Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saying Grace

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the First Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2009.

John 1:16

“From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

Grace is not a peculiarly Christian word, nor an especially Christian concept. One can experience grace, see grace, recognize grace, act with grace, dance with grace, exercise grace, and say grace without being noticeably religious at all. But grace does occupy a very unique place in the Christian vocabulary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that one cannot tell the Christian story without talking about grace, or some other word (if there is one) that means the same thing.

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us,” Anne Lamott writes. I would hardly say that her sentence, good as it is, in any way competes with the majestic prologue of St. John’s Gospel. Yet it has a certain affinity with the song that John is singing. John takes a page from Greek philosophy and identifies Jesus with the eternal Logos, or Word. The Word, or λογος, had long been thought to be the animating principle in the universe. John thinks of it as the tonally perfect expression, the complete utterance of God, the creating word which God had spoken, “Let there be light!” That Word, by which all things came into being, became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth. John pictures this whole cosmic saga as a story of grace. Imagine that the λογος, or Word, contains the entire energy of the universe. Imagine that the Word is the power which we know as light. Imagine that the Word is the mysterious essence of life itself. And imagine that that is only the beginning! Packed, as it were, into the Word is every ounce of mercy in the cosmos, unfathomable love, the center and extent of justice, not to mention creativity, wholeness, freedom, peace, joy. And still we have not even begun to name all the things the Word-made-flesh embodies. We don’t have to go much further before we begin to get the picture: the Word is God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things were made by the Word and without the Word absolutely nothing came into existence.

If you are used to thinking that Jesus is something of a super-human hero, a kind of oversized friend who, as the bumper sticker says, is your co-pilot keeping you on track and preventing you from getting lost, then this language will strike you as at least a bit strange, because it is so much bigger than your Jesus ever is. And if, on the other hand, you have your doubts as to whether Jesus was really all that special to begin with—hardly someone who could seriously be called “Son of God”—then this language will likely seem to you nothing short or preposterous. But what the Fourth Evangelist would say to both of you—well, to all of us really—is that there are two things we don’t want to miss. One of them is the astonishing glory of the great God of the universe and the other is that God has come to meet us in the person of Jesus. And, to use Anne Lamott’s phrase, God has come in Jesus to meet us as we are, but not to leave us there.

Grace upon grace. More grace than you ever dreamed of. Grace inexhaustible. But you must be saying, “Well, it all sounds good, but what is it, this grace?” Someone has said that grace is what God gives us that we don’t deserve and mercy is what God gives us instead of what we do deserve.” It is a little like Mark Twain’s saying that "heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” In the Christian vocabulary, grace means God’s favor, unearned and undeserved. Grace is a free gift, no strings attached. That is what is so odd, and ultimately so hard to swallow about grace. Grace comes when we least expect it. Grace surprises us—it has to, or else it wouldn’t be grace. We are accustomed to having to pay for anything that is worth anything, and there is a part of us that simply cannot believe that God would actually give us the world without charging us for it. But we have received from God the Word’s fullness grace upon grace upon grace and never paid a cent for it.

One day in about 1982, into my office in Newtown, Connecticut, walked Frank Johnson. Frank was in his 80’s, and had long since retired to his native Newtown from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. “Can the church use a piano?” he asked me. My heart sank. I knew what was coming. He probably had some old Chickering upright, badly out of tune with yellowing ivory keys.

“Well, I rather doubt it, Frank,” I said. “We have a piano in the church, one in the choir room, and one in the children’s chapel. I don’t know where we would put another one.” His face fell. Wanting to extend the conversation a tad, I went on, “What kind of piano do you have?”

“Oh,” he said, “It’s a Steinway grand. It’s an antique that was in my wife’s family. It’s only problem is that its sounding board has a crack in it that needs to be repaired. It was reconditioned a few years back. About 1928, I think.”

My eyes widened. “Frank!” I exclaimed, holding on to my seat, “A Steinway grand, eh? I’ve never wanted anything so much as a Steinway grand. It’s about the only thing I’d consider going to hell for. Let’s talk. I might want to buy it from you.”

“Oh,” he said, “if you want it, it’s yours.”

“Oh, no. No. No way. I mean I couldn’t. No. Let’s talk. I’ll come take a look. We’ll talk. No, no way. I… no.”

“Oh, it’s yours if you want it. Come, take a look.”

So I went out to Frank’s house, sat down, played something in A-flat, a lush key that brought out the richness of the bass of the instrument,” and said that I would be delighted to own such an instrument. But,” I added, “you’ve got to let me think about it. Name your price.”

Frank looked at me from behind his round tortoise shell glasses. His gray eyes misted a bit. He swallowed. “It’s a gift,” he said. “My gift to you. We inherited it. I have had it all these years since Edith died. I want you to have it.” I looked down. I stroked the ebony.

That’s grace.

“A gift, eh?” I could hear the voice of my mother saying, “Son, if someone gives you something, including a compliment, the thing to do is to accept it. Just say thank you.”

“Thank you, Frank,” I said. “Thank you.”

And that is the other part of grace. In English we can’t hear or see it as well as we could in Spanish or Italian. “Gracias,” or “grazie,” would tip us off that grace and gratitude are inseparably linked. It is not that there is a charge for grace—not if it really grace. But there is an appropriate response. And that is to accept gratefully and graciously the gift. St. John’s calls it “believing.” “As many as believed him, to them he gave power to become the children of God.” But by believing he means something quite different from what you might think. To believe does not mean to give intellectual assent to an idea or a proposition. To believe means to give one’s love to (someone), and is related to the word meaning “dear.” Ancient forms of the word “believe” mean literally to give one’s heart.

Which helps to explain what grace has to do with Christmas. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. So many gifts, and not just on Christmas morning. They keep coming and coming and coming, like multiplying bread and fish miraculously feeding multitudes. The supply never dries up. And we are left wondering,

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
(Christina Rosetti)

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009