Rethinking God's Grace
By Derek Penwell
Early on in my ministry, I was convinced that every sermon should have grace at its heart. I still believe that, but now I think of grace in a different way. I had thought that grace means not only a light at the end of a sometimes dark tunnel but that grace is the light that makes everything in the tunnel shine, which is to say, I had thought that grace is a gift that always makes you feel better.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the grace I believed in was a grace that affirmed my own middle-class, white existence. It meant that my faith didn’t require much of me—at least as far as everybody else was concerned. It was a grace that allowed me to focus on myself and the happiness of those closest to me, without ever prompting me to think too heavily about the non-middle class, white existence of others.
Grace, I thought for many years was my ticket to the party. The fact that I didn’t deserve that ticket was the practical limit of my understanding of grace. Other people were just going to have to claim their own ticket. I’d help as much as I could. But when it came down to it, you have your salvation, and I have mine.
But then I started reading the bible more thoroughly, and I saw a theme emerging: God actually cares about the people who weren’t born with all the advantages I enjoy. And no, I don’t mean God cares for everybody, so of course God cares for the disadvantaged. I mean, as I began to read scripture, it became increasingly clear that God holds a special place in God’s heart for those who are abused by everyone else: the poor, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the outcast, the prisoner, the sick and despairing. God cares about them all in really intense ways; so much so, for example, that injustice is one of the primary reasons given for God’s anger with God’s people (e.g., Isaiah 1:15–17, Amos 2:6–7).
I remember being in a preaching class one time, when one of the African American students preached on a text from the prophet Amos. It came off to me as judgmental. “You’re not doing this or this. Moreover, you should have done this and this. As a consequence, God’s really mad.” And I remember saying something along the lines of, “Well, that’s fine and all. But where’s the grace in that sermon?”
All these years later, I think I have an idea about where to find grace in that student’s sermon. I think it goes without saying that there are people who show up in church who don’t have the slightest idea why they’re even there … except that they need to hear about a God who holds the hand of the anxious, who bears up those too weak to stand, who loves those who think themselves unlovable, who forgives the unforgivable. So yes, we need to comfort and console the frightened and grieving. We need a God of grace.
But there are also people who need to hear about a God who is furious with a world in which terrified refugees are turned away, a God whose indignation burns hot against those who would mistreat women and minorities, a God unafraid of the rulers of this world who abuse the poor, who lead cheers of hatred against Muslims and the undocumented.
There are all kinds of people who would love to hear about a God who raises an arm against injustice, who will not tolerate bigotry, who refuses to sit by while the work of the laborers is monetized in ways that only benefit the people in charge, who are desperate for a word from a God who is incensed with a world in which African America parents lie awake at night in fear of what might happen to their children on the way home from school.
If you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, God’s outrage may just be what grace sounds like.