John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10
Belmont UMC—March 15, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
“You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way we live our lives.” (Ephesians 1:8-10 CEB)
When our youngest was a little guy, less than 2 years of age, we went to the city of Quebec on a vacation. We stayed in a little hotel in the historic part of the city. We happened to be there when they were celebrating Quebec Day, on June 24th. There were lots of people in the streets as many people had come into the city for the celebration. The best way to get around with this little boy was to carry him on a backpack and he loved being up high, at eye level with the people. He had this habit of picking out someone in the crowd and staring at them until he got their attention. Then they would look at him and respond with delight and laughter, saying something in French. And the little boy would respond with equal delight. He did this everyday and it was wonderful to watch this joyful interaction.
Kathleen Norris describes a similar scene in at an airport departure gate. A young couple was there with an infant. “The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, not matter if it was young, old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking, he would respond with absolute delight.”
“It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt awe-struck . . . because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. . . . I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see that way.” (Amazing Grace, p. 151). This is how Norris understands the mystery of grace—God taking delight in us.
We think of grace as a synonym for the love of God, love that is given to us not because we deserve it, but because it is the nature of God to love the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God loved the world so much that he was sent to be the full expression of God’s love for us. (John 3:16)
Grace is key to understanding our Methodist heritage. I spent some time last week listening to persons coming or ordination and commissioning to begin the process toward becoming ordained clergy, and we wanted to hear them articulate of the three movements of grace. Our Confirmation Class is learning about this and we talked about in Methodism 101 last week.
John Wesley, our founder, taught that grace came in three movements. First, we experience prevenient grace, the grace that comes before everything. God draws us to God’s self with grace, through the inspiration of others, through the beauty of nature. God seeks us out and draw us toward the divine. It is the grace that leads to God. When we come to God and accept God’s love for us we experience justifying or saving grace--grace echoed in the passage from Ephesians. Then we begin to grow in our faith and experience sanctifying grace—grace that allows us to be more like Christ.
Another word that is often associated with grace is favor—God’s favor. My late friend, Reverend Sandy Hodge, used to tell each of her children, “You are my favorite!” She used to tell her friends that as well. She said to me one day over lunch. “Ken, you know you are my favorite pastor friend.” I was touched by her generosity, until I heard her tell another pastor friend the same thing. How like God to treat each of us as God’s favorite—to favor us with divine love!
Anne Lamott says that grace is spiritual WD-40. She writes that “sometimes grace feels like water wings when you feel you are sinking.” She writes that her own attempts to make progress in life, in family, in work and in relationships are more like: “scootch, scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch.” Then grace comes along. She does “wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also that silver bells would ring to announce graces arrival.” (Grace Eventually, p. 50-51)
The main thing to remember about grace is that it is God’s gift. And the truth about many of us is that we are not comfortable being on the receiving end of gifts. We have a work ethic that makes us want to earn everything.
When I was in college I had a friend who had run out of money for food. I came home to work on weekends and my parents would load me up with groceries and I shared these with my friend. I was glad to do it. One night he came to my room and said he’d received a check from his parents. He wanted to take me out to dinner. I refused, saying, “You can’t do that; you need the money.” I never forgot the look on his face, as he said tearfully, “If you can’t let me do this, I’m not sure we can be friends.”
In the foot washing story in John 13, Peter says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” (John 13:8) We cannot be in relationship with anyone unless we allow ourselves to be on the receiving end of their kindness, their hospitality, their love. We cannot be in relationship with God unless we receive the gift of God in Christ—grace.
We have a beautiful crocheted blanket in our living room. It was made by the poorest woman in one church I served. We often had to pay her electric bills and fill her pantry to keep her from doing without. I still remember the day she brought this blanket into my study. Her name was Alice and I knew she sometimes sold blankets like this and I offered to pay her for it. She said, “You don’t understand. This is a gift because of all your kindness toward me.” Receiving that gift was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But receiving that gift was a glimpse of the kingdom and God smiled on both of us.
We like to say, “You have to earn my trust.” “You have to earn my respect.” “You have to earn my forgiveness.” But Jesus offers all of these unilaterally. These are gifts from God. This is God’s grace.
We used to have this little dog that we adored. He would run up to us when we came home and we would give him a treat. Actually, we did not give him a treat; we made him beg for it. He would stand on his hind legs as reach up as high as his head would go and then we would drop it in his mouth.
This is how we are with forgiveness. We say if you beg enough and long enough, I’ll forgive you, but the pattern of Jesus’ life was to say to everyone, “Your sins are forgiven,” even if they had not ask or sought forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gift of God. Forgiveness is grace. Is there someone we need to offer the grace of forgiveness?
Grace is not only a gift to us but the gift we offer to the world. Paul writes to the Ephesians that “this is what we were created for—to do these good things.” We are the grace bearers to our world. We do that when we forgive someone, when we are kind to someone who is hurting, when we lift someone’s burdens, or when we offer words of hope and encouragement.
Anne Lamott remembers a time when she was sinking and grace came to her like water wings. It came in the form of two friends who encouraged her, told her good things about herself. She writes, “Grace arrived, like the big, loopy stitches with which a grandmotherly stranger might baste your hem temporarily. When I awoke the next morning, I felt more kindly to myself. . . The spirit lifted me and now it holds on lightly, like my father’s hands around my ankles when I used to ride on his shoulders.” (Grace Eventually, pp. 57-58)
I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of grace lately. Much of that has come from you. I’ve had a couple of long and exhausting weeks. They have been meaningful but tiring. I returned to my office on Wednesday afternoon, after being at a retreat. I was a part of the design team for the retreat so that meant long days and work, not retreating and rest. I checked my mailbox found two cards there amid the junk mail. They were both from young clergy friends, both handwritten cards, the kind people don’t send much these days. Both cards contained generous and kind words of gratitude for my presence in their lives.
They came just when I needed them. They came like the grace and for a few moments my office felt a bit like heaven and it was as though God was staring at me to get my attention, to love me, and to be delighted, as God does always, for all of us.