A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on March 15th, 2015
We had just arrived in a small, remote village two and a half hours outside of the city of La Esperanza. Thirteen of us from Three Chopt Presbyterian Church on a summer mission trip together to Honduras after my junior year of college.
Once we arrived, one of the men there asked us if we would like to go for a walk through the village.
Now, in Honduras, when somebody asks you if you would like to go for “a walk,” what they really mean is
would you like to go on a two hour hike up and down impossible inclines?
All of us put on our best walking shoes and set out down the main dirt road that cuts through the village.
I grabbed my water bottle at the last minute.
The day before we had arrived, it had rained hard but the main road was dried by the sun. After a short walk up the main road, we stopped at the beginning of this little path that led up to the top of the mountain that we were evidently taking.
Because it had rained the day before, I had seen that there was a patch of mud that we would have to jump over to get to the dry path that led up the mountain. And would you know it, I ended up being the first person in our group to jump across this muddy pit between where we were and where we were going. So I clenched my water bottle in my left hand like it was a football and I took a step back to get a running start. I leapt…and my left foot landed right into the mud, ankle deep. I took my foot out of the mud and laughed, embarrassed at myself.
Then I took another couple steps back to use my momentum, and I jumped—and I landed once again in the mud, my right foot this time. It wasn’t quite so funny to me now, and I was even more embarrassed. I started shaking out of weakness and embarrassment.
I heard Lisa, who was right by my side, ask me to hand her my water bottle, still clenched like a football in my left hand. I dismissed her and clenched it tighter. I took another two steps back and lunged myself forward. Once again in the mud—both feet this time.
By now I wasn’t only embarrassed but I was out of energy—exhausted physically and emotionally. I had made a fool of myself. This should be easy, and look at what is happening!
I lifted my head up to look to the other side—the dry path leading up the mountain. I thought to myself
This time, I’m going to get it. It will happen.
I was ready to jump again. And as I lifted my eyes up to see where I needed to be, I saw two hands reached out to me from the other side. On my left side was the hand of my friend Ken. On my right side was the hand of my brother Mike. I dropped my water bottle, and I reached out to grab the hands offered to me. Ken and Mike pulled me up and over the mud to the dry path up the mountain.
I was all right negotiating the rest of the way myself except for a couple of times on the way down where there were some slippery spots. My brother was ahead of me, and he seemed to know exactly where to stop and extend his hand or offer his shoulder to help me negotiate my way.
Today, were talking about grace and the paths we walk along in our journey of faith. We’re also talking today about the wouldas, the couldas, and the shouldas of our lives. The have-to’s and the must’s.
As a part of making my way to West Virginia and becoming your pastor, I had to go through a series of interviews by a couple of the Presbytery’s committees, and Bob Bondurant was on one of those committees, and he asked me if I knew the connection between West Virginia and God’s grace. I was puzzled, and I said no, I had no idea what the connection was. And Bob said that people in West Virginia are hard working people who feel like they have to grind for everything they earn—no such thing as a free lunch, pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps, do it all yourself, or be left in the dust.
I think Bob was right, except for the fact that he left out the other 49 states. Every one of us has that mentality. In order to get something, we have to sweat for it, work hard to get it, bend forward to grab it. America is like that. Do it all on your own or go home. Hike the mountain yourself or get run over or left behind. That work ethic bleeds its way in our churches, and that’s what Bob was referring to.
Just as we have be taught by our dog-eat-dog world that anything good only comes to us if we work hard to grab it for ourselves, we also have somehow convinced ourselves—despite passages like this one from Ephesians—that we have to do something to get on God’s good side, that we are in charge of our own salvation, that it’s all up to us.
We in the church suffer from what Lutheran pastor Kyle Fever calls MPS, Moral Perfection Syndrome. MPS is that disease that keeps us restless. It’s the dis-ease that we carry around—an ailment that says we can never do enough or be enough because God demands moral perfection from us. MPS is leads to RSS: Restless Soul Syndrome.
The good stuff we do has to cover up or cancel out all the bad stuff we do, so the life of faith becomes something like a sin management program. Keep the sin-count low and keep the good deeds count high, and maybe, just maybe, we stand a change of getting on God’s favorite list. It’s as if the life of faith was like earning or losing points with Weight Watchers.
This is the problem we have with grace. The journey of faith is not toward moral perfection. It’s toward surrender.
That sin management program—it’s like a hamster wheel, pointless exertion that takes us nowhere.
If hiking up that mountain was all up to me, I’d still be at the bottom with both of my feet stuck in the mud. My own effort wasn’t getting me anywhere. Grace got me through that day—the two extended hands reaching out to me and pulling me up and out of the mud and onto the path up the mountain. That’s grace.
Author Anne Lamott says,
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
Grace is Jesus saying,
Step off the hamster wheel, I got this.
Grace is Jesus saying,
There’s nothing to earn here—no careful weighing of sins, no reason to try the balance them out with good deeds, in fact the scales are broken.
There are no scales, really. No point systems. Nothing at all like that. There never has been.
God is a terrible scorekeeper, and His eyesight is skewed. Because when God looks at you and me, all He sees is Christ. And Christ is the One who, with two extended hands on the cross, gave away himself to show us once and for all that there is nothing—nothing at all—we have to do to get in good with God. Because Jesus did that for us. To put our trust in our own efforts to climb our way into God’s favor is actually to doubt what Jesus has done for us.
When it comes to God’s grace, there’s no catch, no fine print, no strings attached. Salvation has nothing to do with what we can accomplish on our own. Paul says in verse 10,
Instead, we are God’s accomplishment.
Our lives are lived not to prove our goodness to God but to respond to God’s goodness by walking on the path where we encounter God’s blessings. We could respond to the free gift of God’s grace by saying,
Since there’s nothing for me to do here, I guess I’ll spend all my time sitting by the pool sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.
That sounds nice, especially since spring break is upon us, but after Paul declares that we are God’s accomplishment, he writes,
created in Christ Jesus to do good things.
Not only that though,
God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
We do good things—something as small as holding the door for another or making a stranger smile, or something bigger like building houses for Habitat—as our way of graciously responding to the goodness and mercy of God.
Christ extends his two hands to pull us up and out of the places where we’re stuck, so why wouldn’t we want to respond to that and be that presence for others?
I spent a lot of time during the rest of my trip in Honduras thinking about that moment in the mud and the two extended hands that reached down to pull me up.
By the time we left for home, I knew that moment would be one I’d never forget. It meant too many different things all at once.
When we don’t have the strength to do something ourselves, we need to rely upon the strength of others. That’s grace extended to us. And before we can reach up to receive the gift extended out to us, we have to stop the frantic struggle to get up the mountain by our own efforts.
I had to let go of that water bottle—that thing I clenched onto so tightly, and up until that moment, refused to let go of. I had to release it in order to take hold of the hands extend out to me.
The only way to fully accept God’s grace is to drop it all and come to Him with empty hands.
Salvation is not determination. It’s surrender.
Can you give up trying to hike up this mountain on your own?
Instead, can you reach out and take God’s hands? They’re right in front of you. There are two of them, extended out and ready to pull you up.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!