During this season of Epiphany, we are looking at “The Words We Say,” and thinking about how they are made manifest in the lives we lead – the words we say in this community, in our life of worship and service – and how we live them out.
Today, we are turning to these two words that we have come to say in our experience of Zoom worship: “Grace abounds.” We could say that we stumbled into those words as we stumbled into Zoom worship. Think back ten months, when all things Zoom were new to us. Back on March 16, Marin County issued its order that we could no longer meet in person, and in a matter of days, we had to figure out how to gather together – somehow – when we couldn’t gather... in person.
We found our way to Zoom. My colleague and friend Bruce Reyes-Chow down at First Pres Palo Alto – offered a crash course in Zoom worship, and I signed up. Bruce recommended that we go over the Zoom basics every time we worship on Zoom – a quick review of the major points – as a bit of hospitality – welcoming folks into the Zoom space. Bruce had a Zoom Basics slide he used, and he offered it to other pastors. It seemed good to Martha, Vivian, Patrick, and me – and so there you have it: Grace Abounds.
A few days later, on March 22, we began to say it every Sunday, as we were settling into worship – “We are all learning, we will make mistakes, Grace Abounds.” Over the weeks, it became a mantra – first in worship – when we would make mistakes in worship – when I forgot to unmute, or when a worship leader would lose their internet signal and disappear – Grace Abounds – and we kept on moving. We acknowledged the gaff, but didn’t let it stop our worship.
And then, we noticed we were saying it outside of worship – in our work together, and in our daily life – we’d make a misstep – “Grace Abounds.” I noticed it over the summer as the Moving Forward Team and the Worship Team talked about trying new things – a live baptism – things that presented challenges – we named them, the risks and challenges, and we tried them anyway, hoping that the new thing might bring new life, and trusting that our mistakes would not be the last word – Grace Abounds – it boosted our creative courage.
And in the past couple months, I’ve noticed an even deeper way that folks are using it – as an expression of forgiveness. When someone apologizes, I’ve heard, received, and offered the response: “Grace Abounds.”
“I’m sorry” – “Grace Abounds.”
What’s being expressed is forgiveness. In our culture, it might be awkward to say, “I forgive you,” in the normal course of conversation. But “Grace Abounds” – we’ve come to know what that feels like in our bones. “Alice, I’m so sorry I didn’t call you when I said I would.” “Grace Abounds.”
Who knew that two little words could pack so much life-giving theological truth? We might call them a “pocket gospel” – a concise expression of the Good News that you can put in your pocket and pull out when you need them. These two words. They convey Grace – God’s unconditional saving love that we find in Jesus Christ –
· God’s grace that loves us beyond our mistakes – beyond the wrong we do in life – that sees something more and better
· God’s grace that takes that wrong seriously, and then invites us to change and to grow
· God’s grace that promises that our missteps and the wrong we do are never the last word in our life with God and with each other
· Grace Abounds.
On this Martin Luther King weekend, I want to invite us to take these two words even deeper – to bring the power that they convey to our Anti-Racism commitment and to the Anti-Racism work that is ours to do.
Last week, we left off with the first words that Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s first words are a call to repentance – a call to repent and to change. Just up from the waters of baptism, still in the wilderness with us, Jesus stands with us and faces the centers of power – the centers of power-over and oppression – and invites us to leave those old systems of power behind – to dismantle them – and to build with God and with each other – new systems – a new world that honors the humanity and dignity of all people. Jesus says, Repent. You’re not bound by what you have been; come see what you – what we – can be. Grace abounds.
That same type of call to repentance and expression of liberating grace lies at the heart of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. We know the background of that Letter by now. Dr. King has been invited to Birmingham to help organizers there stand against segregation and police brutality. Tensions are high. And white progressive clergy publish an open letter asking Dr. King to wait – Don’t come – not yet. And Dr. King writes back.
Dr. King addresses the wrong that is endemic in Birmingham. He names the police brutality, and the human cost, so many beaten and jailed and killed. He names the brutality and humiliation of segregation. He speaks of folks who are “smothering in an air tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” He speaks of unjust laws and the sin of separation.
Dr. King addresses the wrong, and he addresses the progressive white clergy who are telling him to wait. He speaks plainly. With so much violence in the system, with the pervasive harm that the system inflicts daily on black people, Dr. King points out that to say “Wait” has for too long meant “Never.” And he names how their “Wait” is complicit with the oppressive system – that it actually helps keep the system going. Dr. King says that he has come to believe that “the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not [the Klansman], but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
And having named that, Dr. King invites them to repent, to change, and to act, and he says it like this:
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
It is a hard word – you’re part of the problem of racism – but it is a loving word – it is loving word for those suffering in the system of oppression who need and deserve their freedom now – it is a loving word for the white liberal clergy who need to be freed from their complicity. It names for them a complicity in oppressive systems – a complicity that they might not see, and it invites them to come free of that, to repent, to change, and to join the work that they are obstructing. It is a call to repentance and an expression of grace.
If we want to see what repentance like that might look like lived out, we only have to look at this morning’s Scripture. In his letters, it seems like the Apostle Paul is always defending himself. He just wants to get out there and spread the word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is good news for everyone – no exceptions. But at every turn, folks are trying to stop him from doing that – and one of the things they say are “Who are you to say that? You’re no ‘Disciple’ – you never even met Jesus.” And so Paul has to present and argue again and again his bona fides – his qualifications – and that’s what he’s doing at the start of the letter to the Galatians.
But here, he leads with a surprising qualification: Remember – I’m the one who was persecuting you. What a strange thing to say to people you are trying to impress. I was the one who was persecuting you. And he really was – we don’t talk about this much – but Paul who wrote a good portion of the New Testament – started off as an active oppressor of those who follow Christ.  He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. Scripture says he then “ravaged the church.” He entered homes and arrested folks. The Book of Acts describes him as “breathing threats and murder.”
And, here in Galatians, Paul says to people he is trying to convince, I was that guy. In fact, in some places that’s the only thing they know about me: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Paul says, Who am I to talk of God’s grace? Well, look what God’s grace has done in me. The gospel of grace that I proclaim – God’s grace in Jesus Christ for everyone – is one I know in my bones. That’s the word I’m making manifest here. I was that guy. I am here now only, only by the grace of God. Grace abounds.
God’s Grace is the unconditional saving love that we find in Jesus Christ – the love that sets all people free. Grace doesn’t and can’t keep silent about the wrong in the world – it insists that we say it plain. Grace doesn’t allow us to continue in the wrong that we do – it insists that we change. But with its insistent call to repent and to change, grace promises that the wrong we have done in the world won’t be the last word. Here’s the amazing thing about grace – grace opens up the possibility that
· those who have participated in the wrong can change and then participate in making things right.
· those who have broken the world can change and participate in its repair.
· those who have participated in the harm can change and participate in the healing.
Grace abounds. That much.
So if we are going to bring these words we embrace – Grace Abounds – to our anti-racism work, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our complicity in the systems of racial injustice that we inhabit. To be sure, there are obvious and overt acts of racism – we’ve seen those in the Capitol insurrection – white supremacy on parade.
But in our conversations here in this community, we are going deeper, acknowledging racism as a system of power –a pervasive reality in this nation – systemic racism – systems that have been constructed intentionally to benefit one racial group and to disadvantage other racial groups. In our conversations, we have studied scholars like Michelle Alexander, who detail how those systems have persisted over time – how they have been re-trenched and re-articulated – slavery, the Jim Crow era, the New Jim Crow. Today, right now, we continue to inhabit systems that intentionally disadvantage black Americans while they intentionally advantage white Americans –
· with access to housing and education systems that are supported by a disproportionate allocation of community wealth;
· with relative freedom to move in the world without fear of state-sanctioned violence in a way that Black Americans can’t;
· with generational wealth accumulated and banked up through the centuries that these systems have been at work.
For white folks, we are complicit when we participate in the benefits of those racialized systems – living out an advantage denied to others because of race. Dr. King described it to his white clergy colleagues when he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Robin DiAngelo builds on that when she describes it as participation in “a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color.”
We are complicit when we don’t see those systems, those advantages, and those disadvantages – because we don’t have to. For those who face the barriers of these systems, the harm is a daily reality. But for white folks, there is no barrier, so as DiAngelo describes, “the dimensions of racism benefiting white people are usually invisible to them.” It’s just the way the world works. White folks have the luxury and privilege of closing our eyes to truth that others can’t ignore. Dr. King essentially said to his white clergy colleagues, Maybe you wouldn’t say “Wait” if you could see the things I see.
For white folks – as we inhabit systems intentionally constructed to benefit us and disadvantage others – we are complicit when we don’t see that, when we don’t speak up, when we don’t act.
In other words – and here’s the tricky thing for white folks – when we do nothing, we actively participate in the oppressive systems. For us, inaction – living in this world as if nothing were wrong and doing nothing about it -- inaction is active participation. We are as complicit as the Apostle Paul was in the persecution of the followers of Christ. We are as complicit as the white progressive clergyfolk who told Dr. King to Wait.
If we are to bring Grace Abounds to our anti-racism commitment, we have to start with that kind of truth-telling – and then have the courage to keep going. The Apostle Paul, Dr. King, and Jesus at the very start of the gospel were all pointing us to a grace that takes harm seriously because God loves people – all people – and God wants us to stop hurting each other – including the damage we do through the systems we inhabit – the systems we make manifest in the world.
There is a better way – a life-giving way – and so they call us to a grace that calls for uncomfortable truth-telling and a commitment to continue to learn and to strain for those truths we have not yet seen – and then to say it plain, and repent, and change. They call us to join a movement already in progress – seen by others long before we began to open our eyes – a movement centered on and attending to the experience of those who have been harmed the most – and then working together to create a better world.
If we are to bring Grace Abounds to our anti-racism commitment, we should be prepared for the power that Grace can unleash – the power to change us and the world – for good.
©2021 Scott Clark
 Our Zoom Worship Team is indebted and grateful to Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, and his abundant generosity in sharing his community’s experience and in convening a weekly group of pastors and worship leaders across the country, each and all of us doing our best to find our way to sustain and enliven worship in a time of pandemic.  An early manuscript of the letter is available through Stanford’s King Institute: http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf ; see also A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.(ed. James M. Washington) (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1986), pp. 289-302.  Letter in Testament of Hope, p. 295.  Letter in Testament of Hope, p. 296.  For general background on this passage, see Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 212-220.  See Acts chapters 7 and 9.  See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011).  Much of this discussion of white complicity draws from Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).  Letter, p.290.  DiAngelo, p.28.