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January 21, 2016: “Annoying Grace”

Personal Reflection “Hen and Charis,” John Bernardini

The two most common words translated as grace in the Bible are “hen” (hane) or “chen” (kane) in the Hebrew Scriptures and “Charis” (haar-is) in the Greek New Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, the word grace is used 66 times and in all but a few instances means “to find favor in the eyes of”. For example, Noah found favor in the eyes of God, etc. Centuries later, when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, and the books that came to be known as the New Testament were written, the use and meaning of grace was more varied.

The word Charis is used 157 times, and as before the bulk of the uses are translated to mean finding favor in the eyes of another person or God, but two differences are important here. The first is an emphasis on grace being “given” from a superior to an inferior. The second is the concept of grace as “credit” or “merit”. The person in the Bible that speaks the most to us about grace is the Apostle Paul. For the those of you that may not know, Paul (aka Paul of Tarsus) is also responsible for the spread of Christianity out of Palestine to Rome and beyond through his missionary journeys. Paul was the proverbial “Debbie Downer”, a real glass-is-half-empty kinda guy. To paint the most vivid picture for you, I turn to Winnie the Pooh. Paul is Eeyore. He talks of grace as favor we don’t deserve. Humanity is damned, mired in sin and only deserving death.

Paul wants no one boastful of their works, humble in all they do, and totally dependent upon God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”, Ephesians 2:8-9.

So if Paul was the biggest source for grace in the Bible, Saint Augustine of Hippo takes up the mantle in the early church. In fact, he is known as “The Professor of Grace”. As seen by Augustine, grace is the love and favor of God towards human beings. It is a favor that we have not merited, yet is made available to us. It touches at the inmost heart and will of a person. It guides the lives of those called to be faithful. It draws and raises the soul to sorrow for offending God, to faith, and to the praise of God.

The next champion in the theology of grace is our old friend Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. The following is a quote with some really cheery words from one of his sermons on the book of Titus in the New Testament. Here are the words of Martin Luther!(cue the Dan!)

(Dan Bond will read)- “So he [Paul in Titus 3:5-7] discards all boasted free will, all human virtue, righteousness, and good works. He concludes that they are all nothing and are wholly perverted, however brilliant and worthy they may appear, and teaches that we must be saved solely by the grace of God, which is effective for all believers who desire it from a correct conception of their own ruin and nothingness. Yes, dear friend, you must first possess heaven and salvation before you can do good works. Works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace. The delusive doctrine of works blinds the Christian’s eyes, perverts a right understanding of faith, and forces him from the way of truth and salvation. He who does not receive salvation purely through grace, independently of all good works, certainly will never secure it. Truly, then, we are saved by grace alone, without works or other merit. Notice [from John 3:16], all who believe have eternal life. That being true, believers certainly are just and holy without works. Works contribute nothing to justification. It is effected by pure grace richly poured out upon us. We receive absolution [forgiveness] and grace at no cost or labor on our part, but not without cost and labor on the part of Christ. Our salvation must exist, not in our righteousness, but…in Christ’s righteousness. …Let his righteousness and grace, not yours, be your refuge.”

How’s everyone doing? Makes a person feel good, huh? So, church attendance is down? You don’t say! I think we can credit words like that for the success of every pub in Europe.

I think we need a story after those uplifting words. Babette’s Feast, a novel by Isak Dinesen, is a startling parable of grace. Babette, a penniless widow who has fled for her life during the French civil war, seeks protection and employment in an impoverished Danish village. The small village’s view of God is dominated by a strict religious sect (i.e. a whole village of Eeyores) whose regulations call for the renouncing of worldly pleasures. All parishioners wear black and a bland gruel dominates their daily diet. A pair of middle-aged spinster sisters, daughters of the deceased leader of the sect, agree to take her in as their maid and cook. Babette brings new life to the dreary community. When she learns that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery, Babette asks for one favor: to cook an authentic French dinner for the villagers. Pleased with Babette’s faithful service, the sisters grudgingly agree. The lavish feast works a kind of magic on the brothers and sisters of the sect, as exotic food seems to usher in a lively and uplifting attitude to replace the drab grayness. In the final scene, the sisters thank Babette and say farewell, assuming she will soon return to Paris. Only then does Babette expose her secret: she has spent all of her winnings on the feast. She cannot afford to move back to Paris. Thoroughly exhausted, she enjoys the sweet satisfaction of introducing her friends to fine food. Grace, in the form of a memorable meal comes to the village free of charge, with no strings attached. Its giver spends everything on it; its recipients spend nothing. And it changes lives.

That’s what other people say about grace, what do I think? Well, I’m not sold on The Apostle Paul’s definition. Maybe it’s not even the definition, maybe it’s what I have to accept as a premise. I first have to accept that I’m worthless. That I’m undeserving of anything good, yet I absolutely “earned” everything bad. I don’t buy it. That idea is a poison, and I don’t think it helps us learn to love ourselves. Secondly, the focus is more on the God-man relationship when I feel that it’s the human-human ones that are more important. I suppose I’d like to take a more simple approach when it comes to defining grace, and one decidedly positive. Grace is an honest wellspring of love towards everyone. Born from whatever source within or without we choose. Maybe, just maybe, it’s like the lyrics to a song that was popular a few years back now: “In the end, only kindness matters.”

Reading (John)

David Seamands is the son of Christian missionaries who spent much of his childhood in India. He is an author, scholar and leader in evangelical renewal movements within the United Methodist Church. In his book Healing Grace, he summed up his career as a pastoral counselor this way:

Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people. . . . We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the Gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions. (1)

Sermon “Annoying Grace,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Philip Yancey is a Christian theologian who has a problem with Grace.

Like David Seamands, whom he quotes in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, it’s not that he has a problem with the concept of grace, he has a problem with the way it is lived out among Christians. Many of his own people, he feels, are missing the point.

He does think grace is amazing, and calls it our last best word. He explores all the different definitions I touched on a two weeks ago: elegance, pleasantness, goodwill, mercy, a prayer of thanksgiving, the granting of a favor or pardon or immunity, or an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable.

Theologically, he says the word grace “contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun.” (2) It’s always present in the often unexpected beauty and peace of the world, but ultimately fleeting. The Berlin wall comes down, then Germans have to slog through the tough work of reuniting. Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose garden, then one dodges bullets and the other is shot and killed. The economy feels like it’s rebounding, and stock market plummets.

Yancey retells a story he heard from a friend who works with at-risk populations. A woman who had found occasional income as a prostitute came to him looking for services. She was addicted. Desperate.

Desperate enough that she had gotten into the habit of renting out her daughter. Her two year old daughter. Because she knew she could get more money for the toddler than for herself. Her story was unbearable, and the man who was listening, a man who was required by law to report the abuse, didn’t know what to say, so he drew on his own experience.

“Have you ever considered going to church?” he asked, and was shocked by the pure naivete that came across the woman’s face.

“Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.” (3)

And that is what Yancey finds so annoying about Christian grace. The woman’s story exposes a “weak spot in the church.” He writes, “some of us seem so anxious about avoiding hell that we forget to celebrate our journey toward heaven. Others of us, rightly concerned about issues in a modern culture war, neglect the church’s mission [to be] a haven of grace in this world of ungrace.” (4)

Her story exposed hypocrisy, an inability to see one’s own faults, while pointing out the faults of others.

Jesus hated hypocrisy. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye,” he asked, “and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (5)

Loving your neighbor as yourself is the main premise of the teachings of Jesus, and the first thing to be forgotten. The central tenet of Christianity seems to have been forgotten by Martin Luther, St. Augustine of Hippo, and the Apostle Paul himself as they embraced the idea that believers won’t have to suffer because Jesus did.

It’s annoying. So it makes the whole concept of grace annoying. After all, how could a bunch of hypocrites be granted special favor by a God whom they know sees their hypocrisy? Jesus hated that.

Christians neglecting the church’s mission to be a haven of grace in this world of ungrace is annoying to Yancey and it’s annoying to Unitarian Universalists who believe that every single human being has worth and dignity. It’s annoying because we believe that everyone has equal access to elegance, pleasantness, goodwill, mercy or immunity that we afford to one another. With or without a relationship to any God.

David Templeton is a longtime Unitarian Universalist who lives in Northern California. He’s a member of our Santa Rosa congregation, and a playwright who produced a one-person show called “Wretch Like Me” in which he tells a story many of us can relate to. He was an oddball in high school, always looking for a group to fit in with. He didn’t fit with the jocks or the stoners or the preps, but the church kids, the ones who called themselves the Jesus Club, welcomed him. Cheerfully.

Jesus became David’s life, with this group at the center of it. They dressed in farmer jeans and pooka shell necklaces. They sang the words of Amazing Grace to other tunes, like House of the Rising Sun or The Monster Mash. Mostly, they shared the gospel with anyone who would listen.

That story may not sound familiar to most UUs, but here’s the part that is: He was welcome into the group, until he started asking too many questions. Like, “what happens to babies who die before they are baptized?”

Templeton saw that his new friends thought their own sins would be forgiven, while the sins of others would not. And that belief, manifest in their actions and judgments, is what turned David Templeton away from them.

That belief is also what turned Martin Luther King, Jr. off about much of mainline Christianity.

Many people don’t know that King considered becoming a Unitarian, but he and his wife Coretta, she told a UU minister, decided not to for a variety of political – not theological – reasons. (6) That goes to show how much of a religious liberal he was.

Theological liberalism is a belief that religion should be oriented toward the present, not the past, and that religious beliefs should be in tune with modern knowledge and experience. (7)

In a handwritten paper enshrined in the MLK Papers Project at Stanford University, King wrote “Man is a sinner before the Almighty God. That is one of the basic facts of the universe.” Religious Liberalism “rightly threw out concepts like the damnation of innocent babies, … but in throwing out these old traditional conceptions, liberalism fell victim to the danger that forever confronts any new view, … it became sentimental and soft, feeling that man was evolving from a lower state to a higher state.”

He saw sin. In the bombing of his home, the burning of churches, the murders of freedom riders and Emmet Till and and the hatred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He saw sin cloaked in a hypocritical understanding of God’s grace. “Then,” he wrote, “we came back to see that even after all of that [evolution], man is still a sinner.”

He spoke not just of others, but also of himself: “We know truth, and yet we lie. We know how to be just, and yet we are unjust. … We are unfaithful to those we should be faithful to. We stand amid the high road, and yet we deliberately choose the low road. We know the ways of peace, and yet we go to war. We have resources for great economic systems where there could be equitable distributions of wealth, and yet we monopolize and take it all for ourselves and forget about our brothers. And when we come to see ourselves, we discover that all of us are sinners.”

In other words, we are all wretches in some way. That’s not to say we are worthless or that we should be damned to hell. We just….mess up. We’re quick to see the wretchedness in others, but rarely in ourselves.

And that’s the annoying part of grace. Seeing some claim grace for themselves despite their shortcomings, while denying it for others because of theirs.

So while others hate the word wretch in the song Amazing Grace as much as Jesus hated hypocrisy, I kind of like the word. Wretch.

The thing is, I know I am a good person, worthy of love and respect, capable of giving love and respect. I know truth and how to be just. I stand amid the high road, knowing the ways of peace. That is affirmed in me every day by the people in my life. And yet, I lie to myself as I take part in and even benefit from a system of great inequity, in a land where so much is given to the few, and so much is withheld from the many. I tell myself I’m not responsible for the fate of others, when I know our destinies are all intertwined in the web of all existence.

The word wretch, while it seems a little harsh, reminds me that, like everyone else, I have a lot of work to do in a hurting world. The word wretch reminds me that I can be like the villagers eating gruel in Isak Dinesen’s story, focused only what is to come and how right I feel about my own behaviors. Or I can be like Babette, alone in the world, seeking protection from strangers, and yet still bringing joy to others, without any expectation of return.

But Babette isn’t the only one in the story who demonstrates grace. It’s every.

The sisters and the rest of the sect take her in, knowing nothing about her.
She accepts their kindness, knowing she can do little to repay them.
When she finds herself with riches she wants to share, and even further serve the whole sect.
They accept her gifts, even though they don’t really want them.
They all give and they all receive, all worthy of the elegance, pleasantness and goodwill of preparing and eating the feast.
They confer elegance and goodwill on each other.

In a couple weeks, Reverend Joe will be leading a service with Kristine Burkwood and Cara Battaglia exploring songs that are embarrassingly bad pop confections that convey good theology, meaningful messages worth sharing.

I have to admit, I’m feeling a little left out. Maybe a bit envious that I didn’t think of it.

So. I am going to share one of my embarrassing songs, by admitting publicly that I love Amy Grant. I know. She had a few terrible Christian pop hits in the 80’s and 90’s, and she’s still evangelizing her faith through music. It’s pretty mainstream Christianity, mocked by many. But I just love the song we heard earlier as we lit candles.

Don’t try so hard
God gives you grace and you can’t earn it
Don’t think that you’re not worth it
Because you are

She means everyone is worth it.

Despite the fact that we mess up, we are deserving. So don’t try so hard. Because really, ultimately, if you spend too much time worrying about how you look to other people – or even to god – you’re going to miss the chance for an incredible, life-changing feast.

Don’t take yourself, or grace, too seriously. Because if you think you deserve it any more – or any less – than anyone else, you are missing the point, excluding yourself and others. You’re falling into the trap of hypocrisy.

That’s something we Unitarian Universalists have to be careful about. We don’t have all the answers. We aren’t perfect. We’re just as likely as anyone else to forgive our own shortcomings as we condemn others for theirs.

So to avoid that trap, our job is just enjoy the grace we give to others, the grace they give to us. Don’t worry about their theology. Don’t overthink your own, the way Paul and Martin Luther did. Just…enjoy it.

Enjoy grace.

(1) Yancey, Philip; Yancey, Philip (2008-09-09). What’s So Amazing About Grace? (p. 15). Zondervan. Kindle Edition

(2) Yancey, Philip; Yancey, Philip (2008-09-09). What’s So Amazing About Grace? (p. 13). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

(3) Yancey, Philip; Yancey, Philip (2008-09-09). What’s So Amazing About Grace? (p. 11). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

(4) Yancey, Philip; Yancey, Philip (2008-09-09). What’s So Amazing About Grace? (p. 14). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

(5) Matthew 7:3. New International Version.

(6) Rosemary Bray McNatt. “To Pray Without Apology.” UU World 11/1/02.

(7) Rasor, Paul (2012-06-15). Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 249-251). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition.