If Grace is Not Amazing

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”

Ephesians 2:1-10

If you are going to be an addict, I strongly recommend that you be a workaholic. As you know, it is the most socially acceptable addiction of them all. Indeed, people get awards and all sorts of recognition for being a workaholic, which of course feeds right into the addictive process, for a workaholic, as you know, is someone for whom work is synonymous with worth.  Believe me, I know, for I’ve always struggled with my own workaholism.  I think this is especially risky for those of us who are lucky enough to love their work, as I do.  The only problem, as Julia Cameron says, is that the workaholic is like Cinderella, scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees always dreaming of going the ball, but only getting the ball and chain.  This past week, when I was stricken down by some vicious stomach virus, and I was so sick that I could not even lift my head off the pillow for 24 hours, what was the first thing on my mind?  Getting well?  Taking time off?  No: my work! my meetings, hospital calls, appointments, deadlines, what would happen if I didn’t hold up my end of the universe?  And what was that awful feeling that swept over me with each wave of nausea: worthlessness. What good am I? Slacker!  I glad to say I am was able to throw a red flag down on that.  When our sense of worth becomes so identified with what we DO—it’s time to move to Plan BE.  Simply BE.  Remember, “we are not human doings.” I am getting better and better at being a human being.

But we live in a society that is built upon such a strong, solid work ethic that it is sometimes hard to sort this out.  We learn at an early age to EARN not just money, but EARN approval, EARN status, EARN value, EARN grades, EARN a degree, ipso facto EARN worth. And that’s where it becomes so problematic.  What happens when your EARNING POWER is, for one reason or another, stripped away from you, whether by sickness, disability, unemployment, old age, retirement, and you are no longer DOING what you once did?  How many people have entered into their retirement years and suddenly experienced a terrible crisis of feeling lost, useless, worthless?  I heard a woman once say that having a retired man at home is like having a piano in the kitchen.  What’s he DOING is there?!?  Put this man to work!

Take this a step further: what happens when we transfer this kind of thinking to religion, as we so often do?  When the love of God becomes something you must EARN—like a reward for good behavior, a paycheck for service rendered, a report card for good behavior? Quid pro quo: you do this, God will that. Do you see how that puts us in a position co-equal to God?  As if we could pull God’s strings, push God’s buttons, be in control?  I understand that this is the basis for so much religion in our world, including the so-called popular “Prosperity Gospel” which essentially makes the quid pro quo claim that if you do this and that, then God will bless you with health and wealth. Because you earned it. Which is to say you deserve it.  Which is one short step from saying you are entitled to it.  And what is the big engine at the center of this process but the human ego–the little self-center that wants to be god, with its bottomless hunger, never having/doing enough, always needing more.  Is it any wonder that the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is such a growing problem in our country’s mental health landscape, so much so that we have described us, “a culture of complaint”– blame, grievance, anger, chronic unhappiness, emptiness?  Remember what Mother Teresa said after her first visit to America: “I have never seen a people so starved.”  What was she talking about?—not our stomachs, not our refrigerators, not our egos, but our malnourished souls.

For the soul longs to be loved not for anything we do or earn or achieve or perform or possess or pay for or purchase for ourselves, but purely and simply for who we are.  This is, in fact, the astonishing good news of our faith and the heart of what Paul was saying to the Ephesians. How could he say it more clearly: it is not our doing. The love of God is a gift. An unmerited gift.  We have only to receive it.  It puts the ego in neutral.  People ask me why we baptize babies in this church, babies who don’t even know who God is, who haven’t read the Bible, who don’t even know what a tithe is, who can’t even feed themselves, let alone anyone else, who have never repented of their sins, don’t even have a job.  But that does not stop God from loving them with an everlasting love, not because of what they do, but who they are.  Young Zola’s mother asked her, “What does baptism mean to you?” And the child answered, “It means I am a child of God.” I am. You are. Plan BE.  Long before we have any earning power, long before we have a TO DO list, long before we get our first paycheck, he loves us, he always has, he always will.  There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than he already does. There is nothing you can do to make God love you less than he loves you. We cannot earn, win, merit, achieve, buy, or deserve that which it is God’s will to freely give us.  We have only to receive it.  It is amazing. By definition! If grace is not amazing, it is not grace.

One of the most powerful expressions of the amazing nature of God’s grace are the words of Paul Tillich in his classic sermon, “You Are Accepted,” words which have become almost a theological Magna Carta for some of us: “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual… It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.  Everything is transformed… And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

Is this too good to be true? We act as if there is only a certain amount of God’s love to go around, like maybe he will run out, maybe we won’t get ours, or maybe someone else will get more than I.  It’s like this candy dish in my office, the candy dish from which so many of you have helped yourselves to a dark chocolate candy—that’s what it’s there for.  For the past 2 weeks, I have been so amused to watch only one piece of dark chocolate has been sitting in that candy dish.  Nobody will take the last one.  Are you thinking that maybe it is meant for someone else–surely not you?!  Or maybe there’s not enough to go around?  If only you knew there are 2 big bags of dark chocolate in the cabinet below and more on the way!   It is not going to run out, not in my office!

But we act like God has only a limited amount of love to around, a stingy God, a calculating God, a score-keeping, penny-pinching God.  Paul says, no, that’s not God and that’s not grace. If we could read these 10 verses of Ephesians 2 in Greek you would see are actually one long run on sentence, with zero punctuation, the words tumbling like a non-stop waterfall, as though Paul cannot contain the flood of what he is trying to say to us about the “immeasurable riches” of God, who is “rich in mercy, “out his great love with which he loved us,” long before we ever knew him. In the next chapter, there is another one of these mind-bending Greek sentences in which he speaks of “the height and depth and breadth of God’s love which surpasses all knowledge, filled with the fullness, far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, for ever and ever.”  What words can he use to describe this amazing grace?  Sometimes words are not enough.

And so we go to the cross. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than on the cross of Jesus Christ, where the One who came to show us the heart of God, the One who had been so cruelly rejected, scorned, scourged, humiliated, whose mouth might have been filled with bitter revenge, instead looked down upon those around him, those who mocked him, those who had driven the nails, and reaching deep down in some eternal reserve of immeasurable love he was incredibly able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they DO.” Amazing.

I know some who feel entitled people will walk out of here and say, “Well, I put my dollar in and I didn’t get anything out of this.” I know others of us will walk out of here saying, “Well I check that one off my To-Do list.” But maybe there are those of us who are here because of gratitude. For we are those have stood at the foot of that cross in need of forgiveness, in need of acceptance, and there have found the peace of unmerited forgiveness that has transformed both our being and our doing. It’s amazing. But if grace is not amazing, it is not grace.