Down But Not Out

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Bishop Patricia Lull 

Romans 3:21-28

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Most High God. AMEN.

It’s back-to-school time. Have you noticed? Not all of us are gathering up our new school supplies but there is something deep down in us that we remember right along with all the school kids at this time of year. And that memory sounds like this — Who will I sit by at lunch? Who will be my friends this year? Where do I belong?

We humans always have the impulse to scan the environment to see where we fit in. We also notice who doesn’t seem to belong within a group. Insiders and outsiders. Remember those days in fourth grade or senior year?

That was a question that was on the mind of Paul when he was called to be a follower – a disciple — of Jesus Christ.

You probably know the story of Paul. He grew up in a well established Jewish family. He had all the advantages of belonging within that tight religious community. He was an eager learner. Top of his class. The best of the best. In the world of the Roman Empire where the Jews were a minority and often subject to persecution, he knew very clearly who fit inside his group. And just as keenly, he knew who stood outside, as a threat to his identity.

Now, if you have never read the story of how Paul became a disciple of Jesus Christ, you can find that story in the Book of Acts, chapters 8 and 9. Let me just say that those who planned this preaching series saved the best for last, at least in terms of high drama. For Paul was one who actively persecuted the very first Christians; that is, until he encountered the Living Christ and Jesus called him to be the most famous ambassador – evangelist – missionary in the early church. And where Jesus sent him was to all those young Paul had once considered to be despicable outsiders to faith in the Living God. Quite a story of how profoundly God transforms a life when Jesus Christ says – come and follow me.

Now, that experience of transformation within his own life leads to the incredible proclamation that Paul writes, near the end of his life, to the Christians in Rome. These words come from Paul, who has weathered the many hardships and sacrifices that come to all who follow Jesus Christ. Paul writes to the Romans – “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24).

            Did you catch that little word “all” – “all have fallen short”? I’ll bet most of us can think of a time in our life when we were not at our best. An experience of public embarrassment when our failures are known to everyone. The end of a significant relationship, a heartbreak we may bear by ourselves. A letter of rejection or a pink slip at work. Times when we have felt down and out; keenly aware of our shortcomings.

That experience is so universal that we might imagine that Paul is writing from that kind of low place in his own life, broken and humiliated. But that is not Paul’s story at all. If you read whole Letter to the Romans you will discover that what Paul is disparaging, here, is not his – or our — failures – but his – and our – achievements! When all is going well, we trick ourselves into thinking we don’t really need God.

What Paul is saying is that our God in Jesus Christ is not one who ranks and rates us on a worthiness scale. God does not prefer the cream of the crop to the dregs at the bottom. God is not partial to those who are quick to sing hymns of praise over those who don’t know a praise song from a country-western ballad.

What God shows us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s unfailing love for everyone. No one is too broken to be loved by God. Those who cling in trust to God can, indeed, weather the storms of life because God is with us in the very eye of the storm, the worst of times. And praise be to God if you have experienced God’s presence like that at some difficult time in your life. That is grace, indeed.

In the same way, no one is too pious, too perfect, or even professionally religious – not even a pastor or a bishop – to not be in need of God’s grace. God’s love. God’s welcome into the holiness of table and font and creation. All are drawn into the heart of God by God’s grace alone as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

None are down and out. No one is up and in. All those old circles of insiders and outsiders that we experienced back in our school days; worthy ones and outcasts – all those human constructs and cliques — evaporated when Christ Jesus came to us.

Discipleship according to Paul is to open one’s arms and life lavishly to welcome all others into this way of life in which God’s grace is the only thing that counts.

There is a church in Chicago that received a windfall gift when a property they had bought many years before was sold for a multi-million dollar sum. It is the LaSalle Street Church and you can find their story online but let me tell you what they did when they were surprised to receive a check for $1.6 million dollars.

When they realized it was not a joke they met and prayed. As most churches do, they had a mortgage and some deferred maintenance and lots of ideas about how to invest this resource for a future rainy day. Their prayers led them to scripture where they spent time studying God’s generosity. What does it mean, they wondered, that God gives salvation without demanding a fee, a pay-back, or some kind of reciprocal action on our part as humans? What does it mean that grace is a free gift?

As they prayed and studied the leaders of the church discerned a plan. They would take a tithe of that gift — $160,000 — and give that to all the folks within the congregation in checks for $500 each. Five hundred dollars not to keep but to give-away as a sign of God’s lavish love.

Well, then, the debate began in earnest. What if some were irresponsible with their check? What if some kept the money themselves? Did this mean brand-new members, some who had just come a month or two before? And what about some who were homeless, who had come into the church through the mid-week community supper, did they get a check, too?  It didn’t take long for all those old categories of insiders and outsiders, worthy and unworthy, to come right back into the conversation.

Listen again to Paul’s words — “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24).

Because they were paying attention to God’s generosity, there was a Sunday at LaSalle Church where a check for $500 was presented to one and all. You can read the story of what people did with those gifts in a book entitled, Love Let Go.

Friends in Christ, God invites us – God invites everyone – into the way of life modeled on God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. No longer are there insiders and outsiders. We may be down but we are never outside the reach of God’s grace. No one is ever beyond God’s reach. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

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