The Long Arm of God’s Grace

Sermon preached at Pisgah Presbyterian Church for the Service of Installation for Rev. Hannah McIntyre.

Micah 6:1-8
Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

***

Before I begin, I want to say how honored I am to stand here in this historic sanctuary on a historic day—the installation of your new pastor. When Hannah first floated the idea of me preaching her installation, I must confess that my first response was, who me?

I know that Hannah has roots in this Presbytery. Deep, deep roots. She knows people here. And so I imagined that, as many pastors being installed do, she would call on a local luminary, someone with an impressive PIF with years of church service, someone with a couple awards under their belt and a few more titles before their name, someone with, to be honest, a few more gray hairs on their head. Now, three years of ministry has given me a few silver hairs, but I’m still in the early stages of my career. I pastor a small church, in a small suburb of Cincinnati. We run small programs. We have a small budget. I am small potatoes in this Presbyterian world.

But if there is one lesson God has managed to instill in me, it’s the spiritual value of saying yes when I’m called.

So Hannah asked, and here I am.

Preaching on the beatitudes, which is also a bit daunting. The beatitudes are so familiar that it’s easy not to really hear them, yet so far out of reach that it’s hard to fathom how to fully apply them to our lives. I mean, have you ever met anyone who was a poor, mournful, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, persecuted peacemaker? Maybe you have. But honestly, did you want to be like them? It doesn’t sound much like the life abundant Jesus promises us.

I have sometimes heard the beatitudes preached as a to-do list, or perhaps even a cheatsheet for getting into heaven. Just be meeker, purer, more persecuted. (I rarely hear exhortations to hunger more deeply for justice, but I digress.) The idea seems to be that if you make yourself miserable down here, God will have to bring you to heaven to right the scales. Or perhaps even more simply—that by your good attitudes down here, you’ll earn your spot in heaven.

Well, that makes this dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian clutch her pearls. There is nothing we can do, no one we can be, no attitude we can hold, that will earn us our crown. We can’t use the beatitudes as eternal bargaining chips. It is only God’s grace that welcomes us into the kingdom of heaven. It is only God’s love that pulls us into God’s presence, simply because God wants us there.

So where is God’s grace in the beatitudes? Honestly, for someone who is often not terribly meek or mournful, and who’s not nearly as thirsty for justice as I am for a good old-fashioned Coca-cola, it can be difficult to find the grace in these words. But the gospel is good news. So let’s go digging.

I want to talk for a minute about the word “blessed.” It’s a big word, not in syllables, but in semiotics. It carries many meanings, and yet it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means. Sometimes it’s translated “happy,” and while being blessed can make us feel happy, that’s a fairly shallow slice. Sometimes it’s translated “enviable, fortunate, or privileged” and that’s a good reminder of the state of blessedness, but it’s still all about us, and not about God.

So let’s break it down a little further. Buckle your seatbelts, we’re going to look at the Greek.

The Greek word we translate “blessed” is makarios. The root in there is mak—the same mac that shows up in words like macrobiology and macroeconomics, both coincidentally classes I dreaded taking in colleges. It means, quite simply, “big” or “long.” On a side bar, that it not why those eighteen wheelers are called mack trucks, although my Greek loving heart thought it was for a long time.

Now, that doesn’t mean that makarios just means big or long. It’s a little more complicated than that. It doesn’t mean that the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the pure hearted, are suddenly the big kahunas in God’s fishpond. What it means is that the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure hearted show the long reach of God’s grace. When the world has turned its back and we are shriveled in on ourselves, that is when you can see the full arc of the rainbow of God, stretching all the way down to where we are.

The proud give God little room to work. The violent give God little room to work. The unjust, the vengeful, the cynical—they take up so much space that grace can barely squeeze in around the edges. But when we feel our smallest, when our faith has fallen down around our feet, when our hearts are shattered in a million pieces, when we whisper words of peace amongst the rallying war cries—when we feel like we are nothing in the sight of the world, that we hold no influence or power—that is when God’s grace flows freely around us, empowering us, emboldening us, reminding us that we are blessed.

The prophet Micah asks, does the Lord want a big sacrifice? Ten thousand rams, thousands of rivers of oil, my own unborn child? Does God want me to be flashy and overflowing? And then Micah answers his own question: no. God does not want that. God wants smaller, steadier work. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Give God space to work. Give God’s grace space to flourish. Give God’s grace space to be seen.

It might seem like foolishness. But this is what our faith proclaims: God is seen best not in the most efficient armies, or tallest monuments, or the most expensive temples, but in the moments when all seems lost.

In Christ’s death, we see the resurrection.

In the lifelong strivings of those who hunger for justice, we see God’s power.

In the resilience of the persecuted, we see God’s strength.

In the compassion for those who mourn, we see God’s kindness.

Today is a big day. A day to celebrate. A day to pull out all the stops, go a little over the top. That is all well and good, and I pray that there will be more days like this one. Days where the big check comes in. Days where the attendance shoots way up. Days where the choral concert goes off without a hitch. Days where the mission and ministries of this church get the big wins.

But most days, I know, will be small. It will be easy to get discouraged. And when you do, pull out your beatitudes, and remember that the blessings of God are most visible when the world thinks we are most cursed.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are poor in spirit, for that is the day when God’s wisdom can be known though Hannah’s preaching, through Bible studies, through your witness to each other.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you mourn, for that is when you will see God’s love spring into work through your church family, with its casseroles and condolence cards, its funeral guild and its circling arms.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are meek, because you will know that you could never have pulled off that concert, or program, or mission trip, or boiler repair by yourselves, for that is when you will see God’s power,

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, for that is when you will hear God’s heartbeat, egging you on to deeper work for the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are merciful, when you forgive each other for the rough edges and slights, the badly placed words and old feuds. Blessed are you especially when you are merciful to Hannah, on the day she disappoints you, because she will. Blessed are you, Hannah, when you are merciful to these gathered saints, on the day they disappoint you, because they will. On that day you will feel God’s grace down to your toes.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are pure in heart, for on that day you will know God’s foolishness, when you crunch the numbers and they don’t add up, but you commit to the mission project anyway. When you think no one cares about this church, but you show up anyway. When you don’t know what good you are doing, but you keep at it, one humble step at a time.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are peacemakers, when you refuse to let conflict and cruelty become the norm in this church, when you refuse to let it worm its way into your families, when you speak out against every kind of hatred in your town, for that is the day when you will know God’s voice in your own throat.

“Blessed are you, Pisgah Presbyterians, when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, when you hear that your love is too wide, your grace too foolish, and your generosity too futile. Blessed are you when you insist on doing things God’s way, no matter the cost. In that moment, you will see that God has never left your side, not once, and never will.

And if you ever forget these beatitudes, the blessings of a small church, the blessings of small, steady, daily actions of faith, as the stage for the wild abundance of God’s power, grace, and love, look to Hannah. She is one who knows how to see God’s fingerprints in the small things of life.

Hannah and I met during a pair of conferences, one over in Indiana, the other in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Ashville, North Carolina, and what I remember most about that second trip is how often we would be walking and suddenly Hannah would be gone, dancing away from the path or crouched down in a bunch of bushes, because she had noticed a flower, or a rock, or an insect, something small and insignificant, but with her camera she made it huge and beautiful.

If you’ve never seen Hannah’s photography, you should ask to see it. She has an eye for what seems like nothing, but when viewed the right way, is the very evidence of the majesty of God.

God calls us to walk humbly. It should come as both challenge and relief. Challenge, because the human tendency is to reward big, flashy, popular and prosperous efforts. To walk humbly through that world is to walk at God’s pace, not our own. But the call to walk humbly should come as a relief too, because at the end of the day, that is all God needs of us. By the grace of God, it will be enough.

Hannah has been called to walk beside you, for a time. That by itself is a blessing, because in her life, in her ministry, you will know God’s grace. Both in what she is good at, and those things are legion, but also in what she struggles with, because in that weakness, in those gaps, God’s grace will make itself known.

I do not know what the years ahead have for you, Pisgah Presbyterian. But I have every faith that the God who has been faithful throughout history will be faithful here, too.

And may God bless you all. Amen.

 

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