Living by (Reformed) Faith: GRACE
February 3, 2019
by Rev. Lori Wunder
This week, through the magic of social media, I learned from one of my pastor colleagues about a great new ministry idea.
It comes from Paula White. She’s the pastor of a big church in Florida, the author of many books, host of her own television show and has 3.3 million followers on Facebook
At the beginning of 2019, Paula talked about a “first fruits” initiative, telling her congregation that they should honor God by putting God first in all that they do. When they do that, they will release “financial miracles, opportunity, favor and supernatural blessings for your entire year.” Specifically, Paula wants people to honor God with a “significant offering,” the first fruits of the first month’s income—one day’s wages, one week’s, even a month’s wages—to Paula White Ministries.
Friends on the Session and Finance Committee, don’t you think this would be a GREAT way to take care of our budget woes? Deficit, be gone!
The truth is, I don’t know whether to respond to this “ministry” with laughter, tears or anger. Paula White preaches what is called the Prosperity Gospel, a way of thinking about God that believes physical well-being and financial blessing are the will of God, and if a person has faith, maintains a positive attitude and makes donations to the right causes, material blessing will follow. This approach to faith turns our relationship with God into a transactional one – if I do this for you, God, then you are supposed to do that for me. It’s almost like God becomes a giant vending machine.
Which means that if you or someone you love gets sick, just pray and have faith, and they will be made well. If not, your faith wasn’t strong enough, you didn’t stay positive enough, so you must blame yourself. And apparently God loves professional athletes and CEOS so much more than social workers, public school teachers, and caregivers in nursing homes and childcare centers.
These are just a few of the many, many problems with the Prosperity Gospel. It distorts how God loves us and what God desires for us as individuals, and for all of creation.
How we talk about God matters.
We talk about God every Sunday. For the next four Sundays we are still going to talk about God, but more specifically, we are going to talk about Reformed Theology, which is the Presbyterian branch of the Christian family tree.
Now, theology can be a big, possibly intimidating word. At least I always thought so. But when you break it down into its parts – theo and logy—it literally means “words about God.” (theo = God, logy = word; means “words about God”)
So, anytime we talk about God, we are being theologians. Aren’t you impressed with yourselves?!?
Last month I read an article by Cynthia Rigby, professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas, that lifts up four gifts that Reformed theology has to offer the world. Conveniently, February has four Sundays, so…
We begin with grace.
We say grace before meals, benedictions invoke the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to be with us, or God to be gracious to us, and it is sprinkled throughout our liturgy and hymns.
Grace is the love and kindness of God shown us out of mercy rather than merit. It is a gift given, with no strings attached. There is no transaction involved with grace.
Frederick Buechner wrote,
“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”
Cynthia Rigby writes of grace,
“Grace is something utterly disassociated from merit, something that cannot be conceptualized in terms of contracts, transactions or incredible deals. Following Scripture, Reformed theology teaches not that God gives us more than we deserve or something we don’t deserve at all, but that God has claimed us as God’s own entirely apart from our worthiness or unworthiness.”
We get so, so stuck on who is worthy and who isn’t, don’t we?
There’s some of that going on in today’s gospel lesson. When Jesus teaches about the portion of the scroll that he read, he upsets the congregation when he lifts up examples of God showing mercy (you might even say grace) to foreigners, Gentiles, rather than the people of Israel. As so often happens, the insider group (in this case, the Jews) believes so much in their own worthiness and correctness, they don’t like being reminded that outsiders (in this case, the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian), foreigners could be worthy, too. So they get angry enough with Jesus to run him out of town.
We are so stingy with mercy and kindness and love, and I am sure it is because we so rarely extend it to ourselves. We are transactional in our self-concept. If I earn this much per year, then I will be enough. If I can lose this much weight, then I will be okay. When I can crush this fitness goal, then I will be strong. When I accomplish this, own that, get rid of X, master Y, then…then, I will finally be okay, acceptable, worthy of love.
And when we think that way about ourselves, we think that way about other people. We dismiss others for being too this and not enough that, and why in the world would they…?
Our culture, our economy, our society’s values have formed us to think this way. That message of earning our worth is heard loud and clear all. the. time.
Frederick Buechner again:
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
“The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.’
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
“Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
I worry sometimes that I repeat myself too much, talking about how God loves us beyond measure—God’s gift of grace to us. But I suspect we need to hear it again and again because our society constantly churns out a different message. Our challenge is, to remember this grace, to marinate in it, so we can live out believing it about ourselves and others, moment to moment, day after day.
This is why we need worship, a community of faith. It’s not because coming to worship every Sunday makes God love us. It’s because coming to worship helps keep us mindful of our belovedness, our identity as children of God and the preciousness of all and each person, regardless of whether “those people” are ever in this space. Being here gives us the opportunity to be reminded of the grace we have received, and to extend it, as we live together with all of our personalities and imperfections.
Cynthia Rigby again:
“When we know we are God’s beloved, irreplaceable children, we are able not only to survive a world that is relentlessly measuring our worth, we can also work to change this world into one that more clearly manifests the kingdom of God. We can, more and more, come to see others also as irreplaceable, treating them accordingly, living differently together as members of the beloved community.”
I love that. Through the gift of grace “we can, more and more, come to see others also as irreplaceable, treating them accordingly, living differently together as members of the beloved community.”
Friends, this week I invite you to marinate in grace. Soak it into your mind and heart and soul.
And then extend that grace to others—those closest to you, but also strangers, or better yet, people you think you don’t like, who irritate you.
Because by the grace of God, the party isn’t complete without them either.
Thanks be to God for this gift. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, “Grace”
 Frederick Buechner, “Grace” in Beyond Words