Date: July 8, 2012
Title: Channels of Grace
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Hebrews 13:1-6
It is an honor and a privilege to be in this pulpit, the pulpit of the late Dr. Balcomb, the pulpit where many of you have stood and preached. I’m thankful to Rev. Donna to share this immense responsibility and to begin a season of this church’s life with you.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a confession. I almost decided not to come here because of someone gossiping about this church. When I was at Annual Conference and I told another clergyperson where I was going, they said that that church has some of the most grace-filled people. And for a moment, I was worried the person said graceful because I would have not fit in. I’m not graceful, I run into walls, I trip over things, I knock over cups of coffee into computer keyboards, and I have no discernible sports abilities. Six years ago when I was commissioned as an Elder, I knelt in front of the bishop, had the laying on of hands, everyone is there around you, and when I stood up I caught my foot in my robe and pitched forward and almost knocked over the Bishop, the DSes, everyone like a row of dominos. There are many more stories of a lack of being graceful in my walking-around life. But the person said that this church is grace-filled, and well, that was a compliment. That’s a testimony to a people who are aware of what Grace means and to exhibit it in word and deed.
There are many different examples of grace, of what we consider unearned loving actions. Whereas I thought graceful meant an ability to walk through life without tripping on invisible curbs, I think people most often experience Grace as Food, Forgiveness, and Welcome.
- We experience grace as food, don’t we? When we are younger we are taught to say grace before our meals, to be thankful for the meal. When we suffer loss or trauma, an offer of a meal or a delivery of food is grace, isn’t it? When we have potluck dinners, having vegetarian options for vegetarians like my spouse Chelsea or diabetic options for some of you, that’s grace. This is the first church I’ve been at that offers gluten-free communion, so that all can gather around the table…that is grace indeed.
- We experience grace as forgiveness. When we mess up, when we fall short, grace is the person telling us it’s okay. Grace is forgiving a person who has done nothing to deserve it. Grace is the Apple store replacing my keyboard that some ungraceful person had spilled coffee into.
- Finally, we experience grace as welcome. Welcoming those different than us.
The United Methodist Church has a motto “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” I don’t take that as a slogan that says how things truly are, but what we seek to be.
The good news and the challenge for us this morning is found in the scripture passage today, where we see that grace is beyond all of those definitions, that grace is something more than food, forgiveness, and welcome.
First, if grace is just food, then I fear that we’ve kept that grace given at the dinner table from energizing the rest of our lives. We must do something with the food that we eat. That food that we are given cannot just sit in our stomachs. It is Olympic season and Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who four years ago won 300 gold medals…the man eats food. I don’t know what you had for breakfast, but Phelps definitely has the “Breakfast of Champions.” For breakfast he eats (and this is true) three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise. He follows that up with two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast and three chocolate-chip pancakes. I’d have to buy a new clergy robe pretty quick if I ate that much. But he can do it because he expends the energy swimming and burns through all those calories in his Olympic trials.
We’ve got something else bottled up within us right now that is not breakfast, that is not coffee, but rather we are filled with God’s grace, with God’s unearned love. We cannot just accept it but we have to do something with it. We’ll come back to this at the end of the sermon 30 minutes from now, but in short, My hope is that we offer grace beyond food and truly seek to spiritually nourish one another.
Second, if grace is just forgiveness, then grace would rely on our knowledge of what needs to be forgiven, and our knowledge of what grace we need to give. When we see someone who we KNOW wronged us, we can offer grace to that person. When we see someone who we KNOW is new, we are good about offering grace to that person. When we see someone who we KNOW is in crisis, we are good about offering grace to that person. It’s easier to offer grace when we know what’s up.
But what about those here in this room who are suffering in ways that we don’t know: those who have lost their job, whose kids are now off to college, whose adult children haven’t called in months, who have lost a spouse a year or so ago, people who have moved out of the workforce, out of their usual social circles, and feel alone. When these life transitions happen, when our worlds change, we often feel like strangers in them, strangers in the same clothes and with the same people.
Am I not speaking the truth when I tell you that there are strangers in this room right now even though you know their names?
Grace that is just forgiveness relies on what we know about each other. But the Hebrews passage calls us to something beyond this. When it says “you may have entertained angels in your midst,” we tend to think of strangers being secret agents of Jesus testing us. Secret shoppers that offer a test that we pass or fail. But I wonder if they are talking about us. If we see the divine in each other, if we can see that each one of us is made in the image of God, then grace is not just being kind to strangers, but turning strangers into friends. My hope is that by saying that we are grace-filled means that we give up our time to get to know each other better.
Finally, if grace is just welcoming, then I fear it has become just making us comfortable. Grace, showing unearned love, is not something that we can keep for ourselves. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, visiting people in prison, being a presence to people who are hurting and treated badly, those are all part of offering grace and the mission to which all are called. In these ways, we are living up to the Hebrews scripture, welcoming the stranger by pushing that welcome beyond the church walls, no matter what we know about the other.
John Wesley, the founder of our faith was once asked, “What does it avail to feed or clothe people’s bodies, if they are not Christian?” He replied, “Whether they will finally be lost or saved, you are expressly commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. If you can, and do not, whatever becomes of them, you are lost.” We see that offering grace has nothing to do with who the recipient is, but what we do with ourselves.
We can create a safe haven from the world around us, comfortable in our pews, not really wanting to do the evangelism thing because we don’t want to be pushy. But here’s the thing: every person you meet who is welcomed, every time you do a loving action for someone else, every skeptic who is offered grace is a possible convert to its power and its fidelity to the gospel.
If we stay here in this church, if we give the grace to each other, it goes nowhere. I’m your new Minister of Discipleship, and that does mean I’m focused on the internal ordering of our spirituality. There will be tons of opportunities for spiritual betterment led by laity and clergy alike. But if we don’t turn the reflections here into actions out there, according to Wesley and the Hebrews text, then we aren’t using the grace we are given faithfully, are we? My hope is that we extend our welcome beyond the church walls and turn our discipleship to our entire circles of life.
Grace is more than food, more than forgiveness, more than welcoming the stranger. Grace is a cycle of life, the grace that God gives us is meant to be used. It is free but it comes with expectations.
Martin Luther says that “Blessings at times come to us through our labors and at times without our labors, but never because of our labors, for God always gives them because of God’s undeserved mercy.”
The gift has already been given. This unearned love that we are given has to flow through us. Like the calories entering Michael Phelps body, they have to be used or else they sit and make the body worse for the wear. Hear the good news: We don’t have to give these gifts alone; Christ is always with us. And we are never alone when we offer Christ’s love to others.
In closing, there’s a little bit about the world around Jesus that is a helpful image for us today. In the Holy Land you’ve got the Jordan River going right down and on either end you have large bodies of water. On one end you have the Sea of Galilee. On the other end you have the Dead Sea. They are both big beautiful bodies of water. But you can’t imagine two bodies of water that are more different than one another. The Sea of Galilee is the place that we always think about the fishermen with their nets. From all the stories in the New Testament, it is a place of abundance where people can earn their living by catching the fish. They provide for their families and provide for others, because of the life that’s in the Sea of Galilee.
But, you go to the other end of the Jordan River and you find the Dead Sea. A place that has so much salt content in it that fish cannot live in, life just doesn’t even exist. It’s dead, hence the name! Both these Seas receive the same water. They both receive the same abundance, but the key difference is, Lake Galilee receives, but it also has an outlet and the water flows through it. But in the Dead Sea there is no outlet and so the water just accumulates, year after year, century after century, evaporating away, getting more and more salty and less and less hospitable to life.
Which are we like, church: Lake Galilee or are we like the Dead Sea? Each and every day, God is pouring all this blessing into our lives. How much of it leaks out? How much of it is passed on?
As we focus on our lifestyles and turn them into lifestyles of blessing, lets also recommit ourselves to being a channel, an outlet of good things to the circles of people that God has put around us. To commit to follow in the footsteps of Christ who welcomed all into his circle of friends and strangers, regardless of their gender, profession, ethnicity or identity. Christ who called Zaccheus down from the sycamore tree no matter what he had done in the past. Christ who called fishermen to leave their families. Christ who called out harmful messages by the Pharisees–other religious leaders, and told them that in the name of the Gospel, they were wrong; may Christ call all of us to do all of that and more. May we declare Christ is lord over all of Creation, and all are worthy of grace, care, and blessing in God’s name. May we have the courage to act.
Glory be to God. Amen.