(Ephesians 2:8-10; James 2:14-18, 26; Luke 6:30-31, 38; Luke 11:9; Mark 9:33-37)
As I said last week, It’s times like these that it’s best to be clear about who we are as a community of faith, here at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, “a community of diverse Christian believers, empowered by love and guided by the Holy Spirit.”
In times like these, it’s best to be clear about our values, our root values, the values that anchor us, that can pull us back when we get caught up in some current, some riptide trying to take us for a ride.
What are our root values we hold as a church community or that hold us and make us who we are? What are they?
Now, having a value doesn’t mean that we’re always righteous in living it out – as often as not we stray and gotta get checked and pulled back. That’s the value of a value.
A value doesn’t mean anything if we let go of it as soon as we discover we’ve strayed from it, or we discover that it seems like the world around us has given up on that value, that it proves to be difficult to live out our values. Our values are what we want to check us and balance us – come what may – what we want to root us in what is true and good and sacred. So these weeks I’ll be lifting up some root values that I trust we hold and that hold us in this dear diverse Christian community of ours.
This week: Grace and Generosity.
Grace is the heart of the Good News that came with Jesus: God invites us back home into God’s love, regardless of whether we “deserve” it or not, regardless of how much we’ve strayed from the Source of the gift of life, the Ground of what is true and good and sacred.
God invites us back home, a free gift. We just need to ask, and we need to say “Yes.” “Ask and it will be given you,” as Jesus taught, “Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
That’s grace. And it’s thanks to Jesus that grace is manifest.
Grace sounds simple – and it is simple – but it can be tough to come around to. It can be the hardest thing, the most humbling thing to ask God and to say “yes” to the grace God offers us.
It cuts against a lot that the world teaches us about ourselves, each other and about God. The world teaches us that we need to compete for grace. We need to strive to earn it, to prove ourselves more worthy of it than the next person. It’s the disciples arguing among themselves about who is better. That’s what the world teaches us.
But the truth is astonishing and humbling, it empties us of ourselves and fills us something beyond any telling: we are saved by the grace of God. “Ask and it will be given you. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
What’s it’s like to receive this grace, to find this grace, to have God open to us … it’s beyond telling … and I know many of you know that sweetness, know that song … “how can I keep from singing?”
Now I’m calling grace a “value”, a root value, because the experience of grace, the knowledge of God’s grace leads us to behave in certain kinds of ways with other people in this world of ours.
When Jesus discovers his disciples arguing about who is best and most deserving, he surprises them with the demands of grace: you must join with the least of these, empty yourselves and be filled with God’s love by becoming not just the least of these, but the servant of the least of these. Grace transforms us.
The man who wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” the song that for so many sings out the unspeakable power and sweetness of grace, he knew well the humbling transformation by grace.
He owned a slave ship before he got hit with God’s grace. He was in the business of selling and trading fellow Children of God. And the experience of grace forced him to give it all up. It converted him into a fighter for the freedom of the people who his people treated worse than animals. And his people thought he had lost his mind. In a way he had, he lost his mind and gained his heart, he lost the vicious pecking order that his culture brainwashed him into believing, and he became free to treat everyone as the precious and dignified Child of God that they are.
Experiencing grace leads us to being ourselves gracious with others.
When we know how much we receive as a gift, when we know that we receive everything as a gift, our very souls, our very “soul salvation,” that loosens us up to being ourselves a gift for others.
Here’s how Martin Luther put it (I’m paraphrasing a bit): Just as Christ offered himself to me, so I give myself as a Christ to my neighbor. Look! From faith flows love … and from love flows a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss. Wow, how about that?
We receive grace, regardless of our “merit,” but in an act of trust and openness with our God. From that flows a love that frees us to give to others, with grace, regardless of what we judge to be their “merit,” regardless if they reward us with gratitude, regardless if we get credit for it.
So what’s it like to be rooted by grace as it supports generosity?
As a church, I think we can see this value of grace and generosity through the Warming Center.It’s low barrier. We aren’t asking a lot of questions or making a lot of demands, we’re just providing the warm, hospitable place that some folks need on these cold nights. We do have some boundaries to keep things safe, of course. But there are not morality tests or cause for shame, we hope, only hospitality.
And, on the other side of things, I’m sure we can think of ways that we have drifted from grace and generosity.
Now that we’ve named grace and generosity as root values, as values we want to anchor us … I trust you’re seeing how these values pull against major currents prevailing in our society today, even some riptides that want to take us and dash us against the rocks of hardheartedness, some monstrous forces slamming doors shut in the faces of folks in need of entry into the refuge we are privileged to call home.
Jesus spoke with great force about welcoming the stranger in need. It is a grace-rooted action.
“If anyone wishes to be first, one must be last of all, and servant of all.” “Anyone who, for the sake of my name welcomes even a little child like this,” welcomes the least of these, welcomes those cast out by violence and hate and strife, “welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me is welcoming not me, but the One who sent me.”
Who, then, are we shutting out, when we let go of grace and make our hearts as hard as fists? Who are we shutting out?
(Delivered January 29, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)