Joel 2:23-32; Luke18:9-14
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.”
These are wonderful words from the prophet Joel. The reading for today is the only day in the entire three year cycle of the Lectionary that you’ll hear from Joel. We’re blessed, because this is the happiest part of the book. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everything in Joel that leads up to this reading this morning is pretty grim, clotted with clouds of locusts, filled with doomsday scenarios of destruction, and punctuated by urgent cries of repentance (or else!). But today, there is rain, plenty of grain and vats of wine and oil so full they are overflowing. It’s a passage replete with grace.
And it is grace that is the subject of today’s sermon.
A theological definition of the word is that grace is “unmerited favor from God.” That may be helpful to you…or not. From my perspective, Grace is like rain. Picture yourself standing in a field along with thousands of others and suddenly the heaven’s open, letting loose a downpour the likes of which you haven’t seen in years. In such a scenario, no one leaves the field without getting soaking wet—absolutely drenched. That’s an image that works for me. But not for everyone.
Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, “Be good.” Years ago, as a vicar of a church in Indiana, I served a congregation filled with people who were certain that they needed to be good in order to be saved—being good was what they believed was what was going to get them into heaven. As a recent ordinand sporting a Master of Divinity degree—I was certain they would listen to the words of their priest who assured them that they were saved—not by works, not through their own efforts, but by grace. The good people of St. Stephen’s in the Field were having none of it. It was a lesson in humility to realize that my wisdom, ordination and divinity degree counted for absolutely nothing when it came to conveying the truth of the grace of God. In truth, they were good people, and I loved them dearly. They worked hard to do the right things—and they wanted to believe that their efforts counted when it came to claiming salvation. But here’s the thing--the stories our Savior tells us contradict that answer. From the parable of the Prodigal Son to the gospel reading for today of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus tells us that if we want to get to heaven, all we must do is cry, “Help!” You may recall that the Pharisee in this morning’s gospel makes his way to the temple and goes to great lengths to point out his religious accomplishments such as fasting and tithing—he’s all about himself. But the tax collector (who everyone to whom Jesus was speaking would have been recognized instantly for the sinner that he was) he throws himself on the ground and pleads to God for mercy, and God responds.
Grace, at least from the perspective of the Gospels, isn’t about whether you’ve been a good person, or not. God lavishes grace with abandon on both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Almighty, is the proliferate giver. The catch is simple—and, truth be told, it’s of our own making—it’s a question of whether we reach out and accept the grace God wants to give us—or toss it aside or ignore it altogether in a display of cynicism, apathy, or (in the case of the Pharisee) arrogance. Think of it this way: Grace is a gift which cannot be earned, only received. The Pharisee in today’s Gospel lesson—his heart was too full of himself to make room for God—in the end, there simply wasn’t room for grace to enter into his self-equation.
Listen to more of the words which God has given us from the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit … (and) everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved…”. That’s a pretty extravagant—and it flies directly in the face of whether we are deserving of the gift or not. Theologian Philip Yancey writes: “Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.”
That’s good news. It means that salvation isn’t based upon what I do or don’t do—but simply upon God’s love.
This morning we have the joy welcoming Sri Malempati into the family of God through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. When I talked with Sri about being baptized, I asked him what led him to this decision—and this is what he told me: “The peace of Jesus. There is no peace like the peace of Jesus.” That, quite honestly, is as good an answer as I have ever heard. It is a response filled with grace, from a person who has searched his heart and found his home in Christ.
Grace is like rain, it is showered upon us all—but to take hold of the gift, to receive its promises and live into its hope—that requires acceptance.
The promise of grace is staring us right in the face with no loopholes. It’s unconditional and eternal. All it takes is our willingness to receive what God is offering. It is both that simple and that challenging. As Sri begins his life as a Christian, my prayer and hope is that that the peace of Christ will continue to lead him on a journey of grace—one in which the companionship of his Savior will be a strength and a joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.