A few months after my dad died, my brother John and I sat by the fire pit telling tales when John mused, “You know, I was thinking that one of those people who would bail you out of jail is now gone. There are not too many of those!.” John’s words stirred my grief, so maybe dodging that loss, I shifted. “John, exactly how many people do you think you can count on to bail you out of jail?” John laughed, “Well there is mom, Becky, you…” “Hey don’t count on me!” I teased. Chuckling John retorted, “Well I have no doubt, DAD would have bailed me out, but I can’t imagine the car ride home.” Unlike the perfect parents in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal child, we imagined our dad would have been largely silent, sad, disappointed, maybe brooding, maybe heartbroken. We would have had to face dad, God, ourselves, and the future. No matter how warm the details of our homecoming, it was deeply comforting to know that Dad had always been unquestionably in our corner.
Our UMC Discipline teaches that “By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.” ( Paragraph 102) Bishop Kenneth L Carder reminds us that “Wherever God is present, there is grace!” (A Wesleyan Understanding of Grace” umc.org.) Romans 8 declares, “If God is for us, who can be against us!” God is always in our corner and everyone’s corner.
Like a lot of American evangelicals, I grew up thinking about God‘s grace as a free ticket into heaven purchased by Jesus on the cross. All I needed to do was say the magic words with all my heart and that was it, I was set for life and the afterlife. There was no long car ride home facing consequences, no pressing need to reconcile, to take care of the environment, or do the right thing! I heard lessons and sermons quote Ephesians 2 and tell us God did not care about our good works: only our faith mattered. As often happens in revolutions, reorganizations, and reformations the protestants overreacted to papal indulgences and a sense of earned salvation turning Luther’s “faith alone” into a present day hearsey. Billy Graham often quoted a single clause from Isaiah 64 “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” ignoring the word “like” and the context wherein Isaiah offers a poetic national lament not a systematic theology dismissing all human goodness. The notion that God thought my best human efforts were gross worthless rags confused me! Why did they tell us not to do so many things if God only cares about our faith formulas? Why would anyone exclude anyone, if faith alone is all that matters?
So many folks think magically, mechanically or transactionally about human faith and God’’s grace. However, grace, faith and salvation are not magic incantations, legal transactions or impersonal arrangements. Faith is relational, incarnational, and present. Father Richard Rohr warns us that a transactional understanding of faith makes God subservient to some kind of universal law that demands blood payment. Grace is God’s presence with us “to create, heal, forgive, reconcile and transform” our lives, our community, and the world God loves. (Carder)
The real damage of cheap transactional grace comes when it misleads Christian people into believing that good deeds or Christ-likeness doesn’t matter. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25, or our lectionary passage about our inability to serve God and wealth remind us that God cares deeply about what we actually do in this life. John Wesley believed that our faith and God’s grace made a difference in our living right now, right here on earth. “Such a faith will always show evidence of the power of Christ who inspires it, by delivering us from the yoke of sin and freeing our consciences from death-dealing works and strengthening us so powerfully that we can become instruments of righteousness” (adapted from “Circumcision of The Heart” 1773) Our faith and God’s grace liberates us from inner spiritual deadness and breaks up sinful patterns in our lives. Christ-likeness is the goal of Christian faith- not a free ticket to heaven.
In opposition to cheap transactional grace Amos calls out: “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, saying, after church we will rig the system and deceive with unequal treatment balances. We will make a nice profit off those in need, selling garbage as food, and making bank off helpless souls to buy the hottest sandals.” Amos paints a picture of church folks who do not see faith as something that informs how they do business, vote, treat the planet, or care for their neighbors in need. Amos throws fire, “The Lord has sworn by the pride of these jokers: Surely I will never forget what they have done.” Our faith calls us to feed the hungry, cloth the needy, and offer free healthcare just like Jesus did. Our faith and God’s Grace are not disconnected from this life. Grace creates, heals, forgives, reconciles and transforms us, our neighborhoods, and the world that God created and loves. Every day, we pray: “God your will be done, your kingdom (a political, economic and legal term) come on earth as in heaven.” What we do deeply matters to God. Grace is about God’s presence centering our souls, holding us in Love and empowering us to do the right things. Faith empowers us to become more Christlike, whole, holy, and good.
Years ago I was reading through Ephessians in my daily devotions when I passed through our passage once again. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand as our way of life” Paul is not dismissing works, but simply saying get over yourself, try some spiritual humility, don’t boast about what a fine Christian you are. God made us. God saves us. God empowers us. We are created for good works. God’s plan for your life is to do good things. God’s presence creates, heals, forgives, reconciles, and transforms us. God’s gracious presence in us grows things like love, joy, justice, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and a sense of self-control. (Galatians 5) Faith makes us better people!
Paul was once dead inside following a hollow legalism that so infected his mind and calloused his heart that be became a religious terrorist. Paul never forgot the pain he brought: “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy of the title” ( 1 Corinthians 15) But Paul came to understand that God can bring us to life even when we are dead inside. Ephesians 2 tells us why God creates, heals, forgives, reconciles and transforms us! “God did this because of God’s great love for us.” We are saved by God’s grace! God longs to liberate us from the death-dealing ways and transform into people of wonder, justice, faith, hope and love. “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” ( Romans 8) Hear the good news, God is in your corner!
It is hard to articulate the mystery of how our faith and God’s correspondent grace empowers us to do the right things. However, I have come to know that it is easier to forgive others, when I understand God’s boundless forgiveness for me. I know sitting prayerfully inside of thanksgiving and praise helps me let go of my idolatry to stuff. When I remember Jesus telling me “to give without longing for some reward” God has kindled a more generous spirit within me. (Luke 7) Buoyed by the peace of Christ, I have found the deep blessing of being a peace-maker inside warring families or fighting churches. (Matthew 5) Abiding within all of Holy Week, I have in smaller ways come to understand that serving is a better path than indifference or consumption. It is just hard to explain all this inner soul work, so indulge me with a kind of parable about the power of knowing that someone was in my corner.
I was five years old standing on the pool deck at Lone Oak Country Club facing my first race, feeling this absolute sense of dread, what I would learn in college was the “flight” response. I was chewing on my goggles thinking I might be sick or maybe cry, when suddenly coach Roger Aleksa’s wavy hair, kind smile, and easy manner came into view. I wanted to be like Coach Roger- funny, inspiring, and the fastest swimmer I had ever seen. Coach bent low and whispered, “Paul, you are going to win this race.” My fear said otherwise. Coach Aleksa asked, “Paul, do you know how I know you’re going to win this race?” How could he know I would win the race? I shook my head no. “Paul, do you see that kid over there in the water?” Yes, I nodded. “That is who you are racing. Paul, will you start in the pool or dive in?” Despite Pondering my ability to dive in while wearing goggles, I remained unconvinced. Roger added “Did you notice that kid has someone in the water with him, you see they are afraid he can’t make it to the end of the pool. Paul, can you swim to the end of the pool? I nodded yes, Coach Roger laid both hands on my shoulders, looked me dead in the eyes and declared “Paul you are going to win this race”. I don’t remember my dive, if my googles came off, if I remembered to breathe from the side, or to kick hard towards the wall but when I touched the wall there was Coach Roger’s big smile. He reached down, scooped me out of the water, and held me up like a trophy. It was the greatest athletic moment of my life. Too bad it happened at five. No victory was ever as sweet! Maybe God’s grace is a bit like that, lovingly lifting our fears and empowering us to give life our all. God is in our corner- and everyone’s corner in all the world.
Maybe I love the Methodist Church, because we believe that God is with us: God is in your corner and everyone’s corner! Do not be afraid- you are created and designed to do good stuff. Accept Christ-likeness as your goal, identity and lifestyle. Dive in. Amen.