Grace is For All

Update: Here is Audio of the Sermon: 

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.  Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.                                                                    – Ephesians 2:4-10

Video: https://www.sermoncentral.com/church-media-preaching-sermons/sermon-video-illustrations/grace-4856-detail?ref=MediaSerps

(Followed Scripture reading with the above video “Grace” from Igniter Media)

I love that: “God has us right where God wants us – to shower us with God’s grace.”

As a mom, I can only imagine what fun it was for those boys to get the assignment to cover themselves in mud first thing in the morning! And how beautiful to go from that moment of knowing they are in big, big trouble, to realizing they were forgiven, loved, and baptized in grace.

You are saved by God’s grace.

One of the privileges of being a pastor is the gift of making hospital visits. As members of our congregation, friends and family are in the hospital, I get to visit with patients, listen for a while, and pray with them.

Sometimes I get called in to rooms of people who are not part of our church.

Several months ago was one of those occasions. I came to visit a patient named Steve before he faced a serious heart surgery. Steve had been in and out of the hospital several years with health issues, and this surgery was a final medical effort to help him. This particular surgery was risky, and Steve was given about a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. (pause)

While there are classes in Pastoral Care in seminary, nothing really prepares you for what to say in these moments. What would you say? I don’t know the “right answer,” but here is what I said.

As I met with Steve in this sacred, pre-surgery space, Steve was very quiet. I could sense that Steve had been spending a lot of time reflecting on his prognosis, on his life and on his choices. I asked him how he was doing, what he was thinking. What I learned was that Steve had made some questionable choices throughout his years and lived kind of a wild life. He struggled with various addictions and hurt a lot of people. Because of his choices, he was estranged from his fairly religious family. He had been rejected from his church and from his family for decades.

What I learned as Steve was possibly facing the end of his life, was that he was afraid he had done so many bad things in his life, was so far away from God, that he really believed there was no way he could be forgiven.

He believed he had just messed up too much to be saved. For Steve, this was a message that was reinforced by the church he grew up in, a church that labeled him a “sinner” and kicked him out of the faith. Maybe there have been times when you felt like that too.

As I sat with this man who had been suffering for so long, it struck me in our conversation how important the messages we teach as a church are, and the amount of emotional and spiritual damage we can do with a harmful, judgmental theology.

I have been United Methodist my entire life. I’m curious, are there any others in this room who would consider themselves lifelong United Methodists?

If my grandmother were still alive, she would tell you that I was “born Methodist.” I tell you this upfront because it’s probably fair for you to know that United Methodism runs deep for me. My aunt and uncle were United Methodist pastors. United Methodism is the lens through which I see the world. It is how I have always experienced and processed my faith.

And, maybe it sounds corny, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from a pastor, but I love being United Methodist.

I am telling you this first because, in the interest of transparency, you need to know that you are not about to get a three week sermon series on United Methodism from an unbiased source.

Just the same, as a pastor, some of the questions I hear often are: “What does it even mean to be United Methodist?” “How is it different than other types of churches?” “If we are all Christians, why does it matter?” Those are fair questions.

In the next three weeks I hope to share with you some of the most meaningful distinctive characteristics of United Methodism. I believe that our Wesleyan theology (called that because Methodism’s founder was John Wesley) is powerful and beautiful. I also have seen the pain and damage that even well-meaning churches can do to people labeled as sinners.

Today I will talk about our unique understanding of Wesleyan Grace – in particular the three-fold kind of grace that John Wesley called prevenient, justifying and sanctifying (Hang in there! I’ll explain those words as we go along).

My encounter with Steve made me appreciate the theology of grace I’ve always learned about – the knowledge that God’s grace is available for me no matter how messed up I might find myself. I tried my best to share this grace with Steve…and I am so thankful for that heritage of hope, and the blessed assurance that comes from experiencing God’s grace.

Like the kids in the video that opened this message, like Steve, sometimes we may feel like we have gotten ourselves in such a mess that we are beyond redemption. And that’s where grace steps in.

So what is Grace?

Grace is the love and mercy that God gives us because God wants us to have it, not because we have earned it.

It is an undeserved gift and loving action from God through the Holy Spirit. Because God loves us so much, God wants us to experience God’s grace.

John Wesley preached about different types of Grace.

The first type of Grace Wesley called Prevenient Grace, or literally, “the grace that comes before” we are even aware of it. It’s a term most people don’t know, but it just means all of the ways in which God comes into our lives before our conversion.

God is actively present in our entire lives, whether or not we even notice.

Imagine God has the gift of grace just sitting there, ready for us to notice it. We have the option of refusing to accept the gift, but it’s still there waiting for our discovery.

Prevenient grace has a way of preparing you to respond to God when the time is right. Before you even realize God’s grace for you, you may have a sense of how to choose good over evil. God is actively seeking you, wooing you to notice the gift.

Prevenient grace looks like a longing for God in our lives.

In my faith journey, I mentioned that I was “born Methodist.” This means I was baptized as a small child, I grew up going to church and Sunday school. Even though I was going through all of these practices to prepare me, I wasn’t fully aware of God’s grace, or of the importance of that Grace in my life.

We have a tradition in our church of baptizing infants, and this practice is a great illustration of prevenient grace. In infant baptism, we recognize the grace that God has for the baptized, even though the child may not yet understand. The grace is already there.

In the video, it’s the patient dad figure with the garden hose waiting to be noticed.

The second type of Wesleyan grace is “Justifying Grace.” With Justifying grace, or justification, we realize that our sins are forgiven and we can have a restored relationship with God. Everyone’s experience is different, you can think of this as the moment or moments when you realized that Christ’s love for you is real and, in response, you began to live differently.

This can be a grace experienced over a lifetime, or a grace that happens in a sudden moment. With justifying grace, we face a time of conversion or a new beginning in our relationship with God.

In my faith story, I point to a moment at a Christian rock concert when I was 14 years old as my key moment of justifying grace. Although I had the gift of learning about God’s grace my entire life, up until that point I was being prepared for a moment when I would have said “I accepted Christ.” It was a change of heart that was prompted by grace and guided by the Holy Spirit.

In John Wesley’s story, he was raised in a Christian family and had been around church his entire life. His moment of justification was on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed and sensed that he was saved through the Holy Spirit.

In the lives of many, justifying grace happens without all the fanfare – it’s a sense of assurance that God loves you, forgives you and leads you to transformation…to a sense of healing and wholeness.

In the video, it’s the precious moment when the kids realize they are not going to be punished for their mischief. They are forgiven and loved.

Have you experienced this kind of grace? When did you first know that Christ was real in your life?

Finally, the third type of Wesleyan grace is called sanctifying grace.

The word “sanctify” means to make something holy, set apart. It means to make something clean.

How it works is this:

Once we realize that God’s grace is a gift to us, once we accept that gift and are convinced to turn our ways toward Christ, we enter the lifelong process of sanctification. In simpler terms, once we know and experience God’s grace, we begin the process of learning to be more like Jesus. This is the ongoing experience of God’s graciousness transforming us into who God intends us to be.

There is so much good news in the theology of Grace. Grace means we are all welcome here. No matter what kind of messiness has taken you away from God, God’s grace is for you. We have the opportunity to grow together in our faith, learning together what it means to be Christ followers.

Today in our Back to Grace series, explored John Wesley’s view of Grace, including prevenient grace (the grace that comes before we realize it), justifying grace (the grace that happens when we are justified or converted), and sanctifying grace (the grace that we experience over a lifetime of growing in the faith.)

In the next two Sundays, we will take a closer look at personal and social holiness, the faith practices we can do in response to God’s grace in order to become more like Christ.

We all come in to this space on different parts of our faith journey. You may have always known about God’s love for you, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness for you. Or you may be in a place where you have been deeply wounded, you not only have felt rejected by the Church but you’re even rejecting yourself….keeping yourself from accepting God’s gift of grace.

There may be someone in here this morning who finds they are feeling lost and hurt like Steve I visited in the hospital. If you find yourself in a place of pain, needing to know God’s grace and forgiveness, I want you to really hear these words:

You are forgiven. You can find hope in knowing God’s grace is here for you. You are forgiven.

On the other hand, if you’re in this place and you really are feeling okay, blessed even, I would like to take this message in to a slightly different direction. This morning we have focused on God’s grace for us. Made in the image of God, we are called to accept God’s grace and then, in turn, extend grace to one another. I have a prayer and a challenge for you:

As we move forward as a community of grace, prayerfully seek out those who need to know God’s grace.

Who are your neighbors who desperately need to know about the hope and grace you have found?

Who do you need to invite to know God’s love for them?

My prayer is that each of us can be like the dad in the video. Get out the hose and shower others with God’s grace through your actions.

That is a relaunched vision I would love to see. Amen.

Will you pray with me?

God of grace,

We thank you for being a God who calls out to us, laying down the groundwork so we can discover the love and forgiveness, grace and acceptance you have always had for us. Open our hearts to realize who it is in our lives who needs to experience some of your grace. We pray for our friends and neighbors who are missing out on knowing the love you have for each of us. God, please forgive us when we neglect to show grace to one another, or refuse to even give our own self some grace. Soften our hearts toward all of your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Questions to Consider:

How have you experienced God’s grace in your own life?

To whom do you need to extend grace?

Fearfully and Wonderfully – a sermon on Psalm 139

Based on Psalm 139, this is the sermon that I preached on Sunday, June 3, 2018, at New World United Methodist Church, Arlington, Texas. You can listen to the sermon online on the church’s website.

Introduction

tree original mixed media erin sloan jacksonOn April 29th, our congregation wrapped up the Healthy Church Initiative weekend. After our consulting team’s four prescriptions were read (including the one that could mean I will begin preaching regularly), we were walking out the door. A church member caught me on the way out and said offhandedly, “Well, I guess we’re going to get to know you a lot better.” 

Oh. I’d considered how my work schedule would be impacted by the change, but I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, I imagine as I write sermons and share bits from my life from here and there, you will get to know me better.

I went home and shared that comment with my husband that night over dinner, and his reaction was great: “Oh yes, they’ll definitely get to know more about you…and if I mess anything up they’ll probably hear about me, and they’ll get to know stories about the kids. Every time one of us messes up or says something funny, you’ll be thinking, “oh, that’ll preach.”” (I may or may not have already threatened one of my kids that he was about to become a sermon illustration…)

So I’m not so sure how I feel about all that sharing. I’m pretty introverted, but most of my family is not. I know that my bigger kids are a little mortified about their lives being exposed from the pulpit.

But that did get me to thinking… What is it about sharing about our personal lives that made us so uncomfortable? Why did we all have basically the same reaction?

We will take a look at what it means to be known, what keeps us from wanting to be known, and what it means for us as a community of faith to know one another.

Today’s Psalm reading, Psalm 139, is one of my favorite passages of Scripture – it’s my go-to passage for my art and prayer workshops. As I move through the sermon this morning, I invite you to open to the Scripture in a Bible or the New Living Translation version on your smartphone so you can follow along.

What does it mean to be known?

Psalm 139 begins with Verse 1: “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.”

There are a couple of ways to look at this word. It’s pretty common today to be satisfied with being “known” in the sense that people know your name, your image, they recognize you.

Instagram as a career

In fact, I learned recently that some people have made a lucrative career just out of being “Instagram known.” Instagram is a social media application that allows you to post and share photos. Like other social media, you can follow your favorite Instagrammers to see their latest posts & people can follow you back. The app keeps track of how many followers you have. You know you’re a cool kid if you have more people following you than you are following.

If you’re a professional Instagrammer though, you can capitalize on having a high number of followers. People who have more than 100,000 followers are considered “macro influencers” by savvy marketers and are often paid by companies to visit their businesses and post about it.

Once these influencers get into the range of about 400-500K followers, they can make something like $3-6K for a single sponsored post. This is one way of being known – in the sense of being famous or recognizable.

But what you are seeing in the photos isn’t even real. What you don’t see is the effort behind the photo. They are seated at tables with ideal lighting. There may be strategically placed beautiful people in the shots trying to make the venue look cool without looking like it was a staged photo. People may even come with their own makeup and lighting crew, use a professional photographer, then airbrush the photo to create that perfect Instagram moment the brands want.

So…if you want to go ahead and follow me on Instagram right now, I’ve only got about 400,000 more followers to go.

Culture of putting image first

So, we live in a culture permeated with the pressure to project our best images out to the world. This pressure has always been around (consider even Adam and Eve tried to pull one over on God), but Social media in general has intensified the pressure and given us a platform for choosing what images we share – including the humble-brag highlights of our weeks peppered with a few carefully filtered pictures of the food we eat. Through this lens, we live in to these roles as caricatures rather than sharing our true character. Your likeness… your image… is made known rather than your character.

It is really easy to live our lives in this safe, superficial mode of relating to one another. The problem is – if we live our lives at this level, we are missing out on the essential part of being in community in one another.

There is a different meaning of the word “known”

The Psalm continues: “You know my thoughts even when I’m far away…You know what I’m going to say even before I say it, O Lord…such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too great for me to understand.”

There is a different meaning of the word “known” that deep down we all long for. It’s a messier, more vulnerable kind of being known that goes much deeper. It requires a willingness to let people in to see your junk, to let people know your struggles, your sin patterns, and even your heartaches.

Methodism’s founder John Wesley formed small groups that developed deep community through hard questions like “How is it with your soul?” and “Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?” Wesley seems to have realized that we all crave this kind of community where we are known, but it’s a practice we are tempted to hold at arm’s length.

What keeps us from being known in this way?

This kind of being known requires that we risk rejection, recognize our worthiness, and put forth the effort.

Fear of rejection

A primary fear that keeps things superficial is a fear of rejection. We don’t let people get to know us because we are afraid they will discover something about us that they won’t like and they may reject us.

Even clergy writing sermons are tempted to keep sermons safe and unobjectionable because of the fear that people will leave the church if their toes get stepped on. (for the record, you don’t have to always agree with what I say in my sermons, but please don’t reject me….)

Sense of unworthiness

A second fear that keeps us from being known is a fear of being unworthy. It is tempting to believe at times that you are somehow not worthy of being known and loved by others. I love how this Psalm reminds us that each of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful (or marvelous) are God’s works.” God’s character goes into the creation of every person. When you feel worthless, or even begin to hate yourself, you can remember that God’s spirit is ready and willing to work within you.

You are worth knowing. Every person with whom you lock eyes is also worth knowing.

Distraction/Too Busy

A third barrier to knowing one another is that we are just too busy to put forth the effort. With so much to do all the time, it’s a lot easier to just be friendly than to really be in community. Honestly, it’s a lot of work to get to the point that you are really known. Just think of how we greet each other with niceties like “How are you?” “Fine, you?” It takes more work to think about how you really might be feeling, and even more work and risk to share that information with other people.

To really get to know one another takes time, listening, and sharing life with one another. It’s easier and quicker to make sweeping assumptions about how other people are based on the boxes we put people in like politics, race, gender and education, than it is to really get to know one another as fellow human beings.

The question to consider is, which fears and excuses are you willing to give up in order to risk being known?

What does it mean that God knows us so well?

How well God knows us

How well does God know us? God knows us completely. God has examined our hearts and knows everything about us. God knows us in minute detail, God knows the number of hairs on our head. As the Psalmist reminds us, God is inescapable and always with us, even in our dark and secret places.

God has been with us from the very beginning, since before we were even knit together in our mother’s wombs. God is never going to abandon us.

God is a faithful & trustworthy knower

Although God knows us completely with a knowledge that is “too wonderful” for us to comprehend…God still abides with us and loves us.

What we can learn from this is: God is a faithful and trustworthy knower.

God also wants to be completely known by us. John Wesley preached on a concept he called “spiritual respiration” or breathing. Just as we must have breath in order to live, we must have God as part of our existence in order to be spiritually alive. A challenge with this is that, unlike breathing, to be in relationship with God takes conscious effort on our part. We can grow to a point of deep community with God through developing habits like regular prayer, Scripture study, and life in Christian community. We can grow to a point of deep community with one another through developing habits like praying for one another, studying Scripture together, and working toward really knowing and understanding each other.

Conclusion

Words of hope and a Call to action

As people of faith, we are also called to grow to a point of deep community with the all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Rev. Joseph Nader reminded us last week, we each have unique and important gifts and talents to bring to the Body of Christ. As a community, we need to know one another and to allow ourselves to be known. As a group of people with diverse views on a lot of subjects, we have a beautiful opportunity to model healthy Christian community. I challenge you to take someone out to lunch and get to know one another. It’s worth the risk. And as we move forward as a faith community no matter the results of today’s vote, we can have full confidence that God is present even as we venture in to uncharted territory.* My prayer for each of us is that we be willing to see the image of God in one another.

Let us pray:

O Lord who searches and knows us, we praise you for your constant presence and love in our lives. We are reminded today that there is no darkness we can encounter, no circumstance we can face, no place we may venture, no choice we may make that can separate us from your complete, all-encompassing love for us. Help us to lean into remembering that you, God, are always with us. Help us to risk getting to know one another so that we can be the kind of people who are known for how we love you, love one another, and strive to be your disciples. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

Discussion:

What key takeaways do you have from this message? What keeps you from being known by others? Who do you know that needs to hear this message?

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*Later in the day on June 3, New World’s congregation voted 133-3 to adopt and move forward with the Healthy Church Initiative prescriptions. Go to nwumc.org to learn more about New World United Methodist Church.

Giving credit where credit is due: Scripture links are to the New Living Translation version of the Psalm on Biblegateway.com. Instagram career link is to an article on Elle.com. To learn more about John Wesley’s questions, check out umcdiscipleship.org. Be sure to read up on John Wesley’s sermon too. Follow me on Instagram @erinjackso.

Thanks for visiting and reading all the way to the bottom of the page! I hope you’ll leave a comment. Be blessed!  ESJ