September 16, 2001
Proper 19
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 32:7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

The Underlined / Linked Text above will take you to
a Sermon on the Gospel Reading


Amazing Grace
1 Timothy 1:12-17

"There are times when I am deathly afraid that most everyone I know would want nothing to do with me if they really knew me."

The young woman who sat in my office, pouring out her soul was in the midst of wondering why her second husband had abandoned her and their four children without warning. It must be something so horrible in herself, she reasoned, that no man would ever want to stay with her.

Like many people in our culture today, she lives in relative isolation from others and does not feel good at all about who she is. She could not imagine that the problem with her two failed marriages could be anything other than herself. She also had no way of seeing that she had set herself up for failure because of her inner belief that she did not deserve any better.

This woman could not remember either of her parents hugging her or saying, "I love you." Can you imagine?  She did not know how to be loved. That's a dramatic thing to say, but it is at the heart of much of the inner pain and anguish some people experience every single day.  Get hold of this:  If we have not received love when we are maturing in childhood, we will not know how to be loved when we are older. We will be hungry and even starved for love, but we will not know how to receive it and we will unconsciously subvert any genuine love that comes our way.

In the movie, "Good Will Hunting," a brilliant young man has all it takes to lift himself from the South Boston Irish ghetto that he and his friends are trapped in. Abused as a child, Will had never been in a loving relationship and having discovered the woman who had the potential to become the love of his life, he subverted the relationship and drove her away. Having never learned how to be loved, he could not receive the real thing when it came his way. The bottom line in his emotional life was that he did not know how.

Just over 30 years ago a Jesuit priest, John Powell wrote a book entitled, "Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?"  The book has sold millions of copies and remains in print to this day. Powell's simple thesis is that people hide who they really are from others because of one basic fear. He describes this basic fear in an actual conversation he had with someone.

Powell:  "I am writing a booklet, to be called, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am.

Other:   "Do you want an answer to your question?"

Powell:  "That is the purpose of the booklet, to answer the question."

Other:   "But do you want my answer?"

Powell:  "Yes, of course I Do."

Other:   "I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have."

Another, somewhat related reason people do not fully let others know who they really are is a fear that when all is said and done, they don't measure up. A college friend once said to me, "I feel like a slow learner in a Phi Beta Kappa world!"  He grew up with a very heavy dose of, "Why can't you be more like _______. (almost anyone his mother could think of) If you grew up under the eye of a critical parent, you know the feeling of never quite being able to reach the top of the mountain of approval. There were a lot of "buts - when it came to your grades or athletic efforts or projects. "That's nice honey, but if you had...."   or  "I think it's nice you got a B son, but it would really be nice if you got an A..."  or  "It's wonderful that you got an honorable mention at the science fair sweetie, but did you know Susie Jones got a gold medal?"

If any of this sounds familiar, you would find John Powell's book an eye opener and it might even provide a nudge toward healing.

***

Our epistle reading from First Timothy contains a statement which is in stark contrast to the tendency we have to hide our inner frailties. In fact, the writer shines a light on his weakness for all to see. Listen once again,

"This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the foremost."

The New Living Translation makes it even more plain:

"This is a true saying and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- and I was the worst of them all."

How can someone reveal such a thing? The answer to that question is crucial because it points to the only real source of healing for and freedom from the inner anguish so many live with.

We want to take a quick look at a part of the answer to the question and then come back and work it through. The answer to healing for our broken inner person is this:

The the sin and brokenness of humankind is great...
    but the grace of God is greater still. In fact, it is amazing!"

All of us have issues to sort out related to the growth of our inner lives. Some people who have serious inner struggles with who they are may need therapy to work through the excess baggage that prevents them from living fully.

This is precisely where our Christian faith enters the picture. The word therapy comes from the greek word "therapeuo" - which is most frequently translated as "healing." The ministry of Jesus Christ was centered in preaching, teaching and healing. At its heart, the grace of God is the healing or therapy that we need to come to terms with who we are - not just as human beings, but as children of God. The First letter of John describes this fact by saying, "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." [1 John 3:1]

In our epistle reading, Paul notes that he was, "...a blasphemer, persecutor, and a man of violence..."  No kidding! He was there when Stephen was martyred for his faith by being stoned to death and may even have had a role in the execution. Christian people went into hiding in fear when Paul came to town seeking to bring them up on charges before the Jewish council.

"But," he says, "I received mercy... and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."  Not only that, Paul says that he is evidence to everyone else that if he can receive God's grace and love, anybody can receive God's grace and love.

It is truly, "Amazing Grace!"

***

There is a kind of vicious cycle that keeps people from finding inner peace. Apart from God's healing grace, we can never get away from what might be described as an inner prosecuting attorney with a condemning spirit.

The fear John Powell speaks of -- that people would not like us if they really knew who we are -- does have a basis in reality. It is true, as scripture points out, that none of us measures up fully to God's good design for our lives. We do, in fact subvert our own best intentions. Then that inner voice begins to accuse and we are likely to hide a bit deeper within. Then the inner accusations gain strength and we hide even more.

All of us have ways to cope with this situation and develop a "persona" or way of presenting ourselves to the world. The "me" you see is not one hundred percent the "me" I know.

Some persons have a critical persona which is critical of everyone and everything. That protects them from their own inner person they are secretly and persistently critical of.

Others have a savior persona which wants to save and take care of everyone and everything. The savior persona is meant to protect the inner person from people thinking badly of him or her. How could anyone not like someone who is always helping others or saving the day?

One of the more difficult personas is the negative persona. The negative persona sees everyone and everything is such negative terms that the inner person feels more at home. It's not so bad that I am so bad if everyone else is so bad!

Therapy can help, but God's grace can heal.

Because God knows you for who you really are and loves you regardless of who you are -- you can break free of that inner prosecuting attorney and from the attitudes and expectations of others. If the Lord God of this universe knows you, loves you and redeems you, then there is no one to fear. This is beautifully expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." [Rom. 8:33-34 - NIV]

The whole idea of God's amazing grace is so wonderful that Paul concludes our scripture with this doxology:

"To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Reflection on the Texts

Our lectionary readings today have the most amazing variety of perspectives on sin and repentance. Exodus gives God's view of sin while Luke gives God's view of the sinner. Both the passage from Psalms and I Timothy give the sinner's view of God. Exodus is a kind of "Gimme that old time religion" with fire and brimstone, while Luke is filled with love and forgiveness. Psalm 51 is the cry of one who is in anguish and guilt ridden and I Timothy is the song of one who has found release from the bondage of sin.

NOTE: We are experimenting with linking the lessons to Bible Gateway over the next few weeks. You need to be online to use this function, but when you click on the lessons (and some texts referred to in the notes) you will go to the passage at the Bible gateway site. The text will be in RSV, but you can read the text in several different versions when you are at the Bible Gateway site. If you explore the different versions, there are footnotes and other helps that may enhance your study along with our notes and sermon suggestions.

Let us know if this is helpful for your study.  It takes a bit of time, but if it helps we will continue the practice. If we do not hear from you - we will not continue the links.

Exodus 32:7-14

When  Moses is called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God calls them, "My people..."  Now the journey to the Promised Land is underway and God's people have consistently proven to be fickle in their devotion to God and weak in keeping the laws they were given to follow.

Now they have become totally corrupt and are calling a golden calf their god. Now the people are Moses' people. God says to Moses, Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely." [v.7] The implication is that God has disowned the people. Instead of this stubborn people, God will make Moses the patriarch of a new nation.

Moses pleads for them in one of the great intercessory ministries in the entire biblical drama. He literally changes their destiny with his prayer. This event raises the whole question of God's immutability and whether the Divine actually has a "change of mind."  (There is a good definition of the term "repent" as a change of mind or change of heart in the old King James translation of Ex. 32:14 - "And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.")

Moses "reminds" God of the promises that were made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The language of the text seems to say that Moses' powers of persuasion brought about a change of heart. [See the sermon and notes for July 29, 2001 for more on the issue of God's "change of mind."]

Luke 15:1-10   [Notes from last cycle]

v.1 This parable begins a long section in Luke 15-19 which is largely unique to Luke and shows Jesus' exceptional concern for the social outcasts of his day. It was a general principle of the Pharisees that one did not enter into "table fellowship" with those whose moral and / or ritual cleanliness was in question. Galileans were sometimes generalized by the Pharisees as "sinners". Other than actual participation in the actual acts of "sin" or law breaking -- eating with "sinners" is a most egregious sin. (See Lk. 5:27-32)

v.2 "Grumbling" = "diagogguzo" Complaining that runs through a crowd... a general "ain't it awful" runs through the self-righteousness of those who see the tax collectors and "sinners" (unacceptable people) as beneath them. They, on the other hand are the "favored of God".

**Note on Lk.19:10 "...to seek and to save that which was lost" "lost" = "apollumi" A very strong word. The root is destruction, death, ruin. The gospel in a nutshell is that Jesus came to search for and to bring salvation / wholeness to the one who was destroyed, lost, devastated.

vv.3-7 It is striking that the key element in story of the lost sheep is the joy of "finding". The shepherd put the sheep on his shoulders and "rejoices". Then he calls his friends to "rejoice" with him. Finally, Jesus talks about the great "joy" there will be in heaven over the sinner who repents. Jesus is saying that his ministry of seeking and receiving "sinners" is pleasing to God. This is instructive for the community of faith today.

vv.8-10 The parable of the lost coin offers a "second" for Jesus' ministry of welcoming sinners. There is a powerful dual question here: "What is the Pharisee's view of sinners?" and "What is Jesus' / God's view of sinners?" This begs the question: "And what is ours?"


1 Timothy 1:12-17

Paul's primary sense of shame came from the fact that he persecuted the church and fought hard against the spread of the gospel which he came to embrace. When he encountered Christ, he came to understand that it was actually Christ he was persecuting. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" When Paul asks who the voice belongs to, the stunning answer comes, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." [Acts 9: 4-5] In spite of this, the grace of God "overflows" for him with the faith and love which are in Christ.

In spite of the fact that Paul calls himself the "chief" or "worst" of all sinners, the fact is that he did everything he could to live a faultless life as a Pharisee. His shame comes after his encounter with Christ and an understanding that he was simply on the wrong side of good. There is a strong lesson here. Paul was likely the kind of person as a Pharisee who would make a good neighbor, he was a moral, good living person - not your average "bad guy." The fact is that if we look deep enough within, there are places that are in much need of the grace of God!

When we have encountered that grace and the God who loves us more than we love ourselves - we will arrive at the same destination of praise that drove him to express the doxology of verse 17.

 


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 51)

L: May your love and mercy be upon us today, O Lord.
P: Cleanse and refresh us from every transgression.
L: Let your joy and gladness dawn in our spirits.
P: And the recreating power of your Spirit make us new.
L: Have mercy upon us O God,
P: And let your Spirit lead us in truth and righteousness. Amen.

 

A Prayer of Confession

Give us courage, Lord, that we might search the deepest and darkest corners of our being for anything that offends your holy name. Give us mercy that we might stand in the brilliance of your light. Give us grace that we might go from this assembly cleansed from our sin and refreshed for your service. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

May God who is gracious and full of compassion grant us true repentance and forgive us of all our sins according to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you all thanks and praise of God of grace and mercy. You have blessed us more than we could ever imagine and have filled our lives with good things. Your grace has made us free from the ravages of sin and grief and your Spirit has renewed us and given us a new relationship with you and with your people.

O gracious Lord, we pray that you would give us the joy of truly being bearers of the good news of Christ. Let your love be in our words and your grace and mercy in our actions. How much you have honored us O Lord God by trusting us with this ministry of reconciliation. We give thanks to you O Lord for the joy of your Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to do all you have given us to do.

You have called us your children and have formed us into this family of faith. All glory and honor are due your Holy Name and we shall join with your children of every age in singing your praises forever and ever.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Who are we, O Lord, that you should receive gifts from our hands? What greater way could you have chosen to make us so truly your children? As a child reaches out with simple gifts of love to a parent, so we reach out to you with gifts that reflect our love. As you have redeemed us from aimlessness and sin, so refresh us with the Spirit of Christ, that we might be fully given into your hands. Amen.