A SERMON ABOUT GRACE

I HAVE A REASON TO BELIEVE WE ALL WILL BE RECEIVED IN GRACELAND

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16      August 8, 2010

FAITH

There are four guys in a car trip across country. One is from Iowa, one is from Florida, one is from New Jersey and one is from Pennsylvania. After hours in the car the man from Florida says, “I’m sick of looking at oranges.” And he throws oranges out of the car. The man from Iowa says, “Yeah, I’m sick of corn.” And he throws corn out of the car. The man from Pennsylvania is inspired by all of this so he throws the man from New Jersey out of the car.  There are lots of state verses state  Ohio and Indiana, Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, California and the rest of the country.  It’s a way of saying there are some who are in and some who are out.

The scene is the office of the newly elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. He has assigned white men who used to be in the secret service in the oppressive white regime to work with his security staff.  When his security man protests Mandela says, “We must leave the past in the past and focus on the future.  Forgiveness starts now.  We have a chance to be a shining light of grace to the world.”

 Some are in. Some are out. Is that a part of our faith? In some sense it is. When we get serious about following a crucified Savior we cannot expect that the culture will support us.  But how do we decide who is in and who is out?  Maybe it is not up to us.

The unknown author of Hebrews, sometimes called the preacher, starts by offering a definition of faith. The assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. It is beyond sight and beyond understanding. It is believing with confidence in that which is not yet.  The assurance of things hoped for is inward assurance. It’s singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  The conviction of things not seen is the outward manifestation of that belief. It is marching on Selma knowing that someday change will come.  “Deep in my heart. I do believe that we shall overcome some day.”  That does not mean that we will sit around and wait for it to happen.  We believe with conviction that it will come. Like the mom who has circled the date on the calendar and written, “Best day of the year!”  It’s on the first day the kids go back to school.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Well preacher that is a fine definition of faith. But I go back to my original question, “How do we decide who is in and who is out?”  There are those around us who proclaim that salvation is only achieved one way.  They spell it out for you like an algebra equation.  A+B+C-D= Salvation.  There is no other way.

But maybe we need to look at the bigger picture. Maybe faith needs to be understood from a wider perspective than just a fundamentalist prescribed form. The preacher in Hebrews takes us all the way back to Abraham.  Well actually he goes all the way back to Adam, but in this text he is dealing with the faith of Abraham.  He tells us that Abraham believed in the LOGOS of God before the LOGOS ever took human form. The divine expression of God’s love is co-eternal with God. It was there before Mary conceived.  Abraham had faith. And he was called God’s friend.  So the “who is in and who is out”, question has to be re-examined.

Faith is not adequately defined by a single individual or a single community. It must be seen in light of the bigger picture. A pastor in her first call doesn’t really learn to incorporate theology into ministry until the first time she is standing in the funeral home. The widow of the man who never gave any evidence of any interest in church or religion asks her, “My husband was a good man. Do you think he is in heaven?”  If she is wise and honest, she will say “I don’t know.” I don’t think any of us knows who is in and who is out.  It’s not our call  That is God’s business.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen or understood. There are three things that will be heard in heaven. One is “Where is so and so?”  The second is, “What are you doing here?” And the third is “What am I doing here?”

MORE THAN ONE WAY

You know there is nothing more exciting than church history.  (kidding)  But there was a churchman in the first century named   He was condemned as a heretic because he believed that God’s love was so overwhelming that all humans were ultimately gathered into God’s eternal care. He was a Universalist. I am not.  I believe that there are wrong ways to try to get in touch with God. And there are wrong ways to interpret what God wants from us. 9-11 for instance. The Spanish Inquisition for instance.  I do believe that there is truth. I just don’t claim to have such a clear handle on that truth that other ways of approaching the truth should be automatically dismissed just because they disagree with me.

I know the gospel of John has Jesus declare I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but through me. But John sees Jesus as the LOGOS, the divine expression of God’s love throughout his gospel. Is it possible that John is saying that it is only through the divine expression of God’s love that anyone is saved? I think it’s possible.  What about Abraham? What about the Jews?  See Romans 11: 26.  What about Native Americans who worshipped the Great Spirit and revered the land and human dignity?   What about people that you and I know who demonstrate the fruits of God’s Spirit even though they are not religious?  You observe their lives filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Is it possible that the Divine LOGOS can bring people into the presence of God without knowing the story of Jesus of Nazareth?

I don’t know. I have enough assurance of faith to leave that all up to God to sort out. I know the gospel message. I believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God’s Spirit. I believe that by the cross, I am saved from sin and death. And I know that I do not deserve God’s love or God’s salvation or God’s gift of eternal life.  But I wonder if there couldn’t be more than just one way.

GRACE FOR ALL

I’m not providing you with any answers here. I’m just inviting you into the struggle that I share with old Origen.  God’s love is so enormous. Is it possible that God finds other ways to bring people in?  My faith says that I really don’t have to know, because I believe.

So I get on the plane and sit down and read a magazine. I know nothing about aero-dynamics or the workings of a 747.  But I trust that there is a guy sitting up front who knows. And I put that conviction to the test by sitting there and believing that he will guide the plane safely to our destination.  I’m pretty relaxed when I fly.  Not everyone is like me. Some of the passengers are white knuckled and convinced that we are all going to crash. Others use alcohol or sedatives to keep from thinking about it. But we all land and get off the plane and go on with our lives.

John Calvin said that faith was the firm knowledge of God’s The preacher in Hebrews says that people who are running around lost are still God’s people.  God is not ashamed to be called their God.  It is not our effort or our ecclesiastical status that saves us. It’s God’s grace that saves us. And that grace is extended to everyone.

The title of this sermon, the longest title of any sermon that I have ever preached is taken from a Paul Simon song called “Graceland” He says Poor boys and pilgrims with families and we’re all going to Graceland.  A lonely man divorced because his wife said he was boring, now alienated from his son, the woman who is used by men and now feels like life is meaningless, the poor, the searchers. I have a reason to believe we all will be received at Graceland.

There is no exclusivity at this table. It is open to all who simply come in faith.  The same is true of God’s love. But what if he is a communist? What if she is gay? What is he is a Muslim? What if he is in prison?  What if he has AIDS?  “For reasons I cannot explain, I have a reason to believe that we all will be received in Graceland.  Is it possible that no one is expendable, no one is hopeless, and no one is beyond God’s love and grace? Jesus Christ, I hope so.

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