Walking Papers and the Indefectibilty of Grace

The following is a sermon I preached at my local church this July.  Some of the content will seem familiar.

Ancient Witness(s):

Matthew 10: 5-14

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

The Normal Hand Opens & Closes

A devotee told Chan Master Moxian, “My wife is extremely stingy. She will not spend even a penny on charity. Could you please come to my house and talk to her about engaging in benevolent deeds?” Very compassionately, Chan Master Moxian agreed.

The next day, when he went to the devotee’s house, the wife came out to receive him. True to her miserly nature, she did not even offer Chan Master Moxian a cup of tea. Chan Master sat down and held out his fist, asking, “Madame, look at my hand. What would you think if my hand remained constantly in a fist?” The wife responded, “If it remained in a fist, then your hand is deformed! Something must be wrong with it.”

Chan Master repeated her words back to her, saying, “It is deformed!” In the meantime, he opened up his fist and held out a flat palm to her, asking, “Were it like this all the time, what do you think?” The wife responded, “That would be deformed too!”

…there should be a balance in your receiving and giving.

A story By Ven Master Hsing Yun: from Merit Times

 

The Sermon:

On Heroic devotion:

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down toward my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures. Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension somehow changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I lay in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio. The description of their friendship at times borders on the erotic. It is that intense! Antonio, willing to sacrifice anything for the budding romance of his dear friend Bassanio, agrees to offer a pound of his own flesh as collateral in a deal with a moneylender (who happened to also be Antonio’s bitter rival). There is no hesitation in Antonio’s desire to help Bassanio.   Risky business, of course, but this never impressed me much: as a child having grown up on the mission field, I knew the lengths to which one might go out of love.

But it wasn’t this arduous love and passion which caught my attention in the play.  It was Antonio’s unexplained depression evidenced in this ridiculous statement— his amazing line: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad”—which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake because Bassanio failed to pay his debt, indeed his life was soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than meets the eye more than simple platonic love between the friends–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused Antonio great pain—so much so that he experienced detachment to death itself.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

But it is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  These seemed to have numbed him to his own emotions, to his own needs.  Indeed it was foreshadowed in the ominous words on Portia’s casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”.  The words echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things.  Such potential demands can be psychic-ally numbing to say the least!

Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. The villain’s plans are thwarted, and it all works out in the end.

But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio had indeed paid with a pound of flesh? Or in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Are there no limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading of a good friend’s festschrift evoked these questions for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students) describe a radicality in my friend’s devotion which is dangerously seductive and inspiring: that nothing would get in his way of his discipleship.  As the editor’s wrote “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to noble ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitudes of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).

One week during fourth grade at the international primary school I attended in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Lorraine, one of my classmates, went missing from class.  No one said a word to us students about it, but her desk was packed up and belongings were sent home. I went home and asked my mother about her.  Mom didn’t know, but we pulled out the weekly paper to see if any news would enlighten us.  There it was: Lorraine and her mother had been gang-raped and were immediately removed and sent back to their home country.  Her father was tying up loose ends and would be meeting them there soon.

I remember the look on my mother’s face when she read this aloud to me.  I didn’t know what ‘rape’ meant at the time, but I figured it must be just about the worse thing that could ever happen to you–worse than even death.

That night, I lay in bed and fantasized about what the ‘worst’ might be.  My ten year old mind could not wrap itself around a concept of sexual assault: at the time that was a distant and meaningless reality.  So what could be the worst thing ever that could happen to you? I remember coming to the conclusion that it must mean that someone cuts off your arms and legs (I’d seen folks from the leprosy colony nearby: I knew you could live with one of these missing, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d live with all four gone!).  From that night on, whenever I’d get scared (such as at fortnight when guys got their paychecks and had been out drinking and carousing), I would lay in bed in a ball, face down on my arms and legs, trying to protect them from being ‘raped’.

While I’d gotten the specifics wrong, it never occurred to me that such a thing couldn’t happen to one of my family members: we all knew someone who’d been touched by violent crime or some other type of catastrophe.  In my head, it was a matter of time: odds were, sooner or later something awful was going to happen–it was an issue of numbers.

And so we lived in expectation of the worst: danger lurked everywhere, but it didn’t keep us isolated nor was it paralyzing: the work of the church was far more important than any ‘thing’ that could happen to us.  And if something bad did happen, it would be “all to the glory of God” (thus enforcing the cycle of the work of the church).  It was fascinating to imagine: How much money could be raised if something truly bad happened!  I could be the armless, legless little girl who brought salvation to New Guinea. Money from the U.S. would pour in!  As would my guilt, subsequently, for fear that if I imagined it–it might actually come true: and I didn’t want to be an armless, legless little girl! I didn’t have the courage to be ‘raped’.

The scripture we read today in Matthew was the preamble to a text that was frequently levied against me as a child. If you read the admonitions at the end of this chapter in Matthew, what I didn’t have read this morning, you’ll hear that (Matt 10:37-39) “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than [their faith] is not worthy of [their faith]; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than [their faith] me is not worthy of [their faith].  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow my path is not worthy. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of their faith will find it.”  This was the text oft quoted by the denominational leadership to justify boarding school to us missionary kids. Everything was framed within the context of heroic faith, where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’.  If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.

 

Against heroics:

The question I asked then is the question I still struggle with today: Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that anything worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

The problem was: I didn’t know how to be a moderate or ‘modest’ Christian.  I had no models.  Tales of moderation are not stories of the saints.  I didn’t know if it was possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential?

The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility (that is, the ability to respond at all) to those left holding your urn.

I found that much like the North and South poles, these extremes in ideas (even in faith) were fun to visit–a feat to visit even–but no one lives there for good reasons as they aren’t habitable.  Humans are a temperate bunch, preferring more moderate and livable climates–we need places that are habitable.  And we need a habitable theology.

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhartha Gautama compelling.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’—his is a path which isn’t repeatable… a path that led to a cross.  Siddhartha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

And in many ways, The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

And it is here that I want to return us to the text that was read in the ancient witness this morning.  Somehow how this is a message that was never fully conveyed to me as a child by my denominational leaders.  Allow me to quickly re-read the passage:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, find a worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

When presented with their spiritual path (with a ‘mission’-so to speak) the disciples were instructed to set their expectations high:

First of all: There is good to do.  And that they will be successful doing it: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

And moreover, that they should expect to have their needs met: “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.”  Being a disciple didn’t have to come at their own personal expense.  They could be both giver and recipient: and as such, they were not the final arbiters of grace.   Their hands both open and close…

And finally, that they deserve respect: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave.  Shake the dust off your feet.”  We do not have to be heroes.  We have our walking papers.  Our task, following our Spiritual Path, isn’t about making ourselves miserable or enduring abuse.  We have the freedom to leave, and to seek ministry elsewhere.  And as the text reminds us: we can do so in peace.

What a difference it would have made as a kid, if I’d have heard this good news:  That my needs mattered. That I don’t have to put up with abuse.  That there isn’t anything admirable in unnecessary long-suffering.  That there are appropriate times to walk away from situations. What is so often overlooked in the Christian tradition: that is, the tradition in which a ‘savior’ dies, is that Jesus had no expectation that his followers follow suit: Jesus provided for us in his teachings our walking papers!

Indefectible grace:

Saying ‘no’ to the heroic is neither an abandonment of faith nor a deviation from our spiritual path.  Indeed, it might call us to an even higher level of trust if we abandon our own self importance in any given situation and allow others to step up. It takes considerable faith in to be willing to open our hands in release.

When I first began attending Lake Street Church, my fellow theologians asked “What is a systematic theologian doing at a church which is pointedly nondogmatic and nondoctrinal?”  Well-intentioned folks inquired, concerned that I was having a crisis of faith:  How in the world can you be happy in a church where Jesus isn’t uplifted as savior?  Where doctrine—what you’ve dedicated decades of your life to studying—doesn’t inform worship? 

And while I could have set up shop in defense of the congregation, my responses have always been quite simple: I see evidence of the Divine here.  That’s what drew me, and that’s why I stay. All that the Christian traditions have passed along I’d mastered, but had I tried to manipulate answers or forced us into tidy categories, I’d have closed a tight  and suffocating grip on the very thing which made this congregation so special: the Spirit.

But aren’t you afraid of where this might lead you? What if you end up not believing in anything at all?

There is an old Reformed doctrine called the doctrine of Indefectibilty. Whereas in the Catholic tradition, indefectiblity functioned along the lines of ensuring the perfection of the church—that is, an insistence that the church can be trusted (which has been often used as a power play), the Reformed spin on the doctrine shifted the emphasis from the church to the Spirit.

In this way, in this shift in emphasis from the church to the Spirit, the doctrine is less about the promise of the church and more about the promise of the Divine: that is, that the Spirit is indefectible: she won’t defect from us.  She won’t leave us to our own devices.  She promises abiding presence, in spite of our selves.  She can be trusted!

So it is a robust pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) which has kept me here.  I can open my theological/doctrinal stronghold (open palm) and trust that where I see the presence of the Divine, I can relax my defenses, and I can stop pretending that ‘it is up to me’.  I can trust the winds of the Spirit to blow where she will… and I can breathe…

It yes to trust and a yes to the unknown, and a yes to the Spirit….

And more often than not, it is a YES to those who will eventually pick up the slack (and they will…),  to those who do things slightly differently than you would, to those who are testing the waters of their own leadership skills, to those who are learning…   Saying no to the heroic is a YES to the next generation.

 

Conclusion

What things heroic tasks have you taken on unnecessarily?  Are you functioning with an inflated sense of self importance? Perhaps the questions we need to be asking ourselves is not what it is I’m sacrificing, but who?  Can we trust one another to fill the gaps? Can we trust the presence of the Spirit….

BLESSED BE.

Call to Commitment:

“I wish for the seedling to become a tree. For a doctrine to become a tree, it has to be believed for a good while; for it to be believed, it has to be considered irrefutable. The tree needs storms, doubts, worms, and nastiness to reveal the strength of the seedling; let it break if it is not strong enough.  But a seedling can only be destroyed—not refuted.”

When he had said that, his disciple cried impetuously, “But I believe in your cause, and consider it so strong that I will say everything, everything I still have in my mind against it.”

The Innovator laughed in his heart, and wagged a finger at him.  “That kind of discipleship,” he said then, “is the best; but it is also the most dangerous, and not every kind of doctrine can endure it.”

–Fredrich Nietzsche,  Aphorism #106, The Gay Science

BENEDICTION:

Go in peace, knowing the good you have to do in the world, and also knowing that it all doesn’t rest in your hands!

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2 thoughts on “Walking Papers and the Indefectibilty of Grace

  1. Marilyn says:

    Outstanding. I want to weep. These words: “What a difference it would have made as a kid, if I’d have heard this good news: That my needs mattered. That I don’t have to put up with abuse. That there isn’t anything admirable in unnecessary long-suffering. That there are appropriate times to walk away from situations. What is so often overlooked in the Christian tradition: that is, the tradition in which a ‘savior’ dies, is that Jesus had no expectation that his followers follow suit: Jesus provided for us in his teachings our walking papers!” I am deeply touched by this post, wish I could have heard the sermon in person. This is huge for kids. Huge. For some reason – my parents never subscribed to us being sacrificed – one thing I knew in Pakistan was that no matter where I was, if I really needed them, they’d be there. I’ll never forget waking up in a cold dorm room with a horrible house parent and there was my mom – she’d heard that my brother had broken his arm and took the next train. So many other kids didn’t get that – I was so lucky. Somehow, someway my parents saw beyond the often given explanation of this scripture to the real truth of what their calling was – first to each other, then to us kids within the context of Pakistan. Wow. Thank you for an amazing, but hard, read.

  2. Marilyn, my parents were young and I know they experienced a lot of pressure from some of the older missionaries to not buck the system. But the role of sacrifice continues to play a huge role in their theology. I prefer to think of my contributions to ministry as ‘gift’ rather than ‘sacrifice’: it bodes better with my soul, and as such, never compelled, but rather given freely (not out of duty or obligation).

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