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28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Oh, what sweet words those are and how prone we are not to believe them. Those of us in the church spend so much time trying to make Christianity harder than it is, trying to earn God’s favor, working our fingers to the bone in order to achieve God’s grace. What a strange problem this is for those of us who live in the world today: to feel like we’ve got to earn God’s love. Of course, this is not how love works, so why do we feel like we have to work and work and work, give more and give more, desperately wanting approval from the God who created us and who wants to save us? We spend so much energy trying to achieve grace rather than allowing ourselves to receive grace!
Now, this is just my opinion, but I think a big part of the reason we spend so much time trying to achieve God’s favor is that it can be hard to tell the difference between those who want to achieve grace and those who want to receive grace. You probably assume everybody else is doing whatever it is that you are doing.
For example. If you want to achieve grace, you’ll likely throw a little more money than usual in the offering place, hoping that God will bless you and give you that which you seek. But if you want to receive grace, well, you probably do the same thing out of gratitude for the gift of grace you’ve been given. Now, if you look at the giving statements of these two people, they will look the same. But if you look at the heart of each of these people, you’ll see a distinct difference. The one who thinks that grace is something that we’re supposed to achieve doesn’t sleep well, has trouble being satisfied, never feels good enough. And the one who understands that God’s grace can only be received, that there’s nothing we can do to achieve it, that person has a deep peace. That doesn’t mean there’s never trouble. It doesn’t mean that the life of faith isn’t difficult. Quite the contrary: we follow a savior, remember, who was crucified for his sins. But peace doesn’t mean that we never have hardship. It means we understand there’s a grounding deeper than whatever is happening to us right this moment. It means we aren’t held hostage by the immediate, but given freedom by our ultimate trust in God.
It seems to me that as I survey the state of Christianity in the world, and in particularly the United States of America, there are a lot more people trying to achieve grace than who are willing to receive it, and that’s not a huge surprise. Trying to achieve grace is a lot easier than being willing to receive it, even if it is never successful, because being willing to receive grace involves admitting that you, with your gifts and talents and expertise, you are not good enough. You can try and try and try and you’ll never reach the heights of achieving the acceptance you are looking for. To receive grace is to admit that we’re each broken, broken by our pasts and our sins and our ultimate trust in ourselves above all else, and to allow God to fill those broken places. You can’t achieve that kind of healing, that kind of wholeness. You can only receive it.
Now, there’s a danger for the church here, and I’m just as susceptible to it as anybody. You come to church, week after week, and you hear sermons about what you need to do better, or what God expects of you, or how to be a good Christian, and it’s subversive, that kind of message, because while it is true we ought to all be better Christians, while it is true that we have work to do in the interest of following Jesus, it is also true that none of these things will help you achieve grace. Grace is a gift. You can’t earn it. You have to receive it.
So even though sometimes it can seem like the church wants you to earn it, because the pastor keeps saying you need to follow Jesus ever more closely, the fact of the matter is that you can’t earn grace. It’s free. This is what Jesus means when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A yoke, of course, is the thing you put over the neck of oxen to bind them together and keep their heads down. And Jesus is clear that while there are limits to the Christian life—we are certainly bound together by it—the yoke is easy. It doesn’t keep our heads down; it lets us raise them, in fact. Our burden is light. You need not walk around like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. Jesus already took care of that burden for you. He offers grace to everyone, for each person—even you!—is a child of God.
You can’t earn grace, for in our United Methodist tradition we believe that it goes before us pulling us towards God even before we know who God is. Maybe it is grace that drew you here this morning. I don’t know. But it is an incredible gift, grace, and as you have heard me say, I refuse to lead with grace, as if it’s the most important among other things. I think leading with grace isn’t a strong enough witness to the power of grace. Grace is all there is. It’s the way God interacts with us, and yes, there are expectations, but don’t let those expectations trick you into thinking you can earn grace. Grace isn’t karma. It’s different. As Thomas Merton, that great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century has said, grace is “God’s own life, shared with us.” John Wesley, the founder of our rich theological heritage as United Methodists, talks about grace as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” You don’t achieve it. You receive it.
This can be hard to understand in a world and an economic system centered on earing your keep, of getting what you deserve, of achieving greatness. But it is the fundamental promise of the entire Bible that God loves you and there’s nothing you have ever done or nothing you could ever do to fully deserve that love. That’s grace, that gift of love.
And I will admit something as your pastor. I struggle with this kind of thing just as much as the next person. I like to excel. I am pretty good at it, in fact, and it turns out that my own sense of self-worth is pretty largely predicated upon the things that I do well. And maybe this resonates with you as a church that does mission really well, that takes seriously God’s call to serve the poor, but I think that if I am honest, I have to admit that even my serving in God’s name is sometimes influenced by my own need to excel, to earn God’s favor, to achieve God’s grace rather than to receive God’s grace.
You have probably heard me talk about some of the mission trips I’ve had the chance to participate in. I spent three years on staff at United Methodist Volunteers in Mission so I’ve had the opportunity to serve in some pretty remarkable places. Come down to my office some time and I will show you some of my relics from those trips, batiq paintings from Mozambique, a coal-dust nativity set from Kentucky, some wood crafts from Cuba. But the most meaningful thing I’ve ever brought back from one of my mission trips was something I did not buy. In fact, if I’d been given the chance to buy it, I never would have. Let me explain.
Stacey and I led a mission trip to Uganda in 2012, I think it was. We were working with a school for kids whose families had been affected by HIV and AIDS, the Humble school, which is a great name. I wonder what it would be like to serve the Humble church. We could do worse than that.
But we were there to work with the school, to teach the kids a little bit, and to do some work on a dormitory for the girls who were a part of that school, putting up some bricks, doing some light construction in the hot African sun.
I will admit to you that I had a little bit of an ulterior motive. As somebody who has been involved in denominational mission efforts, I wanted to make sure to use the trip to teach the people who were with us about the importance of mission, to sort of whet their whistle on the work of loving God by loving people. Maybe this is a little shocking, I don’t know, but some people sign up for these trips just because they want an adventure, so you have to sneak in a little relationship work, a little teaching about the importance of serving God’s people. And I’ve seen it as a big part of my calling to ministry, and especially my job as the head of that team, to teach people about mission, to excel, to have a great team who would go back and, because of my work, you know, change the world or whatever.
We had a good trip, and people were starting to open up about the things they were experiencing, and I started to feel pretty good about myself. I was thinking, you know, great, this is what I wanted, to bring these people here and to have them experience God in a new way. I’m thinking, I’m something else. I’m pretty good at this. In fact, I had the added pleasure of sharing something with one of the Ugandan pastors we were working with. I had this little pocket book of worship I’d picked up at the denominational bookstore for 8 or 9 dollars or something insignificant. I use it for funerals and weddings and the like, and I had it with me to use during our evening team devotionals. And the Ugandan pastor we were working with saw me reading it one day and his eyes got really big and he told me that the thing he’d always wanted was a United Methodist Book of Worship. I guess I should mention here that he wasn’t just any pastor. He was a district superintendent, and his district was the Sudan. Not, you know, this little stretch of the Sudan, or that swath of Sudan, but Sudan. The whole thing. This guy has almost nothing—his family is two countries away and he’s been wearing the same clergy shirt every day with a rip in the chest, and I figured, you know, this thing cost me 8 or 9 dollars, so I gave it to him and felt awfully good about myself, having given this great gift that he’d always wanted.
Well, it was the very last day of the trip, and as a sort of treat for the team, we went to Victoria Falls, which is the start of the Nile River, and then we drove to a little African zoo, which wasn’t as exciting as a safari but still pretty amusing, especially when a monkey stole the sunglasses off the head of one of our team members. And at the end of the day, we were standing around just at the inside of the zoo, where there was a little stand where a guy sold little trinkets, sort of a miniature flea market, with some fruit, and some housewares and the like. And I saw the District Superintendent walk over the stand and exchange a little money, and I sort of wonder where he got the money to engage this guy, but I figure he’s getting a snack or whatever.
Well, we get back to the bus and are headed to the airport to head back to Atlanta, and we’re sweaty, and dirty, and we smell like a fraternity house after a long weekend, and the district superintendent sits down next to me and pulls out a plastic bag and hands it to me. And I ask him, what is this? And he says, “It is a presentation.” It took me a minute to realize that he meant he’d given me a gift, and I open it, and I pull out the kindest thing I’ve ever received. It was a Nike watch, and it didn’t work, but that didn’t matter. If that thing could have run on love it’d be running an hour fast. I would have never, never bought that watch, but then, I really couldn’t have, for the power was in the giving, in the gift, in the sacrifice.
You know, I could work my entire life and never make enough money to buy that kind of love, to achieve that kind of grace. But having received it, I can’t shake the feeling that it is incumbent on me to share it with everybody I meet. Amen.