A Good Word: Grace

By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton

This week, we begin our summer sermon series: A Good Word.  Each week, JC and I will preach and teach and wrestle with faith-y words that challenge and inspire us.  This week, our Good Word is “grace.”

I don’t know a pastor who writes more clearly or regularly about grace than one of my favorite public theologians, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She’s a Lutheran pastor and author who, in my book, is a rockstar.  She’s not the kind of person you might assume would be in ministry; she’s covered in colorful tattoos, swears with impressive flair, and is totally open about being an addict in recovery.  In my mind, I think that’s exactly why she knows a thing or two about grace.  And we could all stand to learn a thing or two from her, so we begin with and return to her words often today:  “Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings,” she writes.

She also says that God’s grace is “(bleeping) offensive.”  By which she means that according to our human standards, all the wrong people get mercy, and somehow that offends our sensibilities and makes us feel as if the grace we also receive is cheapened somehow.

Contemplative Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says essentially the same thing, but perhaps in less colloquial terms: “Grace is always free.  Grace is always humiliating the human ego.  We just don’t like getting love for free—and that, beloved, is resurrection.”

So the threads we see and hear already are that grace isn’t something we can muster up for ourselves no matter how hard we try, and that grace is always going to be as free to us as it is to all the “wrong people.”  Because it’s offensive and humiliating and just exactly what God’s loving wisdom knows we need.

I do want to pause here, though, to note that while grace is freely given by God, not earned with right actions or being “good enough,” grace does ask something of us in return.  We hear this in a number of places in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions.  “The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,” says the Brief Statement of Faith.  “The church confesses its faith when it bears a present witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ,” we hear in the preface to the Confession of 1967.

The grace-gift we receive, then, is a call to grateful, faithful action.  It is a call to embody the grace and mercy that Jesus offers again and again and again in Scripture.  So we turn to today’s text as we wonder together what does grace look like?  And as usual, Jesus points the way down a simple-but-not-easy path.

As people who live generally comfortable lives (albeit, not ones free from trial or trouble because we, too, are human)…today’s text can be a challenging one.  It sure sounds like we’re probably more on the “woe” end of things than the “bless-ed” one.

And I don’t know about you, but my experiences of hatred and exclusion certainly haven’t made me rejoice or leap for joy about some great reward in heaven.  I’d like to be treated better here and now, please and thank you.

PS – do I really have to love my enemies and do good to those who hate me, Jesus?? Can’t I just avoid them instead? Because this cheek turning business is not really my forte, either.  All of this to say, buckle up.  Because today’s story of grace isn’t exactly an easy one.

We seem to get the relationship between grace and blessings even if we might not consciously know it; when we gather a table for a meal with people we love, we use the words interchangeably: we begin by saying grace or saying a blessing.  But too often, I think “blessed” has become a watered down word. There’s a popular churchy saying that comes to mind is this (and I always hear it with big bouffant hair and a real thick Southern accent): “Well, I’m just blessed to be a blessing.”  Now, to be fair, that does seem to capture something about the way in which we receive God’s generous grace as a gift and try to live and respond with gratitude and mercy of our own.  But I’m not sure it fully captures the challenge of Jesus’ call in this text.

So a little Greek to help us make sense of what is happening here.  Makários is what gets translated as “blessed” or “happy.”  But it may be more accurate, and more helpful to think of this as “unburdened” or “satisfied.”  And I’m not sure why, but I find it helpful to change the stress and pronunciation here to match what we often do when reading Matthew’s version of this text, which we call the Beatitudes.  Bless-ed.  To receive blessing.  Or to belong to God.

And as New Testament scholar Dr. Matt Skinner notes: “Jesus also addresses people who are the opposite of the first groups: the wealthy, the satiated, the laughing, and the acclaimed. To all of these he cries out, “Woe!”  In this context, “woe” functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word [ouai] does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement.

Jesus therefore promises relief to some groups, to those people who travel rough roads through life. To others, to folks who find existence rather enjoyable or easy, he cries, “Look out!”

We are unburdened to lift the burdens of others, and it we refuse to respond to this holy calling…yikes!  Watch out!  The outcome for the church isn’t promising.  It seems to me to be a more direct call and response.  We are sent out into the world to be God’s grace embodied for the sake of a new life…a literal one…for others.  In God’s new reality, through the lens of Jesus’ grace glasses, we don’t just see the day when the hungry are filled, the thirsty quenched, the poor lifted up, the homeless housed, the lonely in community, the brokenhearted held in caring arms…we are the food, drink, education, opportunity, home, source of belonging, and place of comfort.  Just as Jesus’ work and message actively benefit the disadvantaged, so should ours.  That is the story of grace and mercy in this present day to which we are called by God’s grace and mercy for us.

We live in the shelter of God’s mercy and grace.  And we are called here and now, today, to offer that shelter to one another in tangible, transformative, peace-filled ways.  Indeed, we are called to live in the shelter of each other.  That’s a life discipline: a consistent, daily practice of mercy and posture of grace.  And this text reminds us that such a life discipline is also what creates beloved community here and now.  Grace is what changes things.

Only when we are rooted in the grace-gift of our own belovedness, when we are sure of our belonging, when we know we are, indeed, bless-ed by grace—can we open ourselves to turn our cheeks, give our coat and shirt, and love our enemies.  Only then can we extended blessing to those from whom we would ordinarily withhold mercy and grace

And the blessings we are called to offer, the mercy and grace with which we are called to live…it isn’t little, paltry, dinky stuff.  It’s actually really big, pretty hard, substantive stuff.  It’s the kind of blessing that costs us something to give, and the kind of blessing that changes things for the recipient.  Because remember, we’re talking about doing good to the haters, letting them strike the other cheek, giving them above and beyond what is asked.

This is certainly not a call to maintain abusive, toxic relationships; but it is a call to pretty radical self-giving.  It is a model of compassion and grace so generous (even extravagant) that it seems foolish and the usual order of things is turned on its head.  Past and present, people of faith are called to be an odd community that creates a new culture; we are called to be so lavish with grace and mercy and tangible, transforming resources that the world ought to think there’s something a little off with us.  To be bless-ed and to be blessers, is to be a bit weird, friends.  Circling back, our friend Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says it like this:

Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?  —NBW

I invite you to hear Nadia’s modern beatitudes.  And as you do, I hope you’ll consider how the story of God’s grace might deepen you own for the sake of transforming our community.  From whom might you be tempted to withhold mercy and blessing?  Who is it that you struggle to treat with grace?  What might it look like for them to be called bless-ed?  By God and by you?  To what posture and practice of transformational grace and mercy are you being called?

Hear now these words of blessing and challenge from Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Blessed are the agnostics.

Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.

Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.

Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.

Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.

Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.

Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.

Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”

Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted.

Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.

Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek.

You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.

Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.

Blessed are foster kids and special-ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.

Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.

Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.

Blessed are the kindhearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives.

Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.

Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.

Friends.  Grace upon grace upon grace.  For you and for me and for all people.  May we live with such world-transforming mercy and love and peace.  This day and each day.  Amen.

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