This sermon was preached without notes - so each service was different - and both differ a bit from what's below - but they share the same spirit. Hope to see you next week.
When I was six, my parents took me to France for the first time to meet some chosen family of my mother’s. And we took a day trip south – on the train – to the artist Monet’s house. I knew a little about him because my mom and I read a book together about him – and his house – and his huge, beautiful garden – and the funny way he painted.
He was an impressionist – those painters who used big splotches – big almost piles of paint – creating a really unique image. Nothing like a photograph – But something alive. When you stand close to these paintings – all you can see is these big globs of paint. Dark here, light there. It looks really messy. Like someone has almost just thrown the paint at the canvas. But when you step back – and your eye can take in the whole picture – your brain adjusts – and shows you something else.
Monet is famous of course for waterlilies – and at the time – there were these huge murals in the basement of his house. I think they’ve since moved them to a different building – but they were sort of downstairs. And I remember walking into this room that was literally wrapped with these paintings – and looking around – and just being sort of in awe that someone could create something like that – So I went right up – wanting to be nose to nose with the paint – And I stepped on the ledge that was right there – And set off all the alarms.
And these big guys with guns came running out to make sure no one was trying to hurt – or steal the paintings – And there I am. Six year old me. Still with my foot on the ledge. Just wanting to see.
My mother, ever the traveler, was thoroughly embarrassed. But hey. That’s what kids are for, right? I did well that day!
We have a modern impressionist painting in our home by an Israeli artist – and I love it. It’s bright and colorful. And the artist used these big swatches – almost like thick paint chips – to make the leaves on the trees in Central Park. It’s outrageous close up – It’s messy – and brutal – the colors almost seem to fight each other - With these thick pieces that must have taken forever to dry. But when you step back – it looks like a whole different far away world. Peaceful and bright.
I’m telling you all this because I think it can help with today’s Epistle. We humans – and our relationships – are a lot like impressionist paintings. We look good from afar. But we’re a lot messier up close. How many of us – when we first get to know someone – or God help us – when we’re dating – or we go to a new job the first time – Or meet someone new – How many of us try to put our best foot forward?
I’m not saying this is a bad thing – but it’s a real thing. We want people to think we are lots of things – smart and capable, kind and honest, etc. We want people to notice the good things about us. And then – as people get to know us better – As we move deeper into relationship with someone – We sort of get to see the real thing, right? Slowly, the masks on both sides of the relationship come off – And what’s slowly made more visible are our wounds – Our grief – our shame – our anger – The shadows – the splotchy dark parts of the painting that aren’t very pretty up close – That look really messy.
And this is the great gift of love - that when we love each other - we can love through these faults and flaws and shortcomings. We love someone, really, because they're human - not despite the fact that they're human. We can love each other through the hard things.
The good news today – is that God already knows that you’re messy. That you carry these shadows. That you say unkind things. That you feel unkind feelings. That you get angry. Or lazy. Or whatever else it is you like to hide from most other people… God already knows all these things.
Because God can see both images – the upclose messy bit – And the beautiful far way bit.
And God loves you through all those things…Better still, God didn’t wait until humanity sort of got it’s act together to send Jesus – God sent Jesus to us while we were still messy – and messed up. The good news is that you are enough - right now - and God loves you just the way you are. And so despite the shadows and baggage you may hide - God has already saved you.
This is the concept of grace. That God already loves us – and has already saved us – just as we are.
Not because we’ve done anything to earn it – Not because we will ever to anything good enough to earn it – Even the Mother Theresa types of the world (who we generally thing are kinder - or gentler - or more faithful than we are) aren’t good enough to merit the sacrifice Jesus makes on the cross for us – We can’t buy grace. We can’t earn it. It’s free.
God’s grace is free. It comes to us not because we deserve it. But because God is good. It’s an amazing thing. And this hope – that God is good – That God loves us completely – and that God acted to save us – Is the core of our faith. It is the Christian hope.
And if it is the primary source of our hope – of our identity – we will not be disappointed. Because God is faithful. And good. The trouble with hope is that it is relentless. And contagious. And that if we really have it – it starts to make us do new things – And believe new things – The trouble with hope is that it will work on us. It will change us. It will spill out of us.
And that's good news too - because only hope can make us free enough to do what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today. Did you listen to that text? It’s really a scary text. Jesus is asking a lot of the disciples – and by extension – Jesus is asking a lot of us. Of you. He even says – I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves. Take nothing with you – no safety net. Rely on others. Take risks. Take only me with you. My words. My Spirit. My story. Take nothing else.
It’s a lot. And it’s only possible if we have really placed our hope in God. If one of the foundation stones of our being is that God has already saved us. That God loves us more than we can imagine. And that God is so good – that God wants that same freedom not just for you – but for all people. Only hope can make us free enough – and strong enough – to take the risks Jesus asks us to take. To try to continue his work in the world.
To go and find the people on the margins – who have been cast out – to love them. To make room at the table for them. Only this kind of hope can teach us to repent when we have hurt someone – and to seek their forgiveness. Only this kind of hope can make us so brave that we might speak Jesus’ name in a world that doesn’t care about him – and doesn’t believe in him – And might laugh at us – or cast us out – if we say his name loudly enough…
Because hope is something special. Hope is what makes kids believe that Santa might come before Christmas morning – it is prone to a little magical thinking – Hope is what parents hang on to the first time they drop their child off and pre-school – or the first time they drive off in a car – which means hope can hold our deepest desires – Hope is what holds our grief – when we lose someone we love – hoping – longing – to see them again in that kingdom were there is no grief –
Hope promises that even in the darkest night – a light will shine – Hope holds and sustains a tremendous amount of things…it's powerful.
And hope can teach us that even if God’s grace is free – that it doesn’t come cheap. Grace is costly. Look at what it costs Jesus on the cross. Imagine the price he pays so that we might have God’s grace. And so that we might share in God’s grace. So that we might learn to offer it to each other – To love each other as God loves us –
Think about how messy that is – On both sides. To learn to see the beauty in people even when what we see is the mess – And – by the way – to learn to trust that other people will see the beauty in us – even when we are a mess. (See how that goes both ways?)
If we put our hope in God – and make that the center of our lives – And if that frees us up to learn how to love like Jesus loves us – Then showing each other grace will cost us a lot, too. Because we have to learn to give our love freely. To receive love freely. And to love God in our neighbors - even when we think someone hasn't "earned it" - remember, grace is free. It means we have to let God love us - even when we think we don't deserve it. And all of this requires real risk. And because we’re all so messy – and we do have those dark spots – all of us get hurt from time to time. And yet.
Hope does not disappoint. Hope promises us that we can – with God – create spaces of welcome.
And peace. And justice. And safety. And that the more we do that work – the more we will understand – and be able to take in the beauty of God in the people and the world around us. And God, in case you were wondering, is as beautiful close up – as far away. While there are pieces of God that are hidden now - we believe that someday we will see the whole picture - or, if you rather, God's whole face - close up. And there will be no dark spots. Because God is only light.
And God has the ability to slowly lighten us - through this hope. Through this grace. And the process of giving - and receiving grace from each other. It's not easy work. But it is ultimately the work to which Jesus calls us - to make and baptize disciples out of all peoples - and all nations - to draw all of God's beloved people - in their wholeness (shadows and dark spots and all) to one table so that we can all share in the feast that has been planned since the foundation of the world.
Look for this grace in your relationships. Question how much you are vulnerable - how much you risk - how much of yourself you let others see - and how well you love the whole people in front of you - not just the nice image from afar.
Thanks be to God for grace we cannot earn - but that we can learn to give. Amen.