desperately need the God who can help them with the toxic goo of their addiction, along with their pain, guilt and sorrow. And every time I’m there, I share the Good News that when we cry out from our depths, God is listening. Whenever we are hammering on heaven’s gates, we can turn to find Christ is standing beside us already. When Clara and I share this Good News at Gavin House, I see this gleam of hope in their eyes haunted with suffering. I want you to hear this Good News too:  The best part of God’s plan for our lives is that trash removal is only the beginning. God’s real plan is renovation—to make us totally new in Jesus Christ. You see, when we sincerely offer up the trash of our lives, God takes it all in—cleansing our hearts because He himself plans to come and live in us. We will never be alone, and always have more light and love to share than we thought possible. May Jesus Christ come into each of our lives, help us clean up, awaken in us a desire to be different, and make His home in us—a place of welcome for our friends, family and yes, by God’s grace even the stranger and enemy. We may be dismayed by our trash, but God delights in freeing us.

 

Are We Still Shopping for God?

by Rev. Doug Gray

Message

I.       Introduction — What the Crowd Has in Mind

So there are lots of different ways to shop. What are some of the ways that people shop?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Sure. So how do you know what to buy?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

That’s really interesting. One of the interesting things about our passage for today is that the people are shopping for a Savior. What they are looking for and Jesus’ response may help us go deeper in our thinking about our life with God.

II.      Shopping for a Savior

First, we often look for a savior who does nice things for us. I think of this as “The Santa Claus God” because many of us think of God keeping track of the naughty and nice things we do, and if we are nice, then God will show up and do nice things for us. I remember as a teen-ager praying a prayer like this:  “O God, if you would only give me this beautiful bike, or the boyfriend I really want, or the job I think is the right one, then I will do (fill in the blank) for You. Oh, and I won’t ask for anything ever again.” We say we want a God Who does nice things for us, but once God does one nice thing, then like, the crowd with Jesus, we want another, and just one more. It will never be enough. Jesus says to us, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

Second, we often look for a savior who we can control. I think of this as “The Fair Parent God” because lots of us think of God as someone we can make do what we want. The people ask Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” We just want God to be really clear about what we should do, and then when we do it, and then God should reward us. When I was a teen-ager, my Dad traveled a lot, and one time he was home, and I wanted to go to the mall. I knew if asked him, he would ask me, “Have you done your chores?” so I did my chores really quickly, because I was sure I could get him to drive me to the mall if my chores were done. We do that with God sometimes, don’t we? We read the Bible, or listen on Sundays, and we make a list of the things God wants us to do. And then if something happens, and we don’t get what we want, or something bad happens, then we are mad at God. We may even say to ourselves, “This God thing is dumb! How could there be a God!” Jesus says to us, “The work of God is this:  to trust in the one he has sent.”

Finally, we often look for a savior just like there used to be. I think of this as “Your Grandma’s God” because lots of us think that the way God used to work is over. The crowd says to Jesus, “Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” In this church, maybe we hear the story of wise Rev. Davison, who helped the people of Squantum get together and build a church. Or maybe you might hear about Ellen’s grandmother, whose kindness and hard-work were as legendary as the Bean Suppers. Or if you want to go further back, perhaps you had family who came over on the Mayflower—women and men who made incredible sacrifices in order to worship God as the Holy Spirit and their consciences told them to. So we think of Rev. Davison, Ellen’s grandmother and the people of the Mayflower as larger-than-life individuals, and they might have had faith, but it’s not like that anymore, or we could never be like them. Jesus says, “It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”

IV.     Conclusion:  Not Consumers, but Relationship

Are we still shopping for God? Are we looking for the God Who is the best deal? Or maybe we’re looking for the God Who will keep the good times coming? Or maybe we’re looking for the God Who will make things the way they used to be? Do we love God for what God does for us? Or do we love God for Who God is? At every turn of today’s passage, Jesus makes it clear:  God is more than Santa Claus, handing out miracles to the nice people. God is more than a fair parent, who can be controlled by what we do. God is not just the one who worked for your Grandma. Jesus says, “…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” God is not Someone Who gave…God is Someone Who is giving. How often are we satisfied with a God who rescues us when we’re in trouble, but we won’t seek Jesus when times are easy! How often are we content with having a pleasant life, when God wants to give us a life filled with power and purpose! Jesus comes to each of us today with the same offer he gave to the people in that crowd so long ago: Jesus wants to offer us himself. Jesus wants to bypass our consumer instincts and give us his heart. That’s odd, isn’t it? Often we think of giving our hearts to God, but rarely do we think of Jesus giving us His heart. But that is the greatest treasure of all! Jesus wants us to have the same kind of abundant life He so clearly possessed. Jesus wants us to be whole and mature, giving and forgiving. Jesus wants us to have all our desires find a resting place in Him. Jesus wants us to lead others to the same table where they can be completely fed as well. The only way for us to grow and find peace is to quit shopping for a savior, and let the Savior in.

God’s Signs Point to…

by Rev. Doug Gray

Sermon

One day Jesus and Moses went golfing. They came to a par-3 hole with a large water hazard—really a lake—in the middle. Moses picked out a seven iron and teed off, laying up perfectly just short of the lake. Jesus went to his bag and pulled out his 2-iron. He said to Moses, “The other day I saw Tiger Woods hit the green on this hole with a 2-iron. If Tiger Woods can do it, so can I.” So Jesus teed up, swung…and chunked his ball into the lake. “You know, Jesus,” Moses offered, “you really ought to try something a bit lighter.” But Jesus would hear nothing of it:  “If Tiger Woods can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging with all his might, and chunked the ball into the lake again. “Jesus,” Moses said, “I know you are amazing, but I really think you should try laying up before the water hazard.” Jesus quickly responded, “No way! If Tiger can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging even harder, only to see this ball go kerplunk into the lake too. At this point, Jesus realized that he had used his last ball, and Moses was not about to let Jesus lose Moses’ balls in the hazard, so they headed down to the lake to see if Jesus could retrieve any of his balls. When they got to the edge of the lake, Jesus set down his bag and walked out onto the lake, bending over to look for the balls he had lost. While Jesus was walking on the water looking for his golf balls, a guy in a cart pulled up next to Moses. “Who does that guy think he is—Jesus Christ?” “No,” said Moses, “he thinks he’s Tiger Woods.”

So how did the guy recognize Jesus? (He was walking on water.) Even in the joke, walking on water is a sure sign of who Jesus is. A sign points to something. A restroom sign is not the restroom; it just shows the way to a restroom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus only does 7 miracles, and John never calls them miracles, he calls them “signs.” Each is meant to be a “sign” pointing to Jesus, showing us the way to understand Jesus better. In our passage for today, we have two of the seven signs, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Where do they point?”

The first sign finds Jesus taking five small loaves of bread and two fish, and feeding more than five thousand people. What sorts of things could this point to? First, it points to God’s great compassion for our physical needs; God wants us to have what we need to live from day-to-day—food, shelter, clothing, fulfillment. We have to do our part, recognizing that God wants to have what we really and truly need. Second, this sign points out God’s mind-blowing abundance. Jesus doesn’t feed 20 or even a hundred—He feeds more than 5000! Third, this sign points to God’s ability to escape the limitations of our imagination. Philip can’t imagine how they can find enough money to buy what they need. Andrew can’t imagine how five loaves and two fish could be enough. They are thinking inside the box. How do you get food? They only know about buying it or sharing it. As John is writing this, he remembers how the children of Israel, newly freed from Egypt and wandering in a desert wilderness, wondered how they would eat, what they would drink. From inside their little boxes, these people who saw God’s power part the Red Sea can’t imagine how God could help them make it. God provided water from rocks, manna from heaven, and quail from the sky. This sign points to God’s compassion for our physical needs, God’s abundance and God’s powerful love.

The second sign finds Jesus walking across the lake to his disciples in a boat. This sign points to God’s rule over chaos. When Jesus walks through the wind and the waves—walks on top of the water—he demonstrates that no matter how much chaos and craziness comes to our lives, God can still dominate it, still penetrate it, still cross it to be with us. This sign also points to God’s great compassion for our spiritual and emotional needs. Did you notice how the people tried to make Jesus king? Did you notice how Jesus dodged them? The glory they had in mind for Jesus was earthly glory—political power, financial wealth, a kingdom—only as they understood it. Jesus will not reveal his glory for that. But when Jesus’ disciples are scared and alone in the middle of storm in the middle of a lake, Jesus comes to them and says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” By saying, “I AM,” he is making a far greater claim than just being king. He is saying he is God. Why does he reveal more to the disciples now than he was willing to earlier? I think because God knew how much they needed to be reassured, knew how much they needed to know they were safe. This sign points to God’s rule and God’s compassion for our deepest heart-needs.

If in fact, these “signs” point to who Jesus is, then they are also road signs that point to how we should be—aware of God’s Presence, trusting in God’s Providence, believing in God’s Purpose, living as God’s children. When we look at the needs of the people around us—those in this fellowship, those in Quincy, those in around the world—the needs seem so colossal, so beyond anything we can meet, that like the disciples we throw up our hands. Even though we can’t imagine how God can do incredibly great, mind-blowing things, like Andrew, we just need to bring what we have to God, and let God bless it and discover that something amazing has happened! There is enough and to spare for everyone! If God is over all, then we have nothing to fear. Indeed, we can count on God coming to us, giving us glimpses of what God’s glory in the very storms of our lives.

So how do we recognize Jesus in our lives? These signs point to Jesus the Christ, to the awesome love of God on which we can build our whole lives. These signs are not outside of the world, and they do not ignore the realities of our world. On the contrary, the greatest sign of all…the sign of the cross on which Jesus died points the way to a deeper, fuller life by putting our lives on the line for God. The sign of the cross points to how God’s awesome love is greater than the limitations of evil, corruption, suffering and death. These signs show us that God loves us so much he blows away the limitations of our imaginations, providing for the needs of our bodies and the needs of our hearts. God’s love is stronger than the tiny boxes we try to put God in, cutting through the storms and chaos with a word, “I am God. Don’t be afraid.” Somehow knowing God “is” means that grace is possible, that love can win, that joy is abundant, that hopes come true. These signs show us the way to experiencing the awesome, heart-filling, sacrificial power of the love of God.

Explosive Grace: True Fatherhood

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of our family’s favorite TV shows for a while was called Clean House. A while back, they went in search of the messiest home in America. They found it in St. Louis. The daughter, Bridget, had written to the show, pleading for help with the home she lived in with her mother, Sharon. Not long after, a team of people showed up at their door, ready to help them sort through their clutter and mess. As the team stepped gingerly through the piles and mounds of clutter, Sharon denied she had a problem with hoarding things, or that she had a problem with buying things and bringing them home, even if she didn’t need them and couldn’t use them. With the team’s help, Sharon and Bridget put most of their clutter in a rummage sale. Get this:  they had enough stuff to fill an empty K-Mart—with departments! With the money they made at the rummage sale (plus some matching money from the show), the Clean House team were able to redesign and organize Sharon and Bridget’s home. What amazes me is how hard it was for Sharon and Bridget to part with things which in most cases they hadn’t seen or used in years, and it had all piled up to the point where their lives had become narrow lanes through their home. Many of us have issues like this—oh, maybe not having piles and piles of clutter. But many of us sometimes feel trapped by our lives, as if they are closing in until we only have narrow lanes in which we live. What is it that keeps us in those narrow lanes of living? And how do we escape from the prisons in which we live? Our passage for today talks about freedom, how we give it up and how we can find it again.
     We begin with how we give it up. The Galatians are struggling with both their fears and their hopes. The well-intentioned missionaries have played on their hopes by encouraging them to “get serious” and “go hardcore” in their faith by loading on a pile of rules to their walk with God. But these missionaries have also played on their fears:  what if what we are doing for God is not enough? What if we have to show our love more than we are now? This fear can take us into dark places. Like Sharon, afraid to give up any of her things, afraid to make the changes that will open things up, we too can clutter our lives with rules thinking they mean God will love us better, while they gradually curtail our freedom. We forget that we can’t make God love us more than God already does.
      Of course, the other extreme is the folks who throw out all the rules. I remember my first semester of college. Yeah baby! Mom’s not around. Dad’s not around. Woohoo! I’m staying up all night! Yeah, and I’m eating pizza and frootloops at every meal. I thought, “I’m walking on the wild side!” I could go on, but maybe that’s for another time. The point is that kind of living lost its luster pretty quickly for me. It felt like what mattered most to me got lost in that approach. I realized going to classes was actually something I wanted for me—a way to say “I love you!” to the me I wanted to become, and a way to say “Thank you!” to the God who gave me the gifts that brought me there. I started looking for ways to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. I didn’t have the words for it, and some of the time I felt really isolated from people and angry at God. I was trying to figure out how to be the boss of my life, but I hadn’t figured out how to trust God to be my real boss. I was trying to learn what Paul means when he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
       Which may lead us to ask ourselves:  What do I trust? Where have I placed my hopes, my identity, my sense of security? If our faith is in a certain level of income, a degree of status, or our grip on “The Rules,” then we are driven by these things, and the fear of losing them. If one of these things should fall through, then we can feel lost and adrift, even feel that our world has ended. Like Sharon, how often have we chosen to let our lives narrow out of fear of missing something or losing something, until we have nothing but a dark maze. For Jesus, loving and trusting meant He could conquer his fear and face the cross, trusting God would bring things right in the end. And on that first Easter, God surprised the world by raising Jesus from the dead, to even greater freedom. What counts is not “The Rules” or being able to do whatever we want…what counts is faith expressing itself through love.
       So where do you place your trust? Do you feel like you are on a roller-coaster, white-knuckling it through life, wishing things would just stop moving? Like Sharon, are you holding on to things, the comfortable and familiar, trying to pretend that nothing is going to change? Only by taking the risk and letting go, can we get past fear and learn to trust the Lord who loves us so deeply and only wants to give us more. From that place of trust, deep friendships and loving relationships can grow and fill our lives with the intimacy we crave. From that place of trust, we can share what we have—even if we don’t have much. From that place of trust, we can truly help another person, opening ourselves to them as we trust that God has a plan. From that place of trust, we can have deep peace about whatever is to come, because we know that the same Lord Jesus who loved us enough to go to the cross, will walk hand-in-hand into the future with us. Only as we get past fear and find that place of trust can we truly live after God’s own heart. Thanks to grace in Jesus Christ, we catch a glimpse of true fatherhood:  we are perfectly free, but best of all freed to love. What counts is faith expressing itself in love. Happy Father’s Day!

 

Explosive Grace: The Cure for Insecurity

by Rev. Doug Gray

     As some of you know, I grew up in Hollywood, CA, and that meant having colorful characters around. Though we lived in a modest, quiet neighborhood, Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island lived a couple of streets over. Michael Jackson shopped at our grocery store and attended the same elementary school I did. And down the street from us lived the deGarza family. They had a nice pool in the backyard and their son, Jeffrey, was just a year or two younger than my younger brother. My Mom struck up a relationship with Mrs. DeGarza and we went over to their house to go swimming. While we were there, I heard Mrs. DeGarza and others say things to Jeffrey like, “You’re such a lazy boy! You’re good for nothing.” Frequently they called him, “the little monster.” Anyone ever been called hurtful names? I’m guessing all of us have. When some called you names, how did that make you feel?
      In Isaiah, other countries have been calling Israel all sorts of names. “Ha ha! Babylon won the war, knocked down your walls, took your leaders, and made your country a wasteland. Hey, your name isn’t Israel after all. I bet your name is ‘Deserted’ because not only are your streets deserted, but your God deserted you!’ ‘No wait,’ said someone else. ‘I know, your name is ‘Desolate.’ Your country is a wasteland and no one loves you.” From where the Jews sat in Babylon, there seemed to be a lot of truth to those names. That’s what really hurts about the names people call us. We start to wonder, “Maybe it’s true.”
     But the worst hurt comes when we start calling ourselves names and really mean it. How many of you have ever been so mad at yourself that you said something like, “I can’t believe you did that. You are so stupid!” The times when we are most likely to do that is when we fail at something, and (if you are like me) we are the nastiest about it we make a promise and blow it. This is often especially true when we try to change long-standing habits and fail. If we try to change and blow it enough times, we begin to say things to ourselves like, “You are such a loser. What a failure.” And that can take us down a dark road into depression, tension, anger and despair. Calling ourselves these names may even make it more likely that we will blow it again, and when we do, that takes us further down the road in a vicious cycle that makes our lives seem darker and darker. Whether other people call us names or we call ourselves names, when we believe all the rottenness that comes at us, we become slaves. Slaves? Oh yes, we can be dominated by these ideas about who we are. If we let them, they will rule our lives and darken our days. Paul writes, “…when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.”
     Lots of forces push against us every day, trying to name us, to define us. Those who sell things try to persuade us to define ourselves with their products. They define us by their stuff and they make money. The powerful call us ‘powerless’ so that they can have more power. Bullies will try to label us ‘weak’ so they can push us around, use or abuse us for their own gratification. Others will label us ‘immoral’ so they can feel all goodie-two-shoes about themselves. The forces that name us want us to believe they are the ones that matter, that we have to “give them their due,” that “that’s just the way it is.” It’s so easy to fall into a place where we feel boxed in and hopeless in the face of this, more subtle name-calling. That’s just where these people, these forces, want us to be.
     And if we are honest, we do our own name-calling, don’t we? Sometimes we internalize the messages we receive and pass them on to others. We do it with our words, our actions, our thoughts and our dreams. We participate in the “name-calling” when we don’t stand up for those who are being bullied or treated unjustly. We participate in the “name-calling” when we show less honor to someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, or socio-economic status. Oh yes, we do our own name-calling, don’t we?
     To my knowledge, there is only one way out of slavery to the name-calling, only one way out of bondage to our habits, and that path lies through Jesus. Jesus knows what to do with the names that others give us and the ones that we give ourselves. And Jesus can transform us by His grace, so that we can uncouple ourselves from these forces and stop the negative name-calling we do. Paul writes “now that you have come to know God, or more importantly to be known by God…” When our oldest, Morgan, was in elementary school, she went through a period where she got sadder and quieter. When we asked her about it, she shared that she was being bullied. It had started with name-calling. We asked her what kinds of names do they call you, and she told us. “And you believed her?” we asked. “Do we call you those things?” She shook her head. “Why would you believe her? She doesn’t even know you!” Imagine how much more we are known by God, how the grace of God defines us, how we can be transformed just by believing that we are loved!
     That’s what God longs to do with each of us. When we give our hearts and lives over to Jesus, God tells us our real names. They are who we really are, the persons God created each of us to be. For the children of Israel, God was going to change their name from “Deserted” to “My Delight Is in Her.” Instead of “Desolate,” God was going to make her “Married” because of God’s great love and God’s great desire for intimacy and trust with the children of Israel…and with us. In Galatians, Paul talks about how the name “Slave” is replaced with “Son” or “Daughter.” And the implications of that are huge:  we are wanted; we are loved; we are provided for; we will never be alone; we can talk with God and know God listen. Paul even writes that because our name is no longer “Slave” but “Son” or “Daughter,” we can actually call God, “Daddy.” God wants us to come close!
     Not long after our pool times at the deGarza house began, Mom asked if Jeffrey would like to come to our house before nursery school and then Mom would take him. It added a certain amount of craziness to our family life and seemed unnecessary to me, so I asked Mom why she would offer to do this with Jeffrey. She said, “I wanted there to be at least one place where people spoke kindly to him.” She paused, then added, “People tend to become what they are called. If you call someone “little monster” long enough, pretty soon they begin to believe it. I wanted Jeffrey to hear people call him the names God has for him.” And that’s our mission! Sure, this is a great time to consider leaving our old ways and our old selves behind, to let God erase the old, negative names we have been called or have called ourselves, and to ask God to share with us our real names. But this is also a great time for us to decide to use the God-given names for people, rather than the ones others have come up with. What if, like the Jesus, we set about the work of erasing the rottenness of the world’s names for people, and reminded them instead of the names God gave them?

 

Explosive Grace: Instant Promotion

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Do you remember playing dress up? Or maybe you remember your kids playing dress up? What were your favorite things to dress up as?

     [Take responses from the congregation.]

     Did you every wear your parents’ clothes?

     In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves in Christ.” This powerful image of being “clothed in Christ,” gives us a some key insights into what life in Christ is meant to be.
     First, we are meant to find our primary identity in Christ. Clothes tell us a lot about someone, don’t they? In fact, most of the time we choose our clothes to say certain things about ourselves. If we wear Patriots, Red Sox or Celtics gear, we are identifying with that team. Can you imagine wearing your Red Sox gear in New York City? One of my friends is a NY Yankees fan—I know, there’s no accounting for taste—and he had the courage and fortitude to wear his Yankees gear to a Red Sox game. Boy! Did he catch it from the Red Sox fans! They didn’t care about how kind and gentle he is. The generous people there recognized him as a baseball fan and might respect him for that, but it was a long night for my buddy. Being clothed in Christ means—whatever we are wearing—for us belonging to Christ and living for Christ is the most important part of who we are.
     Second, we are reminded of the closeness of our relationship to Christ. I love raiding my Dad’s closet. Many years ago, I “stole” a wonderful, very unique sweater. Initially, it smelled like him, but has always reminded me of my cool Dad. I have depended on it to kept me warm on cold days. Wearing that sweater is like getting a hug from my Dad. In some ways it’s better—I can’t have Dad hugging me everywhere I go, but I can wear the sweater! When we are clothed with Jesus, there’s a rich intimacy to the experience. Just as my sweater is close to me, so is Jesus, embracing me as I travel on my day. I depend on Christ to keep me warm when the world can be so cold. Just as we can feel our clothing if we take a moment to focus, so we can experience the intimate feel of Jesus if we are mindful.
     Finally, we are to imitate Christ. When I was a kid, I loved trying on my Dad’s clothes. I really couldn’t imagine that I would ever be big enough to fit in them, but I knew I wanted to be like him when I grew up. When we were playing dress up, we were really trying on an identity, trying to experience a piece of what it was like to be an astronaut, princess, lawyer, mom or dad. In our minds, we believed the phrase, “the clothes maketh a person.” In a sense, being clothed in Christ means we want to grow up to be like Him. Whatever we are wearing, our prayer is that others will see grace and honesty, kindness and justice, sacrifice and spiritual maturity, joy and truth—that they will see Christ in us.
     In our society, clothes are often used to set up divisions—Red Sox or Yankees, rich or poor, weak or powerful, male or female, goth, gay, ethnic—they are all divisions we can often see in clothes and manners. Part of what Paul wants the Galatians to do is to look past the clothes, to see Christ on each other. That’s why Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “No longer Jew or Greek” means cultural barriers just don’t matter, and we can accept one another without one group feeling superior or inferior. “No longer slave or free” means God looks past finances, manners and immigration status; and we are called to do the same. “No longer male or female” means we see people’s giftedness before we see their gender. Paul is talking about how Christians are to see other Christians—to look for Christ first in each other. But more importantly, to see that we are all heirs of the promise in Jesus Christ. Because Christ has come upon us, clothed us in the richness of His sacrifice, we recognize we have all received a promotion—to first-born, full-inheritance status. May the prayers of our hearts be “Lord, I want You at the core of my identity, in the deepest places of who I am. Lord, help me be mindful of how close You really are, and help me live like You, longing for grace to be the most obvious part of who I am. Help us to see Christ in each other! Come, Lord, Jesus, and be the intimate focus of our lives!”

 

Explosive Grace: E Pluribus Unum

by Rev. Doug Gray


Every once in a while there’s a law just makes you wonder. For example, according to Reader’s Digest:

     •    Did you know that in Alaska, it’s illegal to be drunk in a bar? Ummmmm.
     •    In Chico, California it’s illegal to build, maintain or use a nuclear weapon?
     •    In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce when dropped from a height of 1 foot.
     •    In French Lick Springs, IN—black cats have to wear bells on Friday the 13th,
           “The rule was introduced on October 13, 1939, ‘as a war measure to alleviate mental
           strain on the populace…’”
     •    In Wells, Maine—it’s illegal to advertise on a tombstone. Because that population
          can’t go anywhere?
     •    In Nevada—illegal to determine someone’s shoe size with an x-ray machine.
     •    In New Hampshire—you can’t collect seaweed at night.
     •    In Oklahoma—No “horse-tripping” events…oh and no bear wrestling either.
     •    In Memphis, TN—You have to have a permit for begging. It used to cost $10,
           but now it’s free.
     •    In Utah—It’s a felony to hurl a missile into a bus terminal, unless you are an
          appointed officer of the peace or commercial security personnel. How is that a
          good idea for anyone?
     •    In Vermont—They passed a law, that there can never be a law prohibiting
          clotheslines. Disaster averted!
    •    In at least two counties in the state of Washington—It’s against the law
         to poach Sasquatches on someone else’s property. [1]

Part of me thinks these laws are ridiculous, but you know these laws come from somewhere. Why do we even have laws? This question underlies Paul’s argument to the Galatians today, and his answer is one that defines our country, and could define our lives as well.
     First, we have laws because people push and cross boundaries. Paul writes, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” What makes me a little nervous about the laws I listed up above, is that every one of them has a story. The folks in Chico wanted to make it clear they didn’t want anything to do with weapons of mass destruction. The folks in Vermont wanted to make sure they could always use clotheslines. But also the dark side of humanity:  if we make panhandlers purchase a permit, then maybe we won’t have so many panhandlers, perhaps trying to make the poor less visible. The laws help us know where the boundaries are. For most of us, we would rather stay within those boundaries. But we can’t make enough laws to cover everything, to take into account every hard-hearted or ill-considered idea. We need the rule of law, as Paul says, these boundaries “imprisoned and guarded” us. We can think of the law as a way to teach us what not to do.
     But second, we wouldn’t need laws if our hearts were right. Paul writes, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Imagine for a moment, if we were all as loving and gracious as Jesus. How would we treat the people around us? What would we choose to do today? Imagine for a moment, if we were to say to God, as Jesus did, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Imagine just for a breath-taking moment, what would happen if you brought a bunch of people together who were all living that way? Where Moses’ Law in the Old Testament is mostly “Thou shalt nots,” Jesus teaches “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s huge! But harder, because in order to walk in the way of love, we have to think and feel, to pray and consider. How is God leading us? What does God want us to say or do? If our hearts are right, then we would always be in a living conversation with God, transformed by Christ—which is really what God longs for, right?
     Underneath American society at it’s best is this deep, rich, transformational undercurrent. Here’s the way one former president put it in 2004:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. [2]

This idea of “E pluribus unum”—out of many, one—has its roots in passages just like ours today. Paul is talking about what life as a Christian is meant to be—knowing we are all children of God. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The genius of America is that it took that truth to heart—there’s no white America, Asia America, black America, or Latino America—there is only the United States of America. There are no Red States or Blue States, only the United States of America. What divides us is not as strong as what unites us.
     On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who have given their lives for our nation and for each of us. We have patriots who have fought in wars and patriots who have protested wars. But always we must be grateful for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice because they have done it for all of us, so that we might have the freedom to follow God as our conscience dictates. The fact of the matter is that when we put Christ at the center of our lives, surrendering to God’s direction, allowing our hearts to be transformed by Christ’s love, something extraordinary happens:  we live for more than just ourselves. When we live for Christ, our lives go beyond what is legal, to what is a blessing, beyond what the law can demand, to how grace can transform not just us, but the world.


[1]Reader’s Digest at https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/dumbest-laws-america/

[2]From Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. Quoted from Al Franken’s book

Grace and Justice: How Should We Do Justice?

by Rev. Doug Gray

We started this series—Grace and Justice—with a simple statement: “The world isn’t working.” We talked about how God does justice to make it work. In fact, defending the defenseless, caring for the vulnerable, and welcoming the stranger are all part of God’s character and so God calls us to do justice in two ways: to make wrong things right and to live right. If we love God and want to know God, then we have to do justice. We also talked about grace—the grace of Jesus Christ—not only in forgiving us and including us, but strengthening and guiding us for showing grace in our justice. With Jesus’ help, we can make the new community where grace is the driving force. And last week, we lifted the hood to look at the engine of grace—learning to recognize the image of God in everyone and always remembering with great humility, how God has shown us grace and drawn us into a warm embrace before we deserved it. Today, we tie all of this together as we try to answer the question, “How do we do justice?”

Robert Frost, the great American poet, once wrote,

            Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
            That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
            And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
            And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.[1]

Here in Quincy, we get that, but we know that it applies to streets with their potholes, sidewalks with tree-roots pushing up, and sea walls trying to hold back the storm surges. “Something there is that doesn’t love a human restriction” and that finds a way to break it down or break it up. But we live in a time when our nation and our world seem to really like walls. We put up walls of partisan politics, and privacy fences in our back yards. Our communities and states are increasingly dividing up by economic and social class—so that the poor, the rich and the middle class don’t have to mix too much. The very neighborhood in which we sit has a causeway that generally keeps crime and violence. We separate our generations too—children and parents go their separate ways most days and come back together at the end of the day, and those who require special care we institutionalize. The Israelis have put up a wall between them and the Palestinians. Some would like to build a wall between us and Mexico. Oh yes, our society and our world like walls. In a world that loves walls, how do we do justice?
     First, we focus God’s love on people first. Alright, so think with me. When Jesus came, did He build a worship space? Did He gather focus groups and then create a plan of action? Did Jesus look for the most rebellious people to start a revolution to sweep away the opposition? Jesus said, “Follow me,” and then He lived a life completely devoted to making God’s grace real to the people around Him. Whenever we see Jesus at work, He is focused on people. Jesus is living out what Job says about rescuing people crying out, caring for the fatherless and making the widow sing for joy. So we should always focus God’s love on the people who need it, especially the person in front of us. In a world that makes walls, we can focus on the people not the walls. Grace is bigger than walls.
     Second, we become hole-makers and bridges. One of my favorite comicbooks in the 70s told of a young person smuggling Bibles into East Germany and Russia. Of course, during the Cold War, the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain were atheist, so smuggling Bibles meant some super-secret spy stuff that sounded very cool to me. I later learned that some of my extended family had smuggled Bibles into the Ukraine in the 1980s as a part of an agricultural mission. They were put in contact with Christians through their work, and they brought much longed for Christian fellowship and encouragement. In a sense, my cousins poked a hole in the “wall” between East and West, but we can also make bridges. In 1998, I was having pancakes, two eggs and bacon with a group of businessmen from my church just north of Milwaukee. We were reading a book called, The Renewing of American Compassion:  How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens into Heroes, by Marvin Olasky. [2] (In part because of this book, Olasky would become an advisor to George W. Bush ahead of his

2000 campaign.) We read about the way our society has found ways to distance people from caring for the poor, and how in many cities, that has become about dividing races and opportunities. We looked around the table—all white guys in their 50s and up (except me)—all living in the very white suburbs, attending a very white church, and all with great access to wealth and opportunity. What if we worked with a like-minded African-American church to make a bridge between our communities and open up opportunities for people of both churches? That group of 8 guys, kindled by the Holy Spirit, sparked a roaring fire for change in our church that led to a search for a sister-church that was as black as we were white. For the next five years, these two churches covenanted to build a bridge between two very different cultures and experiences, and people found new opportunities for serving and for employment. When society puts up walls, do we find ways to poke a hole and become a real, loving, grace-filled human being to someone on the other side? Can we bridge the gaps of gender and race, age and economics, so that people can cross to our side and we can to theirs?

Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and he talks about the irresistible forces of nature, and later even hints that he knows what it might be, but you and I are here today because we know that “Something” is really “Someone.” Paul writes, “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance… Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14, 16) It’s not that our differences disappear, but that in Jesus, our differences don’t have to limit us. Democrats and Republicans—we all long for Jesus to change and renew us. Conservative and liberal—we know God’s Kingdom has come when our kids can play together and have hope for a better tomorrow. Whether you are sure in your faith, exploring the idea of faith, or not sure you have a faith—we all came today hoping God would show up, that something would change in us, that God’s love and grace might penetrate the walls of our hearts, and that we would find a way to make Jesus more Lord of our lives than He was yesterday—we came to find God today. Perhaps we want to learn how to focus on loving people first. Perhaps we want to be better hole-makers and bridges. No, walls are generally not God’s idea. Humans build walls. God builds a home. When we are together, we are not strangers or aliens, rich or poor, insiders or outsiders—we are family, built on Jesus Christ. When we are family, justice looks a lot like grace.


[1]https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall

[1]Marvin Olasky, The Renewing of American Compassion:  How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens into Heroes (1996)