“Connecting With Grace”: The final sermon in a series called “ConnectAbility,” preached on Sunday, August 16, 2020, at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando

Do you ever get the feeling you’re constantly being measured, evaluated?  For instance…

My insurance agent recently sent me a device for  my car, claiming it would record my “safe” driving habits, leading to lower insurance rates.  Kelly says I drive like an old man, so I thought, “Why not? What have I got to lose?”  After about a month, I checked the app to see how I’m doing.  It said I’m a “B-“ driver.  A “B-“?!?!  I’m a great driver!  Not “B-“!!!

At my last eye appointment, I was reminded how far off my eyesight is from a 20/20.  At my last physical exam, I was reminded that my cholesterol, blood sugars and weight aren’t low enough.

Occasionally – just every once in a while, believe it or not – someone doesn’t like something I write, or say in a sermon, or post on social media, and lets me know about it.

It seems like we’re always being measured, scored, or evaluated.  As children, we had tests and grades in school.  We have employee evaluations at work.  We have credit scores.  We go through medical tests.  And, more often than not, our scores indicate we’re less than perfect.  Maybe not you… but, certainly me!

Add to that, the not-so-subtle messages about how to be happy, successful, well-balanced and well-adjusted, good-looking, popular, in-fashion, a good husband/wife/friend/parent, etc., etc.  There are messages always, everywhere; constant reminders of our shortcomings, our failings, our inadequacies, our mistakes. 

And, truthfully, Christianity often adds to the problem.  To be a “good” Christian, you “should” – my least favorite word – go to church every Sunday.  You “should” be in a small group.  You “should” support the church financially.  You “should” invite people to church.  You “should” attend special church events.  You “should” have a personal prayer life.  You “should” read your Bible every day.  You “should” serve on a committee.  You “should” be a good Christian spouse and parent.  You “should” have a mentor, and be a mentor.  You “should” be aware of social issues.  You “should”… but there aren’t enough hours in the day!

And, sometimes, our harshest critic, the one setting the most impossible standards, the one reminding us most often of our flaws and failings, is ourselves.

No matter how “good” we are, or how much good we do; no matter how hard we try, it seems like we always come up short.  We’re always missing the mark. 

Immanuel Kant wrote, Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”  It’s obviously hard to build something straight with crooked wood.  A carpenter needs straight lumber.  But, more often than not, humans are like crooked tree limbs.  In other words, we’re all a bit twisted.  Obviously, some of us are more “crooked” than others.  Few of us escape the painful feeling that we’re a little more crooked than we “should” be.  But, in the right hands, even crooked timber can make something amazing.

If I asked you what the most famous, popular, Christian hymn of all time is, I suspect we’d all agree – Amazing Grace.  Though almost 250 years old, it remains a most beloved hymn.

Amazing Grace was written by a British, Anglican priest by the name of John Newton.  Newton wrote hundreds of hymns you’ve never heard of.  But, this one stands out among the others.  Imagine writing, or inventing, or creating something that would be so loved, and so cherished, and so impactful for so many!  You’d have to feel pretty good about yourself.  Right?  But, for Newton, that’s not the whole story.

Long before his conversion and call to ministry, Newton was a ship captain, transporting slaves across the Atlantic Ocean.  Beyond the horrors of being captured, separated from home, family, and culture, destined for a life of terrible hardship, the journey for slaves across the Atlantic was particularly horrible.  Hundreds were packed and chained below deck, where conditions were so terrible, as many as 25% died and were tossed overboard, like trash

John Newton was in charge of one of those ships.  He witnessed the suffering first hand, was responsible for it, and profited from it.  Following a particularly terrible storm, Newton came to a deeper faith in Christ, which led to a call to ministry, and eventually a complete repudiation of the Slave Trade, and his part in it.  In an abolitionist pamphlet he authored, Newton wrote, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” 

Imagine living with the knowledge of being an active part of something as terrible as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, bearing responsibility for the dehumanization, physical suffering, and deaths of so many innocent people.  Imagine the memories.  Imagine the guilt and the shame.

And, imagine ALSO being the recipient of such grace as to pen the history’s most famous hymn…

Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I 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.

John Newton’s story reminds me of this quote by Corrie ten Boom, “No pit is so deep that God’s love is not deeper still; with Jesus even in our darkest moments, the best remains and the very best is yet to be.”

You see, that’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  No matter how far we fall short of perfection, no matter how many tests we fail, no matter how bad our record is, by God’s grace, more is possible.  We may not write the world’s most favorite hymn.  But, by God’s grace, we are more than the worst we’ve done.

Pope John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

Clearly, the Bible is honest about our shortcomings.  Over and over, story after story, warning after warning, the Bible reminds us of how “wretched” we are, and how far we’re straying from God and God’s purposes.  There’s simply no disputing the Bible’s clear message that sin caused the fall of humanity, and that Jesus paid the price for it on the cross.  There’s no use denying it: we’re all sinners in desperate need of saving!

But, while the Bible is honest about our sinfulness, the PREVAILING theme is God’s amazing grace.  God doesn’t respond to flaw and failure as we do – with harsh judgment and condemnation.  God responds with amazing grace.

Listen again to today’s reading from Ephesians 1, Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding.”

Several words leap off the page for me: blessed, chosen, destined, ransomed. 

·      “He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.”

·      “God chose us to be holy and blameless.”

·      “God destined us to be his adopted children.”

·      ‘We have been ransomed (or rescued) through his Son’s blood.”

That’s the whole gospel story.  No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what’s been done to you, no matter how many times or how badly you’ve fallen short, God chose you as God’s own: to bless you, to be a recipient of his overflowing grace,This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding.”

No matter how great the error…

No matter how tragic the consequence…

No matter how grievous the fault…

No matter how terrible the outcome…

God’s grace is greater.  God’s grace for you is greater. 

Grace is defined as God’s unmerited favor. God is the source.  “Unmerited” means free, unearned, or undeserved.  In other words, grace is a gift.  A “favor” is something done for us, for our benefit, generally without strings attached.  As we say, God’s love is unconditional.

Grace – God’s free gift of love, even for wretches like you and me – is almost too good to imagine… almost… 

Though we ALL fall short of loving God wholeheartedly – with ALL of our hearts, minds and strength; though we ALL fail to love our neighbors as we ought; though we ALL struggle to accept who we are in God’s eyes; God always, always, always responds with grace.  For each and every shortcoming, God’s grace precedes it, accepts it, forgives it, and somehow manages to bring forth goodness anyway.

I particularly love the visual image we get from this passage, “We have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:7-8) Overflowing.  Poured over.  God isn’t skimpy!  No matter how much grace we may need to cover the full width and breadth of our failings, God pours out more.  God is extravagant; maybe even wasteful – like a kid pouring extra syrup on their pancakes, or extra hot fudge on their ice cream Sunday.

That’s the image I want you to have this morning.  Wave upon wave upon wave of grace, flowing over you.  Showers upon showers upon showers of grace, raining down on you. Layers upon layers upon layers of grace poured over you.

Reflecting on the life of Jesus, the writer of the Gospel of John said, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” (John 1:16).I love that – bot the phrase, and the spiritual truth!  Grace upon grace upon grace.

I can’t help but think of artists, who apply layers of paint as the create a beautiful portrait, sometimes covering mistakes, sometimes creating depths of color.  Layer upon layer upon layer.

Sometimes, when I shower, I’m in a hurry.  I soap, rinse, and I’m out.  But sometimes, I like to stand under the hot water, longer than I need too, and enjoy it.  Long after I’m clean, I just enjoy the hot water pouring over my tired muscles, feeling the day’s tensions and stresses wash away.   Overflowing grace poured out over God’s children; more than enough; washing us, cleansing us, forgiving us, restoring us, healing us, making us new.

In a world of critics, and our own inner-critics, grace is a hard concept to grasp, and an even harder reality to accept.  But, grace IS, whether we “get it” or not.  I don’t know why God pours out so much grace on someone like me.  Thankfully, my lack of comprehension – another shortcoming – makes no difference to God at all.

            Anne Lamott says, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

            I leave you with this thought from the great theologian Karl Barth, “The result of sin is to destroy human nature, the result of grace is to restore it, so that it is obvious that sin is subordinate to grace, and that it is grace that has the last word about the true nature of man.” 

            Grace has the last word.

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