Stories of Grace

Passage: Matthew 14:22-33
Date: August 13, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Chris Murphy
Guest Preacher:

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Please pray with me… 

When I saw that the lectionary option this week is the story of Jesus walking on water, I had to laugh because close to 30 years ago I preached my first sermon on this text during a Youth Sunday service. I was a teenager, maybe 16 or 17. I wish I could pull out that sermon to share with you, but it is probably hiding in some box in my garage. I think I talked about relating to Peter in the story as someone who needs Jesus to save him. Even at a young age, I was drawn to the part of the story where Jesus reaches down and lifts Peter out of the water. I was also interested in Peter’s attempt at faith by stepping onto the water. I was intrigued that Peter walked for a little while and then started to sink.

As an adult, I am still interested in Peter in this story, but I am more interested in Jesus. To me this is a story of the grace exhibited in Jesus’ life. When I think of grace, I think of my dad. The truth is my dad and I would probably say that my mom is the most gracious person in our family, but my dad absolutely loves to talk about grace. The other day my dad and I were playing golf in McMinnville and as we were walking down one of the fairways he explained to me why he loves grace. He said it is because he is a perfectionist and he needs grace in order to not get so down on himself. We both needed grace that day playing golf, since we did not hit the ball perfectly, but we had so much fun being together. One of the great joys and gifts of grace in my life these days is living close enough to my parents to hang out with them on a regular basis. 

There are many ways to define grace. We can talk about grace as in a graceful dancer or a gracious person. There is the idea of grace as forgiving ourselves, as in the grace we give ourselves after a poor golf shot or after we screw up in any area of our life. There is the grace required to forgive someone who hurts us, which is maybe the hardest way to live out grace. The classic theological definition of grace is God’s unmerited favor, which means to me that God loves us even though we don’t earn this love. Today, I want to focus more on grace as God’s power or strength. My dad defines grace as God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

My dad grew up in Chicago in a deeply religious home. When he wasn’t going to Wrigley Field to watch Ernie Banks hit home runs for the Cubs, my dad would be found playing his own sports or going to church with his folks and three sisters. My dad’s parents were shaped by the ministry of the Moody Bible Institute in the heart of downtown Chicago. D.L. Moody was a famous evangelist of the 19th century who started this school to equip people for urban ministry. My dad’s father, Franklyn, took classes at Moody and met my grandma during those years, since her dad also took classes at Moody. My Grandma Dorothy Murphy eventually sang on the Moody radio show, which was broadcast throughout the nation. My dad went to Wheaton College in the early 1960s, where he met my mom, whose dad was an evangelical pastor. All this to say, my parents grew up in a deeply Christian context. They were so committed to the Christian faith that their first date involved going to a Billy Graham movie.

 My parents, Bruce and Diane Murphy, just turned 75 this year, and they often reflect on their upbringing. Although my parents’ theology has expanded beyond their conservative roots, they still treasure our family’s Christian heritage. The grace of God has always been active in our family’s life.

 Part of the reason my dad became a Presbyterian church member and later a Presbyterian pastor is that he found in the reformed theology of the Presbyterian church an emphasis on God’s grace. We don’t always talk about reformed theology from the pulpit in our church. But what I will say is that the reason why Westminster is such an inclusive and welcoming place is that we center here on God’s love and grace. We recognize God is much bigger and more powerful than we can comprehend. God can even hold our questions and doubts and maintains relationship with us even when we feel lost or afraid. That is the power of grace. That is the gift of the reformed tradition, which is rooted in the theology of Jesus, who saves us through grace and not through our own strength.

 I wanted to share with you the story of grace from my dad’s life, since I have learned so much about grace from him and it reminds me of Jesus’ experience of grace.

 I think Jesus learned about grace from his dad as well, that is, from his father in Heaven. There are two stories of grace in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. One is about Jesus’ experience of grace. The other is about the grace offered to the disciples and particularly Peter.

Let me remind you about Jesus’ experience. To understand why this story begins with Jesus going up on the mountain to pray, we have to remember that the reason Jesus was seeking to break away from the crowd is because he needed God. You see, Jesus was grieving before he walked on the water. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew places this story soon after John the Baptist is beheaded. The sense is that Jesus needs to go up the mountain to pray in order to grieve the loss of his cousin John. We don’t know what Jesus heard from his Father on that mountain, but we do know that he came down from it with renewed power and conviction. Do you see the humanity of Jesus in this story? He needed grace like you and me. He needed to be comforted by his father and to be guided. Grace is what God does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Even though Jesus was both God and human, he needed God. He needed his dad to offer him strength in his time of grief.

Jesus eventually pauses from his prayer to look down from the mountain. He sees his disciples in trouble and walks out to them on the water. They think he is a ghost, but Jesus quickly encourages them to not be afraid, for it is him. Peter, being bold and maybe a little brash, asks to walk out on the water. And here we find our second story of grace. Peter’s first steps are steadfast and sure, but when he sees the waves crashing around him and the wind, Peter begins to sink. In an instant Jesus is by his side and pulls him out of the water to safety. With I imagine a touch of humor in his voice, Jesus says, ye of little faith, why did you doubt? Jesus does for Peter what Peter cannot do for himself. Jesus saves Peter.

Where in our lives do we need the grace of Jesus? For some in our community, grace is being offered to us in the midst of a painful illness or as we grieve the loss of a loved one. Today, we particularly remember the life of David Gels and we join in grief with Kelly and in the great hope of being reunited one day with all our loved ones who have died. For some of us, the grace of Jesus takes the form of comfort within the perils of depression or confusion. Some here at Westminster experience grace amidst a struggle with some type of addiction. Others are financially in need. The truth is, we all need God. We all need the strength that only God can give us when we face obstacles, fears, or doubts. We can find comfort in knowing that Jesus saved Peter when he started to sink. Peter could not save himself, and we do not need to save ourselves.

Are we trying to save ourselves? Are we trying to live our lives by our own strength? Jesus is the archetype for our lives. Jesus depended on his father in Heaven, and we are to do the same. We are to rely on God, who is a mother and father to us all. We do not need to journey through life on our own strength. We do not need to live lives of isolation. We have each other and we have God.

This fall as I prepare another school year of youth and young adult ministry at Westminster, the theme I am choosing is “Experiencing God’s Love.” For our youth talks and for the messages at the monthly Connections worship gatherings, we will hear members of our congregation share stories of how they have experienced God’s love. Our first Connections of the fall will be on September 10th, and I will be sharing my story of God’s love on that day. In October at Connections we will hear from Vern and Mildred Kirstein. In November we will hear from Corey Grice. I hope you can come hear people share about the grace of God working in their lives.

I know it is tempting to try to live our lives in our own strength. In our nation and many other nations, we often see examples within politics or entertainment of people who embody pride rather than humility. We even see this attitude among many religious leaders. To embrace a life of grace requires a willingness to let go of control. But when we do, God’s love flows in like nothing we can imagine, and when God’s love flows in we just might find ourselves partnering with God in the mission of love and justice in this world. Let us by God’s grace continue the mission of Jesus. Let us step out on the water not in the power of our own strength, but because of the grace offered to us through Jesus, who is our Savior.

Here at Westminster we are called to receive the grace offered through Jesus and then to step out in faith to pursue actions of love and justice. There are storms that cause fear in our lives. The storms of racism and hatred are so strong in our nation and world. The grace we receive from God calls us to keep being brave in the face of injustice.

Yesterday, as I heard the news coming from Charlottesville, Virginia, of the violence caused by white nationalists that has led to deaths and injuries of innocent people, I was filled both with grief and with righteous anger. The grace of Jesus is compelling me to remind us that white privilege is a huge problem in our nation and as a white male pastor I must speak against the sin of racism that plagues our society and our churches. We all need to be actively anti-racist.

Although Westminster is a gracious place in many ways, we need the grace of Jesus to compel us to be more active in joining in solidarity with the black community and other ethnic groups who are victims of racism. We need to be creative in our activism. I think our first step is to seek counsel from the black community of Portland and the other ethnic communities and to ask them how we can partner to fight against racism in our city. I think God is calling me to talk to my black friends about what they recommend I do and our church does to counter racism.

Please join me in prayer for Charlottesville. Let the suffering there compel us to not wait in the boat until the waves of racism calm, but to participate in the work of peace and justice even as the storms rage. Let us be compelled to act. If you have ideas on how Westminster can take an active role in racial justice efforts in our city and nation, I encourage you to speak to us pastors and to speak to members of Session as we prayerfully respond to this crisis. May the grace of Jesus Christ give us courage to grieve with those who grieve and to join in solidarity with the black community until those of us who are white feel the pain of racism enough that we confess our sin of racism and participate in being anti-racists here in our community. This is the grace of Jesus in action.

I appreciate that many leaders in this nation are inviting us to come together and to stand against hate. As we work for unity, we need to clarify that whether one is conservative or progressive politically, it is important to speak in one voice against racism, against white nationalism, against the hate speech that feeds groups like the KKK. Jesus is anti-racist and Christians, despite our racist past and present, must embody the vision of a beloved community of people of all ethnicities united as equals and partners in the gospel work of Jesus. America has never been great in the area of racial justice. We are guilty of slavery, of segregation, and of our current struggles with racism. The white community especially needs to stand up and do something about systemic racism. We need to confess our sin and then work for diversity, justice, and equity. Our church is being called to be part of the answer in Portland. Will you by God’s grace join me in the struggle for racial justice? Let us pray.