Monday, January 13, 2014

The Mystery of Grace

The town drunk wondered down to the river where he stumbled upon a church gathering.  The pastor was in the water baptizing people by immersion.  On seeing the drunk man, the pastor called out to him, “Do you want to find Jesus?  If so, then come in the river with me.”  The drunk man waded in where the pastor took hold of him and put him under the water saying, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  The pastor lifted up the drunk man and said, “Have you found Jesus?”  “Not yet,” the drunk replied.  So under the water he went a second time.  Again the pastor asked him, “Have you found Jesus?”  “No,” said the drunk.  Another time down and then the same question, “Have you found Jesus yet?”  “No” said the drunk man, “Are you sure this is where he went under?  Perhaps we should search another part of the river.”

In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism.  It is a transformational moment for him.  Up to this point he has lived a remarkably quiet and unremarkable life.  For one proclaimed at birth to be born King of the Jews, Jesus has done nothing to demonstrate he merits the accolades lavished on him as an infant.  But on this day – at an age approaching his thirties… middle age, at least in that era – Jesus emerges from the Jordon River a changed person.  For him the transformation is not about moving from sinfulness to clean living.  It is about moving from aimlessness to purpose; from a clouded self-perception to a sure and certain identity.  “You are my Son,” he hears a heavenly voice proclaim.  “Beloved.”  “With you I am well pleased.”  This is the moment and this is the experience that launches his public ministry.  Jesus is never the same again.

And while Jesus’ call to be the Messiah is unique, his experience of God is not.  Any and every authentic religious experience is initiated like this one… by God.  Sure, we can help by making ourselves available, by paying attention, by walking into the water and being submerged, but it is always God who reaches out to us first.  It is God who initiates contact and relationship.   And when God reaches out to us, be it through a moment that explodes like fireworks or stills us to a place of profound quiet and peace, life is never the same.

Have you read any of Anne Lamott’s books?  Travelling Mercies, Grace (Eventually), Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essentials of Prayer are just a few of her works.  Her books, which are honest and largely autobiographical, reveal what an interesting life she has led.  She was raised in what can only be described as a dysfunctional family.  By the time she was in her teens Anne was an alcoholic and drug abuser.  Some of her writing chronicles the depths to which her life sank and how she recovered.  She also writes openly about life as a single mother and about how faith weaves in and out through it all.  Reflecting on her experience Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Perhaps you can relate to that.  Perhaps it is hard for you to articulate exactly just how God reached out to you, but you do know that you are not the person you were before.  I am sure Jesus could say, “The mystery of grace met me in waters of baptism, but it did not leave me there.” 

Where did God’s grace meet you?  Where has God’s grace taken you? 

I suspect that the average person, if asked, would say that being religious is about doing certain things: reading the bible, trying to go to church on Sundays, being a ‘good’ person, helping others… that kind of thing.  They might say that not being religious means you don’t go to church, you don’t pray, you don’t read the bible, you may drink and swear too much, and so on. 

But let’s think about Jesus prior to being baptized.  He grew up reading the Scriptures.  He attended worship in his hometown synagogue.  I think we can assume he lived a fairly good life (he was not a murderer or a thief as best we can tell).  It may surprise you to hear me say prior to his experience at baptism I would not say he was religious; if by religious you mean deeply, authentically spiritually connected to God.  I would say he was devout.  He was doing all the right things as best he could.  The authentic religious experience that grips him at baptism comes from beyond.  He does not initiate it.  God does.  And his life is changed forever.  Yes, Jesus remains devout, but from this point forward his religion is animated by God’s continual presence through the Holy Spirit.  It transforms his prayer, his worship, and his approach to ethics and other people.  And eventually it transforms the world.

As I said, it was for Jesus not a conversion of morality but of identity.  In that moment, when he heard that voice, he came to know and believe that he was God’s Son.  Think about a time when you had what I am calling an authentic, animating religious experience; a time when you were taken hold of by the mystery of grace.  Did that moment call into question how you were living your life or did it challenge you to see yourself in a new way?  Was it about morality or was it about identity?    

The writer Evelyn Underhill observed that we humans spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do.  Our existence, she says, is caught up in craving, clutching, and fussing about things material, political, social, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  We are kept, she says, in a state perpetual unrest.  Underhill writes, “None of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of the spiritual life.”

Underhill is on to something deceptively simple but greatly profound about our identity in God’s eyes: It is not what we want, what we have, or what we do that defines us.  It is who we are and who we are is defined first, foremost, and always by God.  We are God’s children, beloved, and pleasing.  Hearing this, accepting this, and learning this – what Underhill calls “being” – is at the heart of the spiritual life and is the inner, transformational fruit of any authentic religious experience. 

Here is something that happens to us all the time: We meet somebody new and have to introduce ourselves.  What do you say to the question ‘who are you?’  Obviously, the first thing we say is our name… I am Keith.  But who are you really?  I am a man, a priest, an American, a father.  But who are you?  I know it is not social custom, but the first answer we should give – and, ultimately, the only answer that really matters – is “I am a child of God, beloved, and pleasing.”  That is the core of who you are.  It is the core of who I am.  It is the only thing about us that cannot be changed or altered. 

What does change and alter is our own awareness of this truth.  Evelyn Underhill writes, “Whatever our small practice, belief, or experience may be, nothing can alter the plain fact that God, the Spirit of spirits, the Life-giving Life, has made or rather is making each person… for Himself; and that our lives will not achieve stability until they are ruled by this truth.”  The mystery of grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it finds us!

If you have never been encountered by the mystery of grace let me encourage you to continue to be devout.  Come to church.  Read the bible.  Say your prayers.  Do what is right.  I can’t say why God has not reached out to you, but I believe that God will.  God desires to know you deeply and to be known by you.  And whether you know it or not, and even if cannot name it, God is at work in your life, making you, molding you into something to fill a holy purpose.  Perhaps someday God will show you what that is, but never doubt that through devotion you are living into it and moving toward it even now.