Grace Upon Grace PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 30 September 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 30, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Psalm 137:1-6a;  Psalm 126:1-3;  John 1:14, 16-18 — Retirement Farewell Sermon

“Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you…” — Psalm 137:6a

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. — Psalm 126:3

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. — John 1:16

In 27+ years as a pastor, I’ve preached a total of a bit more than 1,000 sermons.  I’ve preached just over 600 of those from this pulpit in 18 years.  One of my preaching professors in seminary often said that most preachers really have only one sermon (with maybe an occasional alternate).  Looking back, I think she had it right for me.  So here on the last day of 18 years, here it is once again.

This morning is a time of mixed feelings, which is why I selected verses from these two psalms—the lament in Psalm 137 and a song of harvest joy in Psalm 126—so we might remember and know God is with us always.  I’ll be saying something more about both psalms, but I’ll be focusing mainly on a few verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel—John 1:14, 16-18 (follow along in the bulletin):
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
    Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
    Thanks be to God.
As I so often do, I’m going to begin with a story.  It’s about an African village where people bought and began to watch their very first television set. 
      For weeks all the children and all the adults gathered around the set morning, afternoon, and night watching the programs.  It was virtually all they did.  This went on for several months, but then the set was turned off and never used again.  A visitor asked one of the village elders, “What happened?  Why do you no longer watch television?”
      “We have decided to listen to the storyteller,” replied the elder.
      “But doesn’t television know more stories?” asked the visitor.
      “Yes,” the elder replied, “but the storyteller knows us, and we know him.”
To a considerable extent that gets right to the heart of the matter about our feelings today—the jumble of lament and rejoicing, of sadness and celebration.  A lot of what I do as a pastor is tell stories.  Some preachers prefer to tell people what they think the people ought to do… or what the Bible says they ought to do (although often there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two).  I prefer to tell stories—Bible stories, real life stories, sad stories, funny stories, surprising stories, and especially stories that raise questions rather than give answers.  When I put a worship service together—I try to craft it into a coherent, unified story, if you will, with songs, prayers, children’s time, and sermon being different chapters or maybe variations on a theme.  Much of ministry, to my mind, involves a kind of mutual of storytelling—people truly listening to one another, sharing who we are with one another, growing to know one another better.

One of the thing’s I’ve learned in 27+ years as a pastor is that there are no tricks of the trade.  We start with who we are.  What we know best is ourselves.  We lead or follow from who we are and where we are.  And we always give first and foremost of ourselves.  So in a ministry of telling stories, we can’t help but get to know each other.  “Yes,” replied the elder, “but the story teller knows us, and we know him.”

We’ve shared stories, and we’ve gotten to know one another.  Some of the stories are full of laughter, some are full of tears, and many have some of both.  There are stories that will be told and retold: “Remember when…?”  Remember when we set off New Year’s poppers during Lance Shreffler’s funeral… and then again during Sunday morning worship the next day?  And then there are certain stories that some of you have shared with me that will never go any farther.  They are private, confidential, and I feel privileged that you have trusted me with those personal and sometimes painful parts of your lives.

We have laughed together, and we have wept together.  We have welcomed new life here among us—births, visitors, new members—and mourned those who have gone on to join God’s heavenly kin-dom.  There’s not enough time right now to recall and name all those we miss, but I can look out from here and remember where people like John Duncan, Bob Stickney, and Marty Jones sat in “their pew.”  (Well actually Bob Stickney always sat in "his chair" in the narthex.)  I recall how you all played a trick on me with people taking their seats in the sanctuary in a mirror image.  I only caught on when I realized Olive Haynes was sitting on the wrong side of the aisle… and so was everyone else.  In the sharing of stories, we have become a part of each other.  We have communicated and so become community in the communion of saints.  And that truly is the work of Jesus Christ who makes us one—the Word become flesh, who came and lived among us so all of humanity might be reconciled with God and with each other.

I want to share with you three other things I have learned in 27+ years.  First is the importance and power of memory.  With all endings and new beginnings, memory is what remains and shapes who we are to become.  My memories of you will shape my life and ministry in retirement, and your memories of me will shape your future as God’s people in ministry in this place.  The psalmist in exile far from Jerusalem sings of the vital importance of memory in Psalm 137:  “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither!  Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you…”  Indeed, I will never forget this church or you people.  We will be forever bound together by memory.

Second, I have learned the importance and power of celebrations.  We celebrate in worship.  We celebrate in communion.  We celebrate at weddings, births, baptisms and anniversaries.  We celebrate at funerals and endings.  We celebrate life.  In Psalm 126 the psalmist knows why this is:  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy… The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  In eighteen years together, surely the Lord has done great things for us.  So let us rejoice always and give thanks to God.

Finally, more than anything else I have learned that it’s all grace—the grace of acceptance and inclusion, the grace of welcome and hospitality.  This is the grace we receive from God and the grace we share, “grace upon grace” as John puts it.  My path to becoming a minister is rooted in my recovery from alcoholism starting in February of 1983 in treatment and then being accepted, welcomed, and nurtured first by A.A. and then a church.   In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.”  From there on out through five years in the United Church of Los Alamos, three years at San Francisco Theological Seminary, nine years as pastor at First Presbyterian in Lebanon, OR, and eighteen years as your pastor here at Indianola, I have been continually experiencing and learning about “grace upon grace.”  You people here have been among my best teachers.  Here’s one last story I want to share with you as your pastor:
During the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, newspapers carried a story of a reporter in Sarejevo.  A little girl was badly wounded by sniper fire right in front of him.  Before he could react, a man scooped up the little girl and pleaded with the reporter to drive them to the hospital.  “You have a car,” he begged.  “Please won’t you take us to the hospital?”  What could the reporter do?  So he loaded them into the back seat and began to drive.

 After a minute or two, the man said urgently, “Please hurry; she is still living!”  The reporter drove on.  A few minutes later, the man in the back said, “Hurry please, my little girl is still breathing!”  The reporter sped on.  Again the man pleaded, “Hurry, please, my little girl is still warm.”  Soon, they pulled up to the hospital, but alas, the girl was pronounced dead.

 The man and the reporter went into the restroom together to wash the child’s blood from their hands.  “Now comes the hardest part,” said the man.  “What is that?” asked the reporter.  “Now I have to go and find that little girl’s father and tell him she is gone.”

 The reporter was stunned. “But I thought you were the father! I thought she was your child!”

“Aren’t they all our children?” the man replied.
This is grace in action.  It comes out of knowing that we’re all of us children of God, and God is ever present with us and for us.  Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned about grace.  First, grace is in our very beginning.  To create the world God had to sort of get out of the way and make room for the world.  God wanted to share.  Grace makes room for the other, any and all others.  “Let us make humanity in our own image and likeness,” says God.  Let us make…  God is community making and welcoming community.  And we are all family in Gods blessed kin-dom, family with each other and with God.

Second, an odd thing about grace is that even though it’s ever present we both need it and need to know why we need it.  Air is all around us, but we don’t need to know why we need air for us to breathe it.  But with grace, we need to acknowledge why we need it.  The word for that why is sin.  But sin is not just a matter of morality.  You can live a moral life and be a good person and still be a sinner.  That’s because sin has to do with everything that separates us from each other and from God, all those things that work to break kinship and make it so hard to see and experience the divine kin-dom.  So in grace, we are able to confess our sins, knowing God will not let us go.  We break things and people apart, but God is in the business of wholeness.  God loves us as we are, but also God loves us too much to let us stay that way for we are not whole.  Confession is our way to sort of get out of the way and make room for God in our lives.  Grace is about forgiveness, yes, but far more than forgiveness.  Grace is when God is the source of wholeness, redemption, healing that is more powerful than any of our failings.

 Third, grace is intimately connected with gratitude.  Without gratitude, we begin to feel entitled to the good things in our lives.  But we did and can do nothing to make God move over to make room for us.  We did nothing to be born.  We do nothing to make the sun rise each day.  We can do nothing to deserve the smell of a rose, the taste of a perfect peach, the touch of raindrops falling on our faces.  The very existence of roses, peaches, the sun, and the rain is grace.

Finally, The experience of grace makes us more compassionate.  Lord knows, the world desperately needs more compassion.  Richard Rohr once said, “Once you’ve received real grace, real mercy, you’re no longer in the position of deciding who the deserving poor are.”  Grace does not deal in matters of deserving when it come to charity or justice.  When we realize how God has graced our failings, we can give others a break.  We can begin to stop holding people to ridiculous standards we ourselves do not meet.  We can believe God is able to make beautiful things out of other people’s failings as well as out of our own.  Only grace can transform a despairing and desperate alcoholic into a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

And that’s the thing.  We are saved by grace through faith.  But faith is not about our efforts at self-improvement.  Without grace there is either pride about getting things right—however temporarily—or despair about failing yet again.  But God is not really interested in making us better persons. Instead, God is interested in making us new persons, whole persons.  And to become new people, we need God.  We need grace.

It is grace that we have the Bible with all those incredible stories of people struggling to know God and each other.  There is grace in the stories we hear in scripture, the stories we live, and the stories we share with one another.  Wherever there is laughter there is grace.  Wherever there is weeping, there is grace.  Wherever people come together to worship and give thanks, there is grace.  It is grace upon grace that God would make a home in the womb of a peasant girl from Palestine, that God would “live among us… full of grace and truth,” seeing what it’s like to have a body that aches and laughs, have a mother that loves, and bread that nourishes, and friends that console, and friends that betray, and to live under an empire that persecutes and oppresses.  God experienced all of that and said, “Now is the time of healing.  Now is the time for salvation.”  And Jesus opened his arms wide on the cross and welcomed every horrible thing our human failings can do to destroy, and he responded with only forgiveness.  It is grace upon grace that God would again and again make room for our hearts and our hurts and our prayers and say to us, “Do not fear… I have called you be name, you are mine… I love you” [Isaiah 43:1, 4].

The final thing I want to say to you from this pulpit as your pastor is this.  There is always grace, if you look for it.  There is always grace, even if you don’t look for it.  It’s all grace—“grace upon grace.” 

I love you.  Amen.

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