There, But for the Grace of God, Go I

There, But for the Grace of God, Go I

Before we get to the message, here is your Hawaiian vocabulary lesson for this Aloha Sunday:

Aloha – hello, goodbye, love…
E komo mai – welcome
Aloha ke Akua – God is Love.
Mahalo ke Akua – Thanks be to God
Mahalo nui loa – Thank you very much (literally long, big thanks)
Pule – pray
Hale – house
Hale Pule – church (house of prayer)
Kahu (Kah-hoo) – pastor
‘Ohana – family (including extended family/community)

Thank you to Melanie Brossus, some wonderful people I met in Kauai, and Hawaiian Public Radio for their language instruction!

“Half Truth: There, But for the Grace of God, Go I”
Aloha Sunday – Lesson: Matthew 5:1-12

Gracious God, may we rest in your loving presence in this time of worship.  May we listen for your call to us and open ourselves to the movement of your Holy Spirit in our midst.  And may your deep love be a balm to our souls and a buoy to our spirits, bringing healing and wholeness to all. Amen.

Our summer sermon series is underway and we have been exploring some of those common catch phrases (or half-truths) that are frequently used in our culture and within our faith tradition – statements that contain an element of truth and may be rooted in authentic experience, but are also problematic for various reasons.  Pastor Dave has already explored: “everything happens for a reason;” “God won’t give you more than you can handle;” and “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  If you haven’t been able to hear all of these sermons, I encourage you to go to our YouTube channel and check them out.

Today, we exploring: “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Not as modern sounding as some of the others, this expression has been in use since at least the 19th century because it shows up in a Sherlock Holmes novel and several other publications.

During that same era, there was also a story circulated that these words originated even earlier with 16th century English preacher and Protestant reformer, John Bradford.  This story is likely fictional, but is interesting, nevertheless, and probably contributed to the popular usage of this statement.  The story goes that Bradford saw a group of prisoners being marched to their executions and said, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”

If these were his words, we might wonder why this was his response to these prisoners.  Was he pondering his own journey of redemption?  Was this intended to be an expression of humility in which he recognized that the fate of another human being could easily be his own if circumstances were different?

The dramatic irony of John Bradford’s life story is that this would eventually, ultimately become his own fate.  In 1555, during the brief reign of Catholic queen, Mary I, Bradford was arrested for inciting a mob and was burned at the stake as a heretic.  History has since remembered him as a martyr.  That might be why this phrase was attributed to him.  It does add drama to his story.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Often this statement is used to express an awareness that another person’s tough circumstances, suffering, or misfortune could be our own.  When I’ve heard people say this, I’ve often heard it as an expression of wondering why – why don’t I have cancer instead of them?  It could happen to me.  Why am I not homeless?  If I lost my job, I could be.  Why wasn’t I in that car accident?  If I had driven down that road a minute or two earlier, that would be me.

These are natural human responses.  And I think the true part of this phrase is that it acknowledges that life is fragile and unpredictable.  It can be intended as an expression of humility and even solidarity in recognizing the reality of another’s suffering.  I think it can even be intended as withholding judgment of another person.  Instead of judging and labeling someone who is experiencing homelessness as lazy, for example, this statement at least recognizes that we could find ourselves in that person’s situation.  Or instead of completely dismissing someone who has made a mistake or a bad choice that led to unfortunate consequences, it might express ownership of our own faults and imperfections.  If our circumstances were switched, that could be me.  That’s true.

The problematic part of this phrase is what it implies about the grace of God.  “There, but for the grace of God, go I” seems to imply that God’s grace is what has prevented me from suffering in the same way as another person.  Does that mean someone who is suffering is not a recipient of God’s grace?  Or someone who has made a mistake or done something bad is not a recipient of God’s grace?

I don’t believe that at all.  Doesn’t that actually undermine the very definition of grace?

Instead, shouldn’t we proclaim that God’s grace is given to all?  That proclamation is at the heart of our faith.  And we should intentionally proclaim that God’s grace is with all people in both good times and bad.  God’s grace doesn’t prevent us from suffering, but what carries us through our struggles and suffering.

And God’s grace doesn’t spare some of us, but not others.  Instead, God’s grace meets us all, over and over, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves – in good times and bad – when we do the right thing and when we mess up – when everything is going right and everything is going wrong – and everywhere in between.

Encountering another person’s suffering is often an uncomfortable experience.  Our hearts break.  We’re sad.  We worry.  We might experience guilt that we’ve been spared their experience.  We might feel grateful and lucky it’s not us – and then feel guilty about feeling grateful and lucky.  I think that’s pretty common, actually.  Survivor’s guilt is common.  So are discomfort and feelings of guilt when we are acutely reminded of our own privilege – walking by someone who is living on the street, perhaps.

It’s no wonder we sometimes struggle to find the best words and ways to respond.  It’s normal.

So, when we find ourselves struggling to find the words or wondering what to do, perhaps God’s grace is what we ought to lean on and into.  Rather than distancing us or setting up a comparison between ourselves and another person, God’s grace can pull us together closer if we let it.  Compassion (even when it’s uncomfortable) and a desire for expressions of solidarity with and care for another are all gifts of God’s grace.  God’s love is what draws us deeper into God’s self and towards one another.

When Jesus offered his beatitudes to the crowd that gathered in Galilee to hear him, those familiar words of blessing that we heard a little while ago, I suspect that he hoped that group of people, that community, would be drawn closer together by his words – because the beatitudes are both blessings and calls to action.

And Jesus’ words of blessing were not just the obvious ones.  He intentionally blessed those whom society sometimes ignored, those who were hurting, those who were trying to do the work of love in an often inhospitable world.  Even “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus said.  You are blessed.  God’s grace is with you.

Put yourself in the crowd hearing these words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Perhaps you are the one in mourning, the one who needs comfort.  You are blessed.  Perhaps you are not the one who is in mourning right now.  But chances are you know someone who is.  From where will comfort come to those who mourn?  From God’s grace and love that is alive in our hearts and that is also alive in our communities.  You can be both a recipient of comfort and the bearer of comfort for another.  In order for those who mourn to be comforted, God needs our help.

The beatitudes are both blessings and calls to action.  The beatitudes are not just a promise of an individual’s blessing and relationship with God, but also teach us how God’s blessing can be experienced, brought to life, and expressed in community.

Blessed are the meek.  Aggression and domination won’t build up the Beloved Community.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Don’t give up on trying to make your little corner of the world a better place.  Do so with passion.

Blessed are the merciful.  Break the cycles of vengeance and retribution that plague our world.  Choose mercy and compassion.  Work for restorative justice instead.

Blessed are the pure in heart.  May your heart be open.  May love be your guide.  This one is not about perfection; it’s about intention.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Yes, it’s hard in a world that often prefers violence.  But you have the power to be a peacemaker in small and big ways.

Through these beatitudes, I think Jesus is saying you are all blessed.  You are loved.  Know that.  Rejoice in that.  AND, keep striving to embody these virtues in community with one another.  Imagine the blessing that bubbles up and pours out into the world when you do.  You are blessed.  Be a blessing.

Yes, there are struggles and challenges along the way.  You will encounter your own suffering and that of your neighbors.  But, in the midst of it all, you are blessed anyway.  You are loved.  You are God’s beloved.  God’s grace is yours and is there to cover you, carry you, inspire you, strengthen you, and comfort you.

Jesus’s words of blessing, his affirmation of God’s love and grace for all, drew him nearer to those who were suffering rather than distancing himself from them.  I think that ought to be our goal too when we respond to others.

Rather than, “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” perhaps we ought to try something else… a blessing, an affirmation of love and grace, a greeting.  Perhaps Aloha!

Human languages are so interesting.  And isn’t it beautiful how the word aloha can encompass so much meaning in one word?  More than just hello or goodbye, every aloha can also be a blessing, an affirmation of love – God’s love, our love, the love that weaves us together, calls us together, and empowers and enlivens us.

Perhaps the spirit of aloha can guide us in our interactions with others who are suffering when we don’t know what to say or how to respond.  I haven’t encountered very many people who don’t appreciate a friendly greeting.  Sure, it can happen.  But, more often than not, the spirit of aloha wins.

While in Kauai, we visited one of our sister congregations of the United Church of Christ, Koloa Union Church for Sunday worship.  They are celebrating their centennial anniversary this year.  They were founded in 1923, just a couple of years before us.  And the congregation has roots in an earlier congregational missionary church that was established in Koloa in the late 1800’s.

While visiting, we definitely experienced the spirit of aloha.  It’s a smaller congregation and they and their pastor were all so warm and welcoming.  Their worship was a beautiful blend of Hawaiian culture and what we experienced as a familiar UCC, congregational style.  The bulletin was entirely bilingual, and the music was a blend of English and Hawaiian.  They called us to worship by both ringing an old brass bell and blowing a conch shell (Pu shell).  And a highlight was a solo hula dance by one parishioner set to a Hawaiian hymn sung by a couple of other parishioners.

I absolutely love my job and I love leading worship.  But it’s also always such a treat to visit another church and get to just sit in the pews and participate.

Their warm welcome was definitely a reminder of how important hospitality and welcome are in all things.  They clearly live the spirit of aloha.

And so do you.  Don’t doubt the importance of the way you greet, welcome, and care for others both within this church building and out in the community.  It makes a difference in so many ways.

We’re all in this together.  We always have been.  Faith is not really a solo venture.  It never has been.

And so, instead of “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” I’d like to suggest we think about it as “there, by the grace of God, go we.”  No “but” needed!  And no separation between ourselves and others.

In all circumstances, in all of life, God’s grace goes with us, blesses us, carries us, and beckons us on with a spirit of aloha.  Let us rejoice, be glad, and live into that spirit of aloha wherever it may lead.