You Can't Mess It Up
You Can't Mess It Up: February 5, 2016
I start most mornings with a lit candle from Thistle Farms and Fr. Richard’s Rohr’s daily meditation. A recent one referenced Luke 12:35-40, the parable of the watchful servants. So I looked it up. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he[a] would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (New Revised Standard Version)
The first part is familiar and pretty clear: be watchful, be alert, the master, God, could come at any time. But here’s the kicker: when he finds you waiting, he will bless you and serve you. That’s already kind of amazing, right? That 2nd part I’d never thought much about, “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”
Who’s the thief?
Right! The thief is God. (What’s even more interesting is that the verse right before this, verse 34, is the familiar “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”) Our tendency is to keep our house locked and not let ourselves be broken into, not let our treasure be touched. We are so fearful. And we don’t feel deserving of God’s touch. But Jesus says we must be ready AND willing to let God in. And that God will come in to bless and serve us. This is grace.
Here’s my favorite definition of grace, also from Fr. Richard: Divine Unmerited Generosity. It is so hard for us to accept this. God loves us first, and we are to respond in love. You can’t make God love you any more or any less. God’s love is not earned. It is given away, freely, abundantly, endlessly. It is a really hard theological starting point; and yet, I think that is THE Christian starting point.
Jesus taught his disciples to love that way, and then commissioned them to go and make disciples of all nations. In other words—globalization of the message. We think of globalization as a new thing, but it is as ancient as empire.
In his fabulous book, Globalization and Theology, Joerg Rieger explains that most empires, whether political or economic, globalize from the top down. Christianity didn’t start that way. Jesus was more of a bottom up kinda guy. The message is for everyone; no one is excluded; everyone has a role to play; everyone’s voice is important. This is Jesus expanding—not overturning—Jewish law.
“You have heard it said….but I say to you…” By my count Jesus says that 6 times in the Sermon on the Mount. He brings a new message of inclusion, of even more grace. And at first Christianity globalized under this message—an outsider, but inclusive, bottom up message—until about 317 or so. That’s when the North African bishops asked Constantine to judge a dispute among the various philosophies (which were heretical? which orthodox?), thereby establishing the Roman Emperor as a regulatory official involved in Christian doctrine. Christianity became part of the empire—and it has been ever since.
Some might date the change earlier, with the Edict of Milan in 313, which allowed Christians to worship without persecution. Some claim later, the Council on Nicaea in 325, when Constantine summoned all bishops to decide the nature of the “Son of God”, among other thorny church issues, including the dating of the annual Easter observance. The Council determined that Easter would officially be dated using the Julian (Roman solar) calendar, which divorced it from the Jewish (Hebrew lunar) calendar. When the political entity gets to start determining the church’s sense of time, the church is pretty effectively ensconced in the empire.
However you want to date it, I’m not blaming those bishops, or Constantine, for that matter. I understand wanting to have one standard and a clear way to judge between right/wrong. I understand wanting a consistent and predictable measurement of time. I understand wanting peace in the empire.
Yet my study and experience of the rabbi, Jesus, is that he always shows there’s more to orthodoxy than might at first meet the eye.
Yes, the law says to stone this woman for her actions. But which of you has not also fallen short; which of you can throw the first stone? Yes, the law says not to heal on the Sabbath. But which of you wouldn’t give water, even to your animal, on the Sabbath? Yes, the law says to offer sacrifices in the temple; but the temple is a house of prayer, and you are making it into a den of robbers.
I understand Jesus always erring on the side of inclusion, advocating for the poor and the outcast, choosing perceived sinners over perceived saints.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a brilliant, interesting, Lutheran priest, who started a church in Denver called the House for All Sinners and Saints. She spoke a few weeks ago in Montreat and, among other topics, described their radically inclusive worship services. “The liturgy,” she said, “is led by the people who show up. The pastors offer the Eucharistic prayer and (most times) the sermon; all the other parts of the liturgy are led by people from where they are sitting.”
Even if it’s your first time in church. Any church.
In front of the House for All Sinners and Saints is a sign that says Anti-Excellence, Pro-Participation. “Excellence,” Nadia said, “is not a Christian virtue.” (It IS a corporate America virtue.) When excellence is mentioned in the Bible, it almost always is referring to God’s excellence and perfection.
When Jesus preached perfection it sounded like this: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Or like this: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Be perfect in that abundant love and mercy and grace we’ve been talking about.
Jesus did not say, “Aha! I knew you fools weren’t worthy! Throw them to the lions.”
He said, “Zacchaeus! Come out of that Sycamore tree and let me eat at your house.” He said, “Your child has been healed.” He said, “Here is my body, broken for you.” Bottom up globalization. Unearned grace. Go and do likewise.
Here’s the other thing Nadia said that’s really stuck with me. In talking about offering everyone a chance to participate in the liturgy she said, “The Holy is so Holy that you can’t mess it up.”
So, even if you’ve never come to church before, you can read the Gospel message. Each person’s prayer is authentic. God’s love and God’s grace—divine, unmerited generosity—is for me. It is for you.
You can’t mess it up.