The Urgency of Grace, A Sermon Preached on February 5, 2023
The Urgency of Grace*
Matthew 5: 13 – 20
February 5, 2023, Guemes Island Community Church
First, here is the link to the audio recording of the sermon on zoom. Written text follows. Audio should not require a password. Simply click on this, then on the zoom link that appears. After you start the audio, give it about 20 seconds, then you should hear my voice. It begins softly as it was very early morning when I recorded, and I was trying not to disturb others.
It’s always good to be on Guemes Island and to be at Guemes Church. I understand that in light of your previous pastor’s retirement, your pastoral search and your diminishing numbers, you are evaluating your future. That’s good, though I know if can be challenging. I will hold you in my prayers.
It is not my intention in this sermon to provide any sort of direct advice to you for your deliberations. It is not my place to do so. But I am mindful of your challenge. And my sermon has your situation, as a church, in mind. You’re hardly alone. Quite a number of congregations are struggling with similar questions and challenges.
This week’s gospel reading would seem, in some ways, tailor made to your situation and deliberations, beginning as it does with Jesus speaking to his disciples, reminding them who they are and exhorting them to be who they are.
He says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “you are the light of the world.” He encourages them, and us, not to lose our saltiness, our capacity to season the loaf that is the world and community around us. And he reminds them, and us, not to hide our light but to let it shine forth. So I could exhort you and us to remember who you are and be who you are. But I’m not going to do that. Partly because I suspect you, like me, have heard that sermon before. But also because it comes off sounding like what I will call law, not gospel, demand not grace.
To illuminate the difference between the two, let me draw on some words that have been very helpful to me, from the late archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu.
Tutu said that “Christianity is not a religion of virture . . . it is a religion of grace.” He continued, “A religion of virtue tells people that ‘if you are good enough, virtuous enough, then God will approve of you, then God will love you,’” and you will be okay, get into heaven, etc. Which is not all that different than telling a high school kid, “If your grades are good enough, if you have enough extra-curriculars on your resume, then you’ll get into the right college.” The law is an if/ then proposition.
But Christianity, said Tutu, is not that kind of religion. It is a religion of grace. What’s the difference? If a religion of virtue says, “If you are good enough, then God will approve of you, love you,” a religion of grace says, “I love you. Always have, always will. There’s nothing you can do that will undo my love for you. When you are your most unloveable, your most difficult, cranky self, when you’ve made a mess of things, my love and my grace are still there. I am there.” Often we don’t discover that until we’ve made a mess of things. As someone has said, “God’s office is located at the end of our rope.”
Another way to describe what Tutu called “a religion of virtue” is to say it is a religion of law. A religion of law tells us the things we must do to climb the ladder to God, to get in good with God. As I say, that’s a lot of the way the world works. If you get the right grades, then you get into the right college. If you know the right people, then get into the club.
But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is not about our climbing a ladder to God. It is about God’s descent to us, God’s coming to us where we are, as we are, in Jesus Christ who is described in our opening Act of Praise as, “The very reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s being.” In other words, it’s not all about you, which at least sometimes, can be pretty good news.
In Christianity, the direction of the arrow’s flight is not from us to God, but from God to us. Lots of contemporary spirituality is about various ways we can get at God. Do this method, try that technique. But Christianity isn’t that. It is so much about the human search for God — whether through spirituality or law — but rather God’s search, in Jesus, for us. About God’s seeking us when we are lost. About the God who claims us — again and again — from life’s “Lost and Found.”
Because of all this one of the lively questions in the early church, in Matthew’s time, and really ever since, has been the relationship between the law — what God asks of us — and the Gospel — what God has done and is doing for us. Does the gospel of grace mean that the law is no longer important, that the law has been abolished? Or to put in more ordinary terms, “Does grace mean anything goes?” That is the question Jesus takes up in the second part of today’s reading. The question was important then, and it remains important now.
Is Christianity a religion of law, as Tutu put it “a religion of virtue,” about the things we must do to be on the good side of right-thinking people and get on the good side of God? Or is Christianity a religion of grace, a faith that tells us God has, in Jesus Christ, taken our side and promises never, no matter what, to leave it?
So here Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” What does that mean? And a bit further on he seems, in fact, to say that he is not easing the requirements of the Law, of what we must do to be saved, but tightening them, ratcheting them even higher. “For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” — that is the most pious, the most virtuous, the most law-abiding outstanding citizens among the Jewish people of his time, “unless you righteousness exceeds theirs you will never enter the kingdom of God.”
Does Jesus want to have it both ways? Law and gospel, rules and grace? In a way, he does. But he changes the order. You don’t do the law in order to be loved or accepted or saved. Grace — God’s one-way love — comes first. Only grace can heal the broken heart. Only grace transforms lives. The law is a failure at that. The law, the Ten Commandments and so on, are an excellent guide and pattern for life, for those who have known God’s grace and mercy. But it is not what you must do to get God to love you. Rather, having been rescued from life’s Lost and Found (time and again), the bible’s laws and commandments are what we aim for, even though we will inevitably fall short. We love, because God first loved us. Our lives make sense as a response to a love that loves us first.
So Jesus speaks of a “higher righteousness,” a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Is he just upping the ante, tighting the screw, asking complete and total perfection of his followers? Some have thought so. As if he were calling his disciples to go the Pharisees — those legendary for their scrupulous observance of the Law — one better. “Let’s see, they offer one lamb in sacrifice, we’ll do two!” Or “They fast two days a week. We’ll do three!” See you, and raise you!
That’s the way we may hear what Jesus says here. Back in the post-war halcyon days of the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations, I am told that the three big UCC churches on the west coast — University Church in Seattle, Plymouth Church in Seattle and First Congregational in Berkeley, used to compete with one another to see who had the highest giving to OCWM, “Our Church’s Wider Mission.” Whichever church topped the list that year, their ministers claimed bragging rights and they were then loved on by the denominational higher-ups. Our righteousness, our mission giving, is higher than theirs. Bully for us!
Do you think that’s what Jesus meant by a higher righteousness? One upping the competition? Giving more to missions than the next church? Not that different than getting a fancier car than the next door neighbor. That is the law in its worst form. Competition, one-upsmanship, a driven life of constant striving, going for the “likes” on Facebook. What people now call “self-optimization.”
Do you think this is what Jesus meant by a “higher” righteousness?
Maybe he had something else in mind? Maybe he meant the higher righteousness of knowing ourselves as people in need of mercy, the higher righteousness of knowing our need of God’s grace when, with the Apostle Paul, we do not do the good we wish, but pretty much the opposite. When we swear off carbs, only to raid the refrigerator for a late-night bowl of ice cream; when we say we will speak no harsh word to our spouse, but find ourselves yet again snapping back defensively?
Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” He fulfilled the law by freeing us from it’s burden of performance and perfection, by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, forgiving us when we fail, loving us when we are unloveable, dying for us and being raised for us.
Like the death of Aslan, the great Lion of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, Jesus’ sacrifice puts an end to all the sacrificial systems. Remember? The stone upon which Aslan dies shatters in two — just as the curtain over the holy of holies in the ancient Temple is rent apart right down the middle at Jesus’ crucifixion.
On the last day of last year a wonderful Lutheran pastor and teacher, Jim Nestingen, passed away. Jim was what you call “a character.” He was a big man, 6’ 5” and let’s say, “substantial.” He spoke in a clipped Norweigen accent from the old country, though he had been raised on the Dakota prairies. He laughed a lot and told stories, lots of stories.
There was a celebration of Nestingen’s life and ministry on a podcast I listen to and it featured the man himself telling one of his favorite stories. Jim is on a Delta airline flight. As you can imagine, given his size he is shoe-horned into one of those seats which works just fine for my 11-year-old grandson. Worse, the guy next to him, in the middle seat was of a similar dimensions. “There we were,” said Nestingen, “like two heads on a pimple.” There’s an image!
Well, the two men got to talking. The man next to Nestingen asked him, “what kind of work do you do?” “I’m a preacher,” said Nestingen. The guy asked him some about that and then began to talk about his own life.
He talked about being in Viet Nam, in the infantry. He’d been in some of the worst battles of the war. He kept talking about this the whole flight. He told Jim Nestingen that he had trouble living with that, that he was plagued by nightmares. He poured out story after story.
So when they were about to land, Jim said to his seatmate, “Are you done confessing?” “Confessing?” said the man. “I haven’t confessed a thing.”
“Sure you have,” said Jim, “You’ve been confessing this whole flight. Telling me all the burdens you carry, the things that you can’t forgive and can’t live with. And when I hear a confession like that I’ve been commanded by Jesus Christ to speak to that. Now,” Jim asked, “do you have anything else you want to throw in or are you finished?” “No,” said the man, “that’s it. I guess I’m done.”
Well, by now the plane was about to land, and Jim was supposed to be buckled in, seat-belt strapped, tray table up, all that. But he got to his feet. The flight attendants went bananas. “Sir, I’m sorry, sir, you really must be seated. Immediately.”
Jim got to his feet and put his hand on the forehead of the man next to him. He tilted the guy’s head back so he could look into his eyes. The flight attendant is buzzing them like an angry hornet. “Sir, you must be seated.”
With his big hand on the man’s head, Jim said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.” All of the sins you’ve been confessing are forgiven right now by the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the one is the exact imprint of God’s very being.
The man began to sob — uncontrollably.
Through his tears he said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. Can you say that again?” “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” The man kept on sobbing. Nestingen sat down and took the man into his arms and held him as he wept. The plane landed.
He said again, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t believe it.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Jim, “but you will. And I’m not going to stop until you do.” They exchanged phone numbers, and the man called Nestingen every day for the next two weeks and asked him to repeat what he had said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.”
And he did come to believe it. “That sweet guy came to love the absolution. A resurrection from the dead happened on that plane,” said Nestingen.
That’s how Jesus fulfills the Law, by bringing grace and forgiveness to us, by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. By bringing the one-way love of God to those who have not to thing to offer in return, who are as they say in AA “powerless,” whose life has become unmangageable.
Un-American I know, but true. In a world of overwhelming demands, of constant striving, and of beating up on ourselves for not being enough or not being good enough, people are dying — literally — for grace, for mercy. It’s urgent.
I had a woman in one congregation who thanked me for a sermon. At the time, she had two small children, “active,” as we say. And she worked full-time as a high school math teacher. So you can imagine her life, all its demands. I’ve never forgotten what she said to me. “I don’t need to be reminded, every Sunday, of my responsibilties. They are staring me in the face. What I do need to be reminded of, every week, is the grace of God. So thank you.” And with that she walked off.
Like Jim Nestingen, I get to be a messenger for the one who fulfills the law, of the one who has brought it to completion in his cross and resurrection, the one who saves us and sets us free to be gracious and merciful to others.
But Jim and I aren’t the only ones who are his messengers. You are too. This is why and how, “You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world,” because of what God has done for you, because of what God through the Holy Spirit is doing in you and among you even now. Rejoice, you are his messengers.
Come, then, to the table where he gives us himself, taking away our sin and failure, conquering death and making all things new.
*I borrowed the title for this sermon from the recent Mockingbird Conference, where that title was the theme.