The Immeasurable Riches of God’s Grace
by Louise Westfall
Billy Graham’s death a couple weeks ago got me thinking about grace. The man known as “America’s Preacher” was certainly among the most influential 20th century Christian leaders. His almost sixty-year career included preaching to live audiences of two hundred ten million people in 185 countries, and estimates of his outreach, including radio and TV broadcasts, mean that some 2.5 billion people heard his gospel message to accept Jesus Christ as personal savior. He was an unofficial advisor to US presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and memorably lifted up a heartbroken nation in prayer following the events of 9/11. But I’ve heard other perspectives on his ministry as well. How he reflected virulent anti-Semitism in recorded conversations with President Nixon. How he condemned LGBT sexual orientation as an abomination of biblical proportion. How he neglected to leverage his relationship with presidents and power brokers to support systemic justice and peace.
All true. And that’s why I’ve been pondering grace. If there was one theme in Billy Graham’s preaching, it was that the futility and brokenness of human life is saved by God’s grace, not through the efforts and outstanding faith demonstrated by God’s people. He always included himself in that number, humbly aware of his own shortcomings, blindsides, and failure. I remember hearing an interview with his wife Ruth long ago, when the host asked her if, with all the absences of her husband’s global travel, leaving her to cope with five children and a household to run, she had ever contemplated divorce. “No,” she resolutely replied. “Divorce, no. Murder, yes.” Right? Not one of us stands apart from the need for God’s grace. Not one.
The morning Scripture text takes this reality for granted, and then goes on to describe the essential
good news and its effects. I invite us to consider how grace is manifest in our own lives as we read the letter to the Ephesian churches, in the second chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me and everyone. [Ephesians 2:1-10]
Grace is less of a thing, than it is a journey, a path, a movement from death in its many forms, to life, here and now, and in the ages to come. This text overflows with joy as it describes God who is rich in mercy, who loves us with great love even in our imperfection and rebellion, and who makes us come alive. There’s no naiveté about the fact we will never attain perfection, but an absolute conviction that we are animated by a different reality and sense of self. Best-selling author Brene Brown puts it like this: Grace means that all of your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame. Shame says because I’m flawed, I am unacceptable. Grace says, though I’m flawed, I’m cherished. God’s love is simply undeterred by human sin; it works on us, sometimes uninvited and often in ways we can’t see, to raise us from a life deadened by self-preoccupation, estrangement from other people, and loyalties to lesser gods. God’s grace is immeasurable, both quantitatively and qualitatively. There’s nothing we can do to make God stop loving us and actively working in us to make our lives immeasurably good.
What could be better news for any of us????!!!!
… but I’m also aware that “grace” is a word that appears in practically every sermon I’ve ever preached. It runs the risk of being one of those churchy concepts that brings approving nods but doesn’t always translate into the places where we actually live. So this week I sent out a request to my Facebook friends for their real life experiences of grace. Back came responses from friends far and wide, churched and unchurched folks, all ages, men and women. Their stories put flesh on theology. I had to share them with you, and have enlisted the help of some in the congregation today. Let me hasten to say that they are reading the testimony of others, not their own, but in hearing a variety of experiences in different voices, I hope each of us can identify ourselves as God’s cherished sons and daughters, no matter what our particular circumstance. I invite all readers to stand in their place. [Cheryl Fleetwood, Bob Johnson, Anne Bond, Mike Hofmann, Helen Gibson, Louis Simpson, and Adam Brown]
… the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. Revealed in dramatic conversations … and small, every day details. A way of receiving life come what may, that produces courage and hope. A way of life itself, a purpose-filled and joyous journey. An end to feelings either of entitlement (we get what we deserve) or shame (I’m not good enough to deserve anything). A life overflowing with gratitude to God for this incalculable, immeasurable gift.
Sort of like the thanks I give for the life and ministry of Billy Graham. You see, my parents were among those who gave their lives to Jesus prompted by Graham’s message at the Kansas City crusade back in the 1950s. Though they had been raised in Christian homes, my dad in particular gave up religion as a young adult, perhaps rebelling against the strict upbringing of his Presbyterian parents or because of his intellectual pursuits that left no room for faith. They were invited by friends to tune in and something … Someone? … took hold. The decision set them on a whole new path. They found a neighborhood Presbyterian Church and started attending. Just five years later, my dad would discern a call into ordained ministry. My family’s commitment to Christ and Christ’s church — not to mention my own call to ministry — was profoundly shaped by the good news proclaimed by this fiery, flawed preacher who had been saved by grace, not his own doing, but the magnificent gift of God. And what a life it has turned out to be!