November 19, 2017
Luke 12: 22-32
He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
(Sung) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
Amazing Grace, one of our most beloved and powerful hymns - sung often at funerals (I’m not quite sure why) - and here I am, singing it on Thanksgiving. Why? you might ask. Because it’s actually a hymn of praise, of gratitude, from the heart of John Newton, who was saved over and over again throughout his life, he says, by the grace of God. Grace that led him from a life of sin as captain of a slave ship, to one of a beloved cleric leading others to the love of God.
Grace is a word we speak often in prayers and hymns, greetings and stories. Rev. Matt Fitzgerald tells of visiting a prisoner on death row, awaiting execution for murdering a teenage girl twenty-one years before.
The killer looked younger than his age. His skin was smooth. His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses. His hands and feet were chained together. His voice was gentle. The killer said "grace" over and over and over again. "Unmerited grace. Freely given grace. Undeserved grace.” I flinched. That's when things got disturbing.
"Listen, I'll never forget my crime. It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself —not to justify your actions, but to let God be God.” He kicked his legs and waved his hands. His shackles rattled as he spoke. "I'm not letting myself be restricted. I'm a person, and I'm a person who is loved and forgiven by God."
Fitzgerald goes on: I know that if what I believe about God is true, that killer is beloved. I walked onto death row expecting monsters. Instead the most unnerving thing I encountered was the grace of God.
But what exactly is this grace we talk about? Frederick Buechner, along with many others, calls it a gift from God. “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about … Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? … There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, grace can only be yours if you’ll reach out and take it.” That prisoner reached out and took it.
So often moments of grace are lost to us because we are in too much of a hurry to notice them. I’ve encountered God’s presence and grace in good times and bad, in times and places where I least expected, like the time I was standing in line at the post office feeling irritated with the postal worker taking what seemed like an inordinate amount of time with the customer ahead of me. I was feeling down on myself and vulnerable that day - my life, my work, my art (I was a painter) seemed to be going nowhere. In the midst of my self-pity and irritation, I heard “May I help you?”
The cause of my irritation was calling me to her counter. I was mailing photos of my paintings in hopes of getting a show of my work. They had to be weighed and in the process spilled out on the counter. “Oh, are these photos of your work? May I look at them?” “Of course.” With the line of customers mounting behind me, she proceeded to flatter, reassure, fill me with insight and sent me away with the words: “Don’t give up. Your art is your identity.” I walked out to my car and burst into tears, then said a little prayer: “Thank you God, I needed that.” How did you know? And where did you find that woman?
Sometimes, you see, God’s grace comes to us through total strangers. Shirley Hines’ spirit was crushed when Hurricane Harvey smashed her late mother’s coffee cups. It was lifted again when a total stranger read about her loss and went to great lengths to find identical cups and have them delivered to her.
But other times grace seems to come directly from the divine, from somewhere beyond - or maybe within - that still small voice planted by God in each of us, that allows us to hear God’s message. Years ago my friend Dan heard that voice. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He had undergone chemo and a bone-marrow transplant, and was doing fine, when a routine x-ray showed a spot on his chest, setting off alarm bells. His doctors decided to wait and watch.
Weeks later he told me of pulling up to a fast food drive through, focused on his empty stomach, when a voice he believed was Jesus said to him: “Don’t worry. You are fine.” He blurted out in response, “I love you,” and the voice replied, “Love me more.” When he went in for the next x-ray the spot was gone. Doctors were shocked. There was no medical explanation.
Jesus was a walking, talking dispenser of grace. The word ‘grace’ appears 167 times in the bible, predominantly in the New Testament, in Acts and Paul’s letters. It is only mentioned twice in the gospels, in John 1:14,16,17: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Ted Loder, preacher par excellence, says that “the gospel, the Good News, isn’t primarily about morality, it’s about grace.” Jesus, to our knowledge, didn’t use the word ‘grace’ when speaking to his followers. That came later as they spoke about him. He was so full of God’s grace that it overflowed to those he encountered; casting out demons, forgiving sins, curing the sick in body, mind and spirit, caring for the poor, standing up for justice, showing them how to create the kingdom here on earth.
In our scripture today Jesus, knowing he wouldn’t be with them forever (at least not in bodily form), reassures his followers of God’s presence, God’s love and caring for us. Stop worrying. “Can it add a single hour to your span of life?” True, but not easy to do in our fear filled world. Change your focus, he tells them. “Strive for his kingdom and these things (these material things) will be given to you as well.” In our consumer driven, materialistic world, “things” will not draw us closer to God. We experience God’s grace through striving for his kingdom, through compassion and opening our hearts to the needs of others, through working for justice and peace in our lives and our world - in essence, by loving one another, as Jesus taught.
But we also must remember that God’s grace is not a gift for good behavior. Sometimes Jesus dispensed ‘tough grace’ - sort of like ‘tough love’, pointing out their hypocrisy, the errors of their ways - ‘tough grace’ that led to repentance and a change of direction.
He showed us that God’s grace doesn’t always play by the rules. He performed miracles that went against the rules; reaching out to outcasts and sinners. It’s stories of grace that we hear in his parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, stories that tell us that God’s grace is available to everyone, no matter how hardened the person’s heart, even captains of slave ships and prisoners on death row. God is constantly trying to draw us closer to that source of love and wisdom - to wholeness.
God’s grace took on different meanings among the early Christians and church fathers - theologians such as Augustine, and later the reformers Luther and Calvin. Arguments ensued over the millenniums and still do today. They all agreed that grace was a gift from God. But did God choose who to give it to - saving some but not others? Was your only way to salvation through the grace of God, accepting Christ as your savior who died to redeem you of your sins? What about people born into families of different faiths? They too, I believe, are recipients of God’s grace.
These are the kinds of arguments that drove me out of the Catholic Church in my late teens. They made me struggle with how I thought about God - how God operates in the world. How can anyone say God chooses who to give grace to? How could anyone claim to know that? It makes no sense to me.
In my brief stint as a Methodist, the most important lesson I took away was how we come to our faith: through scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The reformers primarily turned to scripture, whereas Catholics were steeped in tradition. Reason played a part, but much of what came out of that early reasoning makes little sense to my 21st century mind. I do believe God is still speaking.
What I wasn’t hearing in reading early works about grace was experience. Granted, those who knew Christ experienced that grace, but it got lost in doctrines and encyclicals. You can talk about God and grace all you want, but that doesn’t help you to know God. To know God is to experience God. Grace, for me, is recognizing God’s presence in our everyday lives.
Ken Orth, in writing about grace and gratitude, says “From God’s side, the reality is always grace. From our side, the call is cooperation with that grace… We find our true selves, our true identity, dwelling in this foundation of God’s love. We find our true home in this new creation God gives to us freely and fully as a precious gift.”
Those gifts are all around us for the taking, if only we will slow down long enough to recognize them. Look for them in that still small voice trying to get through, in your dreams and readings, in the kind acts of loved ones and total strangers, in forgiveness undeserved, in the amazing beauty of nature, and in the eyes of a small child as their smile touches your heart.
As we move into this week of Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks, for this life we have been given, and all its experiences, both good and bad and challenging, that help us to learn and grow into wholeness. Meister Eckhart, the 13th Century Christian mystic, once said “if the only prayer you ever pray in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”