On grace: the tension in our gospel (6/16/13)

Rev. Lucy Waechter Weeb

June 16, 2013

Luke 7:36-8:3, Father’s Day

The first week of June I had the opportunity to go to the Freedom School National Training with our site coordinators and servant leader interns for the summer. It is one of the highest energy weeks I have ever been a part of, and one where I lost the most sleep!

We stood on the Convention floor in Knoxville, TN and did many of the cheers and chants that many of you know. What I didn’t expect is how much a huge convention ballroom floor can shake, when you have 2,000 young people jumping up and down at the exact same time! This energy fueled our young leaders despite short nights and I watched them passionately learn how to engage a curriculum and prepare to work with our children. I am excited about this year, and want to say I hope to see you sometime this summer at Freedom School! It starts tomorrow morning with an 8:30am Harambee!

At one point during this week of training, one student was sharing with me about his experience of church. Like so many young people who have grown up in the church, he had a lot of theological questions at this point in his life that he was wanting to explore. But his experience was that his parents and the older people in his life would shut down his curiosity, questioning whether he was still Christian because of the questions he was asking. In the course of our conversation we talked about other religions, the nature of sin, and the meaning of grace. And by the end, he asked two questions that I want to share with you today. I think these two questions are two sides of the same coin – and point to the two ways the church often gets it wrong when we are talking about grace.

The first was in our conversation about sin, he turned to me and said, “Yes, but don’t you think we are still unworthy? Isn’t that helpful to remember that? Doesn’t it humble us to remember that we are unworthy?”

I said you know I’m really uncomfortable with that word – but I hear the truth in what you are talking about. See we had just spent a week together in Knoxville, TN learning about a program and a curriculum that does nothing but build up our children. The entire culture of Freedom School is one of positivity, of building up, of teaching self-esteem, pride in our history and culture. We are to teach our children that each of them are special, important, intelligent, they can make a difference. They Are. Worthy.

So how is calling ourselves unworthy ever helpful? Or instructive? Or nurturing?

He was not trying to make the case that we are bad people, evil and worthless, he was really pointing to this question of humility. Now of course he’s right, there is always a sense of humility, a remembering that we are not all that and a bag of chips when you self-deprecate all the time. But that kind of humility looks more like shame. But I think he was trying to capture what it means to find a more mature sense of humility, one that requires self-examination, a knowing about yourself that comes only when people begin to understand the ways that you are broken. A wisdom about yourself that helps you recognize you need grace.

The second question he asked, which directly followed was the flip side of the coin,

“Can you give too much grace?”

An even better question! Can you give, or receive, too much grace? Can you give away so much love that the person receiving it doesn’t see it anymore? Can it be so abundant that we lose appreciation for it, and are not affected by it. Can it be so intense and so prolific that is actually becomes cheap? If you have ever experienced that kind of flippant response from someone after having prepared a thoughtful gift or a generous gesture you might be quick to say, oh yes, you can give away to readily. “That person didn’t even think for a second how long it took me to make that, or appreciate how hard I searched for the perfect one just for them.”

And yet those who are deeply wounded by constant negativity, abuse and shame will say, no matter how many times people tell them that they are beautiful or smart or strong or kind, they will always struggle to believe it. And so to hear grace again and again and again and again, is liberating. There can never be enough.

So I think actually my real problem is with this phrase, “You are special.” And here’s why, there’s a couple of reasons. One: it turns our focus in on ourselves. It’s like the Sprint commercial that comes on – every time I cringe. Imagine, for those of you who haven’t seen it, there are beautiful images of life, a child taking a photo, a sunset landscape, with dreamy music playing, and the narrator says “The miraculous is everywhere, in our homes, our minds. We can share ever second in data dressed as pixels. A billion roaming photo journalists uploading the human experience and it is spectacular. So why would you cap that? My IPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity. I need to upload all of me. I need, no I have the right to be unlimited. Only Sprint offers truly unlimited data for iPhone 5.”

It’s so subtle that the commercial for a cell phone service provider almost becomes inspiring. It’s great writing! “uploading the human experience” – “the entire gallery of humanity.” But did you hear it? “I need, no I have the right to be unlimited.” It is that kind of thinking that gets us into trouble with this you-are-special business. The kind of grace we consume rather than receive. The kind that makes us turn more in on ourselves and focus on what more we must surely need, or have a right to, rather than turn us inside out and begin to see how we are connected.

Martin Luther the founder of the Lutheran Church talked about this as one definition of sin. The fancy Latin for it is “cor curvatum in se” – “the heart turned in upon itself” so that we affirm ourselves and others like us as, but only against or as better than the other. Our worth for ourselves depends on how we see ourselves in relation to, as better than others. This “you are special business” can lead to this “crimped heart…”[i] – one turned inward.

It is a kind of entitlement that comes along with the message that you are special. That you deserve anything you want whether you’ve done anything to contribute to the world. That you are so special and so set apart, that your needs and your desires are more important than those other special children who surround you. And that is a dangerous story to tell our children, no? It is a dangerous story to teach our students. It is a dangerous story even for us. I remember my greatest sin, my greatest place of brokenness as a teenage girl came from me comparing myself to others. Whether I was negative or positive about myself I was stuck in defining my worth over and against another. So this young student’s question is really about how are we teaching humility and a sense of self-worth? Where is the concern for the community as we also build a child’s self-esteem? Where is our concern for the neighbor, For the other, and for ourselves.

This is the most challenging tension we face in world today as we try to find and receive and give grace. In an unlimited phone data kind of world, where we have the right to use all we want, we are all too often bound by our crimped hearts, the ones that have turned inward.

So these two challenging questions have pointed us to two ways we get it wrong. The two extremes or ends of a spectrum that each lose the tension that is in the gospel.

One says: You’re going to hell unless you do these things, hell and damnation are the fear that will drive you to your knees, God doesn’t love sinners, and you are an unworthy one.

I can’t tell you how many people I have met in my life I have met who have grown up in a church without grace in their vocabulary. What church do you grow up in where grace is not in the vocabulary? How is that church? How is that gospel? A place where right rules and proper behavior is what mattered, that is what buys a ticket to grace.

So that’s one extreme – which has lost the tension of a grace freely given.

The other way of getting it wrong comes not from sharing or preaching too much grace, I do think that is impossible, and one preacher friend I know says he’ll die trying to preach too much, but instead we get it wrong when grace becomes cheap. When we say you are so special, so set apart, so loved that it doesn’t matter what you do. You can just sit on your toosh and say everything is cool, God’s got my back. This is a kind of grace that leads to indifferent silence that is so dangerous. It makes us lazy so that we forget to even notice the ways in which God moving and gifting us in our lives. [The classic response is to say we are called to respond out of gratitude, but I don’t know about you all I often forget to send a thank you card. Saying I must serve because I am grateful doesn’t compel me.] You see I forget. I forget that grace doesn’t mean we have the right to be unlimited, to take and consume all we want.

Being “special” – a child of God  - means we have been granted gifts, and we each get to use them and enjoy them in the world. When we do that, we experience connection and receive life from being in the world. That is an experience of grace. Investing in those gifts and in the world brings about grace again.

So finally, I want to connect all of this to our scripture for the day. I know it took me awhile to get there, but here it is, we’ll close with it today.

The unnamed woman in our scripture holds this tension of grace in her actions. The fact that she is unnamed is already a hint that she is not high on the totem pole, but it also says she is a sinner. A “certain kind of woman”. And her actions with Jesus here do two things. (1) I think she does respond out of gratitude. She has obviously heard about Jesus before, and heard what he’s been saying. Word has gotten out and she has heard this word of grace and is compelled to go see him, to thank him, to serve him in a classic gesture of hospitality by washing his feet. Something the honored host chose not to do. This woman walks straight into the heart of her shame. By all accounts she is unworthy. But she has received this love, this grace and responds.

(2) The second thing she does is do this publicly, in a Pharisee’s house, a religious leader. This bold act, one that comes not just from simple gratitude, but deep courage was a testimony, a witness to those who still didn’t see. Her actions challenged her own community that missed the tension of the gospel. Knowing they would be astonished at her actions she walked right into that dinner with her hair and her tears said to them “Y’all still don’t get it.” Even I am loved. Even I - who you say is unworthy, is now worthy. I. Am. Loved. And I must respond. I am compelled to respond.

Her response calls her out of herself. Her new identity as someone who is loved teaches her to love better. One who is made worthy sees worth in others. Who is forgiven does not feed her own self-centered life, a heart turned inward, but is called to an act of service for another. Not only to wash his feet but she and others followed him to teach, and serve, and share the good news.

Challenge for us/questions

And so today I hope to leave you with more questions than answers. This student got us started today, but the work is not done.

What does the gospel say or offer to us? And what does it demand of us?

How does it liberate us? And how does it summon us?

How does it offer unconditional love? And how does it disturb and agitate?

How does it rescue us? And how might we help rescue others?

With those questions I pray for more urgency to seek to grace in your own life. To find it in the small moments, where you might just pass it by. To see its worth and to see your worth through it. And to fully receive it, with more openness to allow yourself to be turned inside out by it and face the world anew.

[i] Larry Rasmussen – Earth Honoring Faith – Chp. 3