Leaning into Grace
Sometimes it is hard to know what to do; and other times it is hard to do what we know to do.
Surely President Biden must be caught in the former as regards Afghanistan. Every day must bring new decisions, new dilemmas, new conditions that challenge his best intentions and best judgments. Which is why we are required to pray for him, for any President, for every President. It is hard to know what to do sometimes.
Even when we know what to do: even then, it can be hard: to say goodbye to a student, to put a beloved pet to sleep, to give up a favorite food because it is bad for our health. Doing the right thing is hard, especially when we know what the right thing is.
This Psalm pushes us toward the right thing. We need that push. We want that push. We thank God for the push. But it is a struggle, and we take comfort from our Lord Jesus Christ who struggled at the beginning, at the end, and throughout his ministry to do what he needed to do. In the Wilderness and in the Garden, he wrestled with these things. And then Paul the Apostle wrote about them: what I want to do, I find difficult and what I don’t want to do, comes too easy. I am a mess! That is my translation, of course. But that may also be your situation. Living in this tension between oughtness and forgiveness.
The gospel speaks to you today, pushing you into grace, pulling you into grace. I hope as you leave this worship today, you will find yourself Leaning into Grace, not just for yourself but for all those around you. We all need more grace, more mercy, more love. More of another old gospel song, Mercy there was great, and grace was free.
Pray for me as I speak to you today on this theme, Leaning into Grace.
People everywhere have psalms like this, lists of things to do and not do. We have the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible. The Christian reads the letters of Paul, such as this, from his letter to the Christians in Rome: “contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Live in harmony with one another. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Owe no one anything. Do not pass judgment on others.”
Then there are the sayings of Jesus. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells us: “Do not be angry with others. Do not lust after another person. Do not divorce your wife. Do not resist evildoers. Do not turn away a borrower. Give in private. Pray in private. Fast in private.”
Then in his famous story of the last judgment, Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and tend the sick.
We teach our children to obey rules. We expect church members to obey rules. When creating our new web site, I added a page of expectations of church members. You might want to check that out!
For centuries, Baptist churches have used church covenants to state these expectations. The most famous of these is the New Hampshire Covenant. It reads in part,
“We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage; to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Savior.
We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and Christian courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.”
There is something about this tradition I like. Roman Catholics put emphasis on the sacraments, the performance of these seven rituals. Protestants like Calvinists and Lutherans wanted to emphasize doctrine, or the confession of faith, or a creed.
But Baptists from the beginning in the 16th century emphasized living like Jesus. To be a Christian was not to believe certain things, like the Lutherans, or attend certain ceremonies, like the Catholics, but live a certain way. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. I still like this. I have decided to follow Jesus was the defining chorus of my formative years in Christ.
So, when I come to a psalm like this, I am not put off. This ancient hymn celebrates the way God wanted the Hebrew people to live, the way God wants us to live. Do what is right. Speak the truth. Do not slander another. Keep your promise. Do not lend money at interest. Do not take a bribe. Do no evil.
Seven things as I list them. Not a bad list. These are things we ought to do or ought not to do.
I try to obey these seven things, don’t you?
But there is a flip side to these admonitions, these rules, these guides for living. It can evolve easily into a culture of oughtness where shame becomes a chief motivator and shunning a common punishment. If you don’t abide by our rules, we will shun you. Shunning is indeed a practice of some groups. Some churches call it excommunication—to refuse to fellowship with another or to refuse to serve communion to a person. This is the eternal temptation of religious people and religious groups.
I went to preach recently for the 125th anniversary of Third Baptist Church. They were formed in 1896 when the pastor and a majority of the people of First Baptist Church, Owensboro, walked out because the church would not expand its prohibition against alcohol. They wanted to prohibit church members from establishing accounts at banks that loaned money to distilleries or saloons. They wanted to prevent farmers from buying the slop from the distilleries to feed their pigs. They wanted to prevent landowners from renting their land to people who bought or sold alcohol. You can see how this might divide a congregation.
This is the culture of oughtness.
Jesus fought against it. It was the legalism of the Pharisees. To be a Pharisee today is to judge others, to criticize others for failing to keep all the rules, to oust people who fall short of our standards, our expectations. This is the perversion of religion that turns people off. This attitude and practice generates the charge of hypocrite.
Scholars have traced the recent decline of Christianity in America. Now less than half of the population is affiliated with a church, mosque, or synagogue. One of the causes of this decline is the charge of hypocrisy. We preach inclusion, “whosoever will may come”, but we practice exclusion. We preach sexual restrain but we practice sexual abuse. We preach sacrifice but we practice self-interest.
I think now of the old pop song, Harper Valley PTA. It could have been Harper Valley Baptist Church.
This is the pollution of a precious stream, the law of God.
Blessed is the person, the Psalms begin, who walks not in the way of the wicked, or stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers. But their delight is in the law of the lord and on this law, they meditate day and night.
But that stream can be polluted.
There is another stream running over the Biblical landscape. It promises relief from this culture of oughtness. This is the river of grace. It flows from the heart of God and does so from the very beginning. Just as from the very beginning, we humans were corrupt, selfish, rebellious, and violent, so God from the creation was full of steadfast love, mercy, grace and forgiveness. Just as Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so God the almighty creator is the same in the beginning, throughout history, and until the end of time.
Yes, the psalms send forth the law of human behavior—this is the way you shall live—the Psalms also sound the sweet song of grace. Psalm 145 reads like this:
I extol you, my God and king, and bless your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and God’s compassion is over all that God has made.
That sounds like the God we worship and revere, doesn’t it? That sounds like the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, doesn’t it?
But this is not just the psalmist singing the song of grace. This understanding of God goes back much further. It goes back to the drama of Sinai. Moses stood in the presence of God and received the Torah, the revelation of God, the commandments. While he was away in this ministry of revelation, the Hebrew people rebelled, made a golden calf, repudiated the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses had to interceded on their behalf and plead for God to forgive them. He did so because he knew God was a forgiving God.
Moses went up before God again. God commanded him to make two more stone tablets. “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain.”
Moses did that and the Bible says this: “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses. The Lord proclaimed the name, Yahweh and passed before him. And proclaimed:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
This is the defining moment of Hebrew religion, and this is the fundamental assertion of Hebrew religion. This is their song, this is their hymn, this is their psalm.
This is why we read the Hebrew Bible and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is why we sing these songs of Zion and pray the prayers of Jerusalem. This is the religion of Jesus and Paul, of Mary and the four daughters of Phillip. This is true religion and undefiled. This is Christian faith and practice. This is the hope and heritage of Providence Baptist Church.
There is the way of God, the rules of life, the commandments of our faith; and there is the grace of God, the forgiveness of the Lord, the steadfast love generation after generation for a thousand generations.
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.
This is what Saul the Pharisee found when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. This is what moved him from the culture of oughtness to the community of grace.
He struggled to do what was right. He was an educated and disciplined man, a man who knew the Law and worship the Lord. But he struggled to do what the Law taught him to do, just like we do. After his conversion to the God of Grace, he took the name Paul and wrote about this struggle:
The good I want to do I can’t. The evil I want to avoid, I can’t. Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this torture, this dilemma, this guilt, this trap, this dead end, this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Like two rivers flowing from the ocean of God, like two rails of train tracks running from the throne of God, Law and Grace have been our heritage. Nowhere is this better stated than in the popular words of Micah the prophet: What does God require of us, but to do justice—that’s the law—and love mercy—that’s the grace—and walk humbly with God—that’s Jesus!
The congregation of God is called to live in the discipline of the Lord and the grace of God. The prayers, the scriptures, the music, the preaching, the testifying—all the things we do when we gather are meant to balance these twin gifts of God. We are to embrace the challenge to live right while we accept the grace to love right.
Let me say that again: We are to embrace the challenge to live right while we accept the grace to love right.
When the spirit of law gets too strong, we judge each other, we criticize each other, we repudiate each other, we think ourselves better than the one who sits behind us in the pew or stands before us in the pulpit. A spirit of dissension pushes out the spirit of communion.
And from what I hear, you know where of I speak, dear people of Providence. The sequence of events that has brought you to this precarious place began with the sour spirit of judgment rather than the sweet spirit of mercy.
What Paul the apostle wrote to the church at Corinth could have been written to you: It has been reported to me that there are divisions among you.
It is no accident that the very letter written to the most conflicted congregation of the first century contains the greatest of all Paul’s inspired writing. We call it the love chapter. He expounds the meaning of grace; he calls it love. Let me substitute the word grace and see what you think:
Grace is patient. Grace is kind. Grace is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Grace does not insist on its own way. Grace is not irritable or resentful. Grace does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Grace bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Does Providence need the gift of grace? Does Providence need a new wave of love? Does Providence need a burst of forgiveness? Does Providence need a river of reconciliation? Does Providence need a revival of getting right with God and with one another? What do you need today?
If we cannot practice the presence of grace here, among us, in this congregation, how can we offer to a divided and hostile world any gospel word, any hopeful mercy, any sweet, sweet spirit of grace?
If there is to be a renaissance in this congregation it must happen with people walking humbly with God, people loving mercy more than judgement, people loving justice more than personal advantage.
If there is to be a reversal of this depressing decline of our faith and practice it must begin here: in a congregation like this, among people like us, with a new determination to do justice and a wide embrace of grace.
Paul our great teacher begins every letter with this greeting: Grace and peace to you. May it be so today among us, here at Providence, and with you, wherever you are. God bless you as you seek to live in a community of grace.