1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57
A man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven. The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see. I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.” St. Peter replied, “That’s very good. That’s one point.”
The man looked scared but he continued, “Oh my. Let me think again. I was a good husband. I never cheated on my wife. My children loved me because I was a good father. I tithed and volunteered at the soup kitchen. I was in the Lions Club…” St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too. It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works. One more point.” The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points. Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.” At this St. Peter exclaimed, “And that’s worth 200 points. Come on in!”
Much of the Corinthians passage for today is focused on end-times, and on being ready for whenever God calls on us, whether that be for a specific action or to face the music of the end of our lives. But the part that I find myself called to focus on today is a small part of today’s readings. And that is the passage where Paul says, “last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me.”
Today I want to talk about that Grace. Paul feels he has been saved by grace, by which he means the gifts of being chosen, being loved into his true calling, despite how he behaved before, despite whatever he had done or been in his past. And the result of that grace, the forgiveness and that opportunity to begin again is that he works harder than all the rest, that he gives all of who he is in return and in thanksgiving for all that has been done for him. The gospel lesson describes a similar situation. The pharisee feels scandalized that Jesus is allowing the woman to touch him. I want you to think about who it is that you feel worst about in this world. What kind of sins do you find most unacceptable? Murder? Greed? Abuse of children? Rape? Sex trafficking? What if someone who did these things was a person being cared for by Jesus? Being LOVED by Jesus? How would you feel? You would probably feel the same way that Simon felt: you would probably feel that if he really understood what that person had done, he would not be kind to him, he would not allow him to interact with him in that way, he certainly wouldn’t touch him or love him. But Jesus points out that the woman knew he would love her, she had faith that she would be seen, valued, forgiven, honored as a child of God, regardless of her past, regardless of what she had done. She trusted, had faith, in that grace being offered. And as a result of that faith and the acceptance of that grace, her gratitude and response and giving was far, far greater than that of those who didn’t feel they had anything major that needed to be forgiven, who did not feel they needed grace, who have no reason to feel grateful for the grace, the forgiveness, the second chances, the opportunities that they have been given.
But is it ever really true that the grace we’ve been offered has been small? It seems to be true that the more we have, the more grace we’ve been offered from the start, the more deeply we forget that everything we have, all of it, in fact comes from grace. We start believing that we’ve earned what we have. We forget that it is all grace.
Perhaps this is easier to see in the extremes. We know, for example, that the Queen of England didn’t do anything to deserve being born into the royal family that would then lead to her being queen. People who have inherited millions and even billions of dollars have not earned that money. And those who appear to have “earned” huge amounts of money almost universally do so by stepping on other people. But all of them forget this. All of them start feeling entitled to the things they have and believe they have them because they are somehow better than everyone else. While it may be easier to see in the extreme cases, most of us forget that we, too, are where we are by grace. All of us at one time or another have been given a chance we didn’t deserve, an opportunity that we didn’t deserve. Additionally, we did not earn being born into families that could support us through our education and through our lessons. We did not earn having parents who were able to feed us good food growing up and surround us with caring adults that would be in large part the reasons why we have come as far as we have come and succeeded in the ways in which we have succeeded. We forget this. We start to believe that we have more than other people because we are somehow more deserving. But the cost of that arrogance, the result of that mistaken pride is, first of all, a lack of humility, and secondly, which hurts us to a much greater degree, a depletion of gratitude; and all of that, more often than not, leads to a lack of generosity on our parts as well. We don’t recognize what we have as grace and so we are stingy with what we believe we have earned, what we believe we deserve. We don’t remember that all of who we are has been because of the many, many gifts we’ve been given throughout our lives, and so we don’t feel the need to return it, to nurture others in the same ways in which we have been nurtured, to return all of who WE are to God, as the woman in Jesus story gave all of who she was to Jesus.
Henry Covington, in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith had grown up in deep poverty. He had grown up in squalor in a tiny apartment with seven other children as well as rats, as well as violence. He responded to all of that the way most kids do: by retreating into drugs, crime and violence himself. His crimes became worse and worse, and for some of them he paid with jail time. He kept finding himself being offered second chances, he got away with a great deal, but he was angry and could not hear or accept the grace that was being offered to him. But at the point at which he thought he, and more, his wife and child, were going to die, he made the decision to accept the grace of God’s love that was being offered to him. He made promises that he found impossible not to keep. He turned his life over to God out of gratitude, became a pastor, took care of the homeless and the poor, lived a life of poverty again because he gave it all back to God. And he said this, “Amazing grace!.. I coulda been dead… I shoulda been dead! … I woulda been dead!.. But his grace. His grace saved a wretch and I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was ALL those things. But then came Jesus. (p 136) “
I think about what Mitch Albom said in his book and it, too, reflects back on how Simon must have felt, “What would you do if your clergyman told you stories like (what we are told in the book about Henry’s terrible past)? There was a part of me that admired Henry’s honesty, and part that felt his laundry list of bad behavior should somehow disqualify him from the pulpit.”
Pastor Henry said, “In the book of Acts, we read the Paul – after his conversion – people distrusted him because he used to persecute the church, but now he praised it. ‘is this the same guy? Can’t be! Nuh-uh.’… it’s amazing how folks can’t see you, ‘cause they want to keep you in that past. Some of our greatest problems in ministering to people is that they knew us back before we came to the Lord – … the same thing with Paul… they just looked at his past. And when we’re still looking at ourselves through our past, we’re not seeing what God has done. What (God) can do! We’re not seeing the little things that happen in our lives…. You are NOT your past!” Mitch continued, “did you ever hear a sermon that felt as if it were being screamed into your ear alone? When that happens, it usually has more to do with you than the preacher.”
The grace that Henry received made him into the man he became, a man who took homeless people in, not only to the church, but into his own home with his own wife and kids. He became a man who didn’t take a salary for his work, but just served others with everything he had. He had experienced an extreme amount of grace, and he returned it by giving his life to God.
This isn’t as distant from us as you might think. As most of you know, I am VERY close to a man who grew up with very little… who experienced extreme poverty as a kid, but who is now doing extremely well. He is one of the most generous people I know. And I know that this comes from a place of gratitude for the grace of what he has had, what he has gained through a life of challenges. When he is given anything, he still expresses more gratitude than others. He remembers, daily, how far he has come. And he responds to the grace he has been given by giving even more grace, compassion, care and love to those around himself.
But even when we fail to see the grace that is given to us, it is offered to us, every day in so many ways. There was a boy who wanted so very much to play baseball well. But every game he played he was simply unable to hit the ball. In the very last game, of the very last inning of the season, his turn to bat came when there were already two outs for his team. When the first ball was pitched, he missed it completely. Second ball pitched, he missed as well. Finally, when the third ball was pitched, he got a hit! But this boy who had tried so hard and wanted so much to do well was so excited when he finally hit the ball, that he ran to third base instead of first and so he got out and lost the game for his team. He was devastated. He felt like a failure not only for himself but for his team. Perhaps the “fair” thing in that situation would have been for his team members, and maybe even especially his coach, to give him a hard time. But instead his couch was waiting for him as he walked back to the dugout area and give him a big hug and said “that was a great hit! Well done.”
God’s grace is like that. Jesus tells us that he came not to condemn the world, but to save it. Well, much of the time, we as a people, we as a country, and even we as individuals, God knows we deserve judgement, anger, condemnation. We hurt each other, we hurt the earth. We don’t succeed, most of the time, in loving God above all else, and we fail miserably in loving our neighbors as ourselves. And yet in the face of that we are offered grace. We are offered love. We are offered the opportunities to try again, to do better, to celebrate life and to return it. We are given the chance to erase the past and start again. When we can summon gratitude for what we have, when we can remember that truly all we have is through grace, we are usually much more able not only to be grateful, but to be generous and kind to others as well.
The commentary, “Feasting on the Word” says that the antidote for hypocrisy is grace. “The unearned favor of God may seem a foreign import to Matthew’s demanding Gospel, where a banqueter gets tossed into the outer darkness for showing up in the wrong clothes (22:11-14). Acts have consequences in Matthew, and there is a structure of reward for faithful work done well; but his coin has another side. Matthew’s God forgives infinitely (18:21-35). His Jesus will forgive Peter’s denials and the disciples’ cowardice—will even abide their post-resurrection doubt to entrust them with his message for all the world (26:56, 69-75; 28:16-20). This Jesus keeps loving and loving, despite failings and blemishes.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ)).
God first gave us life. God then gave us families, the beauty of nature, the gifts of the talents and resources we have. Jesus’ first gift to us was the gift of celebration as he turned water into wine. God begins by giving us abundance, which is a reflection and an offering of God’s grace. And we respond by giving back, by giving to others, by sharing love and resources and gifts with those around us.
That is amazing. That is grace. It is offered to people we don’t like, it is offered to people we love and it is offered to us. When we love God, when we come to know God through Jesus, we see a God of grace and we know a God of grace and we are loved by a God of grace.
A friend of mine had a parishioner at one of his churches who could not sing “amazing grace.” It turns out the reason was that it was sung at the memorial service of her father who died when she was just a girl. Every time she heard the song it brought back images and feelings of loss for her. But before my friend was aware of this, he preached a sermon that told the history of the writing of Amazing Grace.
The composer of the song, John Newton, was the captain of a slave ship when slavery was a profitable and popular occupation. But after years of leading this slave ship he had a remarkable conversion experience in which he came to believe at a deep level in the grace of Christ and the call for justice and love to all people. The grace that saved him, the grace the brought him into faith was so transformational to him that, like the woman in today’s gospel story, he quit his work as a slave boat captain. He went to seminary and became a strong protestor and preacher against the slave trade. The song, Amazing Grace, is autobiographical. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found: was blind but now I see. Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come: ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”
Several weeks after my friend preached this sermon, the now old woman who had not been able to sing Amazing Grace came up to him and said that for the first time in 60 years she had been able to sing that hymn. And in some way had found a deep healing because of knowing the history of the composition and her now new experience of singing it. The sharing of stories is often grace too.
Everything that we have has come to us through grace. And when we take the time to remember that, to celebrate that, to have gratitude for that, then we can also become more the people God calls us to be: people of compassion, people of gratitude, people of generosity, and mostly, people who in thanksgiving and love for God can turn and offer the same grace that we have been given, to those around us.
I want to end by telling a personal story of grace:
25 years ago I attended a General Assembly which is when our National Presbyterian Church meets every couple years to work through issues and make decisions. That particular year was another banner year for infighting over issues. I went to General Assembly and spent most of my time in the chapel praying. The whole time I was there, there was only one other person who came into the chapel to pray, and she, too, came daily. The first day we met there we fell into discussion and it became very clear that we were on opposite sides of pretty much any theological debate and in particular those many issues that were on the floor of GA that particular year. For the first several days this successfully isolated us from each other. We no longer talked, no longer made eye contact. But rather we sat on our opposite sides of the chapel each praying earnestly for the other persons’ enlightenment and even redemption. It would have been easy for me to start seeing her as “the enemy” and as a prime example of a reason why I would have been perfectly fine with our church splitting over some of these issues. By the last day it was obvious that neither of us had been changed in our stances or opinions by the other person’s prayers.
And yet, at the same time, both of us were changed. Because, by the last day, we sat together and as were both about to leave the chapel to attend the GA session that would decide some of the issues we disagreed so strongly about, we decided instead to spend the time praying out loud together, each respectfully and earnestly caring for one another and for the whole General Assembly as sisters and brothers in faith. Afterwards we spent some time talking, getting to know one another more personally, hearing each other’s stories. We came to truly love each other, and in so doing, were able to have more compassion for all of those on the other sides of these issues. She could no longer be “the enemy”. She was family, and not someone I could or wanted to push out of “my” church. This began with grace offered to each of us. It moved from that into grace that we offered to one another. And that grace changed us both. Grace is always offered to us. All we have to do is accept it in, and that taking of it in can change us completely. Amen.