Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Grace Overflowing

Grace Overflowing
Lk. 15:1-10[1]
  The Church has, in my opinion, had a mixed legacy.  In many cases the faithful have given sacrificially to those in need, and have poured out kindness and mercy to those who are hurting.  But in all too many cases, I’m afraid the Church has been responsible for inflicting the hurt.  The painful truth is that we in the Church have drawn all kinds of lines between “us” and “them”--whoever “they” may be.  Like the Pharisees who criticized Jesus for consorting with “sinners,” we have labeled those we deem outsiders by using all sorts of unkind and hurtful language. And in my opinion, we have wounded some people so deeply that there is very little chance they will ever walk through the doors of this or any other church. And yet, it seems to me that we are called to relate to them, and indeed to anyone we come in contact, as channels of God’s unlimited and overflowing grace.
  According to the Gospels, Jesus related to people of all classes and stations in life with the same kindness.  That’s part of the reason why some of the Jewish religious leaders were so offended.  They went to great lengths to justify their belief that they were God’s chosen, blessed by God’s favor, living in God’s good graces. And in this system, anyone who didn’t live up to their standards of holiness was a “sinner.”  That meant that, by definition, they were rejected by God and excluded from God’s grace. The way they expressed that mindset was by excluding them from common activities like worship, and especially meals. In their mind, to share a meal with a “sinner” was to extend God’s grace to them, and they didn’t deserve it![2]
  That’s the context behind the parables Jesus told in our Gospel lesson for today.  He told two unusual stories that illustrated how God extends grace to all people, without any restrictions or limitations.  The first is a story of a shepherd who has a flock of 100 sheep.  One of them goes astray, and rather than staying to make sure the other 99 are safe from all dangers, he leaves them to search for the lost sheep.  When he finds that one sheep, he is so overjoyed that he invites his friends to rejoice with him.  And in that day and time, it was expected that the host of a celebration would provide food.  So did he serve roasted lamb?  Seems ironic, and extravagant to go to so much effort to find one sheep, only to use it as the main course for a celebration with his friends!  I think the point is that God’s grace is that extravagant.
  Jesus told another, similar story about a woman who lost a coin.  That might not seem like a big deal, but in this case, her entire “nest egg” consisted of ten coins.  So she literally turns her house upside-down looking for the lost coin.  And when she finds it, she’s so overjoyed that she invites her friends to celebrate with her.  And guess what--yep, she would have been expected to provide food.  At the very least, she would have had to spend the coin she had just put so much effort into finding to put on the party.  Again, it seems ironic and extravagant to celebrate finding the coin by spending it to throw a party for her friends.  Again, I think the point is that God’s grace is extravagant.
  In both cases, Jesus drew the same conclusion: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7).  Jesus makes it clear that, contrary to the smug, self-righteous, and stingy attitudes of his opponents, God excludes no one from grace.  In fact, God actively seeks out those who have found themselves on the other side of the boundary lines.  And when just one of those who have been excluded finds his or her way back into the grace and mercy and love of God, Jesus said all heaven rejoices.[3]
  I don’t think there was any way that Jesus could have more blatantly contradicted the self-righteous attitude of some of the Jewish religious leaders.  What he was teaching about the free access of God’s grace that extends to everyone, crossing all the “lines” we draw to mark off “us” from “them,” constituted virtually the exact opposite of what they taught.  Their definition of what constituted a “sinner” was rather sweeping.  They didn’t limit “sinners” to those we might think of as leading an “immoral” life.[4]  They included everyone who didn’t have the luxury of spending their whole day studying and seeking to practice God’s commands.  They even had a word for them: they called them “the people of the land.” It wasn’t a compliment!  And the self-righteous religious snobs of Jesus’ day believed that those “sinners” had only one way to gain access to God’s grace: they had to earn it.  It’s no wonder they could treat the vast majority of people around them as if God could care less about them.[5]
  Unfortunately, we in the church have made the same mistake all too often.  We have excluded those whom we ought to include.  We have looked down on those whom God loves and values and seeks to bring home.  We have not only drawn lines that make us feel like we’re righteous at the expense of assuming others are sinful, we have in some cases reinforced those lines with hurtful words.  As I said earlier, I fear that there are some people whom we the Church have wounded so deeply that there’s very little chance they will ever come back. There may be nothing we can do about that.  But what we can do is imitate God’s extravagant love for all people.[6]  We can be channels of God’s overflowing grace--simply by treating the people we encounter in our daily lives with kindness and mercy and love.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/15/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf.  John Nolland,  Luke 9:21–18:34, 773; Fred Craddock, Luke, 102-103, 184.  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:298: “The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin expose the grudging spirit that prevents us from receiving God’s mercy.  Only those who can celebrate God’s grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.”
[3] Cf. Mary H. Schertz, “God’s Party Time,” The Christian Century (Sept. 4, 2007): 18: “God s mercy is reckless and profligate. It is a prodigal passion, and our visions of salvation are measly by comparison.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 12.
[4] cf. Craddock, Luke, 77-78: “sinners” were those who were excluded from the synagogue, and “Given the central place of the synagogue in the community, to be a sinner was to be an outcast.”
[5] Cf. Ann James, “Prodigiously Lost and Found,” The Christian Century (Mar 1, 1989): 221, where she points out that “The Pharisees probably expected the story to end with some sort of condemnation of the way they too distanced themselves from sinners,” but the point Jesus was making is that “no one is lost—or rather, no one is left un-searched for.”
[6] Art Ross, “Lk. 15:1-10,” Interpretation 61 (Oct 2007): 424: “A life of discipleship is a life that begins with repentance, leads to the faith of Jesus, and embodies the love of God,” a love that is “love for the lost; persistent pursuit of the well being of others; joyful, generous friendship; and sharing with one's friends and neighbors.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:278: “God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved.”

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