When I was in the eighth grade, we were having lunch in the school cafeteria. I was sitting with Brian and Phil and Bob – we usually hung out together. Some 7th grade girls were sitting at the next table. I don’t remember exactly how it got started, but these girls threw some stuff at us and we returned fire. It escalated a bit. We’re talking food here. It wasn’t an absolute no holds barred food fight – I mean, this wasn’t movie quality - but it was headed in that direction.
It was pretty well over, and I was taking my tray to the window to turn it in, when one of those girls came up behind me and whacked my tray from below and then ran. She was trying to knock my plate and its contents to the floor. I managed to keep it all from going everywhere, and I responded with righteous indignation. It is possible that a still half-full milk carton went flying toward their table. I can neither confirm nor deny that.
By this time we all realized it had gone farther than we really intended for it to go. I looked around and hoped the teacher on duty had not noticed, but to be honest I wondered how she possibly could have missed it.
We went on to our next class – it was Industrial Arts with Mr. Elliott. Shop class. We were working on a project of some sort when a voice came over the loudspeaker. “David Russell, please report to the principal’s office.”
This never happened. Students just didn’t get called to the office like this. If it did happen, it couldn’t be good. Of course, all of the guys in class – this was shop class, I guess the girls were in home ec – everybody was, “Ooh, Russell, you’re gonna get it!” I’m sure Mr. Elliott grinned too.
Now Oak Hill School, was a K-8 school. For my first 8 years, Edgar C. Schiffer was the principal. But in 8th grade, we had a new principal, Mr. Merchant. Because he was new, he was a bit of a question mark. But I could imagine him having a temper. Throwing food in the lunch room is not something he would take lightly. I made the long walk to his office, wondering how bad this might be.
Corporal punishment was still a thing. Mr. Elliott, the shop teacher, and Mr. Jones, the math teacher, would give you an N (for needs improvement) on your report card for bad behavior, or you could take 1 swat with the wooden paddle instead. If your behavior merited a U for unsatisfactory, you could take 3 swats instead. Mr. Merchant seemed to be in the Mr. Jones-Mr. Elliott school of discipline and possibly tougher. Of course, any number of swats would be preferable to calling my parents.
So I was seriously worried as I entered the office. Miss Elsie, the secretary, was at her desk. I expected an ominous and sober reception from her, but she was very happy, almost bubbly. She announced the reason I had been called to the office: I had been chosen as a winner in the Ohio River Arts Festival poetry contest, and I would get to read my poem along with winners from other schools on the public TV station, WNIN channel 9.
I was stunned. Not that I was a winner in the poetry contest, which was nice, but I was stunned that I had been summoned to the principal’s office and somehow my life had been spared.
I did not think of this episode in theological terms at the time, but this was an experience of grace. I had received far better than I deserved. I had received an amazing gift.
A few weeks ago, I asked for suggestions and questions and sermon ideas for this summer. The very first slip of paper that I pulled out read simply, “Explain Grace.” I don’t think you could find a more important word, a word more central to Christian faith, than grace.
Just think of all the words and phrases that are related to this word. I know very little Spanish, but in Puerto Rico I found that just one word can go a long way. That word is gracias. It is a powerful word.
We say grace before meals, giving thanks for God’s gift. We are grateful for someone’s help. We are gratified by good news. We offer congratulations to those who have done well. We try to be gracious and offer welcome and hospitality to others. If you want to express appreciation for good service, you leave a gratuity. When our lives have been blessed, we may feel a deep sense of gratitude. In each of these words there is a hint of this sense of receiving a gift.
There is a lot more. If you are a musician, you may find music that contains grace notes. They are not really essential – you might say they are gratuitous – but they add so much to the music. And then there is a grace period. If you are late with a payment or your library book is overdue, you may get a couple extra days. Well, maybe not at the Ames library.
Publishers sometimes have a policy of gracing. You subscribe to a magazine for 12 issues and they throw in an extra month or two for free, or gratis, hoping you will resubscribe.
There are also those words that speak of the opposite of grace. If a person is lacking in grace, we might call them an ingrate. Public figures who go through a scandal may experience a fall from grace. A truly despicable person has no saving grace – they may even be thought of as a disgrace. And then when someone is completely unwelcome, that person is persona non grata – literally a person without grace.
The idea of grace as a gift, as an unearned gift, is found all over the place in language and conversation. And all of this hints at the theological meaning of the word.
The request this morning was to explain grace, which as it turns out is not an easy thing. The more I thought about this, the more this seemed like it may as well have been a request to explain something like quantum mechanics.
Philip Yancey wrote an excellent book with the title, What’s So Amazing About Grace? In the foreword, he wrote,
Grace does not offer an easy subject for a writer. To borrow E. B. White’s comment about humor, “[Grace] can be dissected like a frog, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”Yancey said that he would be mostly telling stories, that he would rather convey grace than try to explain it.
The theology to try to explain the concept of grace can be tortuous. There are atonement theories that try to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross provides salvation, the mechanics of grace if you will. As far as I am concerned, many of these theories do more harm than good, and they certainly don’t look like the God we see revealed in Jesus.
By the Middle Ages, Christian faith had come to be very transactional. In terms of salvation, a person needed a sufficient amount of merit, based on good works, and the Church at times exploited the uncertainty people felt about whether they were good enough. Martin Luther reacted to this and helped to set off the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers focused on faith, not works. “For by grace are you saved by faith, not of works.” (And to be fair, the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed turned more toward faith.)
The bywords of the Reformation were sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura. Faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone. We are justified solely by God’s grace. We do not earn our salvation.
Some of the theological underpinning of the Reformation came from John Calvin. Among other things, Calvinism speaks of total depravity – we are completely unable to do any good at all by ourselves – and irresistible grace. Don’t you love that? If a person is among God’s elect, they will not ultimately be able to refuse God’s grace, said Calvin. Not everyone agreed with Calvin’s views, of course, and a competing theological system that places greater emphasis on human free will, on our cooperating with God’s work of grace, is called Arminianism.
Well as I said, the explanations can kill the thing. I’m guessing that few if any here are wondering about atonement theories and Reformation theology, but I could go on and on about this stuff, so if you are actually interested in it, let me know. We could have a theological discussion group or we could just go get pizza.
But I suspect that this may not be what someone wanted to hear when they wrote, “Explain Grace.” So let me share what seems most important to me.
Maybe the best story in the Bible to think about God’s grace is the prodigal son. You probably know the story. The son asks for his inheritance – which is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.” The father for some reason complies. The son runs off and spends it all on wild living. When the money was gone, so were his friends, and he winds up with a job feeding pigs to survive, which is as low as it gets for a Jewish kid. And then we read that he comes to his senses. He decides to go home and beg for forgiveness. Knowing he is unworthy to be called the man’s son, we will ask to work as a servant at his father’s house.
But before he even gets to the house, the father throws all propriety aside and runs out to meet the boy to welcome him home. Before the son can apologize, the father says, “My son who was dead is alive! He was lost and now is found!” And he throws a huge party to welcome him home.
That is God’s grace, loving us and welcoming us no matter what. The grace of God means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.
How many people are starving to hear that? How many people are thirsting for that kind of grace, that kind of love and acceptance? How many people are facing difficult lives and long to be offered just a bit of grace?
Grace is a free gift, an undeserved gift. But like any gift, it is up to us to accept it. There is one theological term that may be helpful. There is something called Prevenient Grace. Basically, it means grace that goes before us, grace that was there before we even knew it. Everything is a gift, and even the ability to accept the gift is itself a gift.
Our mission team arrived in Puerto Rico on a Saturday. We got to the church where we were staying that evening. The people at that church were very nice, very gracious, and we thought we would worship there the next morning. I mean, it would be a short commute, about 30 steps. But we were told that we should go to the church where we would be working, maybe 15 miles away. So we did. The music was lively and although I didn’t understand many of the words, I enjoyed it. Then came the sermon, and it was translated. The pastor had a very different theology than me, but I decided to overlook that and take it in as a sociological learning experience. But the pastor and the whole congregation were clearly so happy that we were there. They were so welcoming and they prayed for our team during the service.
After church we were going to go out to eat and then go to a beach. It was our free day. We were asking the worship pastor about a good place to eat. We wanted to go to the kioskos, a collection of food places by the beach, but we thought it would be too crowded on a Sunday at lunchtime. He said, No, I’ll take you there, follow me. We followed him. We got there and it was packed. He got out of his car and said, you can park right here. It was in the grass, beside a little garage. I was driving the 15 passenger van and after 3 or 4 attempts I backed into the spot. And then he took us to this open air restaurant. It was very nice. We asked but he said he was busy and couldn’t stay and eat with us.
The waiter was so helpful and so attentive, explaining everything. The owner was very appreciative that we were there on the island to help. It was a little pricier than I had envisioned, but we all had a very nice meal, a wonderful meal. Some of us had mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish that is both delicious and fun to say. We lingered and visited and it started to get to where we were not going to have much time at the beach. I asked the waiter if he could bring our checks.
We were all floored when he said, “There’s no charge. It’s all taken care of.” We had arrived wanting to work, wanting to give, wanting to serve, but this church that had been without power for close to 6 months, that had suffered from the storms and had many members move away and not return had paid for our lunch, and it was not an inexpensive lunch. It was an expression of grace, and as we each offered grace to the other, our differences seemed a lot less important as the week went on.
Offering grace to another person is more than giving them a break or trying to be understanding toward somebody who is going through a tough time. I mean, it is that, but it is more. It is realizing the gift we have received and sharing that gift with others. It is knowing that at some level, we are all broken people. It is living not by a ledger sheet, figuring out who owes whom, but living in God’s wild and wonderful economy.
Grace is when fraternity guys just show up to help us rake leaves. Grace is having a family emergency and your professor says, you need to be home, we’ll figure it out later. Grace is having a brother-in-law you disagree with, and you love him anyway.
Grace really can’t be explained fully, because it is not a completely logical idea. Our explanations can make it transactional, and it’s not. For me, grace means that God’s love follows us and finds us and embraces us. Our calling is to live in God’s grace and to share the gift. Amen.