This sermon was preached on October 27, 2019 at Bolton Congregational UCC in Bolton, CT. I am grateful to the loving and welcoming congregation in Bolton for opening their pulpit to me! Special thanks to First Congregational Church of Griswold, CT where I first considered this topic, “what is grace?” and to my Preaching section, led by Ned Parker, where I workshopped this sermon.
What is grace?
This question was brought to me at the church I was pastoring this summer. One week I invited the congregation to share questions with me for use in a future worship service. Now I certainly don’t presume to have all of the answers, but I believe that in asking questions together we can each grow in our faith. And I share this question with you this morning because I think the question, “What is grace?” is more common than the one individual who submitted it, or the one congregation that thought about it over the summer. When I read the news headlines or talk with friends in many different communities, I see a world that needs a reminder about God’s grace.
When we think about grace, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a blessing before a meal. Like I shared with the children, when I was younger that was my understanding of grace – saying the words before dinner, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.” This type of grace is a way of saying or offering thanks to God before a meal.
Grace before a meal doesn’t have to be the formal version of a prayer, maybe you will try out one of those fun camp prayers that I shared with kids, “Rub a dub dub/ Thanks for the grub/ Yay God! Amen.” Saying a prayer before sharing a meal together is one simple way to pause and remind ourselves of God’s grace.
But what IS grace?
Grace can seem like a murky concept or a fluffy word. I think the core of grace is relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.
Grace is often hard to grasp because we can’t see it. And while we can’t see grace, I believe that we can sometimes feel it. For example, to be “held in God’s grace” might remind us of a time when we felt alone, but felt God’s comforting presence with us. Or to be “held in God’s grace” could mean a physical embrace of a friend supporting us in a time of mourning a loved one.
Grace is about relationships because grace is how God is in relationship with us. We have flaws, we make mistakes, we fail, and God still loves us and stays in relationship with us. God’s grace is unearned, undeserved, and even unexpected.
As Christians, we are called to be in community with one another. As humans, we struggle to have grace for ourselves and for each other. Maybe you even have an easier time showing grace for another person than you do for yourself?
My own lesson in understanding grace came while living in Christian community in Washington DC. I lived in a house with four other adults. Five adults in one house requires a bit of negotiation and, as I learned, having grace for one another. Five adults sharing one kitchen and two bathrooms requires coordination and grace. But let me tell you, GRACE doesn’t clean the kitchen!
We were five adults who had our own chore chart. Just like you might see on Pinterest. A laminated piece of paper that lived on our fridge and instructed who was responsible for which chore for the month. One person was in charge of garbage, making sure the bins were taken out of the backyard and into the alley on the correct day. One person was in charge of outside, sweeping the front porch, weeding as needed, or snow shoveling in the winter. Another person was in charge of floors, sweeping and dusting. And one person was responsible for the kitchen.
Granted each person was supposed to clean up after themselves when they cooked. But usually the kitchen was the center of all disasters. Five adults sharing one fridge – things had a habit of getting buried in the fridge and turning into what could have been science experiments. I often found myself growing frustrated by the sense of disorder and chaos that was lurking in the kitchen. I would become irritated when the roommate responsible for the kitchen did not perform what I deemed an adequate job keeping it clean. I expressed my frustration to another roommate. This roommate gently nudged me by asking me if I could consider extending grace to the roommate who had not been cleaning up the kitchen. Grace? Honestly this was a little bit of a foreign concept for me. In my family, I am the oldest child. I have a younger brother and younger sister. And growing up, my siblings jokingly would call me the “Fairness Police” because of the frequency that I claimed “That’s not fair!” to our parents.
So what would it mean for me to try out grace as a response to my roommate who was frustrating me? I remember sitting down and praying to God. At first I felt a little unsure. But I sat in my room listening for God’s still speaking voice. I asked God to help me find grace for my roommate.
Through my time of prayer, I was able to see my roommate in a new light. Rather than first growing frustrated over the mess in the kitchen, I instead remembered how stressed they had been lately at work. They were unhappy in their job and searching for a new one. They spent more time in their own room than in our common spaces because of their stress and job search. Through prayer and reflection, I was able to consider grace as a response.
Why do we struggle to understand grace? I believe that we often find grace challenging because our faith is counter-cultural. The grace that we experience through God is not supported by our surrounding culture. A counter-cultural faith is what the letter to the Ephesians is addressing as well. Our reading from Ephesians reminds us as Christians that we are called to new life through Christ. God’s grace offers us blessings, even when we feel unworthy, even when we make mistakes. God is faithful and God’s grace is freely given. We do not need to work for God’s grace.
How do we grapple with our own counter-cultural faith? Society tells us that there is no such thing as a free lunch, we have to work hard to get rewarded. American culture emphasizes bettering yourself and often idolizes independence, a can-do or do-it-yourself attitude.
Keep working at your job, keep working to make yourself more physically fit, keep working at your relationship with your spouse to make it better. Keep working, keep working, keep working.
BUT God tells us to rest. God tells us, You are enough.
God made you and you are loved. We do not need to earn God’s grace the same way you might earn money or negotiate a raise. This requires trust.
Extending grace in our relationships with others can be complicated. Grace is not an excuse for domestic violence or abuse. Divine grace does not allow for one person to hold power over another.
What is grace? Each of you gathered here today have your own story and experience of grace. After the service this morning, I encourage you to consider sharing a story about a time that you experience God’s grace or you were able to extend grace to yourself. During our musical meditation following the sermon, maybe think back to a time when you experienced God’s grace. Consider sharing this story with another person today or sometime in the week ahead. What is grace to you?
I’d like to close with a blessing of grace from Rev. Ellen Jennings, the pastor of my home church, Cleveland Park Congregational UCC in Washington DC. Hear now these words of blessing:
Grace. Is about second chances. And third and fourth and fifth… Grace comes when you don’t deserve it. Or maybe you do. But it’s not dependent on you. And you can mess up [again and again] and grace is still possible. […] Grace is possibility. Grace is redemption. Grace is what you get when you thought it couldn’t happen. […] Grace knows transformation is always happening. Grace tries to tell us we’re capable of being different even while being loved just as we are. […] Grace precedes us. Grace accompanies us. Grace surpasses us. Grace surprises us. Graces comes after us—both pursuing and completing us. […] Grace is what “it” is all about. Growth. Change. Transformation. Reconciliation. Love—of neighbor and of self. […]
To all of God’s beloved community gathered here this morning:
Grace to you and peace from God who is both Father and Mother and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.