Confounded by Grace

given on July 11, 2010

All week I have been confounded about grace.  Grace is one of the foundations of our church’s theology and yet it is a word or concept that is bounced around in casual conversation and in teasing about clumsiness.  I suppose I am feeling a bit clumsy with God’s grace.

On the cover of the bulletin, I have placed the Bible verse, “My grace is enough; it’s all you need.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, from the Message)  which will be the guiding verse for this year.  Even though I clearly picked a verse on grace, I realized this week how difficult it was to explain.

Part of the problem may be the silly connections I have with grace.  You see, Lila—the labradoodle—is so flexible that we laugh when she stumbles or collides with something due to her exuberance with life.  Her name, in those cases, is Lila Grace.  Naturally we are not praising her for being a graceful dog, we are poking fun at her clumsiness.  All too often, grace is far from a compliment in our daily conversation and that causes confusion when trying to explain God’s grace.

John Wesley has defined it and then proceeded to live life demonstrating God’s grace.  In an article from the Global Board of Ministry, I quote:

God’s grace is a wonderful gift to humankind.  Grace is God’s love freely offered to us.  We do not do anything to “earn” it.

Grace is simply God’s love.  It should be so simple to understand, but we have a tendency in our lives to complicate the issue.

What do we do to mess up God’s grace?  This is where I get confounded.  How hard is it for us to accept God’s love?  How hard is it to mess up love?   Shouldn’t it be simple?

When we have a birthday or Christmas comes and we are given a gift, is it hard to accept it?  No.  The gift is almost expected, especially if it is from a family member or a very close friend.  Receiving those gifts is fun, it makes us happy, and we eagerly open it and begin using it.  It is a joy to receive.

Now flip it around.  Is it hard to give a gift to someone you love?   When a birthday rolls around, don’t you find pleasure in finding the perfect gift to give?  How does it feel when you hand them that package and see their faces light up as they open it and exclaim how perfect it is?  It is a joy to give.

Back to God’s grace:  If God gives us love as freely and as joyfully as we give gifts to our loved ones, can we joyfully accept it?  Prevenient grace is our birthday gift from God.  He loves us so much that he does not waste any time giving us his grace.  All we have to do is open up the gift.

By now understanding how God’s grace is simply his love given to us from the moment we begin living, it should be easy to understand.  Wesley points out that  our birthday gift of prevenient grace is that little spark of divine grace/love that makes it possible for us to recognize and accept God’s love.  Once we get that very little spark to brighten we are acknowledging that God loves us.  Now we are consciously aware of God’s presence and of his love, and it is time for us to make a decision—do we accept or reject this gift?

Here is where grace gets more complicated.  If everybody simply said, “Yes, I will take this gift and put it to use,” then life would be good.  Relationships would be solid.  Peace would exist all around this world.  Instead, we mess it up.  For some reason or another, we have a tendency to open the gift and put it aside.  We fail to put it to use.  God’s grace is left unopened by so many.

First, many people simply are not aware that they have God’s love.  The circumstances of birth have left them in a position not to hear about this gift.  Either the society around them is blocking them from receiving the gift, or the family into which they are born is separated from God in all different forms—addiction, poverty, abuse, unchurched, uneducated, etc.  For whatever reason a child is born into a setting where there is no knowledge of God, there is no joy from God’s love.  No one is there to open it up and show that child how joyous, how valuable, or how functional that gift is or can be in the life ahead.

What are we suppose to do?  Paul knew that there were so many being born who had no idea what God’s grace was all about.  He was working as hard as he could to make sure that all the young churches understood their role in unwrapping God’s gift.  In his letter to the Colossians, we find the outline of our responsibilities when we accept God’s gift of love:

. . . in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way:  bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all the power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the father . . .

The Life Application study notes restated these words in a clearer manner:

  1. Understand God’s will
  2. Gain spiritual wisdom
  3. Please and honor God
  4. Bear good fruit
  5. Grown in knowledge of God
  6. Be filled with God’s strength
  7. Have great endurance and patience
  8. Stay full of Christ’s joy
  9. Give thanks always

A list of nine expectations may seem long, especially since we are often told to keep it simple or just focus on the top three.  But look back over that list.  You can see that it can be consolidated somewhat; it can be simplified:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant giving

Those five practices are simply one more way of showing how to accept God’s love and then give it away.

This brings us to the final piece of understanding or clearing up the confusion about grace:  God’s love in action is grace.  As Christians who accept God’s grace, it is our job to help others learn about God’s grace.  We are the key to unlocking the gift to all those who do not recognize grace regardless of their personal circumstances.

Consider each one of Bishop Schnase’s five practices and think of how you can put God’s grace into action.  When you greet someone, familiar or not, greet them with love.  Open your heart to them.  Sure we greet them at the church door, but our world is beyond there.  Make sure that you see others as God sees them.  Do not judge them; love them.  Let them see their worth in your eyes.

How do you put God’s love into action during worship?  To begin with, worship is not only a Sunday morning event.  Worship is lifting up thanks to God for all that is good in this world.  Worship is a prayer asking for guidance or for special care.  Worship is a walk in the woods.  Worship is seeing the sun or the stars sparkle on the lake’s water.  In other words, worship is more than Sunday worship service.  When you receive love, you say thank you.  When you accept God’s love, you talk to him in prayer and song.  You are God’s love in action.

God’s love in action is grace.  Grace is able to grow, too.  By accepting God’s grace, you have taken the first step, now you need to learn more.  By intentionally working to learn more about God’s greatest commandment and how to apply it in today’s world, you will grow.  You will find life becoming simpler.  You will find your burdens lighter.  You will want to share with others around you what a difference God’s grace is making in your life.  You will grace others with God’s love as you grow.

Gift giving is easy; unfortunately it also comes attached to a dollar sign.  How can extravagant giving figure into a discussion on grace?  Simple.  God gave us his love freely, unconditionally.  It did not cost a thing.  Yet, as we grew into our faith, we want to share our wealth.  We go out and give gifts to others for birthdays and holidays all the time.  Doesn’t it make sense that giving time and money to the church?  The money we give, the tithe, makes it possible for our grace to spread into our community but also around the globe through connectional ministries.  You really cannot gauge how much to give based on how much you feel loved, but when you fully acknowledge that God’s love has made a difference in your life, you will want to help others find that grace in their lives.

The final practice that we have to use in order to provide grace to one another is risk-taking mission and service.  Throughout the lectionary readings this week a common strand is what God’s people can do to help others understand God.  In Amos, we find that it does not take any official in the church to serve.  Amos was a shepherd who listened to God’s direction and stepped into a leadership role by warning of God’s displeasure.  There is nothing stopping any one of us from serving as God’s servant.  The limitations that we see are our limitations, not God’s.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus once again points out that there is no divider between people.  If we see someone with a need, we are to try and manage that need.  We have to be willing to risk sharing God’s grace with anyone.  We are to demonstrate God’s love through action—that is grace.

Whether we fulfill a calling to leave our homes and go to another location to serve or not, we must serve.  Whether we physically go on a mission trip or whether we send financial support to UMCOR or whether we walk over to our neighbor’s house with a loaf of banana bread, we must put God’s love into action.  The risk of giving ends in the joy of receiving.

The confusion about  grace is gone.  God’s love is everywhere around me and around you.  The concern now is how do you take God’s grace and share it with others.  God loved you so much that he created the earth.  He loved us so much that he could not give up on us and sent Jesus to demonstrate what loving one another is.  Now we must take this gift and put it into action—on our own and as a church family.  We have so much love to give, and giving it away makes it grow.

Dear Loving Father,

Thank you for all the grace you have given us.  We have been pretty clumsy with it, and for that we are sorry.  Today, though, let us see how easy it is to give your love away.  Help us to see the needs of your children and of your world so that we can share your love.  Help us not to tire.  Let us find energy in sharing love.  Help us not to give up.  Remind us that even the smallest of actions done in love carries your grace a little bit farther.  Help us to remember that your grace is all that we need in order to manage in this world.  And, when we finish here, may we find your grace right beside you in heaven.  –Amen

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