Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Problem With Grace...

Oh, look, a sermon!

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

(I will be reading the New Testament Lesson as part of the sermon this morning.)

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Now, right from the start, I want to go on record as being a big fan of Jesus, so I don’t want what I am about to say throw anyone off: In reading today’s Gospel passage, I can think of several jobs that I would never, ever hire Jesus to do.

First, I would never, ever hire Jesus to be a shepherd. Well, there aren’t many opportunities for shepherds in Birmingham, so let’s make it local and say I would never, ever hire Jesus to be a security guard. Imagine, you have a building where you’re storing a hundred, oh, I don’t know, purebred, AKC-registered, prizewinning dogs valued at thousands of dollars each, and one of them gets away. The last thing you need is for the guy to leave thousands of dollars worth of dogs to go looking for the one that got away!

I also happen to think that Jesus would make a pretty lousy economist. Imagine losing a hundred dollars, finding it, and then inviting all the neighbors to a party that cost three hundred dollars to celebrate!

If a pastor left the pulpit in the middle of the service to go find the one person who overslept and didn’t come to church, or tore the building apart looking for one lost hymnal, he or she would not be pastor for very long, would they?

But then, Jesus isn’t talking about economics, is he? He isn’t talking about proper shepherding techniques, or housekeeping tips either.

The Pharisees and the scribes had noticed how all the sinners were coming to see Jesus, and being welcomed by Jesus, and for them it was proof that Jesus was exactly what they had expected: not at all a righteous man, not at all a holy teacher, and certainly not the expected messiah, but merely a man, and a man as vile as the lowest of tax collectors.

You see, to the Pharisees and the scribes, the way one attained righteousness was by trying to be more righteous. The way one attained purity and holiness was by trying to be more pure and more holy. They had long lists of the things one must do, and the things one must never do, and by extension long lists of people who were righteous and far longer lists of people who were not righteous, and thus could not be fellowshipped with lest they sully the bright gloss of their holiness. Yes, all these lists they kept were important to them, because they were convinced that if one worked diligently and kept the rules precisely and insisted passionately that others do the same, and one did these things long enough and with enough fervency, then God would surely respond favorably!

But the shepherd didn’t attend to the ninety-nine faithful sheep. The shepherd’s full attention, his whole being, was focused on the one who had gone a-wandering.

The woman didn’t give a thought to the nine coins she had. She was obsessed with the one that had gone missing.

In other words, the ones who received God’s grace weren’t the ones who thought they had earned it. The ones who received God’s grace were the ones who needed it.

What’s more, the piousness of the Pharisees and scribes earned them attention, but those who lacked their intensity were not drawn to them. The sinners, the less than, the marginalized, the Other, these were drawn to Jesus… and Jesus was drawn to them.

Do we have lists today? Plenty of people do: there are the folks who think God wants them to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers. They have lists. They have their signs and slogans and websites, but far from drawing new believers, almost everyone who sees them reacts with fear and disgust. There’s the Florida pastor who planned on burning copies of the Koran yesterday. Oh, you know this man has an extensive list. He gained worldwide attention, including the US Department of Defense, but his tiny church of fifty members gained not one new member. And in the end, he didn’t burn a single Koran.

I could go on, and mention the TV preacher who, every time a disaster strikes, be it 9/11 or Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, can refer to his very important and exhaustive list, and with pinpoint accuracy blame the given disaster on the particular sins of a given community, race, or country. He gets attention when he says these things, but to my knowledge convinces no one to respond to God’s loving call for salvation and reconciliation.

I could talk about all the lists that churches have – lists to differentiate a Baptist church from a Methodist church, or a Lutheran church from a Presbyterian church, to say nothing of a Presbyterian-PC(USA) church from a Presbyterian –PCA church… a friend of mine, Ian Richetti, is looking for churches in his area, and he said the other day, “You know the good thing about Doctrinal Statements? They provide me with a tangible excuse why we shouldn't visit.”

The point is that these lists do not make us righteous. I am not saved by being a member of a church. I am not righteous because I stand in a pulpit. That I am acceptable to God in any way, shape or fashion is not at all a function of anything I am or have done. I am an undeserving recipient of God’s grace. And that’s OK, because you are, too.

A few years after Jesus rose from the dead, there was a guy who strove, with all his being, to be pure before God, to be blameless, to be holy, to be about God’s will and God’s will alone. He fully believed that God would be pleased with him if he destroyed this upstart band, these followers of a dead rabbi. God knocked him off of his horse.

Paul learned something that day which changed him, and the church he had wanted to destroy, forever. Hear the Word of the Lord, from First Timothy 1:12-17 –

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

What Paul learned is that you don’t become righteous by trying to be righteous. You don’t become holy by trying to become holy. It is a gift from God. It’s grace. And although Paul may have counted himself among the 99 faithful sheep, God knew he was the one who was lost, and God came looking for him. Make no mistake, there were those in the church who were shocked and even enraged that Paul would become a member of the Body… but the ones who receive God’s grace are not the ones we think deserve it, but, again, the ones who need it.

And that’s the problem with grace, you see. It is undeserved, and is lavished upon the undeserving. It is in fact militant in its desire for the least and the lost! Grace is not concerned with the ninety-nine. Grace must find the one lost sheep. Grace is not content with the nine secure coins. It is compelled to find the one which rolled away.

Grace cannot be earned, but nor is it something that can be simply possessed. It must flow from us. That is its nature. The unfit, the dreadful, the forgotten, the despised, these were the ones drawn to Jesus, not because he had all the rules in perfect order and could tell everyone, in minute detail, where and how they were wrong, but because he dared to break bread with them. To give his time and his attention, his love, and, yes, even his very life for them.

Grace calls upon us to act in that same way – not to be the keepers of the lists, but to be the salt of the earth and the light upon the hill. To break bread with the people no one would be caught dead with. To love the people who richly deserve our hate. To go looking for the lost sheep and the lost coin, and to do it with abandon.

Not because they deserve God’s grace. They don’t. Not because they’ve earned the right to your attention or to God’s salvation. They haven’t. No, God calls upon us to go and sweep in the corners and search high and low and call out in the wilderness because they need God’s grace.

And when you look at it from that perspective, the lists are pretty silly, aren’t they? Because all of these people who need God’s grace are, in that most important respect, exactly like you and I.


  1. Amen and Praise the Lord!

  2. "You don't exist simply for the purpose of hurting people. @KenSilva does."

    O very nice; I sure do feel the love John.

    But now you have to ask Jesus to forgive you for making this false judgment against one of His pastor-teachers.

    You don't know that I exist "simply for the purpose of hurting people." You have no idea how many people I minister to and comfort.

  3. I'm sorry, Ken, were you saying something? Your actions speak so loud i can't hear what you're saying.

  4. Just to pick a little nit on shepherding. Sheep in a cluster pretty much do OK on their own. They can be left for a while so that the shepherd can seek out and rescue that lost sheep. It's the wandering sheep who get themselves into difficulty and need the shepherd the most. I would say the same is true of people. :)