July 26, 2015 – Grace – The Big Picture
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There was a movie that came out about 15 years ago called “Pay it Forward” that promoted a beautiful idea. In the movie, the 7th grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Simonet, gives his class an assignment – one big assignment for the whole year – think of an idea to change our world – and put it into action. And the hero of the story, a boy named Trevor, comes up with the “pay it forward” idea. The idea is this – that he would find three people in need of help. It would have to be something big, something they couldn’t do for themselves. And he would help them, and in turn, instead of repaying him, each of them would find three more people in need of help, and those people would find three more. And you get the picture. It was goodness being multiplied, goodness spreading outward, rippling outward, from one single person, so that the world would be changed for the better.
It caught the imagination of a lot of people – “paying it forward” became a thing of its own, not just the title of a movie; it became part of the modern vocabulary. There’s an official International Pay it Forward Day, and a Pay it Forward Foundation, established by the woman who wrote the book that inspired the movie in the first place. And I’ve seen people take up the idea in various ways, basically doing good things, not for any kind of a reward, but to make a difference, so that goodness will ripple out into the world.
For some theologians and Bible scholars who don’t believe God does miraculous things, that is the basic explanation of the gospel story we read this morning. There was this enormous crowd of people, out in the middle of no-where, and it was the end of a long day of teaching and healing and everybody was tired and getting really hungry. And a little boy came forward with what he had – five loaves of barley bread, and two fish – and offered to share it. And that generosity rippled out, or so these people say, one kind act leading to more kind acts, until all the people there – 5000 men plus women and children, probably eight or nine thousand people as a conservative estimate – had enough to eat, with leftovers besides. That explanation has the double advantage of not offending our sense of what is rational and possible, while also giving us warm, fuzzy feelings about the basic goodness of humankind.
Except that doesn’t jive with what any of the gospel writers say about that day. First of all, these weren’t people who planned ahead and packed carefully for a day out in the countryside. This mob of people were those who rushed desperately around the Sea of Galilee on foot to meet Jesus when he landed, because he could do what no one else could do – healing and casting out demons, rescuing people from the hopelessness of the human condition. The only provision they would have carried with them is their need, and the hope that Jesus could and would help them.
And secondly, if this event was a grand exercise in the goodness of humanity, who could possibly explain what the people did afterwards? Because immediately after this feast John tells us that that mass of people was about to come and take Jesus by force to make him king, so he went away to the mountain by himself. The thing is that people don’t rise up in a mob and try to make someone king because they teach them a wonderful lesson in sharing; no one ever tried to force Mister Rogers to run for President because he made us nicer people, no matter how true and good that might be.
But what Jesus did was way beyond human goodness, way beyond rationalizing or explaining. It was outrageously good in a way that only God can be, an act of pure, astonishing grace. Human good might try to stretch those meager resources, those five loaves and two fishes, so that it was fair. Human good might have tried to see that everyone had enough and make sure no one took too much – though even enough would have been beyond any human effort. Human good, in that situation, would probably be to make sure the sick and the elderly and the very young at least got something to eat. But grace doesn’t settle for “fair” or “logical”; God’s grace doesn’t content itself with “enough.” Grace is so ridiculously lavish in its goodness that there were twelve baskets of leftovers. And the gospel doesn’t tell us Jesus had any practical use for those leftovers; they were purely and simply a sign of the power of his grace that is so good it was abundantly more than even that enormous crowd could consume.
That’s where Paul is coming from with the wonderful doxology we read today from the letter to the Ephesians: Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Our God is the one whose power isn’t just enough to fill our needs; it is at work in us to accomplish more that we even think to ask for, more than we can even imagine. And I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a lot of good things.
The language of grace is all about God’s excessive goodness. Remember the 23rd psalm – “he anoints my head with oil; my cup runs over.” And when Jesus stood up at the festival and cried out, “whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from him.” Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “in Jesus we have forgiveness according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.” And Jesus himself told us that his purpose in coming was so that we might have life – and not just length of days, but life in abundance.
Grace is God’s version of goodness – and incidentally, that means it’s the original, it’s the Real Thing. It isn’t really anything at all like “paying it forward.” Because grace is not a sensible and practical idea. Grace is not nice; grace is outrageous. Grace is so inhumanly good that more often than not it tends to offend everything we human beings think of when we think of good. More often than not, God’s grace offends our human sense of fairness and reasonableness and righteousness and justice. Grace forgives the murderer. Grace offers kindness to the cheat. Grace extends a helping hand to the worthless. Grace by its very nature cannot be earned or deserved, because it is unmerited favor. It’s pure gift.
And I think the story we read today about King David is one of the most outrageous examples of how God’s grace works. David, who alone in the Scriptures is called “a man after God’s own heart” is at his absolute worst here. If you’ve ever heard of the seven deadly sins – pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth – I’d say David covered at least three or four of the seven in this one story. He took another man’s wife by force, and then he used his power as Commander-in-Chief to arrange for her husband’s death, which was murder of a particularly cowardly and devious kind.
It is a horrible and shameful story. But the thing is that it is the nature of God’s grace that we can see it at work in the most horrible and shameful places. If God were purely righteous and holy as we humans count righteousness, David and Bathsheba would have been put to death for committing adultery, because that was what the Law of Moses said should be done to adulterers. But by the outrageous grace of our God, David and Bathsheba had a son, Solomon, a man of peace and great wisdom, who ruled over Israel for forty years and who built the great Temple of Jerusalem, which was the center of Jewish worship for centuries.
But more than that – far more than that – is that God used the unholy union of David and Bathsheba as the seed of the greatest gift the world would ever receive. Because the descendant of David and Bathsheba, through many generations, was the child who was born in Bethlehem to a carpenter and his wife in a stable. Out of David’s sin – his lust, covetousness and pride, his acts of fornication and deceit and self-serving and murder – God chose to bring forth the flesh that would house his own Spirit and person, his own Son who would bring healing and redemption to all of sinful mankind. That is outrageous. That is illogical. That is grace.
God’s grace doesn’t just take good and multiply it, like the loaves and fishes. Grace is not a ripple-effect thing, it’s a seismic event thing, like an earthquake that shakes the whole of creation to its foundations. The world felt the shock of grace when the Amish families at Nickel Mines offered forgiveness to the murderer of their children. The world felt the shock of grace when the members of Emanuel Church offered words of hope to Dylann Roof. You can feel the shock of that right now, right? Grace is uncomfortable; it’s dangerous – it’s risky behavior on God’s part, because in the hands of the world, grace can be manipulated and misinterpreted and abused in so many ways. The cross of Christ is the prime example of that. And that was the greatest victory of all for God’s grace.
When our kids were little, and we were trying to explain why you can’t see God, even though he is everywhere, we told them that the reason we can’t see him is that God is just too big for our human eyes to see. And I don’t think that’s an altogether terrible explanation. And in the same way, grace is incomprehensible to us because it is almost too big a picture for us to see. But that’s because grace IS the Big Picture. That’s why Paul prayed for the Ephesian church that they might be able to understand how wide and how long and how high and how deep is the love of God, which is beyond our understanding. Grace is God’s outrageous gift of light that shatters our darkest darkness – not because we earn it or deserve it or pay for it, not even because we asked for it, but purely and simply and freely out of love, because that’s what it is. God’s grace, the un-earned, un-asked-for grace he lavished upon us in Jesus Christ, is God’s perfect, abundant, outrageous love in action.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.