Monday, March 19, 2012

Sermon for March 17-18: Grace, Works, and Poopy Treats

(My seminary classmates and those who have read this blog in the past may recognize the "nightlight" story...this was the first time my congregation had heard it, though...)

Grace, Works, and Poopy Treats
March 17-18, 2012

Kiddo and Pumpkin (names changed for the internet) are a little older now, but in reflecting on the passage from Ephesians, I found myself thinking back to when each of them was two years old. 

Which makes sense, because this passage says a lot about grace.  And there’s not a lot of grace involved when you live with a 2 year old. 

These are all sentences Sweetie (name changed for the internet) and I actually found ourselves saying word for word at some point:  “IF you eat your supper, THEN you can have pudding.”  “IF you put away your toys, THEN you can watch Dora the Explorer.”  “IF you go poopy on the potty, THEN you can have a poopy treat.” You know those little Smarties candies? Perfect incentive to get kids to go potty when and where they’re supposed to. AND…unlike M&M’s, they’re also transportable in a purse or pocket without melting, even in the middle of the summer. If you get nothing else out of today’s sermon, you at least now have my one parenting tip.
At any rate, life with a 2 year old is a lot of IF/THEN…because it has to be.  IF you’re good enough, THEN you get rewarded.  2 year olds understand works righteousness very well.

On the other hand, moments of grace do come.  Ever since the kids have been able to sleep through the night, it has been my job when they do wake up at night to go to their room and comfort them.  In the interest of full disclosure…the reason I’m the one who gets up has more to do with common sense than  chivalry or anything like that—I am just a much lighter sleeper than Sweetie.  When one of the kids makes noise, I’m going to wake up either way, so it makes more sense for only one person to wake up than both of us. 

Not long after Kiddo had turned two, he had started waking up with night terrors.  It was completely normal for his age, but when you are woken up at 3 in the morning by the most inhuman screaming, it can be a bit disconcerting, to say the least.  When it first started, we got him a nightlight, and made a really big deal about how he has a “special light” in his room so he can see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  After that, when the night terrors came, I’d go into his room, sit down next to his bed, rub his back and help settle him down.  Then we’d talk about his special light and how he doesn’t have to be scared.  I’d ask him, “does mommy have a special light?” 

"No.” 

“Does daddy have a special light?”

"No, only Kiddo.” 

“That’s right, only Kiddo has a special light.  So you don’t have to be scared.”  (Don’t ask me why that made sense, but for some reason it was a big comfort to his 2 year old mind.)  

Then, usually, he’d be comforted enough to lay back down and go to sleep.
After he had had the nightlight for a couple of weeks, I was pretty proud of how well our discussions about the nightlight were working in helping him go back to sleep.  So one night, I decided to take the discussion one step further.  We went through our usual litany, and then I asked him another question, to see how well he understood what we were talking about: “so why doesn’t Kiddo have to be scared?”

His answer?  “Because Daddy comes.”
The “Theology of the Nightlight” isn’t what mattered to him.  What mattered was that in the middle of the night, daddy comes.  Daddy doesn’t come because Kiddo ate his dinner or because he put away his toys or because he went poopy in the potty—Daddy just comes.  When Kiddo is so terrified that all he can do is cry out, he knows that Daddy comes.  That is faith. 

The theology behind justification isn’t what matters to us.  What matters is that in the middle of the darkness of our sin, our heavenly daddy comes.  He came to us in the manger at Bethlehem, he came to us on the cross at Calvary and in the empty tomb, and he comes to us today.  God doesn’t come to us because of anything we’ve done, God just comes.  When we’re so terrified, when we’re so lost, when we’re so dead in our sin that all we can do is cry out, we know God comes.  That is faith. Faith isn’t understanding and agreeing to a set of propositions. Faith is simply trust.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   

The good news of the gospel is that you are not alone. The good news of the gospel is that it’s not up to you to get it all right, it’s not up to you to make yourself acceptable to God, it’s not even up to you to believe the right things to complete some magical formula to get God to save you. The good news of the gospel is that God has already saved you…if we were to translate the Greek literally in Ephesians 2:8 it would say, “by grace you have been and continue to be saved.”  This is something that has already happened for you, but it’s also something that is continuing in your present reality and will extend into your future. And it’s not because of anything you’ve done. Good OR bad.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, he describes the word “grace” as “surprise love gift.” Grace is a surprise—it’s not anything we expect. The way of the world teaches us that we ought to get what’s coming to us (good OR bad), or that we reap what we sow (good OR bad). God’s grace works backwards from what the world teaches us. Grace is a surprise to us because we DON’T get what’s coming to us, what we deserve. Instead of condemnation, we receive forgiveness.  Instead of death, we receive new life.

Grace is love—our Gospel reading today includes what is probably the most well-known verse out of the entire Bible: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s grace is love. It is love in action.
And grace is a gift. As we’ve heard in Ephesians, it’s not something we earn. It’s not the result of what we do. It’s a free gift from God.

We have been saved…by grace…through faith. And it’s not because of anything we’ve done. BUT…if that’s where we stop, we’ve missed the whole point.
Listen closely, because this is the main point not only of the sermon, but of our entire existence. We’re not saved BY good works, but we were created FOR good works.

In Richard Stearns’ book The Hole In Our Gospel, he writes about what he calls “The Great Omission.” His point was that we’ve taken God’s message of grace and love and have made it far too much about ourselves. About who we are as individuals. It’s too much of “me and God.” Now don’t get me wrong. That’s important. Faith is relationship, it’s trust, it is about me and God…but that’s not the finish line. That’s not where it ends. That's actually where it begins. It's just the starting point. The final end point of my faith is not me. It’s about being able to serve my neighbor. It’s about doing good works. It’s about saving me from my slavery to myself, to needing for it to be all about me, in order that I may turn my focus outward.
And that has been the Great Omission too often in the church. We’ve created this false divide, saying that the gospel is either about my own personal salvation, or it’s about bringing about the kingdom of God through acts of social justice. The reality, according to Ephesians, is that what we’re dealing with is a both/and situation, not an either/or. Verses 8 and 9 are often quoted, and for good reason, but look for a moment at verse 10. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” 

This is how we were created to live. This is who we are.
How many of you have ever been on a mission trip or work trip?

How many of you have ever volunteered for a helping group or organization?
How many of you have ever helped someone who needed it?

When you did those things, how did it make you feel?
I realize that the purpose of our lives isn’t to feel good, but I would argue that the reason helping others is so fulfilling, so deeply enriching to our lives, is because when we do it, we are most fully living out who God created us to be. Seriously—there’s no feeling in the world like being able to walk away knowing that in some way, even if it’s a small way, you’ve made a difference in the life of someone else. As Lutherans, especially, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being so afraid of thinking that we’re justified by good works that we forget to actually do any.

My friends, you have been saved! You have been freed from having to live up to any standard, any measuring stick. This is a gift! The gift is FOR you, but it doesn’t end WITH you…you have been set free as a surprise love gift to live into who you were created to be, to live a life of good works.
And that’s better than a poopy treat any day.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE 

1 comment:

Scott Alan said...

Yay - you're posting again! That's almost as good as a poopy treat! :-)