February 10, 2019: "On Grace"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 9, 2019: Epiphany 5
Isaiah 6:1-8, 1Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
The word ‘grace’ is an essential part of Christian vocabulary, like love, peace, hope, and forgiveness. Yet, like love, peace, hope, and forgiveness, grace is not just a word of faith but a significant part of the bedrock on which we stand as people of God and followers of Jesus Christ. But if you and I were to sit down face to face and try to define what grace is and what it means, there would be some difficulty. There would at least be some disagreement because I know for certain that my experience of grace is different from yours which is different from your neighbor’s which is different from their neighbor’s. As the Apostle Paul says we must be ready at all times to answer for the faith we hold so dear, so today I want to think with you on grace, about what it means, about what it does, and about who it calls us to be.
We met three characters in our Scripture readings today that help us to reflect on grace. The first character we meet is the prophet Isaiah. In the year that King Uzziah died, right around 740 BCE, Isaiah found himself in the temple in Jerusalem—he was probably there to worship like we are here today to worship. Suddenly, the temple began to fill with smoke, and little multi-faced, multi-winged angels began to swarm around the Lord who was sitting on a throne. The angels called back and forth to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The scene of smoke and angels and the Lord on the throne caused Isaiah to crumble to his knees and confess his sin and the sins of his people. It is then that one of the angels flew to him and touched his mouth with a hot coal from the temple altar. “Whom shall I send,’ the Lord calls out, ‘and who will go for us?” Maybe it was fear, maybe it was wonder, maybe it was adrenaline, but Isaiah answered and at that moment received his commission as Israel’s greatest prophet.
Fast-forward 800 years or so and we meet the Apostle Paul as he writes an urgent letter to the newly-formed congregation in Corinth. Corinth was a rough place, a major hub for shipping and commerce in the ancient world. Where there was great industry, so too was there great wealth and great amounts of activities that might lead one astray. While in Ephesus establishing another new congregation, Paul gets word that the Corinthian church is in trouble. They have given up their sacramental practices, and they have stopped serving the least among them. Of chief concern to Paul, the Corinthian’s have started shifting their allegiance away from Christ and toward whatever looks good or can line their pockets. Paul’s letter is both firm and pastoral. Firmly, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church has no master other than Jesus and no story to tell other than that he died for sins, was buried, raised on the third day, and made many appearances to the disciples and hundreds of other brothers and sisters. Pastorally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that membership in this church, in Christ’s body, is a wide and generous thing, that if he, Paul, can get in, the Corinthian church should welcome everyone.
Then, rewinding about 30 years we meet Peter, the disciple on whom Jesus will eventually build his church. Peter and his friends, James and John, were simple fishermen and they met Jesus one day while they were fishing on lake Gennesaret. Jesus’ fame made it impossible to travel alone or unnoticed, so that day he decided to board Peter’s boat and teach the people from a little way off shore. When Jesus was done, he invited Peter to set out into the deepest part of the lake and cast his nets. Peter hesitated because he had a rough night the night before, but it was Jesus and so he did what he was told. When Peter began to pull the nets back into the boat, there were so many fish that he had to call for James and John to come in their boats to help. Sort of like Isaiah in the temple, Peter was either afraid or amazed or juiced up on adrenaline, but when the boats began to sink because of the weight of the fish, he fell to Jesus’ feet and confessed his sins. Jesus lovingly says to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with that Peter, James, and John dropped everything and followed Jesus.
The first thing we learn from Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is that grace is God moving toward us in love. The smoky and melodic scene in the temple was not initiated by Isaiah, but by God out of love for Isaiah. Paul speaks of God moving toward us in love when he said in our reading today, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” Paul did not move toward God, God moved toward Paul. And Peter’s experience was the same as Isaiah and Paul’s, except it was God in Jesus doing the moving. Jesus literally came to Peter and asked to ride in his boat; Jesus told Peter to cast the nets. If grace were dependent on these three moving toward God, on you and me moving toward God, I fear that God would be awful lonely. But these servants and apostles show us that God is the first mover, the first actor, and it is done out of great love for us.
God moving toward us in love then teaches us that grace causes us to reflect honestly on our lives. All three characters in the Scriptures today responded to God’s movement toward them with confession. And what is confession but our humble and honest recognition that we have failed to live as God intends for us to live. Isaiah took responsibility for the idolatry and licentiousness and adultery that plagued the nation of Israel. Paul literally killed people because he was xenophobic, afraid of other religions and ethnicities. Paul’s sin was in thinking that God was only the God of the Jewish people. Peter was Peter, and we watch him later on sell Jesus out to the crowd, lie, and cover his own butt. All three fell on their knees when God’s love sharply focused their eyes on their in and failures. When faced with the deep and abiding love of God, we cannot but look on our lives and repent of the ways we’ve fallen so short of that love.
And that leads us to the third and most important thing about grace we learn from Isaiah, Paul, and Peter—grace does not leave us on our knees in confession, but raises us up in forgiveness to live an entirely new life. Isaiah had the sin burned out of his mouth, and then he used that mouth to announce the coming of God’s messiah. Paul went blind for a while until he stopped relying on his own power and pretention, and then God used him as the chief evangelist and theologian of the Christian faith. Jesus forgave Peter over and over, even after his complicity in the events of Good Friday, and made him head of the apostles and the head of the church. God’s grace does not lift us up from our sins so that we can go back out and live just any old way. God’s grace frees us from bondage to sin so that we can go out and bear witness to God’s love in all the ways Jesus taught us.
So that is what we learn from Isaiah, Paul, and Peter on grace. Grace is God moving towards us in love. Grace is how that love demands confession of sin and honestly evaluation of life. Grace is how God lifts us up, forgiven and freed, to live transformed lives for God’s kingdom that is already here on earth and for the kingdom that is yet to come. If you ever had to answer a question on a test about the orthodox and biblical definition of grace, you now have your passing answer. But what does God’s grace look like in action?
My alma mater, Princeton Seminary, is a place for me that Celtic spirituality calls a ‘thin place,’ a place where the distance between heaven and earth is so thin that the two could kiss one another. And, in fact, in the three years that I attended Princeton Seminary, heaven and earth kissed quite often. In 2013, the year after I graduated, Dr. Craig Barnes was named the seventh president of Princeton Seminary. Dr. Barnes is a visionary leader, a prophet really, who spent the majority of his career as a pastor—this has made him an excellent leader of a school that is primarily about the work of training pastors. In 2014 Dr. Barnes called together a task force of faculty and staff from the seminary, students, and outside academics and researchers to begin to look into the seminary’s history with slavery before, during, and after the American Civil War. This was not a random thing for Dr. Barnes to do. Assembling this task force was in line with movements in the world of theological education, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Christian churches and organizations throughout the world to address the tide of racism that has been rising again in recent years. The task force completed its work just last September, four years later.
The task force found a lot. By digging through historical documents, the task force found that even though the seminary was established two years after New Jersey passed legislation to abolish slavery, the seminary admitted students and hired faculty who came to campus with slaves in tow. By digging through financial records that dated all the way back to the first day the seminary was open, the task force found that more than half of the income used for seminary operations in its first decade came from individuals in southern states whose businesses were dependent on slave labor. The task force found that the salary for the seminary’s first professor and president, Archibald Alexander, was funded by Old Pine Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and can you guess how the church came up with that money? The church came up with that money by renting twenty slaves that the church owned to work in local businesses. Alexander Hall, a dormitory named after Archibald Alexander, was built with small rooms attached to much larger rooms so that students could bring their slaves with them to the seminary. 1912 was the last year a person of color held as a slave lived in one of those rooms next to his owner who was studying to be a pastor. The dorm building I lived in for the first two years of my studies was funded by the Brown family of Baltimore, who made their immense fortune in agriculture, shipping, finance and loans, based almost entirely in the Caribbean because it was the crossroads of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The nearly $1 billion endowment that sustains the seminary today, from which the majority of my tuition was paid through academic scholarships, was started in 1852 with $86,000 from individuals who have been convinced by pastors and seminary staff that it was a way to relieve the conscious from how the money had been made through slave labor.
If you want to read the task force’s report you can find it here. But there is one part of the report that was most jarring to me as one who loves Princeton Seminary and who supports it with my prayers and my dollars. In writing about slavery and racism in theological education, the first three presidents of the seminary along with numerous faculty members did not see slavery as sin because, in their words, it was a way to evangelize those who were prone so savagery and violence. It was their belief that holding a person in bondage was a way to help them see the light of Jesus Christ—if they don’t accept Christ willingly, than by God they will accept Christ by force. It was their belief that holding a person in bondage was saving them from a less-human and less-humane existence in the place where they were captured. These men of God believed that the grace bestowed on them in baptism was theirs to dole out to whom they wanted, when they wanted.
So much of the report on Princeton Seminary’s history with slavery is shocking and sickening. But after reading it so many times, I walk away proud, proud that in an age when we’re taught to deny, deny, deny, the seminary has stepped forward boldly to have hard conversations and face hard things about its past. I’m proud that Dr. Barnes hasn’t tried to contextualize or rationalize the ways his predecessors acted. I’m proud that the Board of Trustees has committed to study and prayer and discernment, and hasn’t played the whole ‘well, that wasn’t us, we’re better than that’ card. I’m proud that the seminary recognizes that time doesn’t just make this stuff go away, that things that happened two hundred years or more ago still have an impact on people today. I’m proud that every student who enrolls at Princeton Seminary will have to learn this history and be committed to working for an end to racism and every ‘ism’ that stands in opposition to the Gospel. I’m proud that uncovering the seminary’s past will lead to a brighter, more faithful future.
This is grace in action. In response to God’s great love, my alma mater is falling on its knees at the feet of Jesus to confess that its institutional sin has kept it from realizing the fullness of life in God. In that way, the seminary is teaching its entire network and world that it can and must do the same. The work is never easy. It is never easy to admit the ways we have wronged God and wronged one another and hurt God and hurt one another. It is never easy to look at our lives and say, “Wow, I’ve really gone off track.” But that difficult and essential work is the way to transformation and new life—it is the way to God. And it is the way, the only way, our hope for a better life, a better world, a more peaceful and just existence will ever come to be.
So now Princeton has a choice. The initial hard work has been done, and the school and its leadership can begin the work of healing, repentance, and justice-making, or it can go the way of the world and pretend like it never happened. It can deny, deny, deny, or it can face the truth with the power of the cross. Already I know the choice that is being made. In May I plan to attend a reunion where this will be the topic of three days of study, worship, and conversation. We have a choice, too, my friends. All of us have been met by God, not because of anything we have done but because of who God is. All of us have been given the chance to repent of our sins and receive the gift of God’s forgiveness. The choice is now whether we will take that forgiveness, that grace, and work with God as God continually renews all things or just go back to life as normal, as usual, as ordinary. If my six and half years as your pastor is any indication, I think I know which choice we will make.
In the final paragraph of the report on Princeton Seminary and Slavery, the task force quotes the words of Francis Grimke, who was a graduate of the class of 1878, a Presbyterian pastor in Washington, D.C., and a stalwart abolitionist. Grimke wrote, “If justice sleeps in this land, let it be not because we have helped lull it to sleep by our silence, our indifference; let it also not be from lack of effort on our part to arouse it from its slumbers.” Speaking the truth about ourselves and about the world is a Christian discipline. May all of us who have inherited the faith of the church, the faith of the cross and the empty tomb, never permit justice to slumber among us. Amen.