Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
1 Peter 4:8-11
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
The other day I looked in my rear-view mirror and all I could see was the grill of a semi truck.
If you’re wondering, I wasn’t going slow on the highway. I was on a residential street, and if I’m being honest, was probably pushing past the speed limit a little bit.
But when I scanned my rear view mirror, all I could see was metal.
Immediately my anxiety shot up and my heart rate increased. You know the feeling. If it comes down to a battle between my little Honda fit and an 18-wheeler, I know who’s going to win. All it would take would be one surprise—one kid running out in the street, one vehicle turning suddenly, one minute of distraction at the stoplight—and I could be a pancake. If either he or I didn’t drive perfectly, there was a high probability of a crash.
He must have noticed he was right up against me, because he slowed down and fell back a decent pace. I relaxed again and was able to focus more on the road ahead of me than the threat to my back. It’s the kind of situation that happens everyday on the road. Usually I would forget it entirely after a few minutes.
Except it got me thinking about grace.
Grace is one of those big church words. I expect I say it every Sunday, usually more than once. But I rarely define it.
Grace is one of those flexible words, those experiential words, that people explain lots of ways. In one of my favorites, writer Anne Lamott calls grace “unearned love—the love that goes before, that greets us on the way.” That’s a pretty good definition—grace is the love that we don’t earn or merit, but that smooths our path and makes this life bearable, even unexpectedly joyous.
But today I want to talk about grace using an automotive metaphor. This may be the only automotive metaphor of my entire preaching career, so please bear with me.
When we learn to drive, we’re taught to leave distance between us and other vehicles. Usually at least one car length, but longer if you’re going faster. The idea is to leave enough space that if something unexpected happens, you have time to slow down or move out of the way without crashing into the car ahead of you. Because unexpected things happen while driving all the time—and they’re not always anyone’s fault. Tires blow. Engines conk out. Emergency vehicles pass by. Passengers distract us. Lights turn yellow. People turn into hidden driveways. A thousand little moments that can turn into crashes, but usually don’t. Because we leave space to deal with them, to make minor adjustments, and we all get home safe.
On a more emotional level, there is a kindness and considerateness to leaving space between you and the next car. When I am annoyed by people’s driving, I’m often automatically assuming that they are perfectly proficient drivers who are choosing to ruin my day. But the people behind the wheel are the same motley collection of humans everywhere else—some of them are young and still feeling their way. Some are old and resisting giving up the freedom of the keys. Some are sick and their medication is slowing down their reflexes a hair. Some are in a fog of grief. Some are giddy with excitement and their focus is anywhere but the road. I don’t know why I expect drivers to be perfect. Drivers are just people, and people, as we know, are anything but.
And I think that’s the crux of it. Grace is allowing people to be imperfect.
The spiritual practice of grace, is, to my mind, a lot like the practice of leaving space between vehicles. It means giving people a little space to mess up, to be distracted, to be unpredictable, to be inconvenient, without crashing into them. It means stepping back a little, not trying to control others or react to every little thing they do. It means leaving a little bit of room between you and someone else, so that their imperfections—or yours—don’t damage you both.
Think about people in your life who are gracious to you. These are people who don’t make your anxiety spike, people you can be your messy, holy, imperfect self around. These are people who don’t make you watch your every word and tone and implication. You may be very close to these people—there may be a great deal of love between you—but you don’t have to match your emotions or reactions to theirs. You can be you, and they can be them, and it’s okay.
Now think about people who haven’t mastered the spiritual art of graciousness. These are people who ride you, like that semi was riding me. The people who box you in, and insist you live up to their standards. The people who you have to guard yourself around. The people who feel, even very subconsciously, like a threat. The people who try to guilt or manipulate you into the person they want you to be. You know how sometimes drivers will tailgate a slow car to try to make them go faster? I’ve done it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the driver digs in their heels and goes slower. Either way, it’s a dirty trick, and no one leaves the situation feeling more loving, or more loved.
Practicing grace means practicing just a little bit of detachment. Not the kind that makes you stop loving, but the kind that makes it possible to love.
There’s a term in family systems theory called enmeshment. It’s when people or structures are so emotionally close to one another that everyone has to feel the same way, move the same way, act the same way. And if somebody messes up, even a little, there’s a huge crash, and everybody is hurt. As paradoxical as it sounds, practicing grace can mean taking a step back from people, and loving them as they are, not as you wish they would be. Giving grace means giving space.
There is a story in the Old Testament that beautifully illustrates God’s graciousness. We talk about that a lot—the grace of God. Usually we mean God’s forgiveness of our sins—and that is certainly part of grace. But grace also means relating to others in such a way that the pain and the hurt—the crash—never happens in the first place. God’s graciousness to us is not merely reactive forgiveness. It is also proactive love.
I was planning to read the whole story to you out of the Bible today, but honestly it’s long and a bit confusing if you’re not going to read several chapters of Exodus altogether. I encourage you to look at Exodus yourself—especially in these COVID times, it’s a powerful story of a people unmoored from all the routines they had come to rely on. But let me summarize the story for you now.
The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for some time, led by Moses. They are cranky, and scared, and are beginning to ride Moses hard, double-guessing his leadership and demanding he do what they want. Moses himself hasn’t exactly been a paragon of perfection through the whole thing—he’s constantly annoyed back that the people won’t get with the program, and when God gave him the 10 commandments on two stone tablets, he broke them. God keeps showing up in the camp as pillars of fire and smoke, but it isn’t enough. Moses wants God to take charge.
Moses argues with God. “You said I was special! You said you loved me. But I don’t know if you’re with me.”
And God says, “I’m with you. Relax.”
And Moses says, “Well, if you’re not coming, we might as well just stay here.”
We’ve all had these kind of arguments, right? Moses is so frustrated that God isn’t doing what he wants, that he can’t even hear the love in God’s words.
But instead of returning Moses’ frustration with frustration of his own, God takes a step back in grace, then forward in love. “I’ll give you what you need,” God says. “I’ll show you who I am.”
But there’s a hitch. God says Moses cannot see God’s face and live—no one can. The full glory of God is too blinding. So God puts Moses in a crevice in a rock, and only lets Moses see once God has passed him by, so that Moses only sees God’s back. Moses gets to witness God’s goodness, but only so much as he can take, not so much that it overwhelms him.
That same day, God asks Moses to make two more stone tablets, and God writes out the ten commandments again. No more recriminations, no more blame. Just a second chance.
As God walks by, God proclaims exactly who God is:
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.”
It is, in some ways, a weird story. But it points to the bizarre, sometimes uncomfortable truth of God’s grace. God shows us what God is like, but slant. God leaves space so that we don’t get overwhelmed. God doesn’t take over. God supports.
God does not tailgate us. God neither guilts us nor controls us into perfection. Sometimes I wish that’s the way it worked. I wish that God would just swoop in and make people behave the right way—especially if God will consult with me on what that right way is! But God leaves us the space to be who we are, and to make the choices we will make. This is the dangerous grace of God. That we are loved as we are, unearned, unmerited. That we are free to be who we are, even if it means crashing on the road.
You can’t prevent every crash, not even with a football field of space between you and the car ahead. And I can’t give you any relationship tips that will prevent every argument, every outrage, every hurt feeling. But I can tell you that operating from a place of grace is a huge relief in life. Expect mistakes; expect imperfections; expect forgiveness to be needed and granted. Extend grace. To others and to yourself.
As an old music professor of mine used to say, “if your sense of compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
Perhaps you are already a very gracious person, in which case you will forgive me for wasting your time. But if you are not—as most of us are naturally not—if you find yourself peeved over small inconveniences and outraged over petty differences, if you find yourself trying to force others to go your way or guilting them into what you want—I encourage you to strengthen your spiritual practice of grace.
You can start small. It might even be good to start in the car, because for whatever reason perfectly lovely people abandon all their values when they’re on four wheels. If you can be a gracious driver, you can probably be gracious in a lot of situations.
But beyond the car, try to notice when you want to react—to behave out of your immediate emotional experience, and when you’re able to respond—to choose a reply out of your values. Notice when you are withholding love from someone because they aren’t doing what you want, and when you are able to love them as they are. Notice when you are hardest on yourself, and when you are able to find freedom. Notice when you feel panicky, anxious, or trapped, and when you feel safe and relaxed. These patterns will help you learn how to extend—and how to accept—grace.
As we have talked about spiritual practices, I’ve mostly been focusing on the basics. Grace is not among the basics. But as we walk through the everyday anxiety of COVID, and we are in so many ways driving blind down unfamiliar roads, we need more grace, not less. More room for people to be imperfect, not less. And just as much, during a political season buoyed by an outrage cycle that delights in tailgating not just the candidates but riding hard on the heels of any person who makes any statement deemed “political,” we have to learn to extend grace. Hard, painstaking, inconvenient grace, remembering that all the people in this system, regardless of how they vote, are still people, and beloved of God. This is not basic stuff. This is professional level Christianity.
Being gracious to others—giving them not what they want, to shut them up, but what they need, to be loved—is not for the faint of heart. It takes persistence and stamina and thoughtfulness. But we follow a God who is gracious, gracious to the core. And we are called to be people of grace as well.
The good news is that God’s grace—the love you haven’t earned that pours forth from the very heart of God—will be there whether you manage it or not.