A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Grace & Gratitude, Part II: The Power of “Yet.…”
February 19, 2015
Who is God?
What has God done for us?
What is our due response?
These three questions, taken together, lie at the heart of what we call “theology.” People of faith have answered them in various ways in different times and places. While most answers have some biblical warrant and theological merit, in the Reformed tradition two words emerge as core characteristics of God’s nature and ways with us, and our due response: Grace. Gratitude. Last week we explored how God’s grace makes available to us the riches of God’s goodness in any case – whatever our disposition, whatever our profession, whatever our merits, God’s grace is extended to us unconditionally through the tangible means of word, sacrament, and prayer.
From a Reformed perspective, the accounts of God’s identity and God’s expectations of us taught in Holy Scripture, and revealed personally through Jesus of Nazareth, disclose a God very different from what we might have otherwise imagined, and elicit a response from us very different from what we would otherwise have concluded. Grace and gratitude? Who would have thought! Ours is a theology of surprise, of unexpected good news. It stands on its head everything we are inclined to believe and do in seeking to order our world to our maximum benefit.
A God of grace is utterly free. Uncontrollable. Unpredictable. Such a God is constrained by no playbook, and defies all expectations. Grace means that God’s actions toward us spring entirely from within God’s own heart, rather than being determined and constrained by what we expect or deserve. We receive from God not what we earn, but what a gracious God determines to give us. Jesus drives this home with his parable of the laborers who are hired at the end of the day. (Matthew 20:1-16)
Grace does not scoff at the claims of justice, yet it is not confined by them. Grace does not wink at willful sin, yet it does not abandon those who resist all that is good and right and true and holy. Grace forces nothing, yet persists beyond all expectation or reason. Grace yearns to be received with gratitude, yet it endures when met with hostility.
Note the consistent marker of grace: yet. It is the conjunction of perseverance.
Perhaps I was the pastor from hell, but as moderator of our session I required that we take seriously our mandate to examine those who had been elected by the congregation to serve as elders and deacons, before we ordained and installed them. I went so far as to prepare written exams, and required all those elected to office to write their responses, submit them to the session, and then stand for oral examination based on those responses. I suppose I felt that if the church took my own ordination to ministry of word and sacrament seriously enough to examine me in that way even though I had a lengthy graduate theological education, I would be remiss to bypass the opportunity to provide the session with tools to examine seriously those whom the congregation had elected as officers without the benefit of any formal theological education. Yes, I probably was the pastor from hell.
So one year I prepared the following question for our elders-elect: “Give us a brief definition of the term grace, and relate one instance of when you witnessed God’s grace at work in your life or the lives of others you know.” I thought it a fairly easy question, but it stymied some of our elders-elect. One, a prominent lawyer in our community, began his answer, “I have no earthly idea what grace means.” Our follow-up oral examination was one of the richest theological conversations I have ever had in the church.
What difference does it make in our relationship to God when, after calculating all that we have merited positively or negatively, we append our assessment of things with yet…? How would we relate differently to our brothers and sisters who agree with us at every turn, or with whom we are at odds, or from whom we are estranged, if our responses to them were always appended with yet…?
A few months ago we considered in this space the virtue of “anding.” Today, as we consider the amazingly good news of God’s grace, I invite us to contemplate the power of God’s “yet” toward us. In the same moment it shames our pride and reverses our rejection. It humbles us and lifts us up. God’s way with us radically reconfigures our response to God and our way with each other. I want to call it the way of “yetting.” In a polarized world marked everywhere by “or” and “but,” what does it mean for us to be a people who live instead by “and” and “yet?”
A sinner, yet justified,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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