Sunday, September 2, 2007

a pocket of grace (a sermon)

Following is the text of a sermon I gave just last night at Oasis Madrid's worship gathering.

I hope it helps in some way.


A Pocket of Grace
a sermon by Troy Cady

In his great summary of Christian theology, Thomas Aquinas addresses a number of objections to the Christian faith. The issues range in scope from “Whether Holy Scripture Should Use Metaphors” to “Whether God can Move the Created Will”. He even includes the question “Whether God exists” in his presentation. To that particular issue, Aquinas lists the following objection raised by those who doubt God’s existence:

“It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word ‘God’ means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”

Think about that for a minute: “There is evil in the world; therefore, God does not exist.”

How many times have you heard something like that? And how many times do we really take that objection seriously? If we don’t, we ought to—because the problem of evil is a serious difficulty. In fact, Christian scholars through the centuries have regarded the problems of evil, pain, and suffering as presenting the most difficulty for those who hold a Christian world-view. One scholar even cites it as THE problem with which Christians need to wrestle.

Think about it: if there really is a God, why can we walk out the door of any flat near metro Sol today and find, just meters away, people living in the streets without a home? If there really is a God, why does he allow women to be subjected to slavery at the hands of sex traffickers? If there really is a God, why are orphanages in Morocco populated with newborns, only weeks old, that were abandoned by their still-living mothers and fathers? "And you want to tell me that Jesus loves everyone? Well, if your Jesus came to redeem the world and put everything right again, why does the world still look unredeemed, why are there still clearly things wrong with this world?"

One Jewish scholar explains that this is really why Jewish people today can’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. He tells us that if Jesus really was the one we have been waiting for, then things would be different now, so they’re still waiting for another Messiah to come. Here’s how he puts it:

“The Jew has a profound knowledge of the unredeemedness of the world and he acknowledges no enclaves of redemption in the midst of this unredeemed world. The conception of a redeemed soul in the midst of an unredeemed world is utterly alien to his being…This is the real cause for the rejection of Jesus by Israel…” (Schalom Ben-Chorin)

He tells us that, not only does he see a general condition of unredeemedness in the world, but that there are even no “enclaves of redemption.” Not even a pocket of goodness, mercy, grace, and beauty. And, when Christians sit around and talk about how Jesus doesn’t bring that kind of redemption (you know, social redemption), that he merely brings a kind of “interior, hidden” redemption of the soul (in the world of our hearts), the Jewish person just says, “Huh? How is that even possible? How is it possible that Jesus can change someone’s heart, but not change the world? In fact, come to think of it, how is it that, if Jesus really is Messiah we haven’t seen so much as one city block redeemed, even so much as a pocket of redemption?

These are serious critiques, and we do well to take them seriously and resist the temptation to simply answer them with: “Well, Jesus isn’t that kind of redeemer. He only redeems hearts.”

There are two reasons we cannot answer the critique of the problem of evil this way. First, because opponents to the Christian faith don’t buy it. That line of reasoning appears thin and weak to them—just another “easy out” for the Christian who doesn’t want to admit the truth as another sees it.

But, second, the biggest reason we cannot simply say that Jesus came to redeem only hearts is because the Scriptures themselves tell us that the redeeming work of Christ is to extend to the entire created order. The good news that Jesus came to announce results in nothing less than the restoration of all things.

The story of God boils down to three plot points: Paradise Created—Paradise Lost—Paradise Recreated. And the great news that Jesus came to announce is that, unlike the first creation, we get to participate in his grand plan to recreate. That’s what’s so exciting! We get to be co-laborers with God in His great plan to restore all things! Just imagine! This is what gives the Christian their meaning and purpose in life. This is the work God has given us to do. This is the vocation we are to be about: the restoration of all things. The restoration of ALL things.

Listen to these verses from Scripture that talk about this:

Romans 8: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Colossians 1: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples and this is what he told them to do: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.”

God is in the business of restoring all things and, as members of his family of disciples, he gives us meaningful work to do in the world to cooperate with him in that. In fact, God had in mind that his primary means of restoring all things would be through his family, the church. See, the church is the Body of Christ. We are His hands, we are His feet. God is present to the world through us.

So, we ought to come to grips with a sobering reality. If the world doesn’t see Jesus clearly now, it’s our fault, not God’s. If people look around and see no “enclaves of redemption”, no “pockets of grace”, it is because we have neglected our commission to cooperate with God in his plan to restore all things.

See, the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is the church. It’s you and me. So, first, we need to come to grips with the fact that we are responsible for what has happened or not happened in our world. We need to start by falling to our knees and pleading God for his mercy because we have not loved our neighbor as ourself. Yes, we (myself included) have chosen to ignore the homeless person, the orphan, the widow and the diseased. Oh, sure, we know their needs, but we don’t know their names. So, yes, we need to ask God for his forgiveness that we have neglected to impart hope to the hopeless, we have failed to embrace the abandoned.

But, we must not stop there, merely pleading with God to forgive us. No, we must actually ask God for the power to change the way things are. We must ask God to help us know what to do and where to start, so things will stop looking unredeemed. We must ask God to help us create a pocket of beauty in this unredeemed world through making a few stitches at least. We won’t be able to, on our own, as a little church, create a whole wardrobe of beauty, but we should not let that stop us from doing what we can do. After all, a pair of new shoes starts with a single stitch.

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do thus far in Oasis Madrid: just make a few stitches. Many of you know that, about two years ago, Victoria and another member of Oasis Madrid began handing out sandwiches to the homeless people that sleep in the tunnel underneath Plaza España. This was their way of making a few stitches. Through their example, we decided as a staff to begin financially supporting this work and to help participate in it. And, thanks to God, the ministry to those homeless people has grown a little bit more. So now, a handful of Oasis Madrid folks have gotten to know these people not only by their needs, but also by their names and they have become privy to their stories. Another stitch.

Then, last summer, Heather and Ed Pederson attended Christian Associates’ annual conference. There, they heard about a thing called Serve the City, which a CA church in Brussels (called The Well) started doing in 2005. The idea was to show the unconditional love of Christ to people and neighborhoods that were all but forgotten. To create, if only for a few days, a pocket of grace in a city without hope. When Heather and Ed heard about this, they were inspired and Heather talked to Ed about doing the same thing in Madrid. So, Heather being…um…Heather, began working diligently many months ago, planning, calling, meeting with people, organizing, to put something together.

So, here we are: September 2007. And in just a few weeks we will have the chance to put a few more stitches into the pocket of grace through participating in Madrid’s very own Serve the City project. Oh, it would be nice to say that, in just a few weeks' time something would happen that would create a whole wardrobe of grace, but the fact is, in the grand scheme of things what we’ll be doing in a few weeks will be just the beginning. But, as I said before, that should not stop us from doing the work God has called us to do. So, let’s band together to put a few more stitches in a world that’s ripped apart. That much we can do. That much we can do.

So, here’s the challenge: pray for this, invest some time in this, lend a hand. Later, we’re going to fill you in on the details of the Serve the City project. For now, determine in your heart to participate in even some small way.

I want to close with one final thought. Over the course of the Serve the City project what we’re really doing is imparting even a small match of hope to people trapped in a dark, hopeless world. And if you doubt that, think about it practically:

1. On Wednesday of that week, we’ll be giving free food and water to people standing in line at the immigration office. Now, many of those people are not like you and me. Many of them are standing there because they cannot find work in their home country. So, they’ve come to Spain to work, some of them have even left their families, their parents, siblings, even wife and kids behind in their home countries to seek out a way to support their loved ones financially. Many of them will take any job they can get to earn even a little money. Many of them are here because they have very little reason to hope. They don’t know where else to turn, so they’ve come to a foreign land. They need hope and we are there to tell them, in some small practical way, “There is hope. We see you. You are not forgotten. God sees you and he cares.”

2. On Thursday, we will have the chance to work at a youth center for troubled teens. Well, why are they “troubled”? In short, because they look at the future and, whether they are conscious of this or not, they see very little hope. So, we are there to help out to say to them, in some small practical way, “There is hope. We see you. You are not forgotten. God sees you and he cares.”

3. On Friday, we will have the chance to give some special things to the homeless people we know. Once again, these are people with very little hope.

4. On Saturday, we will have the chance to clean up a garden area that the city clean-up crews don’t deem worthy of care. Literally, a whole space of the city that is forgotten by those who are paid to care. If that doesn’t spell “hopelessness and abandonment," I don’t know what does!

We live in a world with very little reason to hope. That is our systemic problem. There is little hope. Because of this, a German theologian named Jürgen Moltmann is convinced we need to articulate a “theology of hope.” Now, before you think this theology of hope is merely an exercise in theoretical speculation you should know that it has some very practical outcomes. Listen to this quote from his book “The Experiment Hope”:

“His [Christ’s] service was given first of all to sinners and publicans, the poor and the outcast, the downtrodden and hopeless. Were the church to follow his example, it would necessarily become a liberating church for the poor, the oppressed, the alienated, and all whom our society puts in the shadow of death. By serving the oppressed first, Christianity in truth serves all men. For, without the liberation of the poor,…the sick, the aged, and those without hope, the others cannot become truly human, and humanity cannot attain to any community that deserves to be called human.

“For the poor and starving in this vicious circle [the circle of poverty], ‘God is not dead—he is bread.’ If…we define God as ultimate concern, then for them his concrete presence takes the form of bread.”

Let that sink in. Try to understand this from someone else’s point of view: “For the poor and starving…God is not dead—he is bread.”

This month, we have the chance to show others that God is alive through giving them “bread”. Oh, we won’t literally be giving bread to everyone during the Serve the City week, but we will be giving them something tangible that they can see and touch. And that “something” that we give them will communicate to them: “God is not dead—he is bread.” God is real. And He cares. He sees you. You are not forgotten. You are not alone. You are not abandoned. There is hope.

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