topical: congregation values
The church exists for one thing … grace!
“A journey of a thousand miles,” so the proverb says, “begins with a single step.” Or more accurately, it begins with the ground beneath our feet. Right here and right now. But for us, it’s been going on for a while. It’s difficult to determine when, exactly, that journey started. The most recent part, though, began in mid-January, this year, with the signing of the papers that finalized the sale of the building. And since then, from all appearances, we’ve been doing the same things we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done them. Truth be told, behind the scenes, there’s been talk. A lot of talk. In the adultClass on Sunday morning. In the studyGroup on Wednesday evenings. At the meetings, each month, of the congregationCouncil. And those are just a few of the more “official” discussions. For the past five months, it’s all been percolating. Fermenting. We’ve been chewing on it, mulling it over.
A couple weeks ago, we set up a designTeam –members mostly from this congregation, a few from Christ’s Lutheran in Odessa, a couple from the community-at-large. Their task? To become more intentional about the transition. Figuring out who we are and what we’re about. Discovering where we’re headed and how we’ll get there. And the challenge has been, how to bring all those conversations together. How to lay out all the pieces on one table for everyone to see. The pastor’s column on the first page of the monthly newsletter is one place. The sermon for the third Sunday of the month – this Sunday – will be another. That way – Lord willin’ and the crik don’t rise – we’ll all be in the same book, if not the same chapter or the same page.
The designTeam met, for the first time, ten days ago. It will meet, next, this coming Thursday. Their task is to identify the core values of the congregation. What are those half-dozen-or-so things we believe in? Really believe in? That handful of ideas we stake our life on? That inspire us? That move us? And the first item that has topped the list of every discussion has been “Grace.”
Now, theologically speaking, grace is not what we say before meals. And theologically speaking, grace is not what we hope we have under pressure. And grace is not what we yearn for on the dance floor. Here in the church, Grace, simply speaking, is another word for love. It’s the word we use when we talk about the kind of love with which god loves. Grace is the one word that best describes what we believe in. It’s the word that best defines us as the “original” evangelicals! Grace is the first thing we speak, every Sunday morning. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ …!” And we end, the same way. “The Lord’s face shines on you … with grace!” Grace is the heart and the soul of the church! Grace is our reason-for-being! When Luther was asked, “Why?” His answer, time and time again, was, “Grace!” As Lutherans, we don’t believe we’re saved by faith. We’re saved by grace! By grace through faith!
Grace, like I said, grace is another word for love. But a special kind of love. Grace doesn’t entertain or amuse. Grace doesn’t make us happy or feel good. It’s not like loving butterflies and puppies. It’s not a big, yellow, smiley face. Grace is a cross. It’s when one person has the best interest of another person at heart. Grace is living with them. Grace is living for them. And more often than not, it comes at a cost. A cost not for the one who is loved. But a cost for the once who is loving. Grace involves sacrifice. Grace involves suffering.
Feeding the hungry. Giving the thirsty something to drink. That’s what grace is. It’s clothing the naked and making a place for the refugee, for the exile. It’s taking care of the sick. It’s visiting the lonely. Grace asks something from us. Grace demands something from us. It isn’t all fun and games. But it does bring life. Deep life. Rich life. Abundant life. Grace is love unlike any love we’ve ever known before. Love without strings. Love unearned. Love undeserved. Love without limit. Love without measure. Love without exception or apology or excuse. Grace is getting up from the table, rolling up our sleeves, kneeling down before our friends, and washing their feet.
And bottom line, grace is who we are, what we are. Because, you see, grace is who and what our god is! This image on the screen – the one at the top of this sermon – is how the word grace looks in Greek. Open a Greek New Testament, look for the phase ‘by grace,’ this is what you’d find. And if you take this word and, simply, exchange the Greek letters for English letters – not translate, only transliterate – the word you’d get is ‘charity’! Grace. Charity. Love. It’s all the same thing.
Over a decade ago, now, just after we’d started rearranging the furniture where we used to worship, there was a funeral. Of one of the longtime members of the congregation. His granddaughter was there. She’d grown up in this church but had, since, moved on to another. After the service, we were standing at the back of the worship area, together. And she said, “I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten how gentle this church was!” She’d forgotten how gentle this church still is. That is grace. We’re not loud or obnoxious. We’re not arrogant or rude. We’re gentle! And open! And accepting! That’s what grace makes us!
There’s a verse that Paul writes to the church in Rome. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For the longest time, I thought that meant that we aren’t condemned. And it certainly does mean that. But I realized, it could, also, mean that there is no condemning. We aren’t condemned and neither do we condemn! That’s grace! That’s charity! That’s love! By grace, by charity, by love, you have been saved! And by grace, by charity, by love, you live the life that has been saved!
Just a quick aside … It’s my bet that most of the religion most of us sitting here this morning ever get, we get right here. So, when we hear about god’s amazing grace, we don’t think twice about it. It sounds normal, familiar. It’s rational and down-to-earth. But we don’t realize how different it is! How radical! How extreme! As Lutherans, we like to think of ourselves as middle-of-the-road. We’re not. In fact, we’re anything but! As we move forward, we need to understand that. So, when you don’t have anything else to do, spend some time watching the tv preachers you, normally, skip over. Listen to the radio programs you ignore. Read the pamphlets people leave under your wipers and the brochures they hang on your front door. And look for the love, for the charity, for the grace! And I assure you, if you do that, you’ll never take what we say here, what we do here, for granted, again!
So, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My friends, that step, for us, is god’s grace! And that second step? That, too, is god’s grace! As is the third! And the fourth! And every step that follows! Our journey begins and our journey ends with that grace! As it starts, it finishes. Grace is the first, the last, and everything in between!