08 June 2023

Grace and peace

What follows is a sermon I presented at Spokane Friends Meeting on April 23 during our month in London. I dedicated it to Eden Grace, who had just received very difficult news from her medical team. Remission of her cancer was no longer a realistic possibility. By the time I gave part two of this sermon at Spokane Friends on May 28, Eden was no longer with us. At least not in the ordinary sense.

Here is an appreciation of Eden from the World Council of Churches. Background—Eden Grace in Quaker Religious Thought: "Voting Not to Vote."

April 23.

Good morning! Grace and peace to you from God, our gracious loving Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Let me start out with these two Bible passages out of the dozens I could have chosen:

Ephesians 2:8. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God….

2 Peter 1:2-4. Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

In two weeks, here in London, Charles the Third will be crowned king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the model of the two previous coronations will be followed, at some point during the ceremony, Charles will be anointed with holy oil, while the choir sings, “Anoint and cheer our soiled face / with the abundance of thy grace.” In fact, God’s grace will be invoked several times during the coronation. What is this grace that they’re singing and talking about, that is apparently essential to sealing the deal for Charles to be the king?

When I was in seminary, I had Tom Mullen as my preaching professor. I have lots of Tom Mullen stories, and maybe some of you do, too. He was an excellent speaker himself, so of course we students were all eager to do well in his course, and at the same time knew we had a hard act to follow.

I think HE thought he was making it easier when he told us, “There is really only one truly Christian sermon theme, and that is ‘grace’—but that gives you enough material for a lifetime of messages.” I suppose I should have been comforted by the idea that I really don’t have to search for new topics every time I speak, but there really is a problem: thinking about “grace” is a little like looking directly at the sun. It seems much safer to skirt around the issue than to dare to look directly at God’s unconditional love poured out on us.

When I was a pastor at Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, I don’t think I gave a single sermon that was focused completely on grace. Well, maybe one—and that was a children’s message. Sometimes, when I gave children’s messages, I used my friends Garfield and Lamb Chop and Dima the Bear. You all know Garfield, right? How many of you remember Shari Lewis’s puppet Lamb Chop? Usually, when I speak to you from our home in Portland, you see Lamb Chop peeking out from the bookshelves on my left.

Dima the banker, Lamb Chop, Garfield.
In my storytelling world, Garfield and Lamb Chop are friends, and they were the main cast members of the stories I used to tell our kids at bedtime when they were young. Later I used some of these same stories for the kids at Reedwood. One of the stories, for example, was a fable to explain the Trinity. But the one I’m recalling today involved the lasagna restaurant that Garfield and Lamb Chop opened in Kokomo, Indiana.

They needed a bank loan to finance this project. Their friend Dima the banker gave them the money they needed. Dima explained to them that if they couldn’t make their loan payment on the day it was due, they had a 30-day period of grace, during which they could sell enough lasagna to make the payment. During those thirty days, they could focus their energy on making lasagna, not the debt. Dima was a good banker and a good friend, but he wasn’t God. God has no time limit on grace.

Tom Mullen’s students weren’t the first to be dazzled by the theme of grace. Theologians of higher rank than Dima and Lamb Chop have been trying to filter it into manageable size for millennia. I thought I knew what the word meant: God’s unmerited loving power and care, that enables us to be in relationship with God and to act in the world on the basis of that power and that relationship. It is ours for the asking; there’s nothing we have to do to earn or deserve it. It’s so overwhelming, so total, that of course we humans had to figure out how to manage such generosity intellectually.

Some early theologians thought that, though grace was supposedly universal, we humans are so rotten to the core that God has to select a fixed number on whom to bestow mercy, and then they would continue to need grace to maintain the relationship. Others, particularly in the Eastern church, protested that grace was unconditional, and we human beings, all of us, are always at liberty to choose to receive it. Eastern Orthodox Christians have their own ways of interpreting the word, and often it involves the idea that grace is the primordial, uncreated energies of God. When we receive grace, we are potentially participating as much in God’s own nature as it is possible for a creature of God to do.

Listen again to Second Peter:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature….

No wonder we need strong sunglasses to even think about what God offers us in grace.

Now, church as human institution, church as power structure, might not want us ordinary people to have direct access to these promises without some kind of supervision. Now I don’t mean to make out that the church necessarily had bad motives. Somehow these incredible promises had to be conveyed to people who were not yet aware of them, and so, those who had the gift of conveying them, were also given the responsibility to communicate what God was promising. We can see in Acts and the New Testament epistles how this was going on. Paul starts out most of his New Testament letters with the words “grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

(Parenthetically, I could comment that “God our creator” or “God our parent” instead of "Father" would work just as well for me. This is an important point, which we could talk about another time. I don't want to go there now, but I also didn't want just to blow right past it.)

And, along with that gracious introduction, most of Paul’s letters then end up greeting the various people he knows in those places he’s writing to; these are the men and women who are actually proclaiming and showing grace in their house churches and communities.

The vocabulary of grace got more elaborate as time went on, and as the church’s intellectuals grappled with such questions as “are we sinners capable of receiving grace unless God intervenes somehow to open us up to it; and, if such intervention is necessary, does it happen to everyone or just some of us? And does it depend on us or does it depend on God’s choice?” Along with that set of questions comes the politically weighty question of “who decides?” Who operates the gates of the church, signaling to us which of us are acceptable and which aren’t?

And then there is the equally political question of how grace, once it's satisfactorily defined, is conveyed from God to God’s creatures. Once again, in simplifying these questions, I have no desire to mock the church in its humanness. Communication is always a challenge, and choosing the most effective words and symbols for the early church was often done with care and beauty, drawing on the resources of the Jewish communities that gave birth to Christianity. Passover, for example, helped shape the sacrament of communion, both being intended to convey God’s promises to God’s people. Only later was communion defined as one of a limited number of sacraments that were codified as the way grace is communicated to the people. Sacraments were supposedly the way that our souls and our affections are drawn into cooperation with God. And far be it from us Quakers to look condescendingly on the outward sacraments if we have not ourselves found an equally effective way to be reminded of our need for grace and our standing invitation to open ourselves up to it.

Some theologians came to see the Bible as another vehicle of grace, but, then, can we church leaders risk letting ordinary people read the Bible for themselves, or is this channel of grace reserved for the leadership? For centuries, giving the wrong answer to this question could get you burned at the stake.

Where politics and conflict came in, of course, was not in the good motivation of developing vocabularies and symbols to communicate grace. Thank God our ancestral mentors in faith cared enough to do that. But with the passing of generations, that motivation may have been overshadowed by the tradecraft of sacraments, which after all require licensing—that is, who is authorized to perform them and get compensated for their performance. And there has to be quality control—how do we know when the ceremonies are being correctly performed in all the various settings where churches arise? If grace is promised, how do we know that the promise is effectively kept? The history of Western Christianity is a nearly unbroken series of arguments about these sorts of complications.

Then along came Quakers, who claimed to cherish the Scriptures equally with their contemporaries, but who didn’t seem to require the traditional channels for conveying the grace promised in those Scriptures. As William Penn explained in his defense of Quakers against what he called the “perversions” charged against them:

Of water baptism and the supper

Perversion 14: The Quakers deny the two great sacraments or ordinances of the Gospel, Baptism and the Supper.

Principle: Whatever is truly a Gospel ordinance, they desire to own and practice. But they observe no such language in the Scriptures as in the reflection. They do confess the practice of John’s baptism and the Supper is to be found there; but practice only is no institution, nor a sufficient reason for continuation. ... [T]hey were then proper, they believe, when the mysteries lay yet couched in figures and shadows. But it is their belief that no figures or signs are perpetual or of institution under the Gospel administration, when Christ, Who is the Substance of them, is come.


When it comes to theology, we Quakers have another peculiarity. Historically, we haven't spent much time on trying to understand or describe the mysteries of faith, preferring to describe the functional outcomes of faith. To put it another way, metaphysics isn't one of our strengths as a people. So, for example, here's William Penn again, from the same tract I just quoted from, treating the subject of the Trinity:

Of the Holy Three, or Scripture Trinity

Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity.

Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or Trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen’s, such as distinct and separate Persons or substances are, from whence people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And they judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. [Penn went on to write...] Men are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice.

So, not surprisingly, we Friends have not prioritized describing exactly how grace is conveyed from God to us, and in what order, and under what conditions, but we love to see it in operation as people grow closer to God and to each other, and our lives reflect what we're learning daily about living with God at the center.

However! (There always has to be a however!) ... If other Christians say that grace is conveyed through Word (with a capital W) and Sacrament, and we say, those are well and good but not necessary, because those are all types and shadows and we have the substance, Christ, we better mind our manners. Those "types and shadows," so-called, have visibly been effective for many generations of dear people who were never abandoned by God, even if church authorities became over-controlling or, on the other hand, began phoning it in because it all became so routine. AND, also, do we in fact have the substance we claim to have? Do we functionally know what it is to live with Jesus himself at the head of our meetings, and our yearly meetings, or are we too just as vulnerable as everyone else to falling in love with our own clichés and conceits?

The good news for this morning, and for all mornings, is that God's promises are true and unconditional, and we can claim and reclaim them at every moment. Every time I visit you, I get glimpses of that functional grace that even peering at each other through Zoom can't dim. As you ask for prayer, and pray for each other, I see grace in operation. I see grace in the fascinating material you put in your newsletters. I love how grace is reflected in the music that you choose for worship, because I know that making those choices is a talent I wish I had, but don't.

But maybe there's someone here this morning, or online, who's not feeling much grace at the moment. It happens. It's happened to me. I just have two points in conclusion: first, God is pouring it out on us now and always, whether or not we're in a place to be as aware as we'd like. And, second, sometimes we do need a channel for that grace to touch us. That's where the community comes in. Today I may feel lost and without a sense of grace, but you as a body are remembering God's promises on my behalf. Tomorrow, I might be far more ready to receive this reassurance, and carry it on your behalf. Together, step by step, sometimes in fits and starts, God's grace is helping us, just as Peter's letter promised, grow into the Divine nature.

(Grace, part two, and part three.)

Peter Turchin on the risk of "elite overproduction" in the USA: If this risk is not confronted, "America Is Headed Toward Collapse."  

We Get What We Pay For: a study of "the cycle of military spending, industry power, and economic dependence." Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and Autumn McDonald ask, "How Much Work Is Enough?"

So, when companies began to demand that workers return to the pre-pandemic status quo, the question, ‘how much work is enough?’ prompted another: ‘enough for what?’ To earn a living? To meet our employers’ productivity expectations? To support our pursuit of happiness, or perhaps to retire? The answers vary, depending on who asks and who responds.

Timothy Snyder's advice on how to support the Kakhovka flood relief workers. And: more on the flood, from OpenDemocracy.

Brad Vaughn proposes three different paradigms that respectively "represent how most people understand their local church (and the church more generally)." The third closely matches how I understand Quakers.

Restoring my perspective in complicated times: reading about the mysterious cosmic threads that are intriguing scientists.

Helicopter pilot Prince Harry's "hover monkeys" and "head squirrels" ... and what they suggested to Nancy Thomas about the dangers of aging.

It's been about two years since we lost the great James Harman, "a full service blues man since 1962." Here is Nathan James with an affectionate tribute video:

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