In the very first part of the recording of this sermon, you hear (or don't hear) my boss stop the service to tell the congregation that someone is double parked and has blocked in someone who has an emergency and needs to leave.... I transition from that announcement into my sermon ....
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This morning’s collect or prayer of the day is short but one of the most powerful in our collection. It’s the kind of prayer that lends itself to be repeated…
O God, because without you we are not able to please you mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
God, without you we are not able to please you.
That one sentence sticks in my craw and upsets the bootstrap independent in me.
God, without you we are not able to please you.
If we turn to the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, vs 44 we find Jesus drops this bomb in the laps of the Pharisees. (and also into our laps and lives)
44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. (ESV)
We hear this verse in the context of the feeding of the 5000 when, the day after that holy meal, some of the same people hunt Jesus down wanting more signs and to witness more miracles…But Jesus takes that opportunity to explain to them that what God really wants to do is to feed their souls and not just their stomachs. And that God had drawn them into the presence of Jesus for an eternal reason not just an earthly one.
And so as I have contemplated this prayer from last Monday until today I find myself repenting of self centeredness and then rejoicing that some of the pressure is off from my fundamentalist attempts to please God with MY plans, and MY ideas, and MY creativity. God is blessed by my efforts but I take more pride in them than they are worth…
And I am assured by scripture that the Lord Himself will reach into my inadequacies and will create, shape and fabricate the behavior, habits and adoration that honor Him fully….
What a relief. What a blessing.
Because who am I after all?…
Well I thought you’d never ask…
I am the Israelite, fresh out of bondage. I beg for help from heaven and it is given to me and I complain anyway. I look forward to a new and blessed life in the Lord but I hold on tight to the securities of my slave life that I have left behind.
And what’s worse…like the people of Israel who rebelled when Moses had left them for too long….I, when I do not get the good and warm feelings and benefits of worship and being in the Lords presence…when it becomes more work for me to pray than a natural act I turn to what the world has to offer to fill my needs….materialism…...gossip… envy and reality tv. Those are my Golden Calves…. Those are my standby idols…what are yours?
Somehow, every once in a while, I stifled the flow of the Holy Spirit into my life. I narrow the valve to my heart…. even without being conscious of it, I build a wall that stops the circular stream of heaven to heart and heart to heaven…
Most times what happens then is that I find myself a in dark time….usually a few days of depression or anxiety…it’s during these times that I am most vulnerable to the work of evil in my life…my self esteem can be battered my self worth takes a hit…my self importance rises to compensate and my conceit meter reaches the red zone…all to balance my insecurity…
then over the noise I am making to fill the space created by my crisis….powered only by my meager resources… I hear the call of Savior once again…a small voice that cuts through my inattention and breaks loose the stiffness in my neck so that I am able to turn back into the light…. The light is turned on and I recognize the idols I’ve built and tear them down …..and slowly begin to repent and return to my God guided Journey to the Goals God has set for me.
And so my life moves on… with this ebb and flow of faith and faith struggle.
Recently the private letters of Mother Theresa have been published. Surprisingly, to some, it is a shock that a woman of faith, who lived in the squalor of Calcutta India, with lepers and aids victims, and the unwashed, and the unloved. Might, at times, experience what some call, the Dark night of the soul.
That someone who has been held up as the most Godly person on earth might slip and struggle, might sink into depression, might feel a hundred miles away from God.
To people outside the faith…it’s a sign that God is not real. I have been amazed at the articles that I have read that go as far as to say…see we told you. There is no God.
But to people who walk with Christ, in the church, in the walk of faith….her stumbling is familiar. Her insecurities are old friends.
While few of us have lives that parallel Mother Theresa, most of us have known those times when God feels especially close and connected and those times when, for some reason that we can’t fathom, He feels a million miles away…
Ann Graham Lotts tells the story about how one day, God took away the special rush of emotion she would get during worship…and then kept her in the ministry without that physical reinforcement of His presence in her life.
Was God less present? She doesn’t believe so…but He had called her to belief in Him and to worship him, and to love him… without the warm tingle, without the flush of heat…with out that reaction that so many of us treasure in worship.
And so the story of the dance of faith is ancient and current…
Just like God’s people in the desert. Just like those 5000 fed the miracle supper by our savior…Just like the church of Jesus Christ itself… three steps forward with Jesus… one step back without him…
O God, without you I am not able to please you.
So here’s the Good News…. Jesus wants us close to Him more than we want to be.
The God of the Universe desires our eternal company even if we don’t. The Heavenly strategy is to meet us where we are…at either high or low points in our lives…. Cover our imperfections with his mercy, grace and compassion, forgive us our trespasses, and welcome us back into the fold over and over… rejoicing and celebrating every time we return to Jesus….
And better news that that! He takes anybody…even, as we find in today’s Gospel, the people that are unclean, and despised, the unfaithful, and the self serving, Clemson and Carolina Alumns.
And wonder of wonders, they are offered the same door to paradise that Mother Theresa was offered.
The keys to heaven, the end to addiction, the healing of deep emotional wounds, the blessing of holy joy all wrapped in the gift of eternal life…all for saying yes to Jesus.
The same Jesus who drew near to sinners and ate with them…in spite of the contempt that he received from the good, the learned, and the faithful of His day.
In today’s Gospel, we find that, after the good, the learned, and the faithful saw Jesus sitting and eating with people they disapproved of, they went out into the church parking lot and grumbled after the service and asked Jesus, why do you hang around with this type of people? Why do you waste your time with the lost?
In my mind Jesus pauses for a moment….I think that this would be a great time for one of those pauses which makes people just a little edgy….and then, looking at his questioners as lovingly as he did the sinners at the dinner table, Jesus tells them something that they already know from scripture. God loves us and His desire is to redeem us all. After all…that’s the covenant plan ..to save the whole world. Gen 12: 3 God told Abraham:
I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (NKJV)
God wants to pry His way into our hearts and feed and nurture a desire for a relationship with Him through Jesus. And who better than God’s Son to reach out to those whom the church of that day had shunned as unclean and lost for eternity. Jesus is eternal.. He was their and our only hope.
O God, without you we are not able to please you.
The parables he tells them compare the energy that we humans put into preserving our wealth and well being with God’s drive to pull us out of our mess into His light. And He emphasizes the heavenly rejoicing that follows…
We don’t read the Psalm today, but I’m going to end with the psalm appointed for this Sunday.
King David, in all his imperfection, knew that He was flawed and needed God to redeem him. By the way, that’s not low self esteem, that’s Christian clarity. We can smile when we say those words…
I don’t know if he wrote Psalm 58 before or after Bathsheba, but it doesn’t matter…
The words spill down to us out of the past with a contemporary strength that applies today
In a moment, we are going to read this together…it’s on page 656.
But before we do …hear this…. God is not asking you to walk to Rome on your knees … God is not asking you to suffer in self denial or writhe in the agony of penitential act…. Christians are people of the light and confession and supplication are only a part of our walk and the rest is joy and celebration, a release from the Dark night of the Soul not and entrance into its clutches
For as we find in Jesus’ blessed parables of the Sheep and of the Coin: there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
And that, my friends is a real party.
There’s nothing depressing about that.
Turning to page 656 in the Book of Common prayer…let us, remaining seated and in unison, pray verses 1 to 18.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness *and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, *and my sin is ever before me.
Against you only have I sinned *and done what is evil in your sight.
And so you are justified when you speak *and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *a sinner from my mother's womb.
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *that the body you have broken may rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins *and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence *and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *and sinners shall return to you.
Deliver me from death, O God, *and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness,O God of my salvation.
Open my lips, O Lord, *and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (BCP)