Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Track Record Be Gone!

I went out to the DC high school at about 8:00 tonight to see the annual academic awards program. Department awards (math, social studies, etc.) were followed by "academic letter recipients" from each grade. Finally as a culmination, the "four year letter winners." I think that means four years of a 3.5 or better g.p.a. Wow--quite a track record.

Such consistency! Such accomplishment! During my school years, I never managed that. I wasn't a bad student. I did well sometimes. I squeaked out an average that gave me an orange tassel in high school and an honor cord in college. But certain bad habits dogged me. I didn't do really well until my last year of college, when, fresh from a deep prodigal son experience, filled with energy and joy, renewed in my relationship with God, I plunged in and aced everything. Even so, I could never come close to a four year honor.

That's one reason I'm glad we don't have many awards or recognitions in the church. We operate on the principle of grace, not law. I know what it's like to fall behind. I know what it's like to think I failed. There was a certain point in my life where I couldn't imagine things getting better. I thought I had really screwed things up and made a irrecoverable mess of my life. I didn't go to church or hardly ever see those who loved me best for a couple of years straight. I remember my dad shedding tears of joy when I finally came back to life in my relationship with God. But I'll never be in line for a "lifetime" church award.

There's a lot more to my story that I tell when I know people well. But just let it be said for now that my track record during my high school and college years left a lot to be desired.

So why is this so interesting? As I've been studying to preach on May 17th, I've been reading Pastor Richard Jensen's commentary on something he says we "ought to be amazed" at--the "Spirit-infused breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles" found in Acts 10:1--11:18. The modern day example he uses as a parallel is what happened in Chicago's Grant Park on the night of the election of the country's first African-American president.
The crowds were overflowing. The excitement was palpable. There before our eyes, we watched [them] with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.

What were the crowds so overjoyed about? Among other things, they were celebrating the fact that a malignant barrier in our culture had been broken down. The barrier between black and white in this country had experienced a major ripping apart.
Then Pastor Jensen says that Acts 10-11 "should produce no less joy!"

Many people, however, can't relate to that. Many have never been part of a racial minority. Many don't know what it's like, as my daughter learned on her Sankofa trip, to have to keep your hands visible in stores all the time so you won't be suspected of shoplifting. Many of us have pretty good track records in many ways and, if we're honest, are pretty proud of it too.

Though my high school and college years were spotty, now things are different. As a "getting gray" pastor, a father, and a man married to the same woman for going on 25 years, some folks give me the kind of respect I couldn't have even dreamed of back then. If I walk off without paying my bill at Daniel's* the waitress won't call the cops. She'll assume I'm just forgetful--which is absolutely true--and that I'll come back and pay later--which I will do. In my home area, I'm not a hated "Gentile." In terms of the scripture Pastor Jensen refers to in his commentary, today I'm much more like a respected Jew.

In order to feel the joy of the tens of thousands who celebrated in Grant Park or the overflowing spirits of the Gentiles in Acts 10, we need to somehow put ourselves in the place of those who are commonly considered to be lost causes or "hopeless cases." If we're not part of a racial minority, if we're not familiar with how it feels to be left out because of how we look, then consider those times when you or those you love have flunked out or made poor decisions. Think about those "dark nights of the soul" when you or someone you love feels totally alone or utterly abandoned. Even God, we think, has forgotten.

And it's even worse when we're convinced, by our own analysis or some accusation, that we're in that dark night because of our own fault.

If we can understand a bit of that darkness, then we can understand a bit of the total joy that comes when the doors to being accepted and loved by God are opened in Acts 10-11.

For hundreds of years the Jewish people had the assurance of being God's own special, chosen ones. Yes, there were times of darkness and loss, but they always had God's promises to hang onto. Non-jews were sometimes attracted to them, but to become a Jew one had to renounce associations and friendships with everyone that they had known up to that time. There was a complete "cut off" that of relationship between Jews and Gentiles. You were one or the other. If you weren't a chosen Jew, you were a Gentile dog, and no chosen Jew would enter your home or be your friend.

But then a new message came. It was the fulfillment of what was hinted at in the Old Testament prophets, hints about a time when people from all nations would stream into God's Kingdom. That fulfillment came with Jesus Christ, who died for all who were cut off from God, not just for the Jews (who might have suspected it), but also for the Gentiles, who could not have been more surprised. It was as if all of a sudden you discovered that your bad track record was erased and a totally shining new one was put in its place. You could be totally accepted now by God, and join the ranks of the redeemed without any hint of prejudice being held against you anymore.

It's getting late now and I'm very tired, but in telling a bit of this story I'm sensing a bit of that joy. It's a joy that we proclaim as a matter of course when we welcome everyone to the Lord's Table and to the Baptismal promises. It's a joy that still, today, will erase all your failures and frustrations. It's a joy that every Christian should extend freely to everyone else.

No matter what your track record has been until now, you can begin fresh today, or tomorrow, until that day when we meet our gracious Lord Jesus, face to face.

Time for bed!

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