**the following talk was given at an Emmaus weekend as part of a series on grace.
How about we start with a confession?
Some good old fashioned Christian honesty …
When Margaret asked me if I would do a clergy talk, I said yes, without reservation … but on one condition. I would do any talk except ‘Obstacles to Grace’.
Obstacles to Grace is about ‘sin’ and I don’t like to talk about sin.
Funny thing though (Oh my how we laughed!) In the allocation of talks there was only one talk for me to give… ONE – ‘Obstacles to Grace’, the ‘sin talk’, the ONLY talk I didn’t want to give – amazing and wonderful, outstanding Grace.
I don’t like to talk about sin because I am full of it! Full of ‘it’ and full of sin! And yet it has been my sin which has been my saving grace – literally and in every sense of the word.
I am a wild child… I wish I could say I WAS a wild child, but that wouldn’t really be true. My friends who love me call me a free spirit, those who don’t love me as much will probably just say I am a rebel.
I wasn’t always like this …
I was a quiet polite child at home – so my parents tell me. But as I grew older that changed, I became fiercely independent and head strong, I discovered boundaries that needing knocking down, I saw a big old exciting world that needed to be discovered. I saw adventures that needed to be had. The older I got, the braver I got, the braver I got the wilder I got, the wilder I got the more exciting the world became.
At 21 I left home, spreading my wings in anticipation of adventure!
At 31 I came home having lived a life of incredible adventure. But, I was broken and disillusioned, hurt and confused. I was rootless, unanchored but I was also for the first time in my life completely and utterly reliant on faith, dependant on God and about to embark on the most significant and rewarding adventure I had yet to experience – the adventure of a life of grace – fully held in the love of God.
At 31 I was sure of nothing, except this truth: I was God’s and God was mine and over the course of the last 9 years God has set about showing me this fundamental truth, the thing I cling to daily, the ONLY obstacle to grace in my life is me …
We are taught in the scriptures that the Christian life takes place in a real world affected by the consequences of sin. Sin is a reality, it is part and parcel of being human, fallible and vulnerable, perfect in our imperfections. Apart from the obvious reasons for not liking the sin talk, I am not a fan of anything which PRESCRIBES behaviour. We are all beautifully, wonderfully diverse no one person the same as any other. We are placed on earth by the God who loves us who calls us by name and who knows each and every hair on our head.
Prescribed behaviour doesn’t allow for the adventure which being a child of God invites. It doesn’t allow for the nuances of life and learning, it doesn’t honour individual people and their individual experiences.
That being said, there are some guidelines, set down in the scriptures, taught to us through reason and experience, which reveal to us the nature of God and the nature of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin we miss the mark of what that plan is. We usher in a different kind of kingdom to the one which God envisioned for the world. A different kind of kingdom which Jesus believed was worth dying for and so today the focus for us is those guidelines, those guidelines which speak less about prescriptive behavioural rules and instead point us to life – life in all its glorious techni-coloured beauty, offered to us that we might live grace-full, love-full lives of abundance and that others may also live grace-full, love-full lives of abundance. The choice to receive and accept that grace is ultimately left up to us…
And so obstacles to grace are those things which hinder us from enjoying the loving relationship which God offers us in Christ. The Greek word for sin is ‘hamartia’ – an archery term which means ‘to miss the mark’ and the mark of God and God’s will for humanity is relationship – relationship with God and with others.
Sin can be described as self-centeredness rather than God centeredness.
When ‘I’ takes pride of place in our lives, when ‘I’ overcomes God or others – when ‘I’ takes precedence over the world in which we live, then we are hindered from enjoying free, faith-full, unconditional love.
Another way of thinking about this is through the ego – we all know what the ego is, it is that part of our personality which draws little walls around ourselves in order to protect our inherent humanity, our sacred ‘realness’, that part of us which God has created in perfection and which in its perfection is vulnerable and soft and easily hurt.
The ego rather than being that ugly word which we have assigned the meaning ‘arrogant’ to, can actually just be the protective layer which we build around ourselves in order to protect that which is most vulnerable, that which is most easily hurt, that which is closest to God, that which is the truest part of ourselves and therefore the most precious. The ego is the protector of our deepest vulnerabilities and so sometimes, in its effort to stave off the bad guys, it comes across as edgy, prickly, tough and impenetrable.
BUT, if the ego protects that which is within it also keeps OUT that which we may need to let in. It keeps out that which God would have us experience and so another way to look at ego is: E.G.O – Edging God Out.
Whenever we try to avoid a new and close relationship, build barriers against love and trust, when we avoid or protect ourselves from words which we think might hurt us, when we try to protect ourselves from painful situations, what we do is build a wall which keeps God (and by that token all others) out and ourselves, tightly locked in. Protected, yes, but locked behind an impenetrable wall.
Sin and ego are barriers, they promote alienation, from God and from others. The greatest commandment we receive is, ‘Love the lord your God and love others’. In other words, live in community, live WITH each other.
This does not take exclude those of us who are more introverted in nature – God does not expect us all to live in happy tea party mode, but God does intend for humanity to live in community, to let barriers down so that love and relationships can flourish. Jesus encouraged us to remember him through one of our most sacred practices – communion, to remember him when we are in COMMUNION. Not lining up in single file to quietly take the bread the wine in private isolation, but rather in eating and drinking in our most ordinary and sacred everyday moments, to share Jesus with one another, in open hearted hospitality – to remember God in those moments of SHARING and community and RELATIONSHIP and love and life.
When we eat and when we drink – we celebrate LIFE! We honour life, we sustain life, sin is therefore for me that which stops us from celebrating life, TOGETHER, that which hinders us from living life WITH God and with each other.
God is about relationship, God is about 2 kinds of relationship:
- Us and God
- Us and one another
And so the guidelines for remaining open to receiving grace are rooted in these two relationships.
ENJOYING A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD:
God is number one. Idolatry is about worshipping and serving false Gods. An idol is anything which is given more importance than our open unhindered experience of God. We make Idols of ourselves, through pride (thinking we can do things on our own) we make idols of our relationships (entrusting our happiness to a single individual), we make idols of things, possessions, status or power – our religion! Anything which is given power or authority outside of the life giving source which is God, is an idol and it is false. Idolatry sets someone or something else up to offer us more worth or more comfort than only the living God can offer. And that sets us up for disappointment, when we are disappointed we look down at our feet at our limitations, rather than up at the living unlimited power of God, this makes us feel alone and ‘rejected’. Idolatry is the worship of the false, the fleeting – not the true, the eternal.
Blasphemy is another obstacle. I believe we have simplified blasphemy to the use of the Lords ‘name in vain’, but God needs no protecting. What God loves, now that needs protecting and so when we abuse other people in the name of God, when we put people down because God ‘says so’ that is blaspheming. The name of God is sacred, it bestows love and grace and honour and worth on all that God has created, if anyone speaks against the inherent humanity or dignity of another person, be they black, white, straight, gay, male, female, if we abuse creation in the name of progress, if we use Gods name to lessen any part of Gods creation – then we use the Lords name in vain, we blaspheme. Deuteronomy 5:11 says, ‘you will not MISUSE the name of God’, do not misuse the name of God to block love, to block life, to block relationship, to block justice. If it is not of God, don’t use Gods name to justify it.
Resisting, ignoring or disobeying God is locked up in our ability to trust God and we CAN trust God, there is only one thing we can truly trust and that is God and Gods will for humankind. So refusing to rest as per Sabbath commands, thinking God can’t come through when our finances are down, ignoring that quiet inner voice which calls you out of yourself and into that discomfort zone where God does Gods best work – those LIMIT God and limit Gods ability to work love and grace through us into the world. Again – the connection is not in Gods withholding, it is within OUR withholding, of honour, trust, dignity, truth.
Linked to this is the withholding of grace to self and others. Ignorance of another person’s standpoint, belief or situation, unforgiveness of fellow human beings, the belief that God is not God for everyone, those are human limits, human limits placed on the free fold nature of God’s grace and have no place in the Kingdom.
OBSTACLES TO OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHERS:
There are obvious obstacles when it comes to minimising life in our relationships with others, murder, gossip, slander, abuse, anything which causes hurt or pain to another human being is contrary to life, to the message of Jesus. But then there are those things which are less obvious but no less damaging.
Murder does not have to be physical for it to be deadly, we can kill another person’s spirit, we can in our daily choices uphold certain systems which perpetuate hate and violence and prejudice for another group of people. If we are not conscious about our choices of where to shop, what to eat, how to work, how to speak we can in subtle and damaging ways limit Gods power in someone else’s life.
This was highlighted recently in the ‘Woolworths debacle’. People called for a boycotting of their favourite ‘white prestige’ store. A store which is consciously working to uplift the poor and the marginalised the weak and the previously disadvantaged, many, many black people in our country are still being held in the grips of poverty and economic and social inequality and if God is the God of justice and mercy through the saving arm of Jesus then our obstacles to grace include those things which allow God’s grace to flow through us to all. Whose life are we protecting when we refuse another race the opportunity for upliftment? How does that reflect a taking up of our crosses, of standing in solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable, the very people Jesus came to save?
The rule of life for me when it comes to grace is freely you have received freely give – don’t limit Gods grace for others and of course don’t limit God’s grace for yourself:
OBSTACLES TO OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OURSELVES:
All of these things are rooted in who we are in Christ. If we know and believe and live out our belovedness then we can know and live out everyone’s belovedness in Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross signifies a victory in the power of redemption. In the face of intolerable cruelty, ignorance, hatred and bigotry, in the midst of all of that darkness a voice cried out, ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing’, Jesus taught us through his death that no one is outside the love and redeeming power of God, it’s only our response to that gift that puts us outside the realm of grace.
It’s easy and it’s comforting for us to have rules, it’s easy and comforting for us to think if I do this I will be loved and if I do that I will not. But we are human beings, we are not robots, no matter how hard we try to be perfect and Christ-like there will be times when we ‘miss the mark’ when we travel down a path in all good conscience only to find it’s not the path God wants for us, but how do we learn if we don’t try and fail? How do we know the unconditional love of God if we don’t make mistakes and let God redeem those mistakes?
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says:
Christianity recognises that failure is what human beings do. And yet, the recognition is not humiliating but liberating “because it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny.
Contrary to popular belief we are NOT in control, we are not safe from harm or hurt or trials or tribulations, we are note secured against those things. What are secured in is grace, unlimited, unmerited, boundless, seamless, abundant grace from a God who loves us so deeply that not even the killing of the most perfect human being on earth could stop that God from loving us and redeeming us.
And so I say it again …
There are NO obstacles to grace aside from the ones we put in front of God, aside from our feelings of unworthiness, aside from our refusal to love and be loved.
In closing I want to share with you a little story:
God called me to ministry.
In the midst of my wild and rebellious life God asked me to join the Church.
‘NOOOO I cried, I couldn’t possibly! Life is too fun to be bound by the Christian rules and restrictions which limit adventure and joy.’
But God really, really wanted me to do this – I resisted, I continued living life my way, I thought perhaps if I just continue behaving badly God would give up and I could live my free and joyous life, loving Jesus and loving Jesus’ friends, but the call was strong and one weekend I went away to be quiet with God for 3 days. 3 days I sat in silence, 3 days I sat waiting for the rebuke. I sat waiting for the dreadful words which would signal my life was not worthy of being a kingdom child, that God’s grace was conditional on my good behaviour and after 3 days … quietly, profoundly, clearly I read these words from Henri Nouwens ‘Prodigal’ – ‘YOU are my beloved, on YOU my favour rests!’
It was in that moment that my life changed.
I didn’t suddenly become a paragon of virtue, I didn’t suddenly become the good level headed disciplined child I had always longed to be. Instead, in that moment I became the beloved, saturated in grace. Filled to overflowing with the knowledge that perfection was not what was required of me – love was what was required of me and so every day that is what I offer to God and to Jesus – I offer my heart, my life, my love, my hands and my feet.
And what does God offer me in return?
Grace – bucket loads of love and grace.
Women of God, you are here this weekend through an act of grace, God’s grace extended through someone else, soak up that grace, soak up the love of God. Know that in loving and being loved you are gifted with everything you need to be powerful, extraordinary, satisfied and redeemed. In accepting grace you accept wholeness and Jesus came that we might be whole, that we might live abundantly, offering ourselves to him as living sacrifices, created to be exactly who we are – beloved, forgiven, free.