The angry couple barged into my office. I was in my twenties and not prepared for the confrontation. No class in seminary prepared me for the ugliness of such church members. But since that encounter, I’ve had plenty of on the job training dealing with mean-spirited church members.
That critical spirit contrasts with the Christ-like spirit of Kay who took Sarah under her wing. I don’t recall how they met, but Kay had the spirit of God’s love in her. She would help and encourage anyone who needed a hug of grace.
Sarah had joined the Navy and was stationed at Whiting Field, Milton, Florida, near the church I served. In fact, the church steeple was point Charlie for the young men and women being trained as pilots for the United States Navy. Sarah’s life had collapsed around her. Broke, divorced, and the mother of two children, she joined the Navy not for adventure but for a job with a stable income, housing, educational opportunities, and benefits to provide for her and her two precious children, a boy and a girl.
It wasn’t by accident that she found herself destitute and desperate. She had lived a hard, wild life from her teens into her early twenties. Her only way out like so many of our young adults needing a job and security was to join the Armed Forces.
Kay invited Sarah to a meeting of the Women’s Missionary Union held in her home Sarah was met with more love and more grace. It was the first time that she had ever experienced the unconditional love of Jesus through godly, Spirit-filled Christians.
Kay visited Sarah often and witnessed to her on several occasions asking her to receive Christ and live for Him. Sarah refused the invitation but continued meeting with Kay and the other ladies in the group.
Kay gave me Sarah’s address on base and asked that I visit her. I did. I also shared the love of Christ for her and invited her to attend the worship service.
She came to church a couple of times, and I visited her again. This time when I shared Scripture with her about the love of Christ and invited her to receive Christ and be baptized, she hung her head in silence and shame.
Curious, I probed for the reason for her guilt ready to assure her that through the grace of Christ, she could be forgiven of whatever sins she had committed and be adopted into the family of God as His child.
The silence between us was deafening, but I was determined to wait this out. Her eyes moistened into tears that streamed down her cheeks.
“You don’t understand, pastor. I can never be good enough to join your church. Never!”
“Yes, through Christ, He makes you good enough,” I answered.
“No, you don’t understand,” she sobbed. “The other Sunday you preached that abortion was murder. I am a murderer. I killed my baby.”
Dumbfounded, I recalled that sermon. Unaware that anyone in the congregation had ever had an abortion, I preached hard against killing the unborn relating this point to the degradation of our culture.
It was like being struck by lightning. I had no power to change our culture - just a little country preacher fresh out of seminary. But, I did have the power to close the door to the kingdom of God. My railing against society had no practical benefit to my congregation except to inflate my ego when people’s heads nodded in agreement about the abyss our country was falling into.
Now, I faced the folly of such judgmental preaching. Sarah, with her head in her hands, carried this secret and heavy load of guilt for a long time. She didn’t need a pompous sermon from me. She needed grace and forgiveness.
I prayed silently knowing that this precious soul was in the balance of heaven and hell. “Lord, give me the right words to say. Give me the words of grace, peace, love, and forgiveness.”
“Sarah, no matter what you’ve done, God will forgive you. The Apostle Paul was a murderer. He sought out followers of Christ to have them executed.”
The Apostle confessed, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). And he wrote, “Where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” (Romans 5:20). Christ embraced Paul with grace, and he was never the same. His mean, critical spirit melted through the love of Christ dying on the cross for him.
“Can the Lord really forgive me? For all of my past and for the abortion?’
“Yes, he can. He took all of your sins and mine; all of the guilt and shame and placed them on Himself suffering for us so that we might live in freedom from these chains.”
“I want that,” Sarah responded.
I led her in prayer to believe and to receive the Christ of the cross and for Him to take the burden of sin, guilt, and shame from her.
I alone knew her secret past when a few Sundays later, I baptized Sarah and her two children. My church warmly received her, and there were plenty of tears of joy from all of us especially from Kay and the ladies in the missions group. It was a new beginning for Sarah like a New Year with the passing of the old and the beginning of the new.
Within the year, Sarah met Ed. Ed was a big burley Marine captain - the kind of soldier I would want next to me in a fox hole against enemy fire. A graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Ed trained pilots at Whiting Field.
He had lived a pretty wild life as well. His philandering ways cost him his first marriage. He caroused with the women and was known to tie one on too. Ed drove a new orange Corvette.
Sarah brought Ed to church with hm. I developed a relationship with Ed and talked with him about his soul. He too was ready to shed his past and start walking on the Gospel Road with Jesus.
Sarah called me requesting an appointment. Ed had proposed marriage to her. Together, they came to talk with me.
Sarah was beautiful in her wedding gown. Ed looked splendid in his dress Marine uniform. The wedding was held in the church sanctuary. The children had a father who later would adopt them as his own. To me, it was one of those fulfilling times in the ministry when I witnessed first hand the awesome power of Christ - of His love, mercy, and grace to begin life anew and see resurrection out of the ashes of fire.
A few days after their wedding, Phil and Beverly sat in front of me. Their eyes pierced me with anger. They were the perfect church members. Present every Sunday, active in church leadership positions. Big givers. They were every pastor’s dream member.
“We’re leaving the church on account of you,” Phil fumed. “We’re totally against divorced people getting married. And to think, you let them get married in our sanctuary. The Bible clearly states that divorcees commit adultery when they remarry, and you gave your blessings on them by officiating at their wedding. They shouldn’t even be allowed to be members of our church.”
It’s kind of hard to unscramble eggs. I certainly couldn’t go back and undo what I had done in order to assuage their anger and conform to their legalistic doctrine so that I could keep them as members of the church.
Before I could even think of what to say or before I could even say, “Let’s pray about this,” they said, “We’re through!” Out the door they went. The whole confrontation lasted only minutes.
My heart raced. I hate confrontations. My first thoughts were, “I guess my ministry is over at this church. Others must hold the same feelings they do about divorce and remarriage.” I dreaded the next deacons meeting and began thinking of who I could send my resume to in order to find new pastoral employment.
But, my fears came to naught. The ladies of the missionary union went to my defense. The deacon chairman called me with his support. Sure, there were some who disapproved of what I had done, but they decided to stay in the church.
And what became of Phil and Beverly? They found another church home that believed as they did. Less than a year after their angry confrontation with me, I found out that their beautiful sixteen year old daughter was pregnant out of wedlock. How could they hide this? Would they ship her off to a home for unwed mothers? Would they make her get an abortion? Would they try and make her and her boyfriend get married? Would they kick her out because they didn’t agree with sex outside of marriage?
No, they didn’t take any of those actions. This was their daughter, daddy’s girl, their child, their own flesh and blood. Their daughter gave birth to their grandson, and Beverly performed grandmotherly babysitting duties so that her daughter could finish high school. When it came to their own child, they gave to her what they refused to give to others. Phil and Beverly embraced grace with their promiscuous child. They gave their daughter exactly what Jesus gives His children - grace, love, acceptance, and mercy.
Jesus doesn’t kick sinners out even though the church might shun them. Jesus doesn’t leave sinners even though others might leave the church because sinful people come into their church. Yes, Jesus is the friend of sinners. He embraces us in grace, and He gives us His Spirit to embrace others in grace. He forgave me, forgives me, and will forgive me. I live in His forgiveness and grace. I am righteous only through Christ.
Ed and Sarah’s story taught me grace. That is why I preach grace today, and grace is the better message of my church.
There are those who are scarred, wounded, and bound with guilt and shame. They are welcome. There are those who live in sin like Ed and Sarah and even my wife and me because we are both divorced and remarried. They are welcome.
Jesus made the church to be a hospital for sinners and not to be a Supreme Court of judgment. Jesus alone is the Supreme Justice. He judges sinners who come to Him and are saved through His blood to be innocent today, yesterday, and always. We are saved by grace, and we live in grace.
He invites all of us who are weary and burdened to come to Him, and He will give us rest (Matthew 11:28). My church as should every church embraces all with grace who need hugs of acceptance, love, and mercy.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.
Joseph Hart (1712-1768)
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