Monday, January 9, 2017

I will be responding to the many questions that were shared at the Chain of Lakes Christmas Eve service.  This response was the sermon that was shared yesterday, January 8 at Chain of Lakes Church.

Question:  Can we be forgiven for all if we are truly sorry for what we have done?  Even regarding the 10 Commandments?

Today I’m beginning a January sermon series called the “The 1 Question.”  At Christmas Eve worship I asked each person present to share one question about God, the church, or personal faith. 

I was personally thrilled that 24 questions were submitted.
I was also a bit dazed that 24 questions were submitted. 

When our worship team was talking about this series, they suggested I write a blog about each question.  I said “yes.”  I said “yes” before I knew that 24 questions would be submitted.  This series is going for four weeks.  That means I have 20 blogs to write. 
Lord, in your mercy!!  Would you pray for me.

I encourage you to read these blogs.  You can find links for them from the Chain of Lakes web site and the Chain of Lakes Facebook page.  You can find a listing of all 24 questions on the blog.

This series is significant because illustrates the point that we value questions at Chain of Lakes.  We’re authentic, so we’re willing to listen to people’s questions. 
If you have questions about God, personal faith, why things happen the way they do in a church, relationships, please ask the question.  Don’t be Minnesota Nice about your questions.  Ask hard ones. 

These are the questions we are going to look at in this series. 
Sunday, January 15     What does it mean to be “full of the Spirit?”  
Sunday, January 22     Can a child or someone who has never heard the Word go to heaven?”
Sunday, January 29     Does God really have a plan?  Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?

Today the question is: “Can we be forgiven for all if we are truly sorry for what we have done?  Even regarding the 10 Commandments.” 

The answer to this question has everything to do with our view of grace.  G-R-A-C-E.  To help all of us understand G-R-A-C-E I wrote a Bible Study on G-R-A-C-E.  I strongly encourage you to use it this week.  I know that many of us are reading through the Bible.  Put this devotion in your Bible and read these readings.  In the middle is a place to take notes.  I believe God will say something today that you’ll want to remember.  On the back is our congregation’s prayer requests.

I just gave the answer to this question.  But there’s something more important than the answer.  What’s more important is how we get to the answer.  I’m going to spend the rest of this sermon sharing how we land on G-R-A-C-E.

At Chain of Lakes we want to help everyone who comes here in four ways.  We want to help you:
In your faith life
In your relationship life
To recover from past wounds
To discover your Inspirational Intersection or your identity in Christ.

To have a rich faith life, we must understand grace—G-R-A-C-E. 

I can’t help reflect on grace without thinking about a traditional song.  We sang a contemporary version of the song today.  The traditional version
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see..

SLIDE            The words to the song were written by John Newton.  Newton served the Episcopal tradition as a priest.  He collaborated with the poet William Cowper to write these words.  They were a sermon illustration at his church New Year’s Day of 1773.  The congregation probably didn’t sing the words that day.  Most likely they chanted the words. 
It wasn’t until 1835 that the words were combined with the tune. 

Amazing Grace is a song of Extraordinary Blessing.  It has been big and bold. 
It’s performed about 10 million times every year.  During times of crisis—during the Civil War & the Vietnam War—it had a surge of popularity.  A lot of people recorded a version of the song—Judy Collins’ Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson—even Elvis. President Obama sang the song at a funeral for a victim of the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina.

The song provides the answer to today’s question.  The answer, of course, is grace.  G-R-
Grace that is FREE—grace is a gift and costs us nothing.   
Grace that is unconditional—God offers it to us at any point in our life no matter what we’ve done.  There are no strings attached to grace.
Grace that is undeserved.  The point of grace is none of us deserves it—and grace is still given by God to us.    

One controversial lyric is “it saved a wretch like me.”   

John Newton identified himself as a wretch.  It’s worth knowing some of his story.  His mom died two weeks before his seventh birthday.  His dad was a sailor, so he ended up living with his step-mother.  Unfortunately John Newton’s step-mother was like the step-mother in Cinderella.  It didn’t go well.   He was sent to boarding school.  At the age of eleven he was sent to spend time with his father at sea.  JN became a tough, raunchy, and disgusting sailor.  At 18 he tried to desert from the crew he was serving.  He was caught and punished.  He was stripped to the waist, tied to the ship and whipped 96 times.  He responded by simultaneously wanting to murder the captain and kill himself.
Five years later, at 23, he was part of a crew sailing off the coast of Ireland.  There was a terrible storm.  John Newton awoke in the middle of the night.  The storm caused a hole in the ship.  The ship was filling with water.  It seemed like it would sink.  John Newton cried out to God.  The cargo shifted and filled the hole.  The ship drifted to safety.  He and the crew were saved. 

This was the beginning of his shift to the faith.  He eventually became a priest.

John Newton always knew he was a wretched man.

I have a question.  How do you think God viewed John Newton?  God viewed John Newton in the same way God views all of us.  God knew everything about John Newton.  God knew the worst and raunchy and filthy desires of his spirit he had.   God judged John Newton.  Do you know what the judgment was?  Forgiven. 

It’s fair to ask the question—and remember we encourage questions—how do I, Paul Moore, know that God forgave John Newton.  This question is tied into today’s question. 
SLIDE            Can we be forgiven for all if we are truly sorry for what we have done?  Even regarding the 10 Commandments.    I know this because Jesus came to share and illustrate Grace-G-R-A-C-E.    

When Jesus died he died between two people.  The gospel writers, Matthew and Mark called the two people on the other crosses, bandits. 

The Greek word was lestai.  I’m not trying to teach you Greek, but I’m trying to teach you the type of person that these two people were.  A lestai is a person who  plunders and pillages – an unscrupulous marauder (malefactor), who exploits the vulnerable and doesn’t hesitate to use violence.  The gospel writer Luke called them criminals. 
“One of the criminals who was hanged there kept deriding [Jesus] and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other [criminal] rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then [the criminal] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  [Jesus] replied “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” Luke 23:39-42

According to Luke these were the last words that Jesus said to a human being.  The last words that Jesus said to a human being were words of forgiveness.  Grace!
Another story about Jesus.     

Two men were praying in the Temple.  One was a Pharisee. 
“God I thank you that I am not like the other people:  thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Tax collectors were hated in the days of Jesus.  We might have opinions about the IRS, but our opinions are nothing like the opinions of Jews towards tax collectors when Jesus was alive.  Tax collectors operated like independent contractors for Rome.  They gave a certain amount of money to Rome, and then they were free to collect money.  in that they would give money to Rome and then collect money.  As long as they gave the money to Rome, they were free to collect as much as they wanted.  Often tax collectors were unscrupulous.  They would do whatever they could to get as much money as they could.  Not only that a tax collector represented a foreign country that was hated by most people.  The tax collector was a wretch.
The tax collector had something that the Pharisee didn’t have.  The tax collector knew he needed grace—or mercy.  The tax collector knew he needed forgiveness.

‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Maybe we’ve heard this story often.  If we’ve heard the story often we run the risk of losing the astonishment of the story.  Who was the hero of the story? 
Was the pious man or the wretch? 
The righteous man or the unrighteous man
The follower of the law (what we might call the 10 commandments) or the breaker of the law.
The hero was the tax collector. 
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 18:14

To truly have a rich and robust faith we have to start with having an understanding of our own need for grace.  If we don’t have an understanding of our own need for grace, then we will always run the risk of being like the Pharisee. 

God gives grace freely.   The answer to today’s question is grace.   To take it to the next step we have to ask ourselves—how deep is my own understanding of my need for grace.   John Newton, and the lestai and the tax collector knew that they needed grace.  For them grace wasn’t an academic exercise they debated in their minds.  Grace was burning in their heart because they knew they needed it.  The question that I want each of us to ponder about ourselves is how deep do each of us know that we need grace. 

We can’t talk about grace without bringing in some other words about faith that have tripped people up.  One of the words is sin. 
Unfortunately the church has done a poor job of talking about sin.  In general when preachers talk about sin we’ve made one of two terrible errors
We’ve made people feel so bad about their sins that they won’t approach God
We’ve made people feel so good about themselves that we never talk about sin.  Then people believe that they don’t need God. 

The reality is that each one of us have been given wonderful gifts and are capable of being an extraordinary blessing.  We are good.  And the reality is that each one of us is capable of doing terrible things and even doing evil.  We sin.

One of the reasons that we exist at Chain of Lakes is to be authentic.  Part of being authentic is acknowledging that we sin—that we fall short.  We miss the mark.  Sometimes we sin even when we don’t know that we sin.    Acknowledge our own sins prevents us from living as prideful people.  We won’t be like the Pharisee. 

The key is recognizing we fall short—we sin—without beating ourselves up.         

I pray in the morning and use a prayer sheet.   On my prayer sheet is a place where I list the ways that I messed up the previous day—the ways that I sin.  I’ll either write these sins down or reflect on them.  Sometimes it’s hard.  I’m putting a mirror in front of my own spirit and take a hard look at what is happening. 

I do this not with a sense of dread, but with a spirit of anticipation.  I’m not happy that I sin or fall short, but I don’t bludgeon myself.  I’m very sorry that I mess up.  But I look at confession as opportunity to grow.  Through my own acknowledgment I anticipate becoming more like Christ, that’s one goal of faith to become more like Christ.    

There’s no secret formula to confession.  It’s very simple.  I find three words to work.  “I have sinned.”  The Apostle Paul put it this way:
“For there is no distinction, 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.

Jesus gave us access to grace.

If we go back to the question.  And here it is:

We can go down all sorts of rabbit holes when we think about confession that don’t ultimately help us.  What happens if we confess and aren’t truly sorry; or how do we know if we are truly sorry.  Do we need to confess something more than once.  Or is there a magic number in confessing.  Am I truly sorry if I confess something twenty times instead of once; or do I need to confess something a thousand times.  Do I need to prove myself to God.

Here’s the thing.  God is on our side.  God is not against us; God is not waiting to pounce on us for and make us prove that we are truly sorry; God never created a litmus test for sorrow.  God is on our side.  Grace.  G-R-A-C-E. 

Grace leads us to think about our own image of God.  This is an important question for our faith life. 
SLIDE            What is your image of God.
Is God like our worst critic waiting to jump on us when we mess up?
Is God like a bad teacher waiting to go through the lessons of our life and say, “uh, uh, uh” you didn’t confess this sin?
Or instead is God like Jesus on the cross.  Looking at the bandit who waited until the end of his life.  Jesus responded to the bandit by saying, “today you will join me in paradise.”  Essentially saying, “I forgive you.”

I hope that our image of God is Jesus giving grace on the cross. 

In the Scripture that ___ read, the Apostle Paul said that at the right time Jesus died for us.  What this means to me is not matter what we’ve done in our life, Jesus wants to forgive us.  That’s the image that we carry with us.

In my work on this sermon I reaquainted myself with the story of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the worst serial killers in the history of the United States.  I went to his Wikipedia page and had to stop reading it.  It was horrible.

One part of his story that is worth lifting up is at the end of his life, while he was in jail Jeffrey Dahmer started a conversation with Roy Ratcliff.  Roy Ratcliff is a pastor.  He started having a weekly conversation with Jeffrey Dahmer in jail.  Jeffrey Dahmer confessed his sins.  He was baptized at the end of his life.  Ultimately Dahmer was killed by another inmate.  At the funeral service Roy Ratcliff said this about Jeffrey Dahmer.

“Jeff confessed to me his great remorse for his crimes.  He wished he could do something for the families of his victims to make it right, but there was nothing he could do.  He turned to God because there was no one else to turn to, but he showed great courage in his daring to ask the question, ‘Is heaven for me too?’  I think many people are resentful of him for asking that question.  But he dared to ask, and he dared to believe the answer.” 

Did God forgive Jeffrey Dahmer.  I think he did.  I don’t say that easily.  JD was the worst of the wretches.  I can understand if people could never forgive JD for what he did.  If I was a family member of one of JD’s victims, it probably would take me a lot of therapy to forgive him.  I’m not God.  Jesus looked at the bandit shortly before his death and said, you will join me in paradise.  You are forgiven. 

The task is how do we let this forgiveness/grace/G-R-A-C-E infuse our life. 

Let me close with this story.  How many of you have seen the movie, “Rogue 1.”  Amy and I saw it a week ago.  There is a scene in the movie where a character named “Chirut” has to make an extraordinary action.  He risked his life in order to advance the cause of the rebels.  And as he took this action he said to himself, “I am one with the Force; the force is with me.”  He said this over and over and over.  It was his mantra.

I’d like to leave you with a mantra.  I’d like to encourage you to say this mantra this week.  I want to encourage you to say it over and over and over again during your week.  The mantra is this:

SLIDE            I am forgiven; I am forgive; I am forgiven; I am forgiven.

Take this mantra; say it many times this week; experience the power of grace.  I am forgiven.

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