Faith United Methodist Church
June 12, 2016
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-14
Prayer for Illumination:
Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, that in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon: Grace in Everything
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. This popular hymn is estimated to be performed 10 million times annually and has appeared in 11,000 albums. It was written by John Newton, a slave trader, after his ship was caught in a storm and almost capsized off the coast of Ireland. He marked this experience as his conversion to Christianity, although he still traded slaves for six or seven more years. About 15 years after his conversation he was ordained in the Church of England and fully renounced slavery. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.
We may wonder, was John Newton’s life a success or a failure? During his years as a slave trader he was complicit in the enslavement, and even murder, of probably thousands of people. Yet he wrote a hymn that has touched many millions of lives and turned people toward Christ. Which legacy is more lasting?
The Apostle Paul new the kind of paradox we speak of this morning. In fact, he lived it. He was known as a murderer of Christians before he experienced his own conversion, meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road. And he knew that grace is everywhere. I am reminded of a passage from his second letter to the Corinthians where he wrote, “Therefore I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
It is hard to take an honest look at ourselves. We are taught not to brag, on the one hand, but not to show weakness, on the other. We live in a society that allows no room for failure, where our value is based on accomplishment. We don’t easily admit defeat. Yet if we honestly look at ourselves we see a mixture of gifts and limitations, successes and failures, good deeds and bad.
I don’t know about you, but I have failed in more ways and more often than I like to admit. I’ve failed in big ways and little ways. I’ve failed myself and others. Luckily, most of the time, my failures have been forgiven. Those I have hurt have often accepted my apologies. Other times, when forgiveness has been denied or there has been no one to apologize to, I have had to simply move on, vowing to learn from the experience. And more often than not I have found that the one who holds a grudge the longest, the one who has the most trouble forgiving me is myself.
Today we have another word from Paul, from his letter to the Ephesians. The passage we read is an offering of praise to God. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will… In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Adoption. Redemption. Forgiveness. Grace.
John Newton will always be remembered as a slave trader. “Murderer of Christians” will always be part of Paul’s resume. Yet that is not the only thing that defines them. Indeed, in God’s eyes they are defined by something completely different. As one evangelist described it, “Failure is an instrument of God’s grace by which he teaches us things we wouldn’t learn any other way.” Christian writer Anne Lamott, suggests, “…the gift of failure…is that it breaks through all the held breath and … tension about needing to look good.”
In her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott tells her own story of failure. As a well know author, Lamott travels the country to speak at different engagements. At one point she had the amazing opportunity to be on the stage with one of her mentors, Grace Paley. She had visions of wowing the audience with the witty repartee they would exchange. What happened, instead, was just the opposite. Grace Paley came across as poised and elegant while Lamott was described by the critics as, “shrill and narcissistic.” In her own words, she bombed. “One of the things I had been most afraid of had finally happened…”
Tempted to wallow in the pain of her failure alone, she went back to her hotel room. Yet, instead of spending the evening berating herself, she remembered something a friend had told her about grace. She realized that grace is everywhere. She hadn’t been abandoned on that stage, in spite of her failure. As she explains it, “(Grace) is unearned love – the love that goes before, that greets us on the way.” We Wesleyans would call that Prevenient Grace. “It is the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charm have failed you.”
I like the idea of grace meetings us on the way. Grace met John Newton on the slave ship. Grace met Paul on the road to Damascus. Grace meets you and I wherever we find ourselves ~ living as our best selves or not ~ even when we find ourselves empty and desperate ~ especially then. Perhaps we have experienced a difficult divorce, a failed career, a bad decision. “…whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
When grace meets us, it often doesn’t come when we are expecting it, but when we least expect it, when it seems like the storm will capsize us. As St. Augustine wrote, “What is grace? I know until you ask me; when you ask me, I do not know.” Grace startles us and unsettles us and leaves us changed. Like Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, we may stumble a bit. Like John Newton, it may take us a little while to understand the full significance of it, but when we do, we often find we are stronger because of it.
I think Paul got it right. It is in our weaknesses that we find strength. Like Newton, we want to be rich and powerful. Like Lamott, we want acclaim. We want to succeed, look beautiful, and have people think we’re great. We want to hear that we are the best mother, lawyer, student, husband, preacher, sales-person ever. Yet what we find instead, if we are open to it, is grace. Grace is everywhere. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”
So, which legacy is more lasting? That of the salve trader or that of the hymn writer? That of the murderer or that of the apostle? I don’t think we can look at this question in a human way. The legacy that is most lasting is not a human legacy, it is the legacy of grace.
Let us pray. Lord we thank you for your grace which you have lavished upon us. We know that at times we resist your grace, thinking we don’t deserve it. Help us to remember your presence in our failures as well as our successes. As you called John Newton, as you called Paul and changed his life, change us as well, so we can know the joy of praising and glorifying you in everything we do. Amen.