Genesis 37:1-11, Ephesians 3:1-10, 14-19
July 27, 2008
Over the years, I’ve occasionally mentioned my own Confirmation Class. And as you may have heard me say, my confirmation experience was, shall we say, “less than stellar.” I’m afraid I didn’t learn very much. And partially because it was a class in bit of chaos. It was around the year 1971, and because of some staff changes, we ended up having three different teachers in that one year. And I also missed a number of meetings because of Boy Scout trips. So I’m afraid I didn’t learn much.
Having said that, there are actually two things I do remember about that class. The first is that we made a lot of collages. Do you remember collages? They were those posters which were made up of a lot of different pictures all glued on at random. Hey, it was a ‘70’s thing! So of course, those collages always included a lot of peace signs and paisleys! That’s the first thing I remember. We made collages. But the other thing I remember about that class is that our teacher (our second teacher, by the way!) asked us a number of times “What is Grace?” But though she asked that a lot, to this day, I don’t remember if she ever actually answered that question! (Though I might have been on a camping trip at the time!)
Well, the more I think about that experience, the more I realize that Grace is one of the most important things we can talk about in our faith! So our teacher was close to giving us something important! And at least we learned the word! But I want us to think today about what Grace actually means.
The classic definition of “Grace” – the one my Confirmation Class teacher should have given us – is “the unmerited favor” of God. In other words, we don’t earn – we don’t deserve – the mercy and the love of God. But! He gives it to us anyway. And he gives it to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ. “It was while we were yet sinners [that] Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We didn’t deserve it! We didn’t earn it! That’s the simple definition of Grace. Though it is so deep we couldn’t fathom it if we spend our entire lives in Confirmation Class!
Grace is then the “good news” of the faith. In fact, we have the word “Gospel.” And that word literally means “good news.” That’s why I don’t say what some other churches say after the Prayer of Confession. You’ve heard some say, “Believe the good news of the Gospel.” Well, that’s redundant! That’s like saying “believe the good news of the good news.” Instead, I have us say, “Believe the good news of God’s love.” And today I’ve made a change in that. Now we’re going to be saying “believe the good news of God’s Grace.” Of course, now you’re going to be thinking about that when we come to that part in the service, aren’t you! And that’s good! (Maybe I’ll do it wrong for you sometime – just to see if you’re listening!)
So Grace is the good news. It is the Gospel. And with that in mind, I want to focus in on something, something that Paul said in this passage from Ephesians. Here in verse two, he talked about the “Stewardship of God’s Grace.” Now, maybe you’ve never thought of that before. But I’m telling you. It really jumped off the page at me! Because that’s an amazing thought. What does he mean by that? The Stewardship of God’s grace.”
When we talk about Stewardship – at that “Stewardship time of year” – we often say that we are “Stewards” of all that God has given us. In other words, we are “keepers” or “overseers.” And there are a number of parables in the New Testament that talk about about stewards and stewardship. And usually, when we think about that, we think in terms of what we might call the “hard assets” of life. That is, we’re stewards of the “material” things in our lives. We’re stewards of our finances. We’re stewards of our buildings and grounds – the “Physical Plant” of our Church. And that makes sense. And I think we’re pretty good at understanding that!
Well, we’re also stewards of the earth. At camp this summer, part of the curriculum teaches the campers that we are “stewards of God’s creation.” We read the part of Genesis where it tells about our God giving us “dominion” over creation. And if you remember, when God created humans and gave them dominion on the 6th day, he looked at that whole arrangement and said that it was, not just good, it was (what? It was) “very good!” I think that’s a wonderful and powerful message for the young people being up there in the beauty of the Pocono mountains. That’s the way God originally intended the stewardship of creation. It is good, and we need to keep it good!
Then, along with all of that, we also think of stewardship in terms of our time and talents. We take the talents God has given us, and the time we have in our lives, and we give those things back to serve God’s kingdom. And I think we all know how important that is! The camp curriculum also included that wonderful parable of Jesus we call the Parable of the Talents, which of course uses that word “talent” as that which the master gave to his servants to manage while he was gone. And even though “talent” was a unit of currency in Jesus’ time, it’s also meaningful because it’s the same as our word which has to do with our abilities and gifts. That always makes for a wonderful lesson!
So that’s all part of our understanding of stewardship. And those are good things to think about when we think of being stewards. But then, along with all of those things, we have today this amazing statement of Paul, where he says that we are stewards – keepers and caretakers – of God’s grace. Now, that’s incredible when you think about it! We have been given the responsibility for that Good News! We are given the responsibility for that wonderful and amazing thing called Grace that God has given us. I hope you’ll take some time to think about the implications of that! For that is an incredible responsibility! And it means more than just telling people about Grace. It means living it, and it means transferring it to others in ways that go beyond just words! We are caretakers of that most precious gift of God! So let’s think about that. Let’s try to get a little bit of a handle on how we are to be “stewards of God’s Grace.”
Well, I think one important part of that is that, since we are to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need to be “gracious” ourselves. Part of that means for us to have a realization of what it means to live our lives under that Grace. And then, in doing so, we exhibit – we show evidence of – God’s Grace in our lives. That’s a huge responsibility! And while we’re thinking about how that looks in our lives, I want to remind you of an old “cliché” in the Church. It used to be that when we looked at someone whose life was in turmoil, we might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” In other words, it’s not by our power, or our righteousness that we live in God’s kingdom, but by God’s righteousness and power. And so we shouldn’t see ourselves as better than others. We know that we haven’t “achieved the kingdom” through anything we have done. It is only through the Grace of God alone, given through the person and the atonement of Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us who we are – not our own achievements. I think that is so important to remember that when we living out God’s grace in this world, and as we think of offering that grace to others.
I don’t know that we do that very well sometimes. I think sometimes we forget that “living” part of Grace. And then we tend instead simply to talk about Grace. And there’s nothing wrong with talking about it. Again, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and God’s Grace is of paramount importance! But sometimes we forget the living part of it. And sometimes we tend to think more about the problems other people have, rather than understanding the amazing nature of Grace as it relates to us! I don’t think it’s so much our job to convict others as much as it’s the job of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s our job to demonstrate the wonder of Grace and the glory of God’s love. Indeed, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
The reason I say that is that sometimes we end up being seen by others as appearing to be “holier-than-thou.” Either that, or that’s a convenient excuse by some for avoiding faith! But either way, if they do end up avoiding the faith, then the result is the same. And of course, that makes our whole witness ineffective. I think it’s always important to avoid the “holier-than-thou” attitude. Because not only is it rarely helpful, but it’s also not really accurate in describing us, anyway. It might be more the case that we are “more-joyful-than-thou” because we know the tremendous love of God and his amazing grace. But that doesn’t mean we’re above another person – and certainly not by virtue of anything we’ve done. Because as Paul says, it’s “…by Grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not our own doing, it is a gift of God. It is not through [our good] works lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Now I have to tell you, that’s a tough message to get across to a world which still feels somehow like it’s a person’s “good deeds” that God looks on. There seems to be some innate understanding of that in a lot of people. “If you’re good, they you are rewarded.” But that’s not how it works. Yes, the “good works” we do for the kingdom are important. But as one writer used to say “good works are a response to God’s Grace, not a means of obtaining it.” (Let me repeat that. It should go on your refrigerator! “Good works are a response to God’s Grace, not a means of obtaining it.”)
We are stewards of all of that! But it’s not our doing. And I hope that makes all of us more humble, more gracious, and more thankful for the tremendous love God has for us. Love which we’re gong to talk about next week, by the way.
So, you have a tremendous responsibility! You have a tremendous joy that is part of the very living of your life. You are to be Stewards – keepers – caretakers – of the Grace of God. May we see today, just how amazing that is – if not just a little bit. Certainly, we’ve only scratched the surface! But may we indeed grow in the understanding of that day by day.
Eternal God, help us to know what it means to be stewards of your Grace. Help us to know our dependence on you, and your great love for us. And give us the same love for the world around us, too. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus our Savior, Amen.