November 19, 2107: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
What does grace look like?
A wise preacher once said that grace is the most important word in the Christian vocabulary. “Almost everything that is distinctive about the Christian gospel is packed into that lovely word. Grace stands at the beginning and end of all of God’s ways with us.”[i]
At its most basic level, grace means God’s free gift of salvation to us in Jesus Christ—free, with no strings attached. Grace means God doing for us what we could never do for ourselves, delivering us from the powers of sin and evil. Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish author once wrote, “There is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it, we breath it; we live and die by it!”[ii]
We might be asking, “That’s great, but how do I get it?” How do we get grace? How do we earn it? How do we achieve this wonderful state of being. The radically surprising and good news of the gospel is that we don’t, we can’t, and God has already done it for us once and for all.
As good as that might sound, it’s something that we have an awfully hard time accepting and living by. The letter to Ephesians says that we “have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” We have been “justified” –made right by God’s sheer gift of grace. But nearly every hour of every day we seek to justify ourselves, to find our value, our purpose, our importance, our meaning in what we do.
Some of us seek to justify ourselves by our work. Believing that if we work harder and harder, longer and longer we can earn our place in the world and achieve success. We convince ourselves that this work has to be done for us to master our circumstance, but in truth this addiction to achievement becomes our own cruel master, demanding more and more time away from the ones we claim that we are doing all this work for, turning friends and colleagues into competitors and opponents, leaving us with an ever growing emptiness inside that we seek to fill with even more activity. Yes, some of us seek to justify ourselves by work.
But others of us seek to justify ourselves by our image, our outward appearance and physical physique. For generations advertisers have been selling us the myth that outer beauty and artificial youth make us morel lovable and full of joy. And we have bought into that lie hook, line, and sinker.
Others of us try to justify ourselves by being superior those around us that don’t measure up our standards. We are critical of anyone who looks differently, acts differently, lives differently, or votes differently than ourselves. We speak about “those people” with such moral or social superiority because deep down with think that if those people are so wrong it must make us right. Like petty kids on a playground we act out of our own insecurity as if tearing others down will build ourselves up, but in truth it only leaves us in an ever-shrinking circle of loneliness as we isolate ourselves from all those imperfect, wrong people.
We all have our ways of trying to justify ourselves, some of us by the numbers in our paycheck, or the degrees we have earned. Some of us by a false humility of self-rejection or by living vicariously through others for whom we have sacrificed so much. We each have our own ways of trying to make ourselves who we are, to justify our very existence, but each of these well-worn paths lead to the same place: failure and fear, emptiness and loneliness, self-destruction and self-isolation. In the end we cannot justify ourselves, not matter how hard we try. Like those fishermen in our story this morning, we keep trying and trying and trying to catch fish, to catch a break, to catch success on our own, but on our own we keep coming up short.
But then, what happens in the story? Just as those fishermen are ready to give up, they encounter the Christ who calls out to them and invites them to cast their nets on the other side—the other side of their own achievement, the other side of their own failure. Christ calls them to operate not out of their own knowledge and skill but out of sheer faith. And when they do, they receive more fish than they could ever dream of hauling in. Grace upon grace!
We are not justified, we are not made right with God, we do not earn our existence by anything that we do, but by God’s free gift of grace alone. Grace alone!
Reformed theologian Shirley Guthrie reflects on this doctrine of Justification by Grace. He says, “It sounds too good to be true…You do not have to try to buy God’s love and acceptance, because you already are loved and accepted by God—without any qualification or prerequisites. God does not say, ‘I will love you if you are good, if you prove yourself worthy, if you do so and so, if you first love me.’ God simply says, ‘I love you just as you are—you, not your righteousness, your humility, your faith, or your accomplishments.’”
Grace means God loves you, God loves us, even with all our brokenness and imperfections. The Baptist preacher and activist Will Campbell once boiled down the Christian gospel into seven words: “We’re all [sinners] but God loves us.” God loves you no matter what. That’s what grace is.
Now this grace isn’t easy; it isn’t cheep. No, it costs a great deal. It cost God the very life of God’s own son. What does grace look like? It looks like the only one who was without sin, being put to death by all of us, crucified for all our sins, and with his dying breath praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Grace is costly to God and yet is freely given to us, over and over and over in our lives. Grace is poured out on us so much that we cannot haul the nets its.
What does grace look like? On this Sunday of our Alternative Gift Market we welcomed seven different mission agencies to our church so that we could hear about the important work that they are doing in our community and around the world ands so that we could support and partner with them through our financial gifts. But even more so, we welcome them here so that we can learn from them what grace looks like.
Grace looks like a child who comes from a broken home, a child who has had to fear for their own safety being welcomed and cared for at St. Mary’s home.
Grace looks like a mother, who has lost her job, her house, all sense of security, who has been living in homelessness with her family, getting the gift of shelter and meals at Family Promise.
Grace looks like a poor rural farmer in Nepal receiving the gift of livestock to sustain not only her family, but her entire village for a generation thanks to Heifer International.
Grace looks like a man struggling with addiction and homeless receiving a warm meal, a treatment plan, and a reminder of God’s love from Wings of Life.
Grace looks like a woman who has suffered years of domestic abuse and finally made the decision to flee being welcomed in with shelter, protection, and safety at Penelope House.
Grace looks like a homeless man with no income, no insurance, no way to afford needed and necessary health care, life-saving critical needs, being welcomed in to Victory Health Partners and receiving life-giving care.
Grace looks like a woman who has been kicked out of her home because her family can no longer be drug down by her addictions, as her downward spiral goes lower and lower, she hears a rumor a place of recovery, a home for her, a Home of Grace. Home of Grace! Every week one of our longtime members and elders, Bill Layfield goes to the Home of Grace. He leads groups and teaches classes to the women, sharing his own journey of recovery with those who are just starting their own. Every time he meet with these groups he repeats the same mantra “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let him.” “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let him.” That’s grace. That’s fishing and failing all day and night on our own only to come up empty time and time again—I can’t. Then, in response to the call of Christ, to cast our net’s on the other side to “receive grace upon grace”—God can!
In none of these stories from our partner agencies do the people coming to their doors earn or deserve the care and shelter they receive. It is simply given–freely given without strings attached. That’s a glimpse, an echo, a reflection of God’s grace for all of us who do not deserve it and could never earn it.
Friends, the good news of the gospel is that we have been saved by grace in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been saved by grace, and it is a free gift with no strings attached. We have been saved by grace and it sets us free from our old ways of trying to justify ourselves by what we do. In God’s grace we are invited to cast our nets on the other side to encounter the ridiculous overabundance of God’s love, which seems too good to be true. We have been saved by grace and glimpses of it are all around us if would but open our eyes and hearts and minds to see them.
“There is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it, we breath it; we live and die by it!” Thanks be to God!
[i] Allen C. McSween, sermon “What Are You Getting for Christmas?…Grace Upon Grace,” December 13, 2009, in Grace Upon Grace, 5.
[ii] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 319.