by Rev. Doug Gray
Have you ever been truly loved for who you are, just because you are? If you have, then you know how amazing grace is. The classic definition goes like this: grace is the undeserved blessing of God. More importantly, the experience of grace is at the core of being a follower of Jesus and so grace is also what makes any church a church. The challenge is that for grace to be real, it has to change us. Our passage today talks about at least three ways that grace could change us.
First, grace is so core, that the graceless shouldn’t run the church. As some of you know, I served two years as Associate Pastor at the First Union Congregational Church in Quincy, IL. In 1968, a tornado tore off the roof and bell-tower, making the entire structure unstable. The church would have to rebuild, but how to do it? The church had two plans for the new building. One plan for the sanctuary was made to build community, with circular seating for the sanctuary that would help people worship and feel together, the acoustics were suited to speaking, and the choir was up front. The other plan was for a concert-hall—super-high ceilings, straight pews that made it hard for people to feel part of a community, the acoustics were suited for music and terrible for speaking, and the choir was in the balcony. Just as the church was getting ready to choose the community-oriented plan, a member of the church who was known for being angry and had not attended for years swept in and offered to give the church a lot of money on the condition that they choose the concert hall. Which plan do you think they chose? The concert hall! And that decision has meant that the congregation has struggled ever since. I tell this story because it reminds us that we don’t give money to control people. At our best, we give as a way to bless, to express gratitude and grace. And this also reminds us that grace has to be at the core of everything that happens in a church. In our passage, Jesus outlines how someone wrongs another, and won’t see sense or apologize even when they have been shown the problem more than once. Jesus adds, “…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now Jesus loved and spent time with Gentiles and tax collectors, but if someone is resisting grace, then they shouldn’t have a chance to direct the path of the church.
Second, our experience of grace has to change how we forgive others and ourselves. In our passage, Jesus tells a parable about a forgiving king and an unforgiving servant. If we have been forgiven, to not forgive others is to enter a very dark place. A little boy visiting his grandparents was given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma’s backyard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes. Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, finally he couldn’t stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.” How many of us have been like Johnny—having done something awful and thinking it’s unforgiveable? How many of us have been like Sally—having seen someone do something awful and never letting them forget it? Both of those experiences take us to dark, graceless places. But if we take the awful experience to God, we find it no longer controls our lives—instead grace leads us.
Finally, we want grace to change who we are. Philip Haille wrote of the little village of Le Chambon in France, a town whose people, unlike others in France, hid their Jews from the Nazis. Haille went there, wondering what sort of courageous, ethical heroes could risk all to do such an extraordinary good. He interviewed people in the village and was overwhelmed by their ordinariness. They weren’t heroes or smart, discerning people. Haille decided that the one factor that united them was their attendance, Sunday after Sunday, at their little church, where they heard the sermons of Pastor Trochme. Over time, they became by habit people who just knew what to do and did it. When it came time for them to be courageous, the day the Nazis came to town, they quietly did what was right. One old woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, later said, “Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus. When our time came, we knew what to do.” The more grace we experience and show, the more it becomes just how we roll.
One reason I love Thanksgiving is that it hasn’t been completely taken over by commercialism. Thanksgiving reminds us to think about what we are thankful for. Did you do that this weekend? And when we are being thankful for, who are we actually thanking? Hmmmm. Could it be God? Imagine a holiday based on the idea of grace—remembering our experiences of it and how our lives are better because of it. For those who know the love of Jesus Christ, Thanksgiving is not just a holiday, but a way of living, and grace is the engine that drives it all—part of how we roll, helping us forgive others, guiding us in our decisions. So all of that Thanksgiving goes back to Jesus, to an innocent man willing to give up power to show love, and making it clear true love sacrifices. And whenever two or three of us gather in the Name of Jesus, Jesus is here, and His grace leads us. But for grace to be real in our lives, it has to change us. Happy Thanksgiving!