Sermon: Abundance of Grace

How many of you are awake this morning?  I’m looking for a show of hands here…

How many of you were awake while Betsy read the 7 verses from Romans 5: 12-17?  English Standard Version.  It seems amazing that the entire message of the Bible, from Genesis to the end,  is found here, all summed up neatly in seven verses.

If you all understood it, I don’t need to give you this sermon, and we can go straight to the offertory (we’ll skip the prayers) and then head downstairs to the coffee break.  How does that sound?

How many of you think you don’t need to hear this sermon?

How many of you think you can stay awake until I finish the sermon?

We’ll see how you all go with that, shall we?  …

This morning I’m going to take you on an intellectual (read: scientific journal mumbo jumbo), winding maze through one of the toughest texts that I’ve ever had to prepare for.

I am going to try to give you an explanation that you can hopefully understand…  although I am going to rely a bit on my high-school science as it relates to DNA sequencing in the human body and a very basic knowledge of NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming).

I want to start with the idea of the “Original Sin” and the effect of that “Original Sin” on mankind and how that is passed down from generation to generation.  Verse 12 of Romans 5 starts with

“just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men”

We’ve all been taught that Adam had everything he needed to live eternally, but that because of his sin in the garden of Eden, life becomes finite instead of infinite – death enters the world.

And I want to add to that mix the verse from Exodus 34:7 (ESV) that says:

Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

And I’ve wondered to myself how that might be possible on a molecular and physical level – can science explain what the Bible says happened to Adam because of sin and to all mankind, through the passing of the sin from generation to generation?  How does Adam’s bad nature get down to me all these millennia later? Well, some say, it’s like pollution or poison poured into a river. If a company dumps hundreds of liters of mercury into a river, then no matter how far downstream you go, you still get mercury poisoning.

Now – today I’m not going to give you a definition of sin – or even discuss what Adam’s sin was – trying to become like God, transgressing the Commandment God gave him, or whether sin is simply missing the mark of the most perfect version of yourself that God created you to be (like the archer that fails to hit the target).

What I want to look at is the effect that sin has upon us, as a human race, and then briefly touch about the gift of Abundance of Grace that we are promised in Romans 5: 17.

Our bodies have 3 billion genetic building blocks, or base pairs, that make us who we are. And we are somewhere between 99.5 to 99.9% similar to the person next to us.  A printed version of your entire genetic code would occupy some 262,000 pages! Of those pages, only some 500 would be unique to you. So how much of that do you think you inherited from 20 generations back?  How similar does that make you to the person sitting behind you?

And it seems that in 2017, scientists are getting closer to having the answers as they study the effects of stress and life-styles on our DNA codes and sequencing.  And now it seems that there is a reason for this, on 2 levels: epigenetics and the shortening of our telomeres (the protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA).   The field of epigenetics refers to the science that studies how the development, functioning and evolution of biological systems are influenced by forces operating outside the DNA sequence, including intracellular, environmental and energetic influences (and by energetic, I also mean the emotional forces that affect our bodies organs, such as when we get angry, are upset, or stressed and tired, especially for long periods of time).

Since the 1970s, researchers had known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell.

One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules. The methyl group works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes —  genes — necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside but separate from the double-helix DNA code.  Originally these changes were believed to occur only during fetal development. But it has already been shown that DNA can be added to in adulthood, setting off a cascade of cellular changes resulting in cancer, diabetes or other illnesses.  Not only that, but epigenetic change could be passed down from parent to child, one generation after the next (hence you find the reference in the Bible that the sins of the fathers are passed down to the son to the third and fourth generations). A study from Randy Jirtle of Duke University showed that when female mice are fed a diet rich in methyl groups, the fur pigment of subsequent offspring is permanently altered. Just by playing with the diet, they could alter the colour of the fur of the mice.  Now, what if emotions, such as guilt, could play a similar role?

The medical field has already shown that stress has this particular effect.  Telomeres are a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA. Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it, but chronic stress and cortisol exposure decrease your supply. When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks.

Now we all know that old wives tale that tells a young pregnant woman not to cry during the pregnancy because her child will bear the effects of it through their entire life – but now science is beginning to understand that the negative effects of stress begin before conception.  A baby’s intrauterine environment is shaped by a mom’s pre-existing physical health. There have also been several studies looking at maternal health and telomeres in offspring: the higher a mom’s prenatal anxiety, the shorter the baby’s telomere length (i.e. the shorter the life span).

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; a child whose grandparents lived through the ravages of a Revolution; young immigrants whose parents survived massacres; anyone who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

So what on earth does any of all this scientific mumbo jumbo have to do with the “Original Sin”, and Paul’s discussion of the original Adam and the posterior Adam (Jesus)?

Well, for starters – it explains how our genetic make up is affected by our habits, our environment, our diet, our stress, and even the stress and anxiety of being ashamed, berating ourselves, or failing to accept God’s forgiveness of our sins.  It explains how any resentment, bitterness or anger that we carry towards another person, when we fail to forgive, affects us to the most innermost of our being as David describes in the Psalms.

1. Your beliefs influence your behavior.  

One of the most basic ways that beliefs can shape reality is through their influence on behavior—no quantum physics or molecular genetics knowledge required.  Beliefs about your basic character—who you are as a person on a fundamental level—can be especially powerful. Research suggests that while guilt (feeling that you did a bad thing) can motivate self-improvement, shame (such as that felt by Adam & Eve in the garden), tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, reducing hope and undermining efforts to change, leaving you stuck in the rut of the very behavior you are ashamed of.

And your behavior will directly impact you with respect to your habits, whether they are good habits, or bad habits.

2. Your feelings directly affect your DNA:   

“When we have negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and dislike or hate, or think negative thoughts such as ‘I hate my job,’ ‘I don’t like so and so’ or ‘Who does he think he is?’, we experience stress and our energy reserves are redirected,” and I’m not talking about a positive redirecting. Part of our energy reserves, which otherwise would be put to work maintaining, repairing and regenerating our complex biological systems, which you probably know as your “body”, are used to confront the stresses these negative thoughts and feelings create, leaving your body unattended.

On another level, science is now beginning to understand that humans have multiple brains: the one you know in your head, your heart brain (which generates much of your energy field), and your gut brain.  So, when you are feeling heavy-hearted, what effect is this physically having on your DNA and body – how is it affecting the helix structure of your DNA strands?  When you are in a gut-wrenching panic or suffering constant anxiety, what effect is this having on the nutrients that are getting to your cells and DNA on a molecular level?

3. You may choose, or not, to accept the abundance of God’s grace:   

The entire Bible is about the transformation of man… having been made perfect, having become imperfect, and having reached perfection once more in the person of Jesus Christ.  Having loved perfectly: God and others – fulfilling the 2 greatest laws of the Bible:  To Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself.  And how Jesus came to make the way for us to become perfect also in Him, breaking the curses so that they are no longer passed down to future generations, allowing us to re-write the code and become truly transformed, by the renewing of our mind (which will, of course, affect our bodies and even down to our DNA).

There is only one question:  are you willing to allow God’s grace to truly sweep through your life and transform you: To practice abiding in His presence on a daily basis until you reach a level of peace that transcends all human understanding, guarding your heart and mind in His love? 

Let’s pray.

 

Sources and further reading:

Sermon: Love Thy Neighbour

As you know, when I talked earlier this month, I spoke about Social Justice, in light of Isaiah 58 and the call to prayer and fasting that was pleasing to the Lord.  In the current political climate, in the US as well as in Panama, where there is such a backlash against “immigrants” and “illegals” and so much discrimination, I find it challenging that once again today’s readings focus on aspects of social justice and what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to really and truly love our neighbour.

We all know pretty well the text in Matthew, chapter 22, where one of the Pharisees asked Jesus about the greatest commandment of the law, to which Jesus replied (Matthew 22: 36-40):

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

The ENTIRE message of the Bible can be summarised in this short paragraph!  You can ignore all of the small print of the Bible, if you just do these 2 things.  Easy, right?

Maybe not so easy, because we find that in another part of the Gospels, (Luke 10: 22 and following) a lawyer who wished to justify himself by asking “who is my neighbour?”, to which Jesus responded with the parable of the good samaritan.  I’m not going to look at, this morning, “who is our neighbour” – but rather focus on what it means, in a very practical sense, to love your neighbour.  What is the visible expression of your love for God and the commandments that were given to the people of Israel through the Law and the Prophets?

In Romans 13, verses 8 to 10, Paul says:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Our readings this morning, especially from Leviticus, give a context to the response that Jesus gave the Pharisee and then his conversation with the lawyer and the parable of the Samaritan.  When Jesus spoke of “Love your neighbour as yourself” he was making reference to these particular verses from Leviticus 19, which would have been well known to the Pharisee and also to the lawyer. We might not know them so well; so I’d like us to take a moment to review the verses we read this morning and the examples of what it means to love your neighbour in a very practical sense.

  • Verses 9 and 10 – be kind to the poor and the alien by leaving something for them in your fields and vineyards: do not reap to the very edges, do not gather the gleanings that fell, do not go over your field a second time picking up what you missed and do not pick up what has fallen.  The poor and the alien still have to work for it, but it is made easy for them to find and forage for food.
  • Verses 11 & 13: teach us compassion and absolute honesty and justice in our relationships
    • no lying
    • no fraud or dealing falsely
    • no stealing
    • no defauding
    • and don’t keep for yourself an employees wages until the next day – always pay on time.

It’s interesting this last point, because under the Law it was perfectly legal to pay the labourer the next day for his work – you didn’t have to pay him the same day.  But God’s law says – it’s just and right to pay him that day, so that he can take food home to his family.  It wasn’t about what was legal, it was about what was right.

According to an article I read recently, it says that a persons lies 2 to 3 times every 10 minutes.  Yes, mostly totally white lies:  “How are you doing?”  “I’m great!” – the lie may be the person asking how you are doing – when they really don’t care, or the lie may be the “I’m great” when they really aren’t feeling that way…  And of all the lies we tell, 25% of those lies are for the sake of the other person!  Very thoughtful of us, isn’t it!

Nietzsche said:

What upsets me is not that you lied to me, but that from now on, I can no longer believe you.

  • Verse 12:  Don’t swear in God’s name
  • Verse 14:
    • don’t curse the deaf
    • don’t put a stumbling block before the blind

It’s very easy to make fun of someone that can’t hear what you are saying or see what you are doing, but that doesn’t make it right.  Verse 14 reminds us to treat every person with empathy according to their situation and not take advantage of any weaknesses that they might have.

  • Verse 15:  be just and judge your neighbour with justice
    • do not be partial to the poor
    • do not defer to the great
  • Verse 16:
    • Do not speak badly of others
    • Do not profit at your neighbour’s expense
  • Verse 17:
    • Do not hate in your heart anyone of your family
    • If your neighbour makes a mistake, be the one to tell him so that you aren’t an accomplice to his actions.    When you give feedback to an employee, do you care about them enough to tell them the hard truths, the mistakes or omissions that they are making that are holding them back from doing better?  Do you love someone enough to tell them that they are messing up and that they need to turn their life around?  Or do you just want to be seen as the nice person that loves them just the way they are?   Loving your neighbour is more than just being nice – it’s also practicing tough love, to become all that they can be.

Imagine, if you will for a moment, your child:  when they make a mistake you correct them – because you love them enough that you want them to grow and learn.  You know that this mistake now may cost them dear later on in life and so you make a point of having the hard conversations now, so that later on in life they do better.

Do you do the same with other people in your life?  Or is that simply not your problem?

  • Verse 18:
    • no taking revenge
    • no holding grudges

And it ends with “but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Because God is God, you should do this!  Because God is love and we are children of God, we do this!

Matthew 5, part of the Sermon on the Mount, illustrates this love for your neighbour in greater depth.  If you haven’t already done so, re-read the entire sermon on the Mount!

In today’s passage, we read the following:

  • turn the other cheek if someone strikes you
  • give your cloak and not just your coat
  • go the 2nd mile
  • give to everyone who begs from you
  • do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you
  • love your enemies
  • prayer for those who persecute you
  • be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Because if you only love those who love you, what reward do you have?  If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  God sends rain to all: the righteous and the unrighteous – and so, as children of God, we should follow this example and not only treat well our family and friends, but treat everyone well.   The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies – probably because, generally speaking, they are the same people!

So, make an effort today to love your neighbour:

  • your homeless neighbour
  • your immigrant neighbour
  • your poor neighbour
  • your uneducated neighbour
  • your gay, lesbian, trans neighbour
  • your jewish neighbour
  • your right wing neighbour
  • your fundamentalist Christian neighbour
  • your athiest neighbour
  • your disabled neighbour
  • your drug addict or alcoholic neighbour

And let us all remember, 1st John 4: 20

If anyone says “I love God” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  

Let’s pray.

Just Do It!

Lectionary Readings:  February 2, 2014

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
  • Matthew 5:1-12

As many of you may be aware, since November I have been participating in coaching seminars (once a month).  These seminars focus on increasing effectiveness, especially with relation to your goals and relationships.  One of the purposes of participating was to “stop procrastinating”.

I’m one of those people that when I read on someone’s CV “works well under pressure”, my automatic assumption is “this person is just like me – they procrastinate”, otherwise that wouldn’t be in their CV.
Of course, as I was finishing preparing this sermon last night (yes, you heard right… last night, after I put Isabella to bed), it struck me “so how have these seminars helped me? It’s the night before, and here I are, finishing up again at the last minute”…

But I did notice a big difference – on Thursday, when I was busy doing other things, I thought to myself – you should be preparing your sermon – and then I decided that I needed to do that instead.  Conscious decision.

Friday I was busy with the house and paediatricians appointment – once again, I realised I could be preparing my sermon, but chose not to.

Saturday morning – I chose to participate in the Patio Sale here at church, knowing that it would without a doubt mean that on Saturday night I would be at the laptop, finishing off my review of my sermon and putting my thoughts together.

So, what is different?  What have I learned after almost 120 hours of seminars and coaching?
The value of my decisions and choices – that I own them.  The results are completely mine.  Over the next 15 weeks I have given myself what I consider to be some extraordinary goals – not because they require me to do something extraordinary today, but rather because they require me to be consistent every day.  There’s not a single day that I can just tune out and say – “not today.  Today I’m not responsible…”

I remember as a kid, we always used to joke “the Devil made me do it”… like I had no say in the matter… It is about as effective as “if I was really filled with the Spirit, I wouldn’t sin anymore”.

Really? Why am I still waiting for that “magical” moment when suddenly I will be a new person and magically stop doing what I know to be wrong?  Why am I waiting for the Holy Spirit to do the job for me, when I already know what I’m supposed to do?

How many times have I given myself the excuse – I’m going to love my neighbour when the Holy Spirit fills me with Christ’s love?  That unknown moment in the future – that lets me off the hook today.
How many times will I continue to excuse my behaviour, because I have that perfect excuse?

This morning we read the beatitudes – which like Paul mentions in Corinthians, differ completely from the wisdom of man.

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who are truly humble before God. This means to be free of arrogance, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.  To be poor in spirit gives me the freedom to be completely available for God.  It’s when I acknowledge that bring nothing of my own: power, possessions or merit – that’s when I gain the kingdom of heaven.  Being poor in spirit doesn’t mean that to get in I am humble and then as soon as I have entered I become self-sufficient:  it means that I live in a state of humility.  It’s a way of being – consistently humble before God and others.  Constantly being available to others.
  • Blessed are those who mourn – we often look at this as being those who have lost a loved one: but I think it’s more than this.  How many of us see another person with problems and think “that’s their problem”?  I have enough issues of my own – I don’t need to take on anything else.  But when we read this passage of Matthew, it’s as if there is a mourning for the loss of another.  What if I opened myself up to feeling another person’s suffering?  What if I was open to making myself available and feeling empathy with their pain?  How much more could I achieve in “loving my neighbour” if I took it upon myself to feel his or her pain and not simply write it off as “their problem”?
  • Blessed are the meek – the meek in the Bible are those who have a spirit or gentleness and self-control.  This means to be free from malice and a condescending spirit.  The meek don’t exploit and oppress others – they are not violent, and they don’t seize power for their own ends.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – not just their own righteousness (of doing what is right in God’s sight), but the righteousness in terms of justice throughout the nation.  These are people who are concerned about social justice and ensuring that the law is followed and due process is given to all.  They are crusaders in their community for what is right – not silent bystanders watching as injustice happens around them.
  • Blessed are the merciful – showing mercy to others means both compassion to the sinner, as well as compassion for the hungry and needy.  It means that I will show kindness and heal wounds.  It is only if I shun that place where I think I deserve the grace that I have received and avoid becoming intolerant of others or judgement, that I can show mercy to others.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart – this describes not only inner purity but singleness of mind.  This is where my will and choice come into play.  To be pure in heart means that my desires, thoughts and intentions are aimed at pleasing God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers – When my effort is to strive to establish a peace that embraces God’s provision of peace, where everyone around me is in harmony, because we are all at peace with God.  This is a spiritual state of peace, not a political one.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – if we start to promote peace or champion righteousness, or live a life of gentleness and meekness, we will find opposition.  And that may get nasty.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Jesus.  What if I would really stand up for what Jesus taught us and refused to live in the grey area?

Have you noticed that all of these refer to states of being – I am poor in spirit, I am meek, I am a peacemaker, I am pure in heart.  None of these refer to how I feel.  None of these refer to being a Christian “when the circumstances and my emotions are in the right place and it’s easy”.

Jesus was a radical – the same way that Paul said that the wisdom of God doesn’t make sense for the wisdom of man.

What do you mean the poor in Spirit are blessed?  Then, as now, most of us would have said “Blessed are the rich and powerful, for they have it all”… But that’s not what Jesus said….  Jesus bucked the establishment and focused on what really mattered spiritually.   And as a follower of Christ, I’m expected to also.

Next weekend I’m going to be back in the seminar that I mentioned, but this time as a volunteer helper in the first weekend.  The principal reason for doing this is that I want to give back to a new group of people a little of what I received.  But I will admit that there is this curiosity in me that I want to satisfy.  I want to see if Jorge, the leader, really is a sweet and loving on the first day as what he is now!

What changed? How he treated me? Or my perception and expectations of how someone that truly loves others treats me?

I have to say, I have never met anyone like Jorge and Nicholas… These two men work in black and white.  No grey areas.  I would go as far as saying for the first time I have met someone that helps me understand the Apostle Paul – I have always seen him as harsh and judgmental, not loving – but maybe the reason his letters were so well accepted among those he wrote to was that they had experienced first-hand how loving he was. Perhaps they knew that he was telling them exactly what they needed to hear – not what they wanted to hear.

Jorge and Nicholas call me out – they don’t just let me slide.  If I have said that the most important relationships in my life are my marriage and Isabella, then they expect my actions to reflect this.  That rather than giving Alessandro and Isabella the “left-overs” of my time – they are getting my prime time.  Rather than taking Alessandro for granted (because he loves me), that I am giving to Alessandro my full attention when we are together, because that is how you treat the most important person in your life.

Now, I have some great excuses about why that doesn’t happen:
1-    I had a really hard day at work;
2-    I was up at 3.00 a.m. checking on Isabella and I’m really tired;
3-    I got pounded by work today and then I had to meet with so-and-so and then I took the dogs out;
4-    You have NO IDEA how much I had to do today…

The list can go on and on… I even believe my excuses!  But Jorge and Nicholas don’t. They don’t buy into them… they question them.  They question my priorities.

And for most of us, it’s socially unacceptable for someone to call you out on these things.  When someone gives us a good excuse for why they aren’t a loving and attentive Christian, we let them off the hook – because we want them to let us off the hook when we aren’t.

But I haven’t found anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says “Love your neighbour when you’re having a good day and feel like it”.  I haven’t found “It’s acceptable to complain when you need a little self-pity”.

What we find are verses like:

•    Philippians 2: 14 – Do everything without grumbling and complaining.
•    1 Peter 4:9 – Show hospitality to one another without complaining.
•    1 Thessalonians 5:18 – Give thanks in all circumstances…
•    James 1: 2-3 – Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

There’s no getting off easy in the Bible for having a bad attitude, responding to someone with harsh words, feeling self-pity.  But would I call someone out on this?  I’m expected when someone complains about how hard their day has been to listen to them and give them that hug they need.  But is what they need really that hug and my pity?

What if I really listened to them, and rather than just accepting what they told me out of their mouth, I read their body language and listened further – and actually got to the bottom of what was really bothering them?  What if instead of buying into their words and giving them a pat on the back and “there, there, it will be okay”, I challenged them to be better than the circumstances they were facing?  Wouldn’t that be true love like Jesus showed?

I claim to love others as Christ loved us – but I only do it until it’s comfortable.  When it starts to get uncomfortable, that’s when I back off and step back into my comfort zone.

And the Bible tells us, in unequivocal form – JUST DO IT.