“At One Time”
Preached by Rev. Karen Hill at Second Presbyterian Church
March 15, 2015
As always Second Pres., it’s a joy to be here and a privilege to worship with you. I bring greetings from First Pres. We are looking forward to sharing our Lenten Mission Project together and then celebrating at the Mission Fiesta on April 26th. At First Pres, we have high hopes for a better showing during this year’s salsa making contest. It could happen.
It seems that grace is in short supply these days. In early American history, the colonists shamed people in the town square. They punished sinners by putting them in the stocks or by whipping and flogging them and sometimes, by hanging them in front of their cheering neighbors. Now, we just use the Internet.
In 2013, Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old communications director for a large New York City firm, was traveling to Cape Town, South Africa to visit family. Before boarding her final flight, she sent a last message on Twitter. It was a sarcastic tweet, a stupid tweet, a fatal tweet. It said, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!”[i]
While she slept through her 11-hour flight, Justine Sacco had no idea the stir she created. In those 11 hours, her tweet became the number 1 tweet worldwide. Millions of people saw it. Few caught the sarcasm. Everyone caught the insensitivity to an AIDS epidemic that affects 65 million people in Africa and the world. Thousands sent hateful messages in response.
Her employer immediately publicly disavowed her. People in New York City waited in bars for her flight to arrive, because they knew she would turn on her phone and find an avalanche of hate mail. A man in Cape Town met her at the airport to take her picture, which he then posted and sent all over the world. Hotels where she was supposed to stay canceled her reservations. Her South African family, who were longtime supporters of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, heard the news before she arrived and were angry with her for racism and for damaging their reputation.
When she returned to the United States, Justine Sacco lost her job, her privacy, her self-respect and so much more. Apologies and explanations did not help. The consequences for this one thoughtless and insensitive remark have been enormous and long-lived.
Justine Sacco’s story is a cautionary tale – the danger of poorly chosen words, the insularity of white North American privilege, the horror of losing your reputation – it is all of these things and so many more. But it is also an illustration of the pitiful lack of mercy and grace for people who make public mistakes. How do you come back from something like this when things live forever on the internet? Google Justine Sacco and see what you find.
How can we not be afraid? A few poorly chosen words and this could be any one of us. Hearing stories like these, watching them play out in the headlines or on the news, reminds us over and over of our need for God’s grace. Not just personally, but also societally. We need to let grace sink in and saturate us so deeply that we cannot be separated.
Our Epistle reading is Ephesians 2.1-10. I’m reading today from the Common English Bible. Listen for God’s gracious word to you
1 At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. 2 You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. 3 At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.
4-5 However, God is rich in mercy. (God) brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. (God) did this because of the great love that (God) has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! 6 And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. 7 God did this to show future generations the greatness of (God’s) grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Perhaps one of the reasons grace is missing in our public lives, is that it is so absent in our personal lives. In seminary I did a chaplaincy internship at UCLA Medical Center. Over the course of my chaplaincy I heard the same story over and over. When I visited patients in the hospital, they told me that while they loved God, they knew that God could never forgive them, could never accept them, and, worst of all, could never love them. This was shockingly common.
Our Ephesians passage begins, “At one time, you were like a dead person.” When God’s grace is missing from our lives, we are dead. When we allow the sins of our past to haunt us, we are dead. When we are so filled with guilt and shame that we cannot experience God’s love, we are dead.
How can we know God’s grace now when we are living in the past?
A number of years ago, Philip Yancey, an Evangelical Christian wrote a wonderful book called, What’s So Amazing about Grace? In it, he said, “There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more. There is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.”[ii]
“There is nothing we can to that will make God love us more. There is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.” This is not a truth where most of us live. Most of us live in a world where we are one stupid tweet away from losing everything. Too many of us carry around burdens of guilt and shame for things that God has already forgiven and forgotten. We have no idea of the freedom God’s grace has to offer. Christians are as guilty of this as anyone. When I was newly ordained and serving in my first call, a women’s group asked me to lead their discussion of a book called, If Grace Is True by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.
I must admit I was not eager to lead this discussion; it felt like an obligation. I was not interested in the book or the topic – I waited until the absolute last minute to read it, which was, of course, the night before I was to lead the group. I didn’t even start reading until after 9pm. Thank God, literally, thank God, I am a fast reader, and it is a short book with big type and wide margins. It wasn’t until reading this book that I saw how little I understood God’s grace. I’ve been a Christian all my life, but I realized that night that I had never really known or experienced God’s grace. That was a hard night.
Gulley and Mulholland define grace as “God’s unfailing commitment to love.”[iii]
Like many people, I grew up with a God who was harsh and judgmental. We talked a lot about God’s love in our church, but it didn’t really translate into lived experience. So, underneath it all, I knew nothing about grace. I grew up trying to be good enough for this judgmental God, trying to persuade that God to love me. Then when I went to seminary, I translated that into trying to know all the right things about God, as if having enough faith would help me earn God’s love. I think there are a lot of people struggling in this way. But this is not how God works. We don’t have to earn God’s love – we can’t. God has already given it to us.
That book about grace changed my life; it changed my ministry, and forever changed the way I feel about church book clubs. Unfortunately, it did not change my lifelong habit of procrastination....
Remember what Ephesians 2 says, “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.”
Good works will not save us and any faith that we possess is a gift from God. It starts with God, and it is all God. That should be a huge relief for all of us. When we stop trying to earn God’s love, we enter into a new relationship with God. We’ve entered into new life with Christ. We’ve left the old life behind, and most importantly, we are free – free to be transparent before God, free to be truly ourselves with all of our imperfections, free to live NOW, knowing that God loves us still.
Why then is there so little grace in the world? Richard Rohr writes in The Naked Now, “...what I let God see and accept in me also becomes what I can then see and accept in myself. And even more it becomes that whereby I see everything else.”[iv] We must let God love us, so that we can love ourselves and then love others. Wouldn’t that change things? When the church is at its best, when Christians are at their very best, this is what we have to offer each other and the world. I hope Justine Sacco had a faith community to offer her God’s love and grace.
A friend of First Pres died recently; I’ll call her Jackie. Jackie had a very sad personal story. She came from wealth but ended up destitute. She was well educated, a professional, but lost her career. She married late, and the marriage ended badly. She had family, but was estranged from them. She was probably mentally ill and definitely struggled with addiction. Jackie wasn’t involved in our church so had few friends there, but she came to rely on one or two members of our church staff for support. Every so often she would call, to talk and to share her story. The stories were terrible, tragic, and painful to hear. She would eventually get around to asking for money. The church did help, over and over. The difficulty with Jackie was that the hole was never filled. The need was too great.
Eventually, we had to say no, and over a year ago, I had to be the one to tell her. So, I said, “We’ll help this one last time and that’s it. You must figure out how to support yourself without the church. Can we help you find other sources of support?” It was a difficult conversation, one I’ve had many, many times over the years with lots of different people. It never gets any easier. As usual, it ended this way with her hurt and angrily protesting, “You’re supposed to be the church; you’re supposed to be a pastor; you’re supposed to love God and love me; you’re supposed to help me.” We didn’t hear from Jackie for quite a while. She called again recently and things were going badly. She was losing her house, renting a room from a stranger. She didn’t ask for, and we didn’t offer any money.
Then a few weeks ago, we got word that Jackie committed suicide. She left no note, no explanation. As you may imagine, it rocked our staff. I worry about my last conversation with her – was I too harsh, did everyone in her life say no at the same time? Did it back her into a corner, leave her no other option? Did we give up too soon? Did we offer enough help, enough grace?
Here’s where we are now. No one has claimed Jackie’s body, and so the church will do it. We have claimed her. We have claimed her because this is the final way that we can help Jackie. We will see to her burial & memorial service. We will claim God’s grace on her behalf, and we will remind ourselves and remind all who knew her that in life and in death Jackie belonged to God. We will try to remember that in spite of her hard life, in spite of her tragic death, there was nothing Jackie could do to make God love her more, and there was nothing that Jackie could do to make God love her less.
While we claim these truths for Jackie, we will also claim them for ourselves, because grace is all about God’s unfailing commitment to love, to love us, you and me, as frail and imperfect as we are. And grace is all about setting us free, free from sin, free from the past, free to live in the NOW.
[i] Jon Ronson, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” www.nyNmes.com/2015/02/15/magazine.
[ii] Philip Yancey. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1997
[iii] Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, 2003. p. 7.
[iv] Richard Rohr. The Naked Now: Learning to See as the MysGcs See. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013. P. 141.
Palabra de Vida
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