Grace, Not Karma

Kāmāreddi Grace, Not Karma

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 20, 2022

7th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38


In what is referred to as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, instead of addressing the crowd, Jesus addresses his disciples. The picture he paints is one of radical discipleship and what does that look like?  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do not judge. Forgive. Give and it will be given to you, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.


We might say that for Jesus, radical discipleship looks a little like swimming upstream, but remember, Jesus is speaking to those who already know his love and are, day by day, being transformed by it. Have we been transformed by Jesus and all the saints who have followed in his footsteps down through the ages? Do we swim upstream or are we more likely to go with the flow—acting the same as those in the world who make no claim to Christianity?


The very idea of forgiving someone who has wronged us, surely runs against our grain so how can we possibly do it? Only by the grace of God! How can we pray for someone who has abused us or cursed us? Only by the grace of God!  How can we open our hearts and show mercy when no mercy is deserved?  Only by the grace of God!  No matter the circumstances, because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, radical discipleship is possible—but only by the grace of God.


Someone who has been influenced by Eastern religions like Hinduism or Buddhism might look at the latter portion of our reading today and say, “That’s karma!” Karma, a Sanskrit word that is roughly translated as “action,” generally denotes the cycle of cause and effect. In other words, a person’s actions will affect him or her at some point in the future. With this in mind, let us hear again the words of Jesus:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.


“The measure you give will be the measure you get back.” It does sound a little “tit for tat,” a little “quid pro quo,” doesn’t it? And if we search for more Scripture to make the point, there are examples aplenty: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (James 3:18). As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same (Job 4:8). Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it (Proverbs 11:27). Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends (Psalm 7:16). And the grand finale, [Y]ou reap whatever you sow (Galatians 6:7).


All these references might bring to mind the saying, “What goes around, comes around,” which can serve as a metaphor for karma. Many people—even Christians—believe in the idea and, to some degree, use it to guide their behavior. As such they may be intent on putting goodness out into the world in order to get goodness back. But as followers of Christ, our motivation for following the way of Christ is not to manipulate God. Our motivation for following the way of Jesus is to be like Jesus for no other reason than sheer gratitude for all he has done for us. We do not give good so that we can get good. God already gives us more goodness than we can handle. Furthermore, Jesus instructs us, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Hear that again, “He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Friends, that’s not karma. That’s grace!


A few years ago, “The Presbyterian Outlook” published an article by Rev. Jill Duffield entitled “Karma or Grace.”[1] In it she shares a story about her child climbing into the back seat of the car after school one day—simply giddy. Her daughter could hardly wait for the teacher to shut the car door so that she could tell her mom what happened on the playground. A classmate, who often teased her about her lack of athletic skills had, while showing off her own prowess, fallen face first out of the swing. Duffield’s daughter ended her story with great flourish, “Karrrmmmaaa!” When her mother reminded her, “We believe in grace, not karma,” the child rolled her eyes, and kept a smile plastered on her face the whole way home.


One of the striking things about this story, as Duffield points out, is how there is a cultural notion of karma embedded in our children’s thinking from a tender age. It’s as if it is in our DNA to give a little cheer when someone gets what is coming to them. Even when we are routinely exposed to the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and “Amazing Grace,” sometimes when we see someone who has acted badly get their just desserts, it’s Karrrmmmaaa!


Duffield offers these words of wisdom:


Week after week we recite a prayer of confession and hear an assurance of pardon, but do we pray and receive them? Are we aware to our marrow of our need for mercy—God’s and others’—or are we secretly (and not so secretly) hoping for some karma, because, compared to most, we aren’t that bad? I fear we have lost sight of the radical nature of the words we say on Sunday, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Unless we have a deep sense of our need for God’s grace and mercy, we cannot extend it to others. Until we recognize the depth of our own sin and the price paid for our forgiveness, we may well speak of grace but we will live out of and long for a post-modern, cultural version of karma. Instead of realizing that not one of us is righteous, we will imagine that none but us—and those we deem like us—are righteous.


For Jesus, radical discipleship may look a little like swimming upstream—loving our enemies, living generously, helping others without expecting anything in return, treating people with as much care and gentleness as we want for ourselves. Jesus calls us to give away our life, it’s true. But he also promises that it will be given back to us in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.


The coming of Christ into the world and the debt he paid for us makes all the difference in how we think, speak, and behave—even when someone has harmed us—even when someone does not “measure up” to our standards. No longer does our response to others depend on their behavior. It depends on how we want to respond to God’s love—a love that is poured out upon every living creature. It’s not karma. It’s grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Jill Duffield

*Cover art photo by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, used by permission