State of Grace


A sermon I preached this past Sunday, May 20, 2007 based upon Acts 16, entitled “State of Grace.”.

Pema Chodron in her book, The Places That Scare You, tells how she was given an essential teaching for life when she was only six years old. She was walking down the street feeling unloved, lonely and mad, kicking pretty much everything in sight. Watching this display, an old woman sitting on a front porch said to her, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”

I like that. Pema Chodron is a Buddhist, but her words resonate with the spirit of Christianity. We hear a lot about “hardened hearts: in the Bible. Pharaoh is described as having a hard heart when he refused Moses who had come to him to ask for freedom for his people. And in the Gospels, those who resisted Jesus’ ministry, the scribes and the Pharisees, are described as having hard hearts.

Life in this world has a way of hardening our hearts, which in turn cuts off access to our souls. Our souls — the part of ourselves that is, at the same time, our most distinctly unique self, as well as being the part of ourselves that connects us to all other living beings — can get smothered under a hardened heart, leading eventually to its final extinction.

Generally speaking, there are two things that tempt us to harden our hearts: 1) Frustration and anger; and 2) Fear. Life in our contemporary world provides us with plenty of opportunity to experience both. And we become very attached to our anger and our fear.

The story of John Wesley at the roots of Methodism involve both frustration and fear and the language of the heart. In his two years as a young Anglican priest in the colony of Georgia John Wesley became immensely frustrated both in his professional and personal life. His congregants wouldn’t do what he thought they should do, and the young woman he fell in love with got tired of waiting for him to propose and eloped to marry somebody else as well. He hopped on a boat back to England when the frustrations of his life became unbearable, and then, while out at sea in a storm, he experienced terror at the possibility of drowning. He was amazed to witness others, however — Moravian Christians who, like Paul and Silas in this morning’s s Scripture story were singing songs of praise, appearing to be fully at peace in the midst of the same storm. It was a year after returning to England that Wesley experienced his “heart strangely warmed.” by the love of God in Christ Jesus during a prayer meeting he had gone to rather reluctantly.

In this mornings story about Paul and Silas, if you back up to the verses that precede it, there is a remarkable thing to notice. The apostles attempt to enter Asia, but they can’s and the interpretation given is that the holy spirit wouldn’t permit them. They try to enter a certain city, and once again they are thwarted, and this time it says that the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to enter the city. We are not told what the problem was. Did they lose their passport, or their boat tickets? Who knows? The apostles seem strangely immune to frustration; all of these apparent obstacles are simply interpreted as the leading of the holy spirit to go elsewhere. The story goes on to describe how Paul received a dream which he understood to be telling them to go to the city of Philippi, which is what they did. Two doors are closed, but then a third door is opened, which they understand to be the door they were intended to go through.

Now this way of viewing things can open up lots of knotty theological questions. Is the hand of God really in everything that happens to us, including all the doors slammed shut in our faces? And yet on a practical level this way of seeing things saves the apostles from a great deal of frustration, which is no small thing.

As I age, I am forced to reckon with the fact that my energy is limited. I don’t have the same kind of energy I had when I was 21. Consequently, I need to be aware of things that dissipate my energy supply. Nothing hemorrhages energy like getting stuck in frustration and anger. To find a way to approach life wherein I am not getting so caught up in the experience of frustration is no small thing. So it helps to remind myself: God is God, and I am not. Ultimately, God is in control. If I trust God and pay attention, God will lead me to the place I need to be. I don’t need to fret it.

I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer, which is so central to AA: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In our story, Paul and Silas are preaching on the streets of Philippi, and a slave girl begins to follow them around. She is possessed with a spirit that purportedly made the girl something of a fortune teller. The spirit compels the girl to repeatedly scream about how these two men are from God, and eventually Paul gets frustrated, and so he decides to confront the situation. In the name of Jesus Christ he commands the spirit to leave the girl. This is good news for the girl who is now free to be herself. It is bad news however for her owners who had been making lots of money off of the girl’s fortune telling abilities. So the owners conspire to get Paul and Silas thrown into jail on some trumped up charges. There they are stripped naked and beaten up. Shackles are placed on their arms and legs and they are thrown into the darkest cell in the jail. It’s midnight, which means it’s plenty dark.

Now this is a situation that most of us would interpret as being terribly wrong and full of fear. But Paul and Silas are described as being rather content in jail. They are praying and singing songs of praise to God. The other prisoners are pretty amazed at their serenity.

Now the first thing to note is that Paul and Silas have the support of each other, as well as the support of their Christian friends outside the jail who are praying for them, and this is a wonderful gift. We have lots of people in our church family who can testify to how important it is to have this kind of support.

But there is more than this going on here. Paul and Silas have entered into a state of grace in which they can trust God in all things, relax, and go with the flow. What were Paul and Silas praying about? We would probably assume that they were praying for God to get them the heck out of that prison cell, but I don’t think that’s the case. They are simply described as praising God, and when an earthquake suddenly breaks off their shackles and busts open their prison cells, they are free to high tail it out of the cell, but they don’t leave.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which he wrote from a prison cell, Paul described himself as having reached a place in life where he can be content in all situations. Whether he lives or he dies, it makes no matter to him, because both mean Christ to him.

I can’t say I succeed in living in this state of mind most of the time. But I have moments, and I think you to do, when we are able to loosen our tight grip on life, and simply go with the flow, open to wherever we are lead. I am convinced that this is the state of mind in which what we call “miracles” are more likely to occur. If you come to God with an agenda that includes demanding a miracle, well, I don’t think that works very well. Miracles have a way of showing up when we don’t demand them, but are open to them the way Paul and Silas were that night in the prison cell.

So the earthquake sets the captives free. The jailer comes dashing in. He is a man like so many in this world: over time he has been experiencing a major hardening of his heart. And with this earthquake, and the apparent escape of all the prisoners for whom he will be held accountable — well, it all just too much for him. The frustration and fear push him over the edge. He pulls out his sword and is about to plunge it into his heart, but is kept from doing so by Paul’s command not to harm himself, reassuring him that they are still there.

One of the things that characterizes this state of grace in which Paul and Silas are living is the freedom to see human beings without the distinction of friends and enemies. They see the jailor and they don’t see an “enemy.” They see a human soul, with a story to share, with longings and sufferings not readily apparent at first glance. He takes them home to meet his family — who would have guessed the tough guy jailer would have a wife and kids back home who love him and depend on him? Paul and Silas share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the jailer and his family, and in turn, they make the apostles breakfast, and everybody has a fine old time.

Each month I lead worship at a local nursing home, a place that many people think of as being comparable to a jail. When I finish preaching, I take time to go around and pray with each of the old folks who come to the service. Josephine is 102. Whenever I ask her what she would like me to pray for, she says simply to pray for whatever the Lord wants to do in her life. Her eyes are pools of light, bright shining like the sun.

One of the things I feel pretty confident about is that hanging out in our church is a good way to keep your heart soft and warm.