The Unfair Uncle

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt, Senior Minister
Sunday, July 19, 2014
“The Unfair Uncle”
Psalm 89:1-5

This past week has been an interesting one for international relations. For those of you who are experts in the field or who watch TV or are up on current events, you may have the Iranian nuclear agreement in mind. But the international relations event I have in mind has been the Twitter exchange between Donald Trump and Joaquin Guzman. Mr. Trump, of course, is the real estate mogul who is running for president. Joaquin Guzman is the Mexican drug lord who escaped from prison. He goes by the nickname “El Chapo.”

It seems that when Mr. Guzman escaped from his prison outside Mexico City, Donald Trump tweeted that when he is elected president he will kick Mr. Guzman’s … and he named a certain body parts of Guzman. (By the way, it’s probably best that I not quote the actual words of their tweets; Mr. Trump and Mr. Guzman were not really using sermon vocabulary.) Anyway, Mr. Trump tweeted that when he’s president he will beat up El Chapo. And El Chapo tweeted back that he would kill Mr. Trump.

That sounds very much like elementary playground banter.  But it’s indicative of much of the way we communicate and relate.  What Mr. Trump and Mr. Guzman did was engage in transactional behavior: If you do this to me, then I will do that to you. The Iranian nuclear agreement was the same kind of deal: If you do not build nuclear weapons, then we will end certain economic sanctions.  We all engage in transactional behavior: I go to the grocery store and pay X amount of dollars, and they in turn give me Y amount of food. I pay my taxes and the county paves my street.

Transactions make certain sense. But if we fail to live up to our end of the transaction it falls apart. If I pay the grocery store, but the worker there doesn’t let me take the food home, I stop going there. If we all stop paying our taxes, the country no longer paves our streets.

Transactional behaviors seem so reasonable that we expect them to be part of our religion as well: If I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, then God will let me go to heaven. Or taken to a horrible extreme by some religious fanatics, if I kill people who are wrong, God will grant me eternal salvation.  Or as seen in the prosperity gospel, if I pray in just the right way, God will bless me with money.

The hitch to that transactional thinking is that God doesn’t operate that way. God doesn’t barter in a transactional economy. God operates in an economy of grace. That is, no matter how often or how we much we fail on our end of the deal, God always loves us.  “I declare,” the psalm writer said, “that your steadfast love is established forever.”  That is grace.  Amazing, never-ending.

Not long ago, I had one of those conversations that I so very much enjoy. I had a conversation with a person who said, “I don’t believe in God.” “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” I said. My conversation partner described a God who punishes people and sends troops out to kill people. And I said, “I don’t believe in that kind of God either.” 

That picture of God is there, it’s in the Bible, it’s in our imagination. For all kinds of reasons, people have sometimes wanted a God who kills and punishes. But there are other pictures of God. One of the gentlest pictures of God in the Bible is of God as Shepherd that cares about every sheep, a shepherd who tends to each one in the flock, a shepherd who can’t quit caring. And the Epistle of John says simply that God is Love.  I much prefer that image I told my conversation partner.  But I think it’s important to be honest and I didn’t want to come across as holier-than-thou, so I followed up with this: “Even though I prefer the image of God as Love, I sometimes don’t believe that either.” I sometimes get so caught up in my own need to prove things or my own desire for the world to be just so, that I can’t even believe that.” But what I do believe is that even when I don’t believe, God loves me anyway.”  That is grace. Amazing and shepherding.

“I will declare that your steadfast love is established forever,” the psalm writer said.

I was at an Action in Montgomery clergy gathering this past week. We were talking Child First, the Action in Montgomery education initiative. To get us in the frame of mind for that, we were asked to share a memory from our childhood that shaped us. Now I grew up in a huge, hilarious household with horses and a donkey and a dog, iconic teachers and Faulknerian neighbors. In that instant, I could come up with ten thousand stories from my childhood that shaped me.  But the three of four stories that bubbled to the top in that meeting, all involved my Grandmother Tutt. Now my parents are wonderful people, funny, supportive, generous, demanding when necessary. For them I am grateful. But more than anyone I have ever known, with the notable exception of my spouse, my Grandmother Tutt loved me without expectation. She loved me without hesitation, without limits, without qualifications. She loved me untransactionally. I did not have to do anything to learn her love. She just loved me. That is grace. Amazing and grandmotherly.

 One of my seminary professors, Glenn Hinson grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. His childhood home was shaped by poverty, violence and alcoholism. As a result he developed a strong desire to please his parents. Except that he could never please his parents because alcoholism and poverty and violence left them unpleasable. His childhood sense was that he was failure.

One day, Glenn Hinson says, his uncle took him fishing. He didn’t catch any fish, which just added to this sense of worthlessness. And then, somehow, when he wasn’t paying attention, his uncle slipped a fish on the hook on the end of his line.  And there in the Missouri Ozarks, a little boy accomplished something: he caught a fish. Years later, he learned that his uncle slipped the fish on the line.  And that, he said, was grace.  Amazing and fish-catching.

The traditional theological definition of grace is “God’s unmerited favor toward humanity.”  In more practical terms it is a grandmother who loves you without ceasing.  Grace is an uncle who slips a fish on the line of an unseeing little boy.  Grace is a God who doesn’t hold up Her ends of the transactions, but always exceeds our ability to hold up our end.

We like our transactions. I give you money, you give me groceries. You may live in my neighborhood if you act a certain way. You may come to our church if you think a certain way.  God refuses to honor transactions. God loves us too much to play by rules.  That is grace. Amazing and unfair.

Grace is how God cheats on our behalf. Amen.