The Difficulties of Grace
Sunday, July 23, 2006
II Samuel 7: 1-14a
life as a shepherd boy living with the sheep in the field. And now he is the king
people had built David a palace, a beautiful house constructed of the
wonderful cedar wood from
Talking to the prophet Nathan one day, David begins to feel guilty. He is living in a beautiful home while the ark of God is housed in a tent. So, he proposes to Nathan that he wants to build a house for God – he wants to build God a temple.
Nathan tells David to go ahead with the project, but that night God speaks to Nathan, and it turns out God is affronted by the idea of David building a house for God. God gets a little testy about it.
God says to Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Do you suppose that I need you to build a house for me to live in?”
At first when you read Nathan’s conversation with God, you might think that God objects to living in a house at all, that he is saying that a tent is good enough for God. But, no, God allows that one of David’s offspring will build a house for God and God seems comfortable with this. God seems to have no objection to living in a nice house.
No, apparently the problem has something to do with David, not the idea of God having a house to honor God’s name. Somehow in his plan to build a house for God, David has stepped over some kind of line in his relationship with God.
“Remind David,” God says to Nathan, “Thus says the Lord: I am the one who took you from the fields where you were spending all your time with sheep. And I am the one who protected you from your enemies. I am the one who has been with you wherever you have gone. And I am the one who has been taking care of you. I am the one who will make for you a great name. I am the one who will build a house for you.”
It is as though God were saying to David: don’t forget that you need me more than I need you. I need nothing from you, really. But you need everything from me, and always will.
So here is the message that God seems to be getting across to David in the story and perhaps to us: All of us begin and end life owing God, and none of us can ever pay the debt. All of life is a gift. All of life is grace. And life can never be anything else but grace.
Our relationship with God and even with others always begins from the reality that we are the recipients of a gift. We have been given what we did not earn or deserve and what we will never, even if we live to be 160, be able to repay.
All of life is grace.
Our appropriate attitude toward God is always and forever one of gratitude toward God and toward the universe itself and toward life.
This is what I think David’s problem was: I think David wanted to build God a house not out of a sense of gratitude, but out of a sense of wanting to escape gratitude toward God. David wanted to repay God so that he would not have to owe God. He wanted to get his debts to God off of his back.
This is what God became testy about – as though building a temple could compensate God for all of the ways that God had blessed David.
is a hard thing to live out of and to live with. All of us, I hope,
experience gratitude. Who of us who has been watching what is happening in southern
Who of us, when we think about it, does not experience a taste of gratitude when our lives, relatively speaking, are so calm and peaceful?
Sometimes when I am on my bicycle I experience this wonderful feeling, this flash of gratitude that, aging as I am, my body is still relatively healthy and strong enough to be pedaling a bicycle.
Sometimes there is a flash of gratitude just for life itself…the simple fact that I am here, when I didn’t have to be here. I could have never been. Life itself is a gift.
I hope all of us have experiences of the taste of just being grateful for all of the goodness and blessings that we have received and for life itself.
But living in a continual posture and spirit of gratitude is something different. It is very difficult and may even be impossible for us. To receive every moment and circumstance and aspect of life as a gift: this is a hard thing.
We want to feel as though we’ve earned our blessings.
There was an old mystery series in which the main character was a man named Nero Wolf. Every time a client came to meet with him, Nero Wolf would begin by asking the person: How do you justify your existence? What is the justification for your existence?
People would talk about good deeds they had done or the important work that they do. But it always seemed to fall a little flat. The reason for that is that the only real answer is: My existence is justified because God and the universe have given me the gift of life. All of life is a gift. My only justification for being is that I have received life as a gift.
One of the reasons why it is hard to maintain this posture, this spirit of gratitude is because there is always something within ourselves (and I know this well), there is something within ourselves that wants to feel sorry for ourselves. If you are living out of a spirit of gratitude for even being, for everything that we have received, for every gift within our body and our mind and our spirit, it is really hard to feel sorry for yourself.
William Sloane Coffin used to say that there is no greater pleasure in life than waking up in the morning and beginning our day by raking our garden of grievances, our garden of grievances, all of the things in life about which we are resentful or unhappy. Just to rehearse that and to live out of this sense of things that we have somehow been cheated out of in life. He says that it is a delicious pleasure. We can’t live out of our grievances if we live in a spirit of gratitude.
Another reason it is hard to maintain this spirit of gratitude is that actually it does not allow us to be too hard on ourselves. If we fall short of perfection, well we do. Life is a gift. Life is a gift. It is not something we earn by being perfect any way. Everything is a blessing. We don’t deserve any of it in the final analysis.
This week we had a staff retreat at my house for a couple of days, and for Wednesday dinner we got this big order of Salvadoran food from a local Salvadoran restaurant. It was great – a lot of leftovers went into our refrigerator. That night, or the next morning, I woke up about 4 in the morning, lay in bed for a while, tried to get back to sleep, and couldn’t sleep, so around 5 a.m. I got out of bed, came down to the kitchen, sat there for a while, and then at 5 a.m. in the morning opened the refrigerator and ate a cheese quesadilla.
All the next day I felt guilty about this. I have been working so hard about eating the right stuff and getting enough exercise, and, man, I was feeling guilty about my 5 a.m. Salvadoran quesadilla. So I confessed my guilt later in the day to somebody and I guess I went on about it too long because he said to me: “You know, I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but this is such a small thing to obsess about, isn’t it? Did it ever occur to you to be grateful you had a quesadilla in the refrigerator in the first place?”
Well, living in a continual spirit of gratitude keeps us from being too hard on ourselves. It is all an underserved gift anyway. It’s all a blessing anyway. And I really think that it is this spirit of gratitude that you and I and all humanity has such a hard time with. I think it is this spirit of gratitude that finally makes love possible between us.
Every time we celebrate communion here at Foundry, we announce that all are welcome to participate. You don’t need to be a member of this church. You don’t have to be a member of any church. You don’t have to meet any qualifications. All you need to do is answer God’s invitation to come and to receive this bread and this wine.
In a membership orientation class one time, I was asked a question that at the time I had no idea how to answer. The question was this: “Why should I join this church if I can get communion without being a member? As a matter of fact,” he said, “it seems to me that I can do just about anything I want around this church without joining or becoming a member. So, why should I become a member of this church?” In effect, he was asking me: “What are the privileges of membership?”
I didn’t know what to answer because it is true that you can have communion and I have never known anybody who was turned away from anything here because they weren’t a member.
occurred to me much later that membership in the
Only later then does it begin to say: are you willing to think about what it would mean to live in such a way that you would demonstrate the love of God to others? Are you willing to gratefully receive God’s love?
I think this is something to do with the ramp that we are building and that we are breaking ground for today. You know, the ramp is a symbol of us. It is a reality, but it is also a symbol of us attempting to be a more fully welcoming congregation.
When I go and meet with other churches that are thinking about becoming reconciling congregations, I am often asked the question: why do we need to say anything? We can just be a welcoming church. Why do we need to make a statement or an announcement that everyone, including gay and lesbian people, is welcome here? Why do we need to say anything about it? We will just act nice and welcoming.
The response to that, of course, is that the history of the church has been so rejecting to gay and lesbian people that we have to say it now in order to correct the message that we sent out in the past. We cannot just get past it without saying it. It seems to be a hard thing for a lot of churches to say it.
You know, I have been asked once or twice the question: We’ve got a ramp on the side, and we’ve got an elevator, why do we need to have a ramp outside? The answer, of course, is that we have to announce to the world that we want everyone to be able to come in the front door.
I think the reason the church and we sometimes have problems with these things, saying it and putting a ramp out front and all of the other things we have to do to bear witness to the testimony that everyone is welcome here, I think the reason why we have a hard time with this is that these things are reflections of what we are not grateful for in ourselves.
I think there are so many of us in the church that are confused, whatever our sexual orientation, we are confused about our own sexuality and not accepting and welcoming and grateful for our own sexuality that we have a hard time being welcoming to people and their sexuality.
I think there are so many of us within the church who are not welcoming of our own ways that we are differently abled, the ways that we are not able in the ways that the world considers ability, we are so unaccepting of it and so resentful and ungrateful for our own physical and emotional and spiritual limitations, that the lack of church accessibility is really an indication that we are ungrateful for our own differences within our own self so that we don’t want to go the extra mile to be grateful and welcoming to the presence of others.
I think our lack of gratitude is what gets in the way of our being fully loving, and only if we can let God love those parts of ourselves that we aren’t very happy about, can we truly learn to love everyone whom God has given us to be our beloved brother and sister.