Monday, July 13, 2015

Lavish Grace

Sermon notes for Proper 10B (7/12/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

I was reading this gospel narrative (Mark 6:14-29) once as a young deacon when, in the midst of the proclamation, a woman just got up from her seat and left. She left right in the middle of the gospel! She didn’t go home, though, for I would find her after Mass in the parish hall, enjoying a cup of coffee. I sat next to here. “I just didn’t come to church to hear that kind of story, not today. It’s just not very good news.” I don’t recall the woman’s story, not fully anyhow. There might have been something going on in her life. But really, can any of us blame her. It is a terrible story. Honestly, it's hard to say "Praise to you, Lord Christ!" after a story like that. It’s hard to find the good news in the beheading of John the Baptist.

So maybe we should just skip this narrative, reading the next one instead – the one where Jesus feeds the five-thousand. Yes, the feeding of the five-thousand is a happier, lovelier, and more joyful story. It is filled with a certain strangeness but it is a good, mysterious strangeness not the yucky, creepy strangeness found in Herod.

It is an odd coincidence that the story of Herod's horrible banquet runs right into the story where Jesus feeds everyone who comes and has some left over to boot. It’s not really, of course, a coincidence for Mark is a very clever writer. Mark wants these stories together. Mark wants the irony and highlights the contrast. The two stories go together even if we don’t hear them together in our lectionary cycle.

Notice the story of the feeding of five-thousand. Listen to the contrasts in the story, the oppositions that Mark makes sure that we hear.
  • Jesus withdrew to be alone, but a great crowd followed him.
  • It was a deserted place, but it became place of abundance.
  • The disciples said, "Send the people away," but Jesus said, "You give them something to eat."
  • There were only five loaves and two fish, but more than 5000 ate with 12 baskets left over.

I am sure that you can hear the contrasts. But the greatest contrast of all is found when we read Jesus' banquet of life in the context of Herod's banquet of death.

Notice some of the contrasts between the two stories.
  • Jesus went off to a deserted place, while Herod was in a lavish palace.
  • Jesus sat to teach his disciples, while Herod offered his gusts gluttony and lust.
  • Jesus was with a large crowd, the people who followed, while Herod invited just the select few, guests of power and worldly importance.
  • Jesus was a Jew who went away to a deserted place to rest with his Father, while Herod was a Jew who abandoned the Torah, replacing the God with empire.

It is a terrible story. Why did Herod give in?  He was grieved at the request but his guests had heard his oath. How could he disappoint his guests? So Herod gave the order and the head of John the Baptist was brought on a platter.

Herod’s was a very different banquet than the one given by Jesus. Herod’s feast was not the abundance of Jesus' feast. There were not twelve baskets of food left over only the platter with the head of the Baptizer. There was not life, only death.

In the end, though, Herod could have made a different choice. Herod could have chosen life but he chose death. He could have chosen freedom but chose to remain enslaved by his sins. He could have chosen the Kingdom of God but chose, instead, the empire of Caesar. Yes, Herod could have made a different choice.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, we are reminded of that other choice – of the choice of being connected to God. The author of the letter reminds us today that there is an amazing gift given to us because God loves us. Instead of being afraid like Herod…instead of being bound like Herod…instead of being corrupt like Herod we have blessing in the love of God.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
No fear, no binding, no corruption, just deep and joyful gratitude that we are empowered by God’s blessing.
  • God chose us before the foundation of the world
  • God adopted us as children
  • God redeemed us through the blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.
  • All of this according to the riches of God’s grace, which is lavished on us.

I remember being at a birthday party when the children were all decorating their own cupcakes. There was one little girl who was just piling on the chocolate frosting. She had piled on so much that it was oozing down onto her hands, squishy between her fingers. Then she poured on the sprinkles until they showered down onto her hands. And then she did the same with the candies. As she started to reach again for the frosting, I asked her, “Don’t you think that might be enough?” “Oh, no,” she replied, “It needs to be lavish.” I don’t know where she learned the word but it was priceless so I just let her keep on going.

God’s love is like that – lavish in its abundance, more than we really need, covering us fully and spilling over, sweet.

There really is no comparison between the kind of power that God gives us in love and the kind that people like Herod and Pilate and Nebuchadnezzar bear. Those latter people built their power on fear and corruption and treachery. Our power comes from the deep and abiding love of God. And then Ephesians tells us that “with all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of the divine will, according to God’s good pleasure that God set forth in Christ…”  

Sounds mysterious, eh? “The mystery of God’s will…to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” Can we understand that? God wants to gather up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. That is our inheritance!!

The question, though, remains: Is being gathered up into God’s love enough for us? We have to ask that question seriously and truthfully. It’s all fine to think about this as a future event – even a near future event – where we will be taken into heaven. But I think that misses the mark because God’s lavish grace is about now. What does it mean to be gathered up into God’s love now? It’s not a later sort of thing. It’s a now sort of thing.

So, two things to do to prepare yourself for this lavish grace. First, want it.  It is something that we must learn to want more and more. We must want to be delighted in the thought that God lavishes grace on us – spreads it out generously and joyfully – if only we’d be aware that it is happening. And when we do become aware, we must bathe ourselves in the abundance. We might ask what the consequences would be if we would only do this? Well, quite simply, it would change our lives. We might see the beauty in all God’s people and in all God’s creation, being willing to stand in solidarity with all God’s creatures, great and small. We might see our churches begin to fill again because others would see our witness and want to share what we have. We might learn to share our story in convincing and inviting ways.

Second, live it. Unlike Herod and the other like him, we don’t have to fight and connive to make the power of lavish grace real in our lives. We have the power, the inheritance of the saints in light. We have the example of Jesus and the witness of the evangelists. It’s a peace-giving, love-authorizing, freedom-bestowing, joy-filling, and hope-rendering sort of power that we have. We too, therefore, can lavish our grace, our care, our love on God’s world and on God’s people.
Remember, Ephesians reminds us that we are marked with seal of the Holy Spirit. We are destined to be God’s people here on earth. We can make no other choice.

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