We should err on the side of grace. Our Psalm this morning is, at first glance, a simple one of praise. The phrase “Praise the Lord” bookends it on either side. The author sings God’s praise and speaks effusively of God’s goodness. And it is in lining out how good God is that the psalm shows its importance to the overall message of Scripture. We can see its echoes in the Old and New Testament alike. In the song of Hannah, in Mary’s Magnificat, in Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, in his sermon on the mount, in his parable of the sheep and goats on the day of judgment, the themes of our morning psalm arise again and again. God lifts up the powerless and humbles the powerful. The hungry are fed, the prisoners are freed, those on the margins of the world are brought into the brightest light of God’s healing grace and presence.
And we, as the church, as the body of Christ, as those who seek to be faithful in light of these Scriptures, are called to mirror that message in the way that we speak and act and live. In other words, we should err on the side of grace.
Throughout the summer, we have been taking a closer look at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, our shared meal at this table. Today, we continue that exploration, looking at the meaning of the cup. The cup (or, to be more accurate in this case, cups) is a reminder of the cup that Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. If you have been with us at the table before, you know that we have both wine and juice here. It is wine that would have been on Jesus’ table. And yet, we recognize that alcohol can be a stumbling block to the table for many.
As a historical side note, unfermented grape juice didn’t become an option until the late 19th century. It was then that Methodist layman and prohibitionist Thomas Welch discovered how to use pasteurization to stop the fermentation process.
In any case, the cup is meant as a historical reminder. And yet, it is more than that. As we often say here, we are fed at the table so that we might go out and feed. If this table is a means of experiencing grace but we do not share that grace beyond these walls, then we have turned this holy meal into an exclusive function. If even Judas broke bread with Jesus, then who are we to decide who is worthy to be nourished?
I’m reminded of a phrase from a different psalm, Psalm 23. As the author imagines feasting at a heavenly banquet at God’s own table, their own cup overflows. That, to me, is the image that can focus our attention. Our literal and metaphorical cups are filled with blessings, filled to overflowing. What runs over is not ours to keep and hoard. Instead, it is to be shared with the world. After all, we are not arbiters of God’s grace, but instruments of it. And so, we should err on the side of grace.
I hope that this will as true for us outside the walls of this church as it is for us within them. I often share with colleagues in ministry how blessed I feel to be a part of the life of this congregation. There is a strong sense here that we can be honest with each other, and that we do so with love. I don’t know if you can appreciate how rare that is within the church these days. I think one of the legacies of Oglethorpe Presbyterian is that we continue to aim for this balance of truth and grace. We know we can disagree; but we also know that we can do so agreeably. There are times when our Session leadership has robust debate on issues that face us; and yet, once a decision is made, we are clear that we are all on the same page. In other words, losing a vote is not a reason to distrust the process.
And while this kind of emotional health might be woefully rare among congregations, there are times when it seems to be completely absent in our national conversations. We live in these political and cultural bubbles. Politicians and pundits and pastors scream at the walls, apparently loving the sound of their own voice much more than the voice of reason and truth and mercy. Whatever you may think about the appropriate connection between faith and citizenship, I think there is a critical role for Christians to play as people who can speak the truth in love, err on the side of grace, and trust that, even if we cannot see the hand of mercy for the moment, God is at still work.
The past few weeks have been significant in our shared national life. The brutal shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston reminds us that we are still struggling with the reality of race and have not yet been purged of our original sin. The response to the shooting, the overwhelming show of solidarity and the powerful witness of forgiveness, have given us hope – even as three black churches have been burned by arsonists.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality just over a week ago reflected a significant cultural shift in our national understanding of sexual orientation. As I have shared before, I think the real tipping point happened not last Friday, but five years ago when the military removed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” as official policy. The biggest gap of opinion is not between conservatives and liberals, but between generations. Here is the most telling statistic to me: 51% of white evangelicals under the age of 35 support marriage equality. In other words, those raised in a culture that has vocally opposed same sex marriage not only don’t oppose it, they support it.
Whatever the short-term political gains to be made by those who continue to advocate for “traditional” marriage, the debate is, for all intents and purposes, over. That is true not only for the American conversation, but if the numbers are accurate, for the Christian conversation as well.
Here is the thing you might not know: five days before the Supreme Court ruling, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took the same stand. In other words, our denomination’s constitution officially declares marriage as a covenant between two people, regardless of their gender. What this means practically for pastors and congregations is this: pastors reserve the right to officiate any wedding or not; and sessions reserve the right to host any wedding or not. That has always been the case, and both situations have arisen in my time here.
But here is what I want you to hear from me: I will gladly welcome any two people who wish to covenant together in marriage. I will still reserve the right to officiate or not, but I will not consider gender or orientation in that decision. And I do so because I believe it is the faithful thing to do.
When Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia that within the church there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, I believe that the Spirit may have been offering us a glimpse at inclusion that not even Paul himself would have imagined. And when two people desire to live together in marriage, no matter their orientation, they are going to need God’s help to make it work. More than anything else, though, I want to err on the side of grace. Because if the example of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that those whom society might deem unworthy are among those whom Jesus himself welcomes to the table of fellowship of grace.
And that is where we gather now – not because you agree or disagree with me, or because we are necessarily all of one opinion about this issue or that – but because we know that it is right to be together. We make more beautiful music when we join our voices and hearts together in song. We are God’s people when we are focused on God whom we know in Christ rather than on our own agendas and certainties. And we are more faithful in community than when we are alone in those bubbles that tempt us to self-righteousness.
Friends, we declare that this bread is the body of Christ. And we say that this cup is the blood of Christ, the cup of his new, unbreakable covenant. When we are fed by this bread and cup, among everything else we believe about what that means, we are also meant to remember that we ourselves are the body and blood of Christ.
We are the feet of Christ, moving out into the world as messengers, ambassadors of God’s limitless love. We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to the world in compassion and mercy, feeding those who hunger and giving water to those who thirst. We are the lifeblood of Christ, agents of God’s always beating and oft-broken heart, making this table a place of welcome, wholeness, healing, and embrace. And we do so because we know that, no matter who we are, no matter our station in life, no matter how much or little we bring to this table, that we are all in need of God’s help to make our lives faithful ones of gracious witness.