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Overflowing Grace

September 12, 2016

“Overflowing Grace” 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10 (c) 9.11.16 Ordinary 24C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner once observed that “theology is mostly autobiography.” The experiences of our lives, from an early age, shape, challenge, and change our perceptions of, our beliefs about God, Jesus, the Spirit, our notions of what it means to be a human being living in the world. Others have recognized this reality by talking about “stages of faith” (James Fowler) or classically, our “pilgrimage” on which we mark milestones of development.

All those models have held great meaning for me both personally and professionally. Many events, particularly the painful and confusing ones, have influenced me, sometimes with deep and long-lasting effect, either consciously or without my really knowing it.

For example, an experience with my grandfather when I was a small child turned out to be a theological watershed moment for me. As I think I have shared with you before, Granddaddy and Grandma Cheatham lived with us in a cramped house on 10th Avenue in Albany, GA. Granddaddy loved gardening. Along with elephant ears and caladiums in the front yard, he had planted a strawberry patch behind the house that attracted a certain little boy who loved the fruit. I was so little I could barely pronounce “strawberries;” I called them “straw-waws,” a toddler word Susan and I have fun laughing about sometimes when we eat the berries for breakfast. But whatever they were called, I couldn’t get enough of them. So I wandered out into the patch and picked some. Granddaddy went ballistic, and slapped me “upside the head,” as they say, for “stealing” his berries. Of course, Mama and Daddy gave him a royal dressing down for his mean violence.

I still don’t know why, but as my notion of God began to form, and as I matured into my teens and young adulthood, I saw God not as like my father—kind, giving, always there—but as my grandfather–miserly, mean, unwilling to share even one tasty, sweet berry from the patch, pushing me down, forbidding me to enjoy life, but rather wanting me to feel shame and guilt. Probably such notions were reinforced by the legalistic teaching of my fundamentalist church and its ministers, but it was my grandfather and his selfishness that colored for many years my picture of God. I finally realized that at a spiritual formation retreat I attended at Columbia Seminary not too long after I came to my first solo pastorate in Montevallo, AL in 1982. Other experiences had begun to open me to a God of grace, but that event was another important way station on the journey toward knowing God as God really is, the way he’s portrayed in the text for the morning.

How different is this God from the miserly and mean deity I imagined! Here instead is One from whom grace overflows beyond measure, who displays “utmost patience” toward one whose actions had deeply hurt both his Lord and his neighbors. It’s hard to miss the sense of wonder the author has at God’s incredible bounty. God has lavished love and mercy upon one who had even committed violence. The Lord had saved a blasphemer and a persecutor, brought wholeness and centeredness to a broken and fearful life. And wonder of wonders, God had appointed this same one a herald of the good news, calling him to be an example of just what the grace of God in Jesus Christ could accomplish. Yes, the sin of the author is great and serious; he is very candid about that. But his failures do not preoccupy him. The point is not what transgressions he has committed or what good and right actions he has omitted. Rather, what moves the writer to doxology, to praise of God, is the wondrous, marvelous, well-nigh incredible grace and favor of the Sovereign of the ages. No matter what this man has done, God’s grace is greater. The cleansing bath of baptism and love can wash away the deepest stain. God is not thwarted by the worst humankind can do.

If you are anything like me, you are sometimes, even often, burdened by the “if only’s,” regrets from the deep past or as recent as this morning, the remembrance of some stupid action, some ill-considered and thoughtless statement, some bad decision. “If only I had made a different choice back then, things would be better now.” “If only I hadn’t wasted my time and money.” “If only I had known what I was getting into.” “If only I had seen this coming, I could have been prepared.” “If only I hadn’t lost my temper.” “If only I had taken better care of myself.” “If only….” “If only….” We recite our sorrowful litany until we are driven to despair.

Don Henley, the famous rock and now country singer, once characterized our time as a “graceless age.” How right he is! “Grace” is a little-known and little-used word in common parlance, unless we are speaking about the “grace” of a dancer or some other athlete. Only rarely, outside of the worship hour on a Sunday morning, do we hear the word used in its theological sense. We are suspicious of free gifts, unwilling to be obligated by gratitude, incredulous at the possibility of transformation as powerful as that portrayed in the text. What someone was like in the past is what she or he is like today and will be tomorrow. And we tend to believe that if anything in our lives is going to change, it has to be by our hard work and sustained effort.

Indeed, we can by discipline and choice make a change in our career, our residence, our attitude, our level of fitness, any of a hundred things. But if we’re speaking about a fundamental alteration at the heart of our being, the experience of wholeness we call being “saved,” only the grace of God can accomplish that. When we’re in despair over a past that keeps intruding as an unwelcome guest into the present, when the “if only’s” keep piling up, we do well to remember the transformative, inverting, inviting mercy of God in Christ. Our lives are ultimately not up to us, don’t belong to us. They are touched and upheld and turned around by the “immortal, invisible, only God” who has come among us in Christ Jesus to save sinners.

Why should God give so? Because he enjoys it. Jesus said it: heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. In more colloquial terms, God loves a party. His celebration is boisterous and wild when somebody finally gets the message, which is this: God is gracious and wants me, values me, and invites me to his joyful gathering.

The great journalist Bill Moyers once hosted a PBS documentary entitled Amazing Grace in which he interviewed people from all walks of life, from rural shaped-note singers to an opera star, about the impact that hymn had on their lives. It was clear from what these folks said that grace is a universal need, a hope and a dream of every human being (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKH1lkUjAgA; http://billmoyers.com/content/amazing-grace-bill-moyers/). The longing is made all the more intense because indeed we do live in a “graceless age.” But we know in our heart of hearts that there is something more, that there is One who has made us and wants to give us what we need to live truly and fully human lives.

Of course, during the program, the story of John Newton was told. Though you may have heard it before, I want to share it with you today before Jace plays the hymn at the Offertory. Newton’s mother was devout, and sought to impart the Christian faith to her son. But when John was seven, his mother died. By age eleven, he was at sea with his father. The young man drifted into a profligate life and ended up being publicly flogged for desertion from the Royal Navy. Following that episode, Newton returned to the sea, but this time, became involved with the slave trade. He lived for a while off the coast of West Africa, where he sank ever deeper into degradation.

On one voyage, his ship was caught in a violent storm, and Newton cried out to God for mercy. Saved from the fury of the wind and waves, the slave trader began to read The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. He came to faith, but did not immediately give up his traffic in human cargo. He even commanded his own ship for a while. However, by 27, he had quit the trade and taken a shore job.

Newton eventually began preparation for the ministry under the influence of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. By age 39, after long years of study, he was ordained in the Church of England. Newton became one of the most effective leaders of the revival then sweeping the nation. He and William Cowper composed a number of the hymns that would greatly impact the movement. The text of “Amazing Grace,” though, was Newton’s alone, expressing the deep faith and thankfulness of a man who had indeed been a “wretch.” That’s not a word we use much anymore, but it means both someone who is unhappy and a person who is despicable, contemptible, a villain, rogue, good-for-nothing, scumbag, bottom-feeder. At a funeral in Starkville recently, a soloist changed the word to “fool,” and I said to myself: “No, that won’t do at all.”

John Newton’s long and effective service to the cause of Jesus Christ grew out of his deep gratitude for being saved from a dissolute and shameful life, trading in human lives. He did not enter the ministry or even quit ferrying slaves as a way to atone for his sins; nothing he could do would ever accomplish that. Instead, he joined the author of First Timothy in wonder and praise, working for the cause of Christ out of thankfulness.

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus,” says the writer. That’s a sentence that belongs in the heart and on the lips of every Christian. We’re called to live and model our thanks in all that we do. The Heidelberg Catechism asks the student: “Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?” The expected answer is: “Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Q&A 86).

Each of us will have his or her own way of living a life that is grateful for the amazing and wondrous grace of God. But we all need to see that among the fruits we produce are strawberries, my toddler-talk straw-waws. If you’re scratching your heads, let me explain that in Christian tradition and art, strawberries, the flowers and berries together, have been and are symbols of righteousness and spirituality, along with purity, passion, and healing. In Victorian thought, the berry represented perfection, the sweetness of life and character. Among one Native American tribe, strawberries stand for rebirth. The three leaves on one main stem are even a symbol for the Trinity, so if we produce strawberries as a fruit of our lives, we are doing works fitting for those who adore Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (https://www.reference.com/world-view/strawberries-symbolize-8a521df37b4d066a#; http://extension.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm; http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/berry/production/pdfs/berryfolklore.pdf).

We don’t bear such fruit on our own. Instead, we become God’s strawberry patch when his grace washes over us so completely that our hearts are brimful of love, our lives exhibit the wholeness he wants for us, our speech is the sort that comforts and heals and helps. We are so touched by the lush, bountiful, beautiful, and overflowing benevolence of the Creator that even on those days when we believe ourselves to be miserable wretches, we know we are saved by amazing grace.

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