Sermon: “The Lord is Gracious” (October 9, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord is Gracious” (Psalm 111:4)
October 9, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am preaching on four words from today’s psalm: “The Lord is gracious” (Psalm 111:4).  The grace of God is the theme of the collect for today, a gem that summarizes the work of God in our lives and our response to that:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen (The Book of Common Prayer 234-235).

We emphasize the grace of God here at Christ Church because the grace of God is at the heart of the gospel.  “By grace you have been saved through faith,” scripture tells us, “and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Not only is it by grace alone that we have been saved, it is “this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2)—or as the slave trader turned Anglican priest John Newton (1725-1807) put it, “’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” (Amazing Grace, Hymn 671 in The Hymnal, 1982).

Fifty years ago one of the best-loved science fiction shows of all time premiered, the 1960’s classic Star Trek.  I used to love watching the reruns of this, again and again, when I was a little boy.  Many of you remember the famous opening as you peer into space and Captain Kirk (the incomparable William Shatner) proclaims in a voiceover, “Space: the final frontier”—and the starship Enterprise emerges out of nowhere and whisks across the screen and speeds off into space—“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Cue the epic Star Trek theme music…

The Lord is gracious, and his grace boldly goes where you have never gone before, and the grace of God follows you too.

The Lord is gracious.

We need to be reminded often of what we prayed in today’s collect, that the grace of God indeed precedes and follows us.  Why?  Because we forget, and because sometimes we do not feel the grace of God with us, but instead feel alone—as the band Green Day put it in their 2004 hit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams:”

I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone

I walk this empty street
On the boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone…

My shadow’s only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
Till then I walk alone

Have you ever felt that way?  That is when you need to be reminded that the Lord is gracious, that the grace of God precedes and follows you, that you in fact do not walk alone.  Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl describes this grace of God:

Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return.  Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you.  Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.  Grace is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable…The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in the human experience…You felt ugly or sinking in confidence, and somebody complimented you, or helped you, or spoke a kind word to you.  You were at the end of your rope and someone showed a little sympathy… It is true in life that grace, one-way love, has the power to turn despair into hope.  It is almost always some form of grace, some outside source of unexpected and unhoped for compassion and kindness, that creates the change from discouragement and despair to endurance and perseverance (Grace in Practice, 36- 37).

This grace of God, this “one-way love” of God for you, precedes you, boldly goes before you, enables you both to receive the grace of God and then, again as we prayed in the collect, to “continually be given to good works.”  Article X of the “The Thirty-nine Articles,” the sixteenth century distillation of Anglican doctrine found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer, puts it this way:

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God.  Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing (or preceding) us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will (BCP, 869).

In other words, it is this prevenient grace that makes it possible for you to receive the grace of God, the grace by which you are saved, in the first place.  What does that look like?  Well, as singer-songwriter Taylor Swift puts it “You told me I was pretty when I looked like a mess” (from her 2010 hit “Today was a Fairytale”).

In their insightful book, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl describe this in their commentary about today’s collect:

Without God having already gone before us, we would, as human beings in our own strength, face impossible odds…Without (God) we are not up to what Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield termed so chillingly the “battle of life.”  What lies ahead of us, humanly speaking, is too uncertain, too hostile, too large, too callous, too cold, too hard, too impossible.  The Collects emphasize the frailty of our case and the dangers in which we are perpetually set, circling the human being like sharks and vultures.  If (God) were not going before us, not to mention covering our flanks, we would, in general, within ourselves, simply freeze (103).

And this grace of God that precedes us gives us hope in the exact place where we feel like we walk alone, where we feel like we look like a mess, where we “simply freeze.”  As you look ahead in your life, what is it that gives you pause, or a knot in your stomach, or anxiety?  What is it that makes you afraid?  The grace of God will be there ahead of you because the grace of God precedes you.  Not only that, this same grace of God also follows you.

What does that look like?

Growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia I played soccer every year for over ten years.  I was hyper-competitive and intense, and probably took it way too seriously.  In the spring of my third grade year I played on an orange team called The Flames.  We were awful.  The Flames never caught fire that season, ever—instead, we fizzled out, week after week, game after game.  We were so bad that we scored just one goal the entire season.

It was a scorching hot Saturday in late May and we were losing… again—surprise, surprise.  I was playing defense, running side by side with a forward from the other team toward our goal, and I tried to kick the bouncing ball back over our heads but instead kicked it high toward our own goal.  It was like a slow motion nightmare watching the ball sail up, bounce in front of our goalie over his head, and into our own goal.  The other team went wild.  My team…not so much.  My first “career” goal was for the other team.  My coach told me not to worry about it, but I was apoplectic, and I wanted to quit.

But grace followed me.  The next week I read the write-up of our soccer game in the local newspaper (a small local newspaper, though not small to me), and was shocked to read the following sentence: “Flames defender Dave Johnson played game-long outstanding defense.”  That was all it said.  There was no mention of my scoring a goal for the other team.  Instead, words of encouragement in the paper—moreover, my coach never mentioned it again.  That grace that followed me helped me not quit after all—and believe it or not the next season I actually started scoring for my own team, a much more pleasant experience.

And it is the same with the grace of God that follows you, to help you when what happened in your life was the exact opposite of what you intended.

This is what happened to Peter, the Rock upon whom Jesus said he would build his church, who in Jesus’ darkest hour, denied him not once, but three times.  Peter was apoplectic with himself, so ashamed that he decided he would quit and go fishing.  While fishing Peter sees none other than the Risen Jesus on the beach, and he jumps out of the boat and swims to shore.

And what does Jesus do?  Jesus cooks and serves Peter breakfast, and gives Peter not one, but three chances to express his love for him anew.  Metaphorically, when there was nothing written in the paper about Peter denying Jesus, but instead, Jesus’ repeated exhortation, “Don’t quit, Peter.  You are forgiven.  You are still the Rock.  Feed my sheep.”  The grace of Jesus followed Peter.

Peter experienced firsthand the reality of what the late Brennan Manning wrote in his final book, All is Grace (2011), “If I’ve learned anything about the world of grace, it’s that failure is always a chance for a do-over” (162).  What is true for Peter is true for you.  The grace of God follows you.  You have been forgiven for the things in your past for which you have not even forgiven yourself.

In other words, if you look in the rearview mirror of your life you will see gracious face of Jesus—as the psalmist put it, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6, KJV).

The ultimate expression of this grace of God that goes before you and follows you is Jesus’ death on the cross.  Scripture identifies Jesus as the One who chose you before the foundation of the world…to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:4, 6, KJV), and the Lamb of God who on your behalf was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, KJV).  Even as Jesus found himself surrounded by the sharks and vultures of angry sinners, he did not freeze; he did not quit; but instead walked the lonely road to Calvary.

God’s grace toward you began before the foundation of the world, before you were even a glint in your parents’ eyes, and God’s grace remains with you now and always will.

The Lord is gracious—that is good news of the gospel.

And our response is to “continually be given to good works”—in our way, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and share that grace of God with others.

Amen.