Teetering between karma and grace
The reading for this week, Matthew 5:13-20, needs to be read remembering the Beatitudes which are spoken just before:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:grace
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.grace
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.grace
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.grace
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.grace
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.grace
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.grace
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.grace
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.grace
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.grace
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today I'm trying to describe something that can't really be described. I can't give you the formula. I can only tell you about an experience.
Recently, a friend told me of meeting a Christian monk. "It was like standing next to Jesus!" she said. Holiness just radiates from some people.
Imagine if my friend said, "I'm going to be like him. If I can be like him, surely I'll find God!" If Jesus was speaking to my friend he might have said,"Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of this monk, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!"
Really! Is that what he would say!?
The Pharisees get very bad press in the New Testament. Jesus really hops into the ones we could call "Pharisees gone bad." In reality, Pharisees were mostly pretty good people. They were the seriously committed and holy Jewish people of the day! For the early readers of the Gospels, the criticisms and condemnations of the Pharisees "worked" because most of them were good people— very good people!
People recognised the level of betrayal of their faith by the bad ones, and it made them examine their own conscience when Jesus talked about it.
So when Jesus says our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees it means we have to do more than just like the good people— even more than the best people around us!
We can't just be like Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King... or even Pope Francis. In fact, we can't just be like Jesus and do what Jesus did!!!
It sounds a bit impossible, doesn't it?
It sounds impossible because there is a secret in all this, or a mystery. There are ways of seeing the world— when we see the world one way, what Jesus asks of us sounds impossible. It becomes a great burden.
But when we see the world another way, his words makes sense. And they are full of gift for us— full of grace. They are words of freedom.
One way of seeing the world is to say that "what comes around goes around." Do good and you'll get good; do bad and you'll pay for it. We could read that idea, and that way of seeing the world, in the Psalm for today, and the Isaiah reading.
The righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered for ever…
The wicked see it and are angry…
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. (from Psalm 112)
When we see the world like this two things can happen. We can get scared that we are not good enough and will not make it into heaven; "we will come to nothing." Or, we can get really disillusioned, because it's pretty obvious that the rich are doing very well for themselves and they always have. We realise that doing good doesn't always mean you get good back, and often people are not punished for being bad.
This view of the world is called karma: you get what you give.
Karma is like someone trying to screw in a barbecue pipe to the gas bottle, who hasn't heard that gas fittings screw in back to front to normal screws. It doesn't matter how hard they try, they never make the connection.
The other way to see the world is called grace. The U2 song Grace, which Bono wrote, says "Grace travels outside of karma," which is completely correct.
Grace finds beauty in everything, grace makes beauty out of ugly things.
What does grace mean? What is the grace-full understanding of reality?
It means you are saved.
It means you will not be left behind.
It means, if you like, God will wait for you, just for you, as long as it takes, like the father waited for the prodigal son.
Someone asked the church father Origen when the world would end, and of course he didn't know; no one knows the day or the hour. But he said something like this, "It won't end until the devil himself repents and comes back to heaven, because only then will everything be complete."
Grace means God loved us enough to reveal God's very self to us in Jesus. Grace means that when humanity still didn't get it, and killed Jesus, God still loved us— Jesus came back... ... even though, effectively, we had tried to kill God!
All we have to do is decide to let grace wash over us. Grace is like a wife offering to navigate, and we are like the bloke saying "No, I can get there myself. I know how to do it!" And we get horribly lost, and take forever, until we finally listen to what she says and trust her use of the map— not that that ever happened in my family.
Grace means we are already salt in the world. We are already light. We are already members of the kingdom of heaven, so why wouldn't we live like it?
Do we want to come in? Do we want to know grace?
"Come on in; the water is fine! " the Holy Spirit is crying to us. But we teeter between grace and karma, because, to be honest, the waves look pretty rough. It's a stormy world out there. Do we really want to trust ourselves to the deep, deep sea of grace? Do we really want to jump in?
What will happen if we become meek; that is, if we decide to live like God wants? That's what that old-fashioned word meek means.
What will happen if we hunger and thirst after righteousness; that is, what will happen if we live the right way, the just way for everyone, instead of just looking after Number One?
What will happen if we are merciful and gentle, instead of punishing and judgemental,
and what will happen if we are pure in heart, and honest and decent, instead of telling a few white lies— or a few nastier ones— to get ahead while we can?
We'll be way out of our depth, that's what!
We'll see more misery and pain and suffering than we thought could exist……
We'll see the world as it is…
we will be blessed.
We will be carried on the waves of grace…
grace covers the shame
removes the stain…
what once was hurt
what once was friction
what left a mark
no longer stings
because grace makes beauty out of ugly things. (Bono)
Blessing means we see the world according to grace. It means we don't have to try to be like Jesus— we just are. Grace and blessing begin to take us over…
All we have to do is start…
Begin to be kind without looking for a reward…
doing right because it is right, not to keep God happy…
making peace because it helps other people, not to feather our own nest…
All we have to do is start...
Our mourning will be comforted…
and we will see God,
Don't try and be like Jesus…
Don't try to be perfect....
Don't try to believe everything...
Don't even try to be a better person!
Just jump in.
Start being gentle...
Start looking after people…
Work out what is good for everyone— really everyone… instead of what is just good for you…
Treat everyone like it was Jesus who walked in the door…… even if they stink, or they're rough, or they want money.
Don't give special favours only to the nice people and the rich....
And God— God will change you.
Your light will shine.
Life will have an unexpected richness.
You will see Grace.