“Grace Alone”

“Grace Alone” Sermon
Genesis 2:2-3 and Ephesians 2:8-10
Rev. Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
October 4, 2020 

In a sermon earlier this year, I shared about the one marathon that I have ever run. In particular, I shared about a training run that I did. It was an 18 mile run – the longest I’d ever run in my life at that point. And most relevant for this morning – I shared how somewhere around mile 15 or 16 on that particular run – I hit a wall. 

“The wall” – as the term implies – is not gradual. 

The wall is called the wall because it seems like one moment you are pacing yourself nicely, dealing fairly well with the inevitable aches and pains and then very suddenly the body is overwhelmed with a sensation not unlike suddenly smashing against a concrete surface. The legs feel like they are now in slow motion. The arm strides – you find you have to will your brain mentally to keep pumping them. When you hit ‘the wall’ – the movements are now smaller, every moment feels like it is taking far more energy than it did even moments ago. And for the first time during that run you genuinely question: How am I going to get through this? 

Anybody hit a wall somewhere in the past month? 

Aisha Ahmad is a professor at the University of Toronto who published an article about a week ago entitled “How to power through the six-month ‘crisis wall’ – by an expert in disaster zones.” Dr. Ahmad has done prolonged tours of research in war zones, natural disaster areas, places hit painfully hard by cholera. And time and again her research shows that there is a predictable curve in crises: 

  1. When the crisis first hits we live off adrenaline and cover down on all the challenges with creativity and energy. 
  2. By months three and four we can even begin to develop a real confidence and rhythm about navigating the crisis.
  3. But then just when you thought you were on a runner’s high of sorts – her research shows that it is almost like clockwork that at or around the six month period those navigating prolonged crises hit a wall.

They are exhausted. Every movement, every decision seems more labored. Thoughts of getting out – any way possible – are constant. Her article was all over the internet – and my guess is that’s because she was naming something readily relevant to so many in recent days. 

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” 

We worship a God for whom rest is central. Rest is a foundational given. But notice…God does not rest because God had hit a wall. The verb for “rested” there is “sabat” which literally means “stopped.” It is the word from which we get Sabbath. And very simply it’s a word that conveys that the task was complete and so God ceased. No hint of tiredness or exhaustion. 

Karl Barth, the 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, unpacks one of the more profound implications of God resting on the 7th day. First Barth reminds us that on the sixth day, God creates humans and tasks humans with being fruitful and multiplying and being stewards of all of creation, actively caring for all the various forms of life. We are tasked with work. That’s the sixth day. And then on the seventh day, the first chance humans get to start in on their “to do” list from God…what happens? Barth observes… 

“God rested on the seventh day…(that) is the first divine action which man is privileged to witness; and that he himself may keep the Sabbath with God, completely free from work, is the first Word spoken to him, (that is) the first obligation laid on him.” 

  • The very first thing humanity is privileged to witness? Rest. 
  • The first Word to spoken to us? Rest. 
  • The first obligation laid upon us? Rest. 

Rest first. Then work. Receive the gift of God’s favor and provision first…then work. 

Or, another way to put it – grace first, then work. 

And this, I think, is where we can begin to see that the Sabbath proves a lens through we can better understand something that is foundational to our theology as Presbyterians. Foundational when we talk about what it means to be part of the Reformed Tradition. 

We heard how Paul puts so succinctly what we hold central: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” 

God’s grace in Jesus Christ comes first. God’s underserved favor in Jesus Christ saves us apart from any work. We don’t do a few good things with our lives and check in with God and see if that puts on the good list, the moral list, the right list. Nor do we fail and fall over and so God will just have nothing to do with us. 

We do not earn favor with God. Nor do we un-earn it. We rest in God’s gracious favor first… and out of grace, empowered by grace, in thanks for grace… we work. And I think many a good Presbyterian would shout “amen” to this. “Amazing Grace is what saves us, indeed!” 

But…often we believe it here (head), we sing it here (lips) – still my sense is that our regular bouts with exhaustion and busyness and feeling overwhelmed – before COVID and during COVID – all of those are signs that while we may we may believe a good game (head) and sing a good game (lips)…many of us struggle to really receive the gift that is central to Reformed theology; namely grace. 

Three years ago Michelle, Leo and I walked a portion of the Camino in Spain – a trip I know I’ve mentioned before. The Camino is the long trail cutting across a part of France and all of Spain and many go there every year to walk all of it or part of it as a pilgrimage. A spiritual journey. 

At a particular rest stop on the Camino, we were talking with this guy about why he was doing the Camino and actually it turned out he had done the whole of it a few times. And he explained his reasoning this way: “I do the Camino because it is a place where my body catches up to where my mind wants it to be.” And then he goes, “Does that make sense?” 

What he was getting at was that his mind wanted to know and receive a true sense of rest and peace and delight…but somehow it was not fully known or received until his body also knew it. Until he showed up and started walking, quite literally, in concert with what his mind wanted. To state the obvious, he could not know the gift of the Camino just be mentally believing in it. He needed his body to walk it. 

Grace is central to what it means to be Reformed. And most assuredly, one cannot fully know the gift of grace simply by mentally believing it. Grace is a gift from God in Christ Jesus that is received into our heart, mind, body, and soul. 

And for that gift to be fully known and received, grace must be walked. And how timely it seems such a walk would be. 

And yet, how many among us, upon even thinking about taking the first step toward receiving the gift of grace through some kind of embodied practice like the Sabbath, start to say… 

“Wait…but I didn’t do enough last week, I didn’t get enough done, I actually did terrible things and wasted my time and I can’t start a week without first getting my act together. Doing more. Fixing some things. I might be able to get to a Sabbath one day when everything final settles down… but right now, I do not deserve and certainly cannot give myself rest.” 

Exactly. No one deserves Sabbath. And we cannot give it to ourselves. 

It is given unto us… It is gift written into the fabric of how God designed the rhythm of time. Grace is baked into the front of every week because grace is baked into the foundational DNA of what our God in Jesus Christ is all about. 

How might we know in our bodies the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ which showers over us without regard to what we have or have not done? The center of our tagline reads “Reformed” – how might we drink deeply from a central aspect of that tradition? 

There is so much that has been and can be said about this. But for now, let’s at least observe two brief things we can see from the Genesis passage when it comes to receiving the gift of Sabbath and so proclaiming to ourselves and others the grace of God: one negative and one positive. 

Negatively – we cease from all work. “God rested.” The word is… “sabat,” literally, God “stopped” work. Now how we define “work” for each person here is not always a simple matter, I recognize. For now, broadly, there is a cessation of work that is central to receiving the gift of the Sabbath. 

Positively – we actively delight in God and God’s creation. Notice again how Genesis 2:2 reads: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” 

Wait! I thought God “rested” on the seventh day. But this also says God “worked” or “finished the work.” And then it also says “God rested from all the work.” 

So, did God work, or work a little…or did God rest? Was it both? And more to the point, what does it mean for us….are we to rest or rest and work a little? 

What many Jewish commentators have argued over the millennia and what Christian scholars pick up on is that on the seventh day God created “Menuha.” It is a Hebrew word for ‘rest’, but it is better translated as “joyous repose, tranquility, or delight.” The idea is not so much taking a nap or vegging out; rather, it has an active sense to it wherein one “delights and rejoices in” God and God’s creation. 

It is much like walking the Camino is on one hand, not working – you don’t see anyone journeying along and doing email or making calls or fixing a car or doing chores…and yet at the same time, it is active. There are bodies in motion. There is noticing. Walking. Conversation. Laughter. Meals. Prayer. 

Sabbath-receiving is both a negative – no work. And a positive – delight in God and God’s creation and the gifts God has given us. 

Another way to put it, Sabbath is paradoxically “Active rest” (which, interestingly, is precisely what Dr. Ahmad in her article on the 6-month crises mark says is critical to these moments). With active rest, there is motion, there is delight, noticing, energy used, worship shared, songs are sung. But there is also a cessation from that which is work and chore. 

What might that look like for us? If a whole day is not practical right now given some of the intense care-giving or parental or other demands (maybe its something we build toward)…what does it look like to not just believe in grace but take some space of time and let the body receive the gift of God’s undeserved favor? 

To be sure… there is a great cost to receiving the Sabbath because all real grace is costly grace; all true grace is disruptive grace. Taking the grace of Sabbath seriously and joyously shifts the calendar, the schedule, the priorities…and really, the heart of a people. 

Receiving the grace of Jesus who loves us to the point of death apart from what we do or do not do – my goodness how that disrupts our categories of whose in and whose out and who ‘deserves’ love and who should be forgiven and who should not. 

Real grace is costly grace if we really let it take hold. And yet… 

One of the things that struck me on the Camino was how most of the people we met or walked alongside were in the 60s or 70s. Probably a good 2/3rds or more of all people on the Camino from all around the world were in this age category. 

The man I mentioned earlier was probably somewhere in his 60s or 70s and, he said that had he known at my age what he knew at his age – he would have done the Camino 50 times already in his life instead of the handful he had done up to this point. 

He went on in that same conversation to say, jokingly, but only halfway-so: “You know you work all your life trying to make money and then you go and live like a pauper.” 

There was a sense of reflectiveness in his voice that seemed to be saying, “If I knew then what I know now…other things would be prioritized.” 

“Had I known about this gift earlier, all the other parts of my life might have been worked around the regular, active rest known in walking the Camino.” 

There is a wisdom of those who are much further along in the pilgrimage, and that wisdom says, “If I did it over, I would have aligned with the rhythm of creation much sooner. Rest first, grace first…and then let the other realities work around that, flow from that. I’d trust myself less with needing to get ahead and control how the other days went and trust God more with those days. ” 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” May we receive just that, in abundance. Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert