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Belmont United Methodist Church in Belmont Massachusetts

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Partners in Grace - Rev Wimmer - December 6, 2009 - Philippians 1:3-11


Partners in Grace Advent 2 2009
Frederick Buechner, in his theological ABC, Wishful Thinking, defined it this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There is only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” And with these simple words B illustrates the complexity of our relationship with grace.
We can’t have it just because we want it but it is always there for us whether we want it or not. We can’t hold on to it but it holds us. We can’t make it happen but we can let it happen to us. And this is not just about me and you and our personal relationship with grace, it is about us, the Church, our relationship with grace together.
This reading today from Philippians stuck me again for the first time with the memory of the precious and singular reality of the Church in our lives. We take it for granted. We hardly notice what it means to us. It is just here and we can take it or leave it and we forget that here we are partners in grace. Partners in grace. We are together in the presence of God. That is a little different than being in the presence of God alone. Anybody can do that. To be together in God’s grace is something else.
Richard Foster, I think it was, said that even though we cannot make grace happen to us we can put ourselves in a place where it might happen. We can prepare, make ourselves ready, be more open to its presence. In fact this is all we can do except to recognize and receive the gift when it comes and preparing our hearts for its coming will also improve our chances of knowing it when we do see it. (As Paul writes in his letter: “ And this is my prayer for you that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge . . . “) Knowing grace when we see it is one of the fruits of staying in love with God.
This is where the church comes in or could. It is no secret that our experiences in Church are not always grace-filled. Sometimes staying in love with God as the motivation for being a church, gets lost in the daily grind of doing business in the world. The Church itself is complicated is it not? We are called by God and this is God’s Church before it is ours but it is we that are called and we are not God, we are people in the best and worst sense of that word and everything in-between. We do not always get it right. Sometimes we fail to love. (This by the way is why we need grace.) The question is how can we who need grace create an environment in the church of grace and the answer is we cannot. As the church we wait for the gift as well. But here is another paradox at the center of grace: the waiting is what creates an environment for grace to be revealed. It doesn’t make it happen but it puts us in a place where it might happen. At some point we may be blessed with the experience that Jacob had when he is said to have exclaimed these most beautiful of words: “Surely the Lord is in this place?and I did not know it!”
Such is what it is like to experience grace in the community of the Church. (We have had some of those moments, haven’t we?) It is interesting to me that in the original Greek, Paul used the same word (charis) for grace and gratitude. When the action was from God to us the word was translated grace and when the action was from us to God the word was translated as gratitude. It is a natural extension of the grace of God that those who receive it experience gratitude. The giving and the receiving are of the same substance. We share grace with God even as we share it with each other in community. It comes from God but it is we who receive it and are grateful. And this is the essential heart of the Church. As partners in grace we are a grateful people. It is gratitude that motivates us to love more and more the God who loves us. Gratitude, I suspect, is also the inspiration for joy.
There is a lot of joy in Paul’s letter and it has in large part to do with his recalling from memory, as he resides in prison facing the threat of death, the faithfulness of this congregation in Philippi that knows its own suffering and is also threatened on a daily basis. I understand that in Paul’s time at least it was standard practice for a Jewish person suffering (and there always seemed to be plenty of suffering) to remember Abraham, the exodus, the temple, the promises, always the promises of God. Fred Craddock writing about this in his commentary on the letter to the Philippians made this observation which struck at my own heart: Paul already knew before conversion that being a believer is to a large extent an act of memory. It still is, as early Christians understood when they referred to being lost in the world as “having amnesia.”
This idea of memory as crucial identity is not about forgetting a meeting or losing your keys. It is a kin to the horror of not knowing our own name or not recognizing those we have loved our whole life. Nor is it the suggestion that the present must always be exactly as the past. As those who live in the created world, created, not accidentally, in time, there is no going back. It is customary to think that time oppresses us. Stephanie Paulsell, who teaches at Harvard, writes in the Christian
Century recently, “. . . surely God means for time to be a sign of God’s hope in us, God’s confidence that we can change.” No, memory as crucial to belief and faith is not about not changing but it is about who we are and whose we are, where we come from and where we are going, as we experience all the changes that this blessed human life takes us through. It is God’s grace that assures us that, in the midst of all the changes that must be, there is something that does not change and that is the love and grace that is God since before time began and that will be God when everything else is gone.
These words afford us a glimpse into the mystery and meaning of the holy communion we are about to share. This meal is also called Eucharist, a word that has at its heart the same word Paul used to express grace and gratitude, the word charis. We are given the opportunity through memory and grace to remember who we are. To remember how God forgives us, to offer gratitude through acts of love and constant presence in the Church that is not perfect and won’t be anytime soon, but is a place where grace might happen and a place where we, as partners in grace, might see it and know it together. Memory in this sense remembers not only the past but the present and the future as we become who we will be in these days of our lives.
As we get caught up in all that that entails in this complex and dangerous world, may we be blessed to know that here in this holy place, on this holy ground, we are partners in grace in the Church that is far more than its four walls and never-ending concerns but is in fact where God’s good work has begun and will be brought to completion; is, in fact, where God has gathered a people to share the gospel of grace and love with each other and with the world.
If I may borrow the word of Paul, let me say:
“I thank God for you.”
I thank God for you.


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Belmont United Methodist Church is a Certified Welcoming Congregation


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