An Independence Day Prayer

By Matt Sapp

As we pause to celebrate our country this week, I am grateful for the unique promise of liberty granted to Americans and for those who have dedicated their lives to upholding it over the centuries.

But I’m also struck this year by the work required of each generation to nurture and protect the Christian values and common bonds that give meaning to our freedom. One of the ways we do that is through the language that we use.

The way we talk about and to one another can either strengthen our common bonds or fray them, and I’m worried that the tenor of our national discourse is too often doing the latter right now as political differences and partisanship bury the fruits of the spirit under a mountain of divisive rhetoric.

So I want to suggest a prayer that asks Christians to lead the way in bringing Christian values—things like love, gentleness and self-control—back into our public discourse as we celebrate 242 years of liberty.

I hope you’ll join me in this prayer:

AS A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

God of our common faith and ruler of the nations,

As we pause for the Fourth of July, we are grateful for our country, for the place you’ve given us in it, and for your presence among us. We pray that you would guide us as Christians to seek the best interests of our nation with the benefit of your blessing—and to engage our work as citizens in a way that acknowledges that you are God and Father of us all.

As Christians in America, we pray hopefully for a future of peace and shared prosperity consistent with the dawning reality of your kingdom here on earth.

As Christians in America, we pray collectively that we would use our words in ways that promote your values, and we repent of the words that we have used in error.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will guide us to act collectively in ways that inspire unity as we make intentional efforts to heal the divisions among us.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will use us to take the lead in building good will and common purpose among Americans of all political stripes; among rich and poor, male and female, young and old, rural and urban, immigrants and native-born; and among people of every race and from every nation.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use the shared efforts of Christians to do it.

AS INDIVIDUAL FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST

God who reigns in me,

As a dutiful citizen of my country and a faithful disciple in your kingdom, I pray that you will lead me to be generous and forgiving as you are generous and forgiving—especially toward those with whom I disagree.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray each day that my words and actions will serve to calm rather than inflame the fears of those around me.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will help me to be the kind of person who inspires the best in others rather than someone who seeks to exploit the worst in them.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will bless me with the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it; with the humility to admit wrongs and the dignity to seek forgiveness; and with compassion for those who struggle and a genuine concern for the least among us.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use me as your instrument to do it,

AMEN.

As we pause to honor our country next week, I’m praying that God’s love would be reflected in the way that Christians engage their work as citizens—and that Christians would take the lead in welcoming charity back into our common discourse.

God is alive and present in our world and in our nation, and we have the privilege of nurturing and protecting the values that God has entrusted to our care for this generation.

With humble gratitude for the blessings of liberty and the means through which to preserve it, we remember that the future ultimately isn’t ours to fight over. The future, like the present, belongs to God. And it’s already been decided.

Happy Fourth of July.

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God’s Gift of Grace (John 8:2-12)

anxiety

Text: John 8:2-12
Title: “God’s Gift of Grace”

I.

She tried to leave before sunrise as conspicuously as possible.  She even wore those big sunglasses that the famous celebrities wear when they try to avoid the media.  But it was as if they were trying to trap her, as if they had known.  She felt like Lindsey Lohan, and she imagined that the Pharisees and scribes were the Paparazzi.  They seemed to be everywhere, and they caught her leaving the home of her lover no sooner than she had locked the front door.

Perhaps she wanted to get caught.  There’s a saying that those who sin do so boldly because the guilt is so hard to bear, and it is sin that garners attention.  Some say sin is merely a cry for help.

By now, the sun was inching over the horizon and they began to pull her towards town.  She knew that this was going to be a scandal, although the Pharisees couldn’t stone her like Moses’ law commanded.  The Romans outlawed that long ago.

No stoning for her today, only humiliation and excommunication.  If she was lucky perhaps she could head north to Samaria, find a good job and make ends meet.

II.

As they went along, she heard them talking about some Jesus fellow.  He must have been quite a character for all of the conversation they made about him.  Last week was the Festival of Booths, and Jesus and his followers had apparently come to Jerusalem.  He accused the Pharisees and the scribes of not knowing the law.

“What learned man was this,” she heard one Pharisee ask another, “One who comes from Galilee and claims to be a prophet?”

She realized something at that moment.  The Paparazzi had little interest in her affair.  It was Jesus they wanted, it was Jesus all along.  She had become an object for their ruse, a mere pawn in their game.  She was the bait.

III.

The sun rose higher in the sky now.  People started to recognize her in the midst of the entourage, sunglasses not withstanding.   She cursed herself more: She should have left in the middle of the night.   What person in her right mind would leave when even a hint of light is there to shine upon the sinfulness of one’s deeds.   We all run from the light, but eventually the light catches up with us.

And it wasn’t enough for them to bring her to the town!  Straight to the temple they went, throwing her up the stairs and through the portico like a rag doll!   What humiliation!  Surely, she would get stoned, never mind Roman law!

They pushed her in front of Jesus, interrupting him while he was teaching a small group of disciples.

“Teacher,” they said, “This woman was caught in adultery [she cringed…], caught in the very act itself [tears started to well up in her eyes].  Now in the law of Moses, it says to stone such a woman—(see, Jesus, we know our law after all!)—so what do you propose we do with her?”

A tear ran down her eyes as she tried to look to this stranger from Galilee.  Would Jesus rouse the crowds and have her stoned like they suggested?  It would happen only at great risk to himself—the Romans would find out one way or another.

Or would he appear to be too submissive, or worse, break Moses’ law—a divine law she was all too familiar with?  They would have grounds to arrest him either way!

She closed her eyes and held her breath and waited for the poisonous conviction to come upon her like the executioner’s sword.

A minute passed; nothing happened.  The Pharisees and scribes were losing their patience.  They questioned Jesus again, but he seemed to be ignoring them.  He was doodling in the dirt at her feet.

She couldn’t tell what he had been doodling beyond the blur of her tears.  They may have been words—envy, lust, greed—she couldn’t tell.  Perhaps it was the proverbial line in the sand.  She imagined that it was, and she imagined that the line he drew put both of them—she and Jesus—on one side and the Pharisees on the other.    But as quickly as she rubbed her tears away, Jesus wiped out the doodling in the dirt with his sandal.

Then she heard his voice for the first time.  It was humble, but authoritative; Galilean in dialect, but confident in tone.  She didn’t realize that her hands were at her own mouth as she watched him begin to form words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Curious words, and certainly not what the Pharisees and scribes expected.  It wasn’t what she expected, and it certainly wasn’t an adequate answer to all of the questions they had asked.  It wasn’t an answer at all.

IV.

She looked to the Pharisees and scribes now.  It was their turn to be on the receiving end of her tears and quiet whimper.  But they began to leave.  First this one, the one who grabbed her at the house; and then that one, the one who kept cursing Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.  The others left one by one too, each one with shoulders slumped and eyes as downcast as hers.

“Woman,” Jesus said, startling her from her stupor, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on, do not sin again.”

It was light out by now, and a breath of life filled her with hope.  Here was a teacher who had every right to accuse her and give a conviction, to send her to her death or at least excommunicate her from among her neighbors, but he simply gave her a pass and a challenge.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The sun was out, but it was as if she was seeing that light for the first time in her life.  It was a gift, and it was liberation, and it was an act of forgiveness and it was permission to break off her affair without repercussions.

Go, and sin no more.  It was as if the sunrise was a metaphor for something else: the light had just turned on and cleansed her for no good reason other than the fact that Jesus said it was so—no condemnation, no conviction.  Grace and freedom all in one swoop.

Then he continued to talk,  “I am the light of the world,” he said,  “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

V.

It was like that story about Moses that she learned as a child—the one in which Moses went up on a mountain and asked to see God.  God said that no one could look at Him and live, so God decided to place Moses in the cleft of a rock, hide Moses’ eyes as He passed, and let Moses look at the glory of the Lord from behind.

The glory had been so breathtaking, so vibrant, that when Moses came down from that mountain, the people couldn’t go near him.  His face was shining like the sun.

Were the Israelites afraid of him because he was so blinding and bright, or were they afraid like she had been because that divine light would reveal the sins and failures, the guilt and struggles they all shared?

She remembered the promise God told Moses during that divine interaction:  “I am a God full of mercy and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness.”

Just as Moses hid from God’s light, the Israelites ran from that glory of God.  She too—the adulterer that she was—ran  from the light; but, now, here she was with Jesus—all exposed and vulnerable, fully in the light.

This light, the “Light of the world!”, redeemed her and liberated her with new life, a second chance, a clean start.  The sun rose in her heart, and she felt alive like never before.

She recalled a song she heard on the radio earlier that week,

“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing your song again.”

It was grace—God’s grace. ..the single word that best describes God’s relationship to humans, that best describes how much God wants to restore people and be in communion with them, not because of what they do or even because of who they are, but simply because that’s God’s way of expressing God’s love for us.

She had one final thought: What was more scandalous than her act of adultery?  Was it her affair, or was it the act of God’s forgiveness of her adultery with no questions asked and no debts to pay?

It wasn’t a stoning she received; it was salvation.

VI.

A late professor of mine, Dr. Daniel Goodman, once asked in a sermon similar to this one: How do you run a church on grace?   When we practice grace, as scandalous as it is, are we called to be permissive, or are we called to bring people’s sins out into the light so that we can tell them to “Go, and sin no more”?

I think it’s neither. I think that when a church practices grace, we don’t do God’s job of revealing and judging sin; nor do we downplay the repercussions and consequences that all our decisions have on our life.

Instead, I think that the church is called to practice grace by forgiving people of their sins, opening their eyes to Christ’s love, and walking with them through the consequences of actions and decisions that are often too complex for us to understand in the first place.

That is why Jesus said that we are to visit people in prison—we don’t visit prisoners to free them–that’s God’s job and God does that in His timing—rather, we are called to be present with prisoners—all prisoners, not just the ones behind bars, but those who are imprisoned in sin and circumstance—in order to share the grace of God even if we think that others are undeserving of it.

We share grace because we are all beneficiaries of it, and we all are in need of that sunrise in our hearts time and again, the kind of sunrise that reminds us just how amazing God’s grace really is.

Becoming “all things to all people” sometimes means putting your rights aside for the sake of others

bill-of-rightsA few weeks ago when Dzhokhar Tsarev, the youngest brother of two suspects, was captured for bombing the Boston Marathon, a public debate erupted about the type of rights he was afforded.  For days, authorities hesitated to read him his Miranda Rights and debated whether to treat him as an enemy combatant.

When I taught history, constitutional law was one of my favorite subjects to teach.  That’s one thing about us Americans: We are passionate about our rights and even more passionate about defending them.  We debate what they mean for ourselves and others.

An intriguing question arises, however, when we ask whether some of the rights we are most passionate about might hinder the Gospel and the spread of God’s kingdom agenda on earth?  What if our very rights–and the self-autonomy upon which those rights are founded–keep us from moving ever closer to the heart of God and, in turn, to the needs of others?

In the early church, a question of rights arose as a hotbed issue when it came to community.  Back then, new Christians came together and wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian, and it seems that they fought over how to wield honor, privilege and prestige (their very rights) in this new family of faith.

Conflict erupted and divisions spread.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronted these issues and reminded the churches–and the factions therein–that Christians belong first and foremost to the one Body of Christ.

Paul argued that if anyone had a right to engender allegiance and get his way, it was him.  Paul was their founder, teacher, leader, and, above all, last of the apostles who actually saw Jesus.  Yet, Paul approached them from a different perspective: He did not throw his hat in the ring for power, but turned power on its head and gave up his rights to claim their allegiance.

“If others have a rightful claim on you,” he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:12, “do not we still more?  Nevertheless, we have not made us of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

In other words, Paul led by example and put aside his rights in order to minister to the Corinthians on their terms.  He saw the value in meeting their needs right where they were.

Like Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve, Paul made himself “a slave to all” (v. 19) and became “all things to all people so that I might save some; I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (9:22-23).

Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians doesn’t mean that they–or we–give up fighting for  rights in the public sphere or let injustice prevail.  Rather, Paul was trying to subvert the self-autonomy that stirs a self-serving undercurrent in which our rights exist.

Like Baptist hero, Lottie Moon, who gave up her “rights” to live among western “civilized” women in her time in order to dress like the Chinese to whom she ministered, thus saving thousands of souls in China around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Or like Walter Rauschenbusch, who could have easily written a check to missions or served the poor in New York on the weekends.  Instead, he gave up his “right” to live the American Dream and moved to the roughest neighborhood in New York–Hell’s Kitchen–to live and serve people whom society neglected.

I can’t help but think of the nurses, teachers and caregivers in our community who give up their rights to serve others.  Many of them neglect a comfortable and convenient life in order to do jobs that many do not want to do.  Some, especially caregivers, put entire goals and dreams aside to serve loved ones.

So next time you debate a friend about your rights and fragile freedoms, keep in mind that at the end of the day, God expects you to take your place, fulfill your ministry, and live out His calling even if it means putting aside those rights in order to be “all things to all people.”  You too might just save some.