Cornerstone, Week 2: Grace
This is the second week of our message series we’re calling Cornerstone. We are taking five weeks to look at the bedrocks of our faith and what has brought our parish to the point where we find ourselves today. We’ll also take a look at what’s ahead.
Last week, we talked about the importance of Jesus as our cornerstone. Jesus Christ alone is our cornerstone. And our vision is based on Jesus’ vision for us, and that love should be our primary motivator for carrying out Jesus’ vision for us. That vision is to be a place where it becomes impossible not to share Jesus with the world!
We spoke of reaching the lost, those disconnected from church or God, who seem to be drowning in the sea of confusion we call life. There are millions of people like that in the world and Jesus wants us to share him with them, to share him with the world.
If an organization is going to be great and make an impact, it is because it has a great vision and is able to execute that vision. Complacency kills. The right vision, well executed, gives life. We carry forward Jesus’ vision which is to share him with the world. Everything we do at Saint Mary is based on sharing Jesus with the world.
So we asked you to sign up fora way to share Jesus with the world by having three simple conversations. It is a very easy way to connect with one another and with God.
Today we are going to look at another important foundation of our parish by looking at a parable from the Gospel of Matthew, one of the twelve apostles and one of the unlikeliest people to be an apostle. He was not a church person at all but a tax-collector, generally considered traitors to their country.
Jesus tells a story of a king who decided to settle the debts of his servants. In those times, there was no payment schedule, if you owed money and your debtor wanted the money back, they could simply demand it, and you had to pay it or go to jail.
In this story a servant has no way of paying back money he owes his master. The servant owes the master ten thousand talents, this was a huge amount; a common worker would only make several talents in a life-time. So his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, “Be patient with me and I will pay you back in full.” This was, as ridiculous and absurd of a promise as the amount itself. He could never repay it– not in ten lifetimes, let alone one.
However, moved with compassion, themaster of the servant let him go and forgave him the loan. So out of pure mercy, the master forgave the debt. That’s what forgiveness is, canceling the debt. Through no merit of his own and for no other reason than the master’s kindness and mercy the man is freed from his enormous debt.
If the story ended there it would be a happy one. But Jesus’ stories often have surprising twists and turns. When the servant left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a paltry sum of money, not a large amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, “Pay back what you owe.”: the scene plays out as before, falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,“Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But the first guy refused to forgive the debt owed by the second guy. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in debtors prison. Generosity is paid forward with cruelty. This quite naturally bothers us and Jesus knew it would. When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned the first guy and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you the entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”
It’s not a question of the first guy forgetting the grace and mercy he himself received, it’s a question of his failing to incorporate these blessings into his heart.
We can actually receive grace and blessings, and it makes absolutely no difference. Just like some people receive communion every Sunday and they’re the same miserable people after they receive communion that they were before they received. That is because God does not force us to change. It is up to us to change with God’s help, God’s grace. Remember grace is unmerited acceptance and help from God. We don’t earn God’s acceptance and help, he gives it to us freely. He refuses to force change on us. Our desire to open our hearts, to his acceptance, and changedetermines whether or not we accept or reject God’s acceptance and help, his grace.
Back to Jesus’ story
The first guy, who was originally forgiven his debt, ends up exactly where he would have been had he never been blessed, never forgiven, in a prison of his own selfish creation. So, in his anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he paid back the whole debt, which he could never do.
In a parable, someone is God, and someone is us: Jesus makes it clear who is who. He says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives the other from your heart.”
Until we forgive from our heart we’re subjecting ourselves to a form of torture, a kind of prison of our own making. Our lack of forgiveness makes us miserable.
Along with teaching us about forgiveness, Jesus teaches something about who we are. I AM that servant who owed a huge debt I could not pay. YOU ARE the servant who owed a huge debt you could not pay. We owed God a debt we could not pay. The debt is called sin. And God in his mercy and grace has cancelled your debt and my debt. God paid the debt by sending his Son who died on the cross for you and me.
That’s Grace. Grace is a gift. You can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can’t pay it back. You can only pay it forward.
And the Church was established to be the primary place where that happens. The church is to be God’s instrument of grace. Other organizations can build houses, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and heal the sick. And we support those organizations as a parish, but no other organization has, as its mission, the paying forward of God’s grace.
Unfortunately church-goers can act with an incredible lack of grace. There are lots of people who stopped going to church, not because of religious or theological reasons, but simply because they experienced a graceless environment. Christians should be the most accepting people. God accepted us when WE were unacceptable.
Like the servant we can easily forget about God’s grace. If we aren’t careful, we can become self-righteous. But we cannot forget that every single one of us is in need of grace. The moment we forget that, as a parish, the moment that leaves our culture, we have lost our way.
This is an imperfect church for imperfect people. If you’re a perfect person, you’re in the wrong parish. You need to go to. . . another parish for perfect people. Imperfect people know they need God’s grace and are willing to change. Imperfect people, who know they need God’s grace, extend grace to others. People who know they need God’s grace, extend grace to others.
So how do we extend grace to others? God’s grace must be extended to every single person who walks through our front doors, or experiences us online, regardless of ethnicity, political persuasion, sexual orientation, personal history, past mistakes, hair color, or how long they have been away from church, or maybe never been in church.
This is why our hospitality ministers are so critically important to the kind of church we want to be because they extend God’s grace.
But the message of grace isn’t just for our hospitality ministers to convey. It’s the message of all our members and regulars too. All of us are supposed to convey the message of God’s grace. God’s grace is communicated in graciousness and civility and an intolerance for grumpiness or selfish behavior. Then we’ve got to take that message of grace and apply it, increasingly, to the whole of our lives, and all our relationships and associations. Treating others as God has treated us.
This is the kind of church we want to be. The church is most appealing when grace is most apparent. The church is most appealing when grace is most apparent.