Saturday, February 2, 2019

Year C, Epiphany 4, Luke 4.21-30, Unworthy of Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Grace.  It’s a Jesus thing.
Last week I preached about the offensiveness of grace.  In preaching that sermon, I might even have offended some people. 
I had an interchange with someone online in response to the sermon.
His comments were:  “Homosexual Pastors in the ELCA , among others , better get your house in order !”
And, “I’m not qualified to sit in Judgement but I do read God’s word and know what it says , and there is NO grey area , especially on this matter !”
I responded by saying “Indeed there is no grey area. “NO ONE is righteous, no, not one. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And therefore the only justification is by God’s grace received in faith. My brothers and sisters in ministry are saved by God’s grace. I pray you are as well.”

One of the reasons grace is offensive is because it attracts those people who most need it but least deserve it.

When Jesus walked this earth, it was not the righteous religious elite that followed him.  It was the outcast, the sinners, the foreigners.  Prostitutes and tax collectors. 
In Mark 2 it is written:
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard this, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
An interesting conversation to have today would be to ask the question “who are the outcast, with whom Jesus would most likely associate today?”
The challenge of having that conversation though is that any list we come up with would likely be offensive to some.
Hence comments such as I mentioned previously.
People shake their heads at us, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, because we welcome LGBTQ people.
To me that’s a sign that we are embodying the grace of God, and following Jesus.  The more we love the unlovable, the closer we are to the Kingdom of God.
If I had an opportunity to speak at greater length with those who make such comments about us in the Lutheran church, I might say “Not only that, but God also has called people like me who struggle with mental illness and alcoholism.”
The bottom line is this:
There are people whose lives and status so desperately cry out for mercy that are showered with God’s grace.
And there are times in our lives that we experience such utter helplessness that the grace of God is our only hope.
And to such people, God’s grace never fails them.
Those most unworthy are embraced by Christ’s love and grace.
But then there is another group.  Those who feel entitled to God’s special favor. 
Grace cannot be an entitlement.
You cannot merit, the unmerited favor of God.
You cannot earn a gift.
You cannot force God to love you.
This is why Jesus was constantly at odds with the religious elite of his day.
They were the ones who felt they were worthy of God’s good favor and blessing. 
They deserved it.
They felt entitled to it.
Jesus stood up before his home congregation in Nazareth.
He spoke about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him.
People were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
Then Jesus said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself! ' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. '" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
When Jesus’ friends and neighbors from his hometown heard this, they were filled with rage. 
One minute they all spoke well of Jesus, amazed at the gracious words he spoke.
The next minute they were ready to throw him off a cliff.
What happened?
They felt that their status as his neighbors in Nazareth entitled them to what Jesus had to offer.
And as soon as you feel entitled to grace, grace is gone.
In Mark’s Gospel we hear a similar account of Jesus’ experience at the synagogue in Nazareth:
His neighbors said, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house."  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Note that here it says not only that Jesus did not do “deeds of power there” but that he could not.
Grace is the unmerited favor of God.
And faith is trusting in the saving grace of God.
Neither is compatible with a sense of entitlement.
The people of Nazareth felt ‘entitled’ to Jesus’ special favor and deeds of  power, and hence they were not able to receive it.
And this is tricky.
It is so easy for us to abandon our faith in the unmerited grace of God in favor of a sense that we are indeed entitled to God’s special favor.
It’s human nature, I suppose.
We had an interesting experience at work regarding bonuses.
We had a challenging schedule to meet last fall with numerous major shipments due.
The owner of the company came to us with an offer of a bonus to every employee of $150 extra for every container load that went out on time.  This, he said, they would try for the next five shipments.
Each of us received $750 in bonuses.
And then the sixth container was shipped.
And employees were disappointed because there wasn’t another bonus in their paycheck.
They felt entitled.
And then Christmas came.  Having already given us $750 in bonus money, we didn’t receive an additional Christmas bonus.  Employees were disgruntled because they didn’t get what they felt entitled to.
A sense of entitlement.  It’s so easy to fall prey to that.
One of the things that Karla and I have remarked about over the course of our lives, some of the most overwhelming experiences of the grace of God, have to do with God providing for us when we were least able to provide for ourselves.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself, time and time again.
Whenever we were most vulnerable, whenever we were most at risk, God seemed to be there with grace beyond measure.
We’ve been in situations when bankruptcy seemed inevitable, for example, yet never a bill went unpaid. 
And, as we looked at other’s experiences, we have sometimes thought to ourselves that well worn phrase “There but for the grace of God go I.”
But why?
Why did we experience the grace of God when others haven’t?
That’s a question we struggle with.
And it is so easy to start feeling like somehow we deserved it, while others apparently didn’t.
That’s the temptation.
But you cannot “deserve grace”.
You cannot merit God’s “unmerited favor”.
I have given my wife good reasons to divorce me, yet instead, she forgave me.
My struggles with alcohol nearly killed me, but instead I received the help and new life that I needed. 
I have sinned in many and various ways over the course of my life and ministry, yet I continue to experience God’s forgiveness.
It’s not that I deserve it, or am entitled to it, but precisely the opposite.
Grace comes to us, precisely when we need it the most.
That’s why so many Christians can relate to “Amazing Grace”.  Because they have had times in their lives when they have indeed felt lost, and even a “wretch”.  Unworthy of God’s love.
But at those times is when they experience it the most.
The love of God is always there.
God’s grace is never failing.
It’s just that we cannot see it when we feel we deserve it.
But in our hour of greatest need, it is there.
When we least deserve it, grace flows freely.
Why is it that when God’s grace is proclaimed in its purity that all sorts of sinners gather?
"Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
And I suppose we could ask, “Why do we allow sinners like me to be pastors?”
Because, as Paul declares in Romans:
"There is no one who is righteous, not even one;”
And also:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.
The reason Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners is there were no other options, “no one is righteous, not even one.”
The reason sinners like me can be a minister in this church is because all, me included, have fallen short of the glory of God.
And the reason you can come forward to this altar and receive Christ’s body and blood is because you, sinner though you are, are justified by his grace as a gift.
You’re not entitled to it.  None of us are.
But it’s God’s free gift to all who would receive it.

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