On Being Gracious
It was a Sunday morning early in my appointment. The congregation & I were still getting to know each other & get a feel for each other. We were still finding our rhythm, if you will. We had agreed that we wanted to make sure that everybody is welcome. We would turn away only the people that Jesus turns away. We also agreed there would be no distinction between male & female in positions of leadership. We had a nice day.
Everybody seemed to have a good time except one man who waited on me with heavy brow & deeper voice. He continued to come regularly but he had an objection about the day. I asked him what it was & he said, “The Scripture you read.”
I said, “What was wrong with it?” He said, “A bad choice.” I said, “Well, those were the words of Jesus.”
And he said, “Well, there are a lot of words in the Bible that are out of keeping with the spirit of our time. It’s just out of touch. What people expect of the church now-a-days is not a lot of talk about cross-bearing & loving enemies, they want to come to church to feel better, be a part of a group that will help them be successful. In a case or 2 maybe some therapy but otherwise, we get together to mutually enjoy each other, so knock off the ‘ought’ & ‘must’ & ‘should.’”
I said, “Why?”
And he said, “It sets the bar too high. If you keep doing it, you’ll ruin the church.” He said, “There will always be these little cinderblock churches where people meet once a week to make each other miserable & if you’re not careful, you’ll be one of those. Don’t be out of touch with the spirit of the time.”
He wasn’t a member, but he kept coming. He was a sincere & good person. But when the time came to join, he never did. Though he continued to come, he never joined. He objected to those words. I read them to you this morning. I read to you this morning the same Scripture that I read that day. If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them.
Jesus, according to Luke, had prayed on the mountain that night; he prayed all night. And the next morning, from among the disciples that now followed him, he selected 12, & called them apostles, to be with him & go out in his name & minister. After he selected them, Luke says he went down to a level place. I remind you this is Luke. You know Matthew has this teaching on a mountain because he elevates Jesus as the new Moses, bringing the law of God to the earth.
But Luke has Jesus come down on a level place, one of the people. Around him gather 3 circles: the Twelve immediately around him, the apostles, & then the larger group of disciples from whom they were selected. And then the third ring around him, those who are interested in what he is saying but not quite ready to make any kind of commitment or confession. And to them all he said: If you love people who love you, big deal. (My translation.) Why should you be commended? Sinners do that. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full.
You are to love & to do good & to lend to people who will give absolutely no thanks to you, no gift in return, no positive response, no love to you, & no kindness to you. Why? Because that’s the way God does, that’s the way God is. If you want to be my follower you do not let your life become dictated by the people around you. The people who reject you determine your life? No. The people who accept you determine your life? No. Enemies define your life? No. Friends define your life? No. The people who hate you & the people who love you do not create your character. Your character is created by the character of God.
Now, what is the character of God? God is kind to ungrateful & wicked people. That’s what Jesus said. And the critic there in worship that day, bless his heart, said, “Now don’t start off setting the bar too high. You’ll ruin the church. Stay in touch with the times, don’t get out there in never-never land where nobody lives.”
Yet God is kind to everybody. You are to be children of God. The people who’ve attended here for a while know that once in a while I throw out a Greek word to remind them that I know more than they do. The New Testament was written in Greek & in the expression 3 times repeated, why should you be commended, the word translated commended is the word which most everywhere else is translated “grace.” What grace is that? If you love those who love you, where is the grace? If you do good to those who do good to you, where is the grace? If you lend to those who lend to you, where is the grace? Well friends, there is no grace.
This is the principle: We are to be gracious as God is gracious. The final work of grace in anyone’s life is to make a person gracious, but don’t set the bar too high. Stay in touch with reality. Don’t go floating off. It is a beautiful expression, isn’t it? And yet… God is kind to ungrateful & wicked people.
When I’m studying Scripture, I don’t know how it is with you, but when I study Scripture, I try to use my 5 senses & relate them to the text. What does it taste like, what does it smell like, what does it feel like, & what does it sound like? This text, God is kind to ungrateful & wicked people, when I put it to my ear, what does it sound like?
The great preacher, Fred Craddock, would tell of growing up in West TN. His nearest neighbors were an African-American family, John & Jeanetta Graves & their sons. They had a well in the backyard with a windlass that you used to crank up the bucket & get the water, just like the Craddock’s. But theirs was a shallow well & sometimes John Graves would go up & call out “Mr. Fred” & Fred’s father would go out & John would have a couple of buckets. “I came to get some water, our well is dry.” Mr. Craddock would pick up a stone, rub the dirt off it as best he could & drop it in his well. That’s the way he could tell how much water he had. If it was just kind of a shallow, cheap, tinnish splash, Mr. Craddock would say to John, “Well, we’re going to have to divide this. Looks like we’ll have something to drink, maybe wash our hands, but no bath tonight, John.” But when he dropped a stone in there & it went, “Ker plunk,” he would say, “Take all you want; take enough to have a bath, John.” And John would say, “Now let’s not get carried away.”
When I read this Scripture, I hear “Ker plunk.” It is deep & profound, but I remember what the man said, “Don’t set the bar too high.” It is a beautiful expression. Stephen Webb calls this the language of sacred excess: beautiful to read, lovely to contemplate, marvelous as an ideal, but, but, but, it’s not where anybody lives. You cannot be gracious in the world because relationships are complex & painful & awkward & some need so much attention. And some relationships are so high maintenance you simply cannot be gracious.
I once went to the post office & some prisoners were working on the sidewalk. Some counties use prisoners for that kind of work. You could tell by their clothes they were prisoners. There was guard there too. They were finishing up their work on the sidewalk & when I noticed how nice it was, I said, “Thank you, guys; it looks real nice. You did a good job.” And the guard said, “You don’t thank them; they’re prisoners.” It is hard to be gracious in a world like ours.
Allegheny, PA. Robert McCall had aplastic anemia. “You have to have a bone marrow transplant or you’re going to die, Robert.” He was 39 years old. Found a cousin named David, a perfect match, a perfect match. Hallelujah! The time came for the transplant & David said, “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going through the pain. I’m not going to run the risk. I’m not going to do it.”
Robert was so angry & so disappointed. He took the case to Common Pleas Court, Judge Flaherty presiding. He made his case before the judge & the judge said, “Robert, we have all kinds of laws in this state about taking & hurting life, but we don’t have a single law that compels anybody to give life, not a one. I can’t, this Court can’t, make David give you life. And this Court cannot make you forgive David for not doing it. There are some matters beyond the Court. They are matters of the heart.” Where is the grace here? Where is the grace?
The fellow at the worship service said, “Don’t set the bar too high.” I said, “Well, I’m not setting the bar.” He said, “Yeah, but you picked out that Scripture. There are other Scriptures.” I said, “That is true.”
He said, “Get real or you’ll ruin the church.”
What I said that day is what I say today. It makes no sense & ultimately I think is of no value for us to think of the grace of God as simply something to wallow around in & feel good, like a warm bath. To talk about being saved by the grace of God & grace covers all our sins & all that. It’s true, it is true, but that’s not all that is true. It is also said that if you only love people who love you, give to people who give to you, do good to people who do good to you, where is the grace? Where is the grace? You & I, we are to be as God is. Gracious.
Let us pray. Jesus, sometimes, when you speak of what you expect from us, it seems that you are raising the bar too high. You command us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to give to the needs of others without expecting in return. Well, Lord, who is able? Are you serious, Lord? Do you really think that ordinary people like us can meet such high standards of righteousness? Forgive us, Lord, when we dismiss your demands as impossible expectations. Forgive us when we set our own bar too low, when we let ourselves off the hook too easily. Forgive us when we forget how much you love us, how much you believe in us, how much you have done for us. Forgive us when we fail to remember that you are not only demanding but also forgiving. Amen.