The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is the second installment of our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes, and yet I don’t know if “grace” is so much thorny as it is ignored. We sort of gloss over it when we sing “God of Grace and God of Glory” and maybe even when we sing “Amazing Grace.” And yet it is a foundational idea for Christians and perhaps especially for Protestants, whose revolution was based in large part on the idea that we are grounded in God’s grace and our response to it is what brings us to wholeness.
I remember being a little kid and going to a friend’s house for dinner, and before the meal began, his dad said, “Let’s say grace.” And I was brought up short for a minute…were we supposed to repeat the word “grace?” And things became a little clearer when he began to offer a brief prayer before the meal…what in my family we would call “the blessing.” (The briefest of blessings in our house is one only I offer — and I’m sure I shouldn’t tell you this — “God, bless our food, our family, and our crazy-ass congregation. Amen.”) But back to the family of my childhood friend…what his dad offered was in fact a blessing, so where does this “grace” title come from? Well, it’s Latin, of course! Gratia is the Latin noun for thanks, and it spills over into Romance languages with gracias and grazie. So, they were offering a prayer of thanks, which is great. But that’s not exactly what the theological concept of grace is about.
Going back to the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “grace” is charis, which means a present or a gift. Even in English, when we say that someone has the gift of being attractive and engaging, we say they have charisma…that they have a gift of being able to draw people in, in the way JFK did. So, if we start thinking of grace as a present and God’s grace as a gift, what is that all about?
Well, think about that…what has God given you? Look around! It’s all grace!
You are able to inhale and exhale! You can perceive beauty and the terror in creation! You have senses and are able to perceive complex ideas! You are sitting in a progressive congregation trying to deepen your spiritual life! You understand what love feels like, both in its presence and in its absence. It’s all grace!
And you didn’t do anything to earn those gifts. Your life itself is an unearned gift from God, given to you unconditionally. I don’t know how to describe the enormity of this gift of existence, but I like the way Frederick Buechner describes it: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth….The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
God also creates us for relationship…one with another and also with God. And that trusting relationship – that longing for and embrace of the divine – is what we call faith. And the writer of Ephesians says that it’s a relationship that we can’t earn, because it is an unconditional gift from God…our faith is a gift, a grace from our creator.
One of the thorny bits of western Christianity before the Reformation was the idea that we could build up merit with God, who was seen as something of a divine accountant, keeping track of all of the good works we do, putting them in the credit column to outweigh the sin that was in the debit column. This became a big deal in European Christianity in the 16th century with selling indulgences, through which the church told people would add to the credit column in the ledger God was keeping on you. But Martin Luther famously objected and wrote, “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith [that is, relationship] [the Christian] is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely. [The Christian] seeks neither benefit nor salvation since he [or she] already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because in his faith he now seeks only to please God.”
That is an enormous idea with great implications on how we live out our faith, our relationship with God. Think of it like relationship between parent and child. Just as we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with our parents, we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with God. And just as we foster human relationships with love and communication and attention, so we nurture our faith (our relationship with God) through love and communication and attention. And yes, relationships do get skewed and broken. And with God, there is always a tender parent looking for reconciliation with a child who has wandered like the Prodigal Son. In fact, there is more grace shown when we return to the embrace of God after straying apart.
I don’t know if any of you are fixated on the image of God as accountant and trying to tilt the divine ledger in your favor, but if so…knock it off!
There is nothing wrong with doing “good works,” but if you are going on mission trips or being a trustee or organizing a yard sale just to earn God’s favor, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Instead, focus on the grace of God that has been shown to you. None of us did anything to earn the gift of life. None of us did anything to be born into an affluent society. None of us did anything to earn the exquisite beauty of Colorado. And if you focus on the grace of God, you will want to respond somehow. That’s where the Latin word gratia comes in. We respond to God’s unearned gifts to us through gratitude. We do “good works” not as a way to curry divine favor — there is no tit-for-tat with God. No, we do them because of an external response to and internal feeling: we are showing gratitude to God.
So, I’m giving you permission to let go of pious language and the “doing good to look good” either to God or to others. Get real. Take a moment each day to let God’s gifts to you soak in. Enjoy them! And respond, giving thanks to God for the outrageous gift of your life and all that surrounds you. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 The Greek synonym doron is used in this passage as well.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 38-39.
 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” in Martin Luther: Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 298.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
August 26, 2018- Jubilee Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
This morning we are welcoming you back to our fall schedule of worship and classes. And we are kicking off our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes by considering discipleship.
Our wonderful Communications Coordinator, Anna Broskie, sent me this little discipleship cartoon this week knowing the theme of the sermon. It’s a good way to get our consideration of discipleship going this morning..... [Meme shared from Unvirtuous Abbey]
What is discipleship? I think it’s a tough concept for contemporary progressive Christians. It can have negative connotations. It can feel like more pressure to save the world single-handedly through doing the right thing, volunteering enough, giving enough. Yet discipleship is more than good works, volunteering enough, giving “enough” –- whatever enough is –- of time, talent or treasure. It is more than blandly following the latest Jesus news as if on Facebook or Twitter as our little cartoon shows. It is about relationship with God through Jesus, the man of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. The works, the giving of time talent and treasure, come out of relationship.
There is a widely recognized anecdote about President Abraham Lincoln. While he was reportedly not a church-goer he was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. During the Civil War Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr. President, let us pray that God is on our side.” To which Lincoln replied, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” The President knew that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. We open ourselves to being immersed in the ways of God so we are on God’s side. And how will we know how to be on God’s side unless we are in relationship with God.
Our Plymouth mission statement affirms that we are disciples committed to being on God’s side. Our mission is “to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ.” As any good mission statement it states the big picture. What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives? What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday political scene? What about the nitty-gritty of the everyday lives of the homeless, the immigrant, the stranger, the hungry, the oppressed, the enemy, whom God calls us through Jesus to name and love as our beloved brothers and sisters?
The first century Christians in the church in Ephesus were in a similar boat as we are when it comes to the nitty-gritty of being disciples, followers of Jesus. Ephesians is a letter encouraging church people to stand firm as disciples in a time of persecution. During the latter third of the first century when this letter was written Christianity was in essence illegal. Christians confessed that Jesus was Lord, not that Caesar was lord. They refused to make sacrifices to Caesar and Caesar’s gods. The Roman empire was not the be all and end all. First century Christians practiced pacifism and non-violent resistance to the injustices of the empire. As disciples of Jesus they proclaimed God’s power of love that brought peace and justice.
This conflicted directly with the status quo recognition of power as military might and peace that was achieved through conquering the “other.” This is why our letter writer exhorts fellow Christians to spiritual battle, not battle against forces of blood and flesh. They were to stand firm in God’s power, resisting with God’s ways the systems of their society –- systems co-opted by false power, power that works through greed, fear, coercion and submission, rather than power that empowers people for the good of all. Does this context sound even the least bit familiar?
I know that some of us may squirm a bit at the idea of warfare at all....even if spiritual. We know that Christians throughout the centuries are not blameless when it comes to being caught up in false power and fear. Our Christian history is checkered with wars fought supposedly in the name of Christ, but were really in the pursuit of false power for a king or country or the church itself. May we ask forgiveness for the sins of our history.
The good news, friends, is that the writer of the book of Ephesians is actually turning the metaphor of warfare and armor inside out and upside down affirming that the life of discipleship is lived in the nitty-gritty, in the best of times, worst of times life with God. God is already in our lives. The letter writer calls us to wake up and recognize God in the midst of our lives so we are on the side of God –- which may or may not be what we think it should be. This is discipleship –- standing firm with God in resistance to false power and evil deeds.
In ironic –- and glorious -– contrast to the armored Roman soldiers who kept the peace with spear and sword, with external authority from the empire, we are to be immersed in God and have the internal authority of God’s Spirit. Consider what it might mean in your life to put on God’s belt of Truth rather than the leather belt of war. God’s truth that reveals through love the true nature of the cosmos, the creation and of each beloved child of God. How could the belt of truth inform your actions and your spirit when confronted with lies or falsehood? Could knowing the truth of love help you hold boundaries, speak kindly but firmly, not return anger for anger? How could the breastplate of righteousness -– the protective covering of God’s spirit of right living through compassion, justice, and equality -– inform not only large responses to injustice in our world, but also small acts of kindness when you see the clerk in the store, the other student on the playground, the co-worker with less confidence, bullied, teased, or laughed at?
And what kind of shoes give you the firmest foundation to be your unique self made in God’s image? Think literally for a moment.....What are your favorite most comfortable shoes, shoes that make you feel fully alive and fully who you are? Running shoes, dancing shoes, cowboy boots, Birkenstocks, Tevas, hiking boots or work boots, sparkly red patin leather shoes, spiky heels, sensible flats, wingtips, loafers, sandals? Our shoes can literally reflect the essence of we are. What “shoes,” what foundation in God’s ways, do you need so you move freely, swiftly, comfortably to proclaim God’s peace in your one wild and precious life?
How is your shield of faith? Has it been formed through prayer and study so that it is transparent with compassion, yet tough as nails? Our faith -– our living into the mystery of God’s presence in spite of and because of our doubts and questions –- is our protection as we stand firm in the struggle against false power. Our shield of faith keeps us keeping on even when we are dead tired and exhausted to the point of despair. Our shield is God’s power of love as we proclaim a message subversive to the world of greed and fear. And do you have the sword of God, which is the word of God living in us. The word of God as the sword of God has been improperly translated to be the Bible as a set of infallible laws used to bash people over the head and into submission to God. This is not the word of God the letter writer is invoking. The Bible as we know it was not yet in existence! The Word of God that the letter writer invokes your personal proclamation of God, your spoken and lived word of God’s life and love. How will your words and your actions cut through division and hate, with understanding and diplomacy, to proclaim God’s realm made visible in the world?
Discipleship, my friends, is standing firm, in full commitment to relationship with God, standing firm, rather than going with the flow of culture, as we are immersed in God’s ways.
Soren Kirkegaard, the 19th century existentialist philosopher and theologian, told a story about discipleship.
It seems there was a small town whose most revered citizen was not the mayor of the doctor or the minister, but the fire chief. One day a particularly large fire broke out in town. The fire brigade rushed to the scene, but the firemen were unable to get through to the burning building. The problem was the crowd of people who had gathered not to watch but to help put out the fire. They all knew the fire chief so well -– their children had climbed over his fire engines during excursions to the fire station. The friendliness of the fire chief was legendary. So when a fire broke out the people rushed out to help their beloved fire chief.
Unfortunately the townsfolk were seeking to extinguish this raging inferno with water pistols! Squirt guns! They all stood there, from time to time squirting their pistol into the fire while making casual conversation. The fire chief couldn’t contain himself. He started screaming at the townsfolk. “What do you think you’re doing? What on earth do you think you’re going to achieve with those water pistols?!”
The people realized the urgency of the situation. How they wanted to help the fire chief! So they started squirting more. “Come on” they encouraged each other, “We can all do better, can’t we?” Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt.
Exasperated the fire chief yelled again. “Get out of here. You're achieving nothing except hindering us from doing what needs to be done. We need fireman who are ready to give everything they’ve got to put out this fire, people willing even to lay their lives on the line. This is not the place for token contributions”
Kierkegaard was urging us to realize that discipleship to Christ means much more than token levels of support to the church and God’s mission in the world. It calls for wholehearted and total life commitment.
As we have been encouraged by the writer of Ephesians today, let us pray together in the Spirit that we may be disciples committed whole-heartedly to following God. Let us pray for ourselves, for one another, for our work as the beloved community of Plymouth. The world needs us to follow the God we know through Jesus with our whole hearts, our whole lives, in word and deed.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 “Water Pistols”, http://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/discipleship/
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
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