Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grace in the Church, by Pastor Greg

Ann Lamott is a Bay Area native and a writer of both fiction as well as earthy essays on faith. She can be laugh out loud funny and she can move you to copious tears. She grew up in Marin County during a time when the phrase “only in Marin” came to be coined. It was the 60’s and early 70’s. It was a chaotic time to grow up when lives and values and families and children were sort of tossed in the air only to land God knows where. Lamott describes her coming to faith as less a leap than a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place after another. As a child she possessed a belief in God that defied her arrogantly atheistic surroundings. Describing that child-like faith, she says: “I bowed my head and prayed, because I believed ... in someone listening, someone who heard. I do not understand how that came to be; I just know I always believed ....”
A crash course through broken relationships and addictions left Lamott in a place of nearly suicidal desperation. She describes a dark afternoon where she felt at the end of her rope. A vestige of the old belief still clung to her, but she says: “I felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn’t possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.”
In a moment of desperation, she went to a nearby church and spoke to the new pastor who struck her as being tenderhearted. When she poured out to him that she didn’t think God could possibly love her, broken and stained and tortured and suicidal as she was, he said: “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.”
It would be wonderful to report that in that one conversation Lamott was “wash-clean” and set free. But the path to new life and health and “salvation” is often not so easy ... so quick ... so painless. She was bumping around the bottom and the top was still a long ways off.
It was the first of the glimmers of grace that began to penetrate her soul, her life, her brokenness. She says: “Slowly I came back to life. I’d been like one of those people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones—people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel’s presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them.”
Breath and spirit and kindness were reviving Anne Lamott, and they were coming to her through the breath and spirit and kindness of a skinny, white, middle-aged mediator of God’s grace. But she still had a long, long way to go.
By tumbles and turns, she found herself in a church one day, so hung-over, she says that she could barely stand up for the songs. But she stayed until the end and says that the last song was so deep and raw and pure that she could not escape. She says it was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful  at the same time. She says: “I felt like their voice or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to the feeling—and it washed over me.”
She went into recovery, she was baptized at the little church, she had a baby who was also baptized, and she lost her best friend to cancer. And throughout it all there was the steady and faithful presence of the little church that had offered grace to her in their words and songs and silences and actions. She says that she and her baby son, Sam, have missed church maybe ten times in twelve years. She describes the church as a wonderful old worn pair of pants. And it was home. Home. The pastor, who is still there, who became the perfect fit for that “old worn pair of pants of a home” told a story from her childhood. “When she was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they frove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

Lamott says: “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.”

I don’t know if the Biblical writers of old struggled with addictions or hangovers or how to clean hair out of the hot tub, but I do know they knew what it felt like to be lost and lonely and frightened and in need of a home ... a home where grace was offered without cost or condition. Home, for the writers of our Bible, was the place where the dispenser of Grace could be found ... located ... leaned upon. Home was wherever God landed and dwelled among the people whom God loved and led through the wilderness and into the promised places.
In the desert, God was found in the “tent of meeting” ... it was a portable, traveling temple of a fashion ... wherever the tent was, God was. Once the people settled in the promised land, however, a Temple of hewn stone was built and this became God’s home ... it was here that God dwelled amidst the “holy of holies.” But it was never a comfortable home for God ... it led the worshippers of God to think that God was somehow captive to the home ... restricted to that home ... limited to that home. It took the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the people and exiles of many years and many kinds to teach the people that God’s truest home was not in a building of stone or a building of any kind. God’s throne was the trusting and humble human heart, and God’s dwelling was any place and time where trusting and humble human hearts gathered and worshiped and broke bread and shared the cup and did the work of God’s own Spirit.
This is the glimpse of the “home” of God that we see in the readings this morning from the book of Acts and the Epistle to the Colossians. We think of the church as being born at Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit of God that touched and filled the followers of Jesus and gathered them into a community of worship and mission. But the church was also filled with the Grace of the One who had called them together and empowered them to be the church. These passages from Acts and Colossians give evidence of that grace ... God’s grace that is to flow into and out of every gathering of believers, into and out of every time of worship, every time of fellowship, every time of working out the continuing ministry of Jesus and God’s work of Shalom.
ACTS 2All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
ACTS 4Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great gracewas upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
For the writer of Acts, the church is a community of “one heart and soul” ... a community of “glad and generous hearts ... a community of “goodwill” ... and a community of “great grace” and growth in spirit and numbers. And the reading from the letter to the church in Colossae gives flesh and garments to these bones:
Colossians 3As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God ... through him.
For Anne Lamott, the church in which she found her life again fit profoundly the descriptions we have heard in Acts and Colossians. And if there is a single word that fit what flowed into and out of the New Testament Church and that “old worn pants of a church” in Marin City, the word is GRACE. Amazing grace. Grace that is unearned, unmerited, unconditional and unlimited. Grace upon grace and grace abounding.
Lamott tells a story that has always touched me and expresses well the grace that is rightly the possession and the gift of every church in every place and time.
One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes.  He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does not believe in Jesus.  Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his partner died of the disease.  A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss had left, and had been there ever since.  Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant.  He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil.  He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola, who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and a devout a can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken.  She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all.  Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on.  She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that his way of life—that he—was an abomination.  It is hard for her to break through this.  I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.  But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year, and won almost everyone over.  He finally missed a few Sunday’s when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke.  Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days. 
So on this particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder”, which goes, “every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up.  But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap.  And then when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen--only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?”  And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and he went to his side and bent down to lift him up—lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow.  She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.  And it pierced me.
God’s grace ... God’s grace ... through the earthen vessel that is the church and the individual members of the church ... God’s grace ... offered without cost ... without condition ... and without limit. God’s grace ... that can pierce us and make us whole and give us back the lives we thought we’d perhaps lost forever.
Let us be persons and a people of God’s grace ... for a church built on God’s grace, will always stand, will always serve, will always save, will always have the strength to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

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