January 27, 2019
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
“Out of Balance”
Psalm 103:1-14; Ephesians 2:1-10
A while ago, Joan Baez, the folk singer best known for her protest songs from the late sixties, held a performance in Louisville. The concert was fantastic, although it was no Woodstock, her voice and message have retained their power over the decades. Molly and I, however, were a little out of our generational element. Many people in that auditorium, perhaps, had been, or at least could have attended, Woodstock, but at the time of the famous New York concert, I had just turned two years old, and Molly, far younger than I, wasn’t yet born. At the Louisville event, we heard good stories and listened to good music from a pivotal period in American history; it was a wonderful evening.
The last piece Baez sang for us is a widely known song. Molly and I, and all of you, know this song very well. And Joan made the closing song a sing along. Lifting her arms, Joan motioned us to stand, and moving her right hand slowly in a circle, she encouraged us to lift our voices with hers. The large crowd, who at the invitation had felt uneasy – unsure if they would know the words – now, recognizing the tune, joined in the hymn. We began singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . .” In her beautiful voice, Baez continued singing, “. . . that saved a soul like me!”
Did you catch the change? Did you hear, what seems like, a small switch in the lyrics? It’s the only substitution Baez made in the whole song.
Instead of singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a” – what’s the word? – yes – “wretch like me!” She sang, “. . . that saved a soul like me!”
In one way, this change makes the hymn easier to sing. Who likes to call themselves a wretch? Who likes to think of themselves as part of the problem? Who likes to think of themselves as a sinner? Isn’t it nicer to simply acknowledge that we are “persons,” “spiritual beings,” or “souls”?
The move to forget about sin, or our culpability, in the world we benefit from, is not limited to concert venues. A friend told me a story about her church – a Presbyterian church – and the changes the new pastor made. He thought the worship service could do without a prayer of confession. Isn’t it easier to ignore the reality of sin?
But we shouldn’t ignore this, and we don’t. As we said in our prayer of confession earlier this morning, “We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed.”
Now it’s important to acknowledge that we sin, as mentioned by the author of our Ephesians text, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2). That’s where today’s New Testament reading begins, but it is certainly not were the text ends. We shouldn’t – we can’t – stop there if we are to enjoy God’s gifts.
Remembering God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psalm 103:10) we are assured that Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it; that God who is rich in mercy, and out of great love, has saved us by grace.
One of my favorite little books on theology is called Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt, and in that book is a discussion of grace. The authors describe grace this way, grace, they write, “is being embraced by God’s love when we expect God’s rejection of us. Grace is standing before God . . . stained with our sin and being washed clean by . . . hugs and compassion. This is the strange and mysterious nature of the God we believe in as Presbyterians. This is the God Jesus points to throughout his ministry and in his life. . . The good news of Jesus Christ is that God’s grace comes to us not because we have done anything to deserve it or because we are worthy of it. God’s love and forgiveness come to us simply out of the boundless mercy of God. . . .” The boundless mercy of God. (Foote and Thornburg, Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt, 6-7)
And it’s not that God’s grace is just enough to cover our sins, so we have to worry that we can sin too much or a particular sin is too great for God’s grace. No. Rather it’s the other way around! God’s abundant grace and love for us is immeasurable. It is out of balance with our sins. Nor should we spend an equal amount of time thinking about our sins as we spend living in God’s grace. There is simply no comparison between our sin and God’s amazing grace.
And it’s in this out-of-proportion grace where we are called to live. We are called to live in the knowledge of God’s unchanging love. We are called as both a community of faith and as individuals to work and to live our lives in the knowledge of this good news of God’s boundless mercy. As the author of Ephesians concludes in today’s reading, “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).
Recently, I’ve been reading through our Book of Confessions, and the confession that has always touched me the most is the one written during the heyday of Joan Baez’s career and adopted by the Presbyterian Church just two years before Woodstock. The “Confession of 1967” is so moving because it’s a powerful reminder of both God’s love for us and God’s call for us to work for peace and justice in very real and concrete ways.
Here is some of what we are called to do, Because “God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. . . The church is called to bring all [people] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights.” (“Confession of 1967,” 9.44)
We have to be careful when thinking about God’s grace and good works though because it’s easy to reverse the order of God’s call and God’s grace. It’s easy to think that we need to live out God’s call for us as individuals and a community of faith in order to earn God’s love. It makes sense to us to think God works in this order because that’s how the world works. We go to our job and then we get paid; not the other way around. We submit a class assignment and then receive a grade; not the other way around. But with God, it is the other way around.
It is God’s fantastic gift that comes first. It is God’s ever-present love that is our foundation for what we do. First loved by God, we are then freed from fear and doubt to live the life that God has called us to because of God’s amazing grace.
This is the good news – we gather today to worship, as the psalmist wrote, God who, “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 103:8) We gather today to worship God who forgives our debts; the poet writes, “as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12) God whose grace is beyond anything we can imagine, God whose love never ends – we gather to worship God who saved us through faith, God whose mercy and grace and love are free, unexpected, and undeserved gifts.
Without deserving it God’s grace is upon us, and God looks at us, and God’s arms are lifted up – encouraging us to stand – stand in our communities, stand in our nation, stand in the world seeking justice for all who are oppressed. Then God’s right hand slowly moves in a circle – inviting us to participate in singing amazing grace with our very lives.
Let us sing! Please stand in body or in spirit as you are able and join me in hymn 649, “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”