@Galatians #grace #called #joy
Who here remembers the Boston Marathon bombings, the Hudson River Plane crash, or the death of Osama Bin Laden? All international incidents of significant interest and importance, all stories that were first broken on social media rather than via mainstream journalism.
We’re living squarely in the information age, where social media is becoming ubiquitous. Facebook has almost 1.6 billion members, and every hour there are over a million messages, known as tweets, published on the website Twitter.
Of course, the need and desire to share information has been around since the human race began. Ad while we may see social media as incredibly new and clever, this is only the latest update in the history of communication. The television transformed our lives when it was invented around 1925, in the same way as the telephone had fifty years earlier and one hundred years before that, communication was revolutionised by the telegram, replacing a rider and a horse as the fastest way to send news.
And imagine how incredible any of that technology would have seemed to Paul, as he was writing his letters to the early Christians. I like to think Paul would definitely have appreciated the speed and immediacy of Twitter, although I don’t know if he would have been a fan of the 140-character limit.
Our reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, a Christian community that he founded. Paul is probably writing around 20 years after Jesus’ death, as the early Christian church is forming and evolving, and although with this letter he is writing in the midst of debate and controversy, what stands out for me is perhaps the essence of our faith: God’s grace and God’s call to us.
In the midst of retelling Paul’s history and travels, six words jump through the centuries and demand our attention: God called me through his grace.
If Paul had been tweeting today instead of writing on scrolls in 56AD, I think this emphasis would have appealed to him. Grace — Called — Joy.
Grace is one of Paul’s pivotal concepts and it appears repeatedly in his other letters, throughout the New Testament. It is at the core of his message to the emerging Christian community and I can imagine that grace would have been the theme that Paul would have wanted to see “trend” above all others.
Unconditional love and freely-given forgiveness; infinite mercy rolled into one short word. Grace. So much immense promise in so few letters. And it’s all completely free. There is nothing you have to do to earn it and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. This is not of our doing — it is the gift of God.
The writer, Frederick Buechner, articulates grace — God’s love and forgiveness — in this way: “There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream.”
Let that image sit with you for a minute. Roll it around in your head, until you can taste it. Or if raspberries aren’t your thing, try chocolate. The sweetness, the cream, your taste buds alight. If I suggested you had to earn it, otherwise it would taste flat or stale, you’d think I was mad.
And while we keep the image small, while we can hold a raspberry in the palm of our hand, this idea works. Stretching it out to cover love and forgiveness, and it all gets tricky again. We live in a world where offers with no strings attached are treated with suspicion and circumstances can be too good to be true, and so the enormity of divine grace overwhelms us.
We turn on ourselves, become demanding task-masters, insisting we must keep to a set of self-prescribed rules — no one deserves to be given a love such as this — and we edit away God’s grace.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” said Jesus, and then we amend, “and I will give you a checklist of things to do and not to do in order to remain in God’s favor.”
In this day and age, we understand checklists. We focus our lives on hard work and effort, but we’re missing Paul’s — and God’s — point.
God’s immeasurable generosity doesn’t stop there. Just as grace is given, so is our calling. God gives us gifts and we are called by God to use them.
What’s that? God speaking to me?? No, you must have the wrong person. Not according to Paul. Writing to the Ephesians he reminds them that they are called — “Each of us was given grace,” he writes, as a gift from Christ. Each of us, each — that includes me, and you.
Again, this is an idea so big that we try to dodge it. A calling means we have a vocation, and so that’s only for the ordained, or perhaps doctors and nurses. But not us, not me.
We run the danger of adopting a very passive form of Christianity. We’ll sit in church and listen, we’re happy to join in the prayers and the hymns, and then we’ll head out on our way, back to real life, maybe a little more peaceful, a little calmer, but that’s it. Showing up, refreshing our spirits — isn’t that enough?
And it’s not. God doesn’t want us just to make up the numbers. The life God has intended is more active and likewise more rewarding.
Paul nails this in that one short phrase: God called me through his grace. And he makes it clear, referring to God setting Paul apart, that this was not some coincidental, right place, right time, happenstance. This was deliberate and intentional.
So let’s not kid ourselves that we are some kind of special exception, that we don’t each have a calling, and that God isn’t speaking to us. God’s call isn’t something you can push off on to someone else; it embraces us all.
Now, just as we are each unique, so are our gifts and so is God’s call to us. This isn’t a uniform “Your country needs you” type of recruitment campaign. One size most definitely does not fit all. Peter Wagner, from Fuller Theological Seminary, has identified 27 different categories for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Twenty-seven — that’s more variety than a Starbucks coffee menu.
Your calling is on that list.
And before you dismiss that notion as unrealistic. Let’s remember our primary evidence today — this is a letter from Paul, formerly Saul, formerly the Chief Persecution Officer for the Jewish faith. You can’t get anyone more unusual or unlikely to be called to preach God’s word.
No one saw it coming, least of all Paul. One minute, he was setting off on a mission of persecution and destruction; the next lying face down on the road, picking twigs and dirt from his mouth, blind and being asked to share something incredible.
And Paul isn’t the only biblical figure to feel daunted by their calling. The prophet Isaiah thought he was a man of unclean lips; Samuel said he was too young and inexperienced. In the New Testament, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was confused and overwhelmed, and Joseph took some very direct persuading, while even Simon Peter didn’t think he was good enough for the job.
Whatever doubts or uncertainties you may have about your calling, or even about being called, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. It doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
God has a track record of acting in unexpected ways. He doesn’t call us for who we are, there isn’t a test or a minimum standard — just as with his grace, there is no checklist or criteria for us to pass. God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.
Paul’s past, emphasising the importance of the law, of rules and conditions, provides the greatest possible contrast with the message he went on to share — unconditional love and freely-given forgiveness.
So how then do we hear our call? Dramatic conversions, such as Paul had, are the exception and not the rule. Certainly it is a lot less ambiguous when you have flashing lights and a voice from heaven telling you what to do. For most of us, it starts as a nudge, a whisper.
And it might be easy to dismiss these nudges as mere coincidence, but as Buechner reminds us, “Coincidences are God’s way of getting our attention.” A sign that we’re in the right place, on the right road.
The choir sang about this a few weeks back, with the anthem, Listen with Your Heart.
Listen with your heart, God is speaking
Listen with your heart, He is calling us to faith.
In the silence of this time, hear the voice of the Divine.
Listen with your heart.
I read about a minister who, when meeting with members of his congregation, asks “what’s the last thing you heard God say to you?”
How’s that for a direct question? There’s no evasion or room to debate our value or self-worth — simply total acceptance of God’s unconditional love for each one of us, of our God-given gifts, and crucially of our need to listen and to use them.
You see, God doesn’t want to be another item on our to-do list, tucked in between laundry and mowing the lawn. And we need to watch that we don’t turn our callings into chores. We talk about serving and service and it can all start to sound like hard work, thankless tasks rather than sacred tasks. This isn’t God’s intent. Our talents are gifts, not “guilts”; given for us to enjoy, and to light us up when we use them.
No-one has said this better than Buechner, who wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Deep gladness embracing a deep hunger. It’s the most beautiful, rewarding, fulfilling combination. Feeling good, enjoying your gifts when you share them with the world, the satisfaction of bringing your best — that’s not coincidence, but a deliberate connection with the joy of God’s calling.
OK, you might say, hang on a minute, if our callings are rooted in joy, can cake be a calling? And no, I’m not talking about the slice of chocolate cake calling to you from the refrigerator…
But when I look at the Outreach Fun Fair in May, and see the astounding range of cakes, lovingly decorated, creativity flourishing and flavours running riot, I see deep gladness. And when I think about the people gratefully taking these delights home, enjoying a moment of relaxation with friends perhaps, and then the children whose summers are improved as a result of the money raised, I definitely see the world’s deep need. We can be joyfully called to bake.
It’s the same in our Prayer Shawl Ministry, which we celebrated a few week’s back. Describing the group, Cathy said, “we’re creating something for someone else with the creativity that God has given us in our hands.” The satisfaction of mastering a skill, of bringing to life a creative vision, even of seeing the rows come together, as a ball of yarn is transformed into comfort and prayer.
And then, the last time I checked, no-one in the choir is here under duress. Their deep gladness is at times tangible, as joy radiates out with the music and God’s gifts are given voice. And our deep hunger, our need for an emotional connection to our praise and worship, is fulfilled over and over.
Last Sunday they shared this truth in song:
When we sing to the Lord, when we sing to the Lord,
when we join in celebration and give praise to the Lord;
there is joy all around us and a smile on every face
when we sing with glory to the Lord
Using our gifts is the reciprocation of God’s love and generosity, a two-way exchange sharing love and thankfulness, and bringing glory to God. Because we’re the only ones speaking “out loud”, it’s easy to think we’re the only ones talking, but the relationship is reciprocal.
So while we easily see human appreciation of our gifts, there’s almost certainly divine appreciation happening as well. After all, if we can take pleasure in seeing someone appreciate and enjoy a gift we give, then it must be all the more so true for God.
I came across an imaginary conversation with Jesus which brings this idea to life:
“You thank me every day for the beauty and wonder of this world; I thank you for your part in it, I thank you for being who you are, because no one else could be you as well as you can be you.
You praise me for what I have done for you and for who I am; I praise you for all the ways you have enriched the lives of others by the things you do and for just being you.
You have glorified me in your words and song. Your very life is my glory. The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Living life to the fullest, shining our light for the world — all through joy.
Let’s take as our ambition the quote from Erma Bombeck, the American writer, who said:
“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me, Lord’.”
With that aim, let our worship today not be the entirety of our praise for the week, 40 winks away from the world, but instead a recharging of our faith, based in the certainty of grace, and a renewal of our gifts and calling, so that we head back to the world, ready to live joyfully, love abundantly, and praise perpetually, to the glory of God. Hallelujah.
Preached at Walton Memorial United Church, Oakville, Canada on Sunday June 5, 2016.