Finding Grace in It All

Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & John 12: 20-33

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 6th April 2003/ Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

“Once upon a time, there was a boy who didn’t like himself very much.  It was not his fault.  He was born with cerebral palsy.  Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain.  It means that you can think but sometimes can’t walk, or even talk.  This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy, and when he was still a little boy, some of the people entrusted to take care of him took advantage of him instead and did things to him that made him think that he was a very bad little boy, because only a bad little boy would have to live with the things he had to live with.  When he became a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists.  He would tell his mother, with his mouth, on his computer, that he didn’t like his life, for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him anymore than he did.  The person he did love was Mr. Rogers.  Even at age fourteen, he still watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  One day, Mister Rogers paid a visit to this boy.  The boy was so nervous and upset and anxious that Mister Rogers was coming that he started to hit himself.  But he eventually calmed down and Mister Rogers met him, they talked, and before he left, Mister Rogers said to the boy, “‘I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?’  On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, ‘I would like you to pray for me.  Will you pray for me?’  And now the boy didn’t know how to respond.  He was thunderstruck.  Thunderstruck,” as Mister Rogers might say, “means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble.  The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever.  The boy had always been prayed for.  The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers.  He didn’t know if he could, but he tried and prayed for Mister Rogers.”  And now he doesn’t talk about hating his life, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.  This was the boy’s perspective.

Now, Mister Rogers didn’t look at it the same way.  We might say, wow, Mister Rogers is so smart, so clever, he’s so nice and kind, knowing exactly what to say.  What a nice man.  He knew what to say to make the boy happy.  If you had said these things to him, he would have looked at you with a puzzling look on his face and with surprise and would say, “Oh, heavens, no.. . .!  I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me.  I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.  I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”[1]

That’s what grace looks like.  This is what the exchange of grace looks like.  Mister Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister, was a man absorbed, fascinated and driven by grace.  One time he was walking through Penn Station in Manhattan when a group of people came up to him.  He happened to have some photos, which he autographed for them.  On each photograph he wrote this word – χάρις .  The Greek New Testament word “grace.”[2] 

From my perspective  - both as a theologian, but more importantly as a disciple of Christ - grace is the most important message of the Bible.  There is nothing – and I mean nothing greater.  Grace Rules!  And it ruled Mister Rogers’ life.  He received this grace from the only one who could give it to him - Jesus Christ.  Grace is a gift.  It came through Jesus Christ into his life and from his life he poured it out upon the world (like Christ).  The people who knew him best said that he had this special power, “like a comic book superhero who absorbs the energy of others until he bursts out of his shirt.”[3]  What he absorbed was the power of grace and what burst forth from within his heart was grace.  Mister Rogers embodied grace because he experienced it in his heart, in his life.  And he wanted everyone to know it, too.

When he reached out to children, to tell them that they were special just for being who they are - that was grace.  When he addressed children and treated them with respect and gave thanks for their uniqueness - that was grace.  When he built people up, affirmed them, appealed to their better nature, responded to the image of God within people, looked for the good in the midst of chaos  - that was grace. When he said, “won’t you be my neighbor?” - that was grace, too.

Mister Rogers was inviting us to live into a different world, unlike the ordinary world in which we live.  Dream!  Imagine a new way!  The neighborhood that he sought to model is not that different from the way the people within a church are called to love one another and through us, to reach out to the world.  His vision is not any different than the one offered by Jeremiah, describing a time and a place where people were covenanted, that is, committed to one another (no matter what) because of the love of God pouring through their lives.  It is a time when we would not have to teach anyone right from wrong, a time when we would not have to tell anyone about the love of God, because they know the love of God, they’ve experienced the love of God, they know the forgiveness and grace of God. 

I believe it’s what those Greeks were after when they asked Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I believe it’s what Jesus offers, when he draws all people to him through the cross. What made Jesus a compelling figure for the crowds and for all who sought after him was that he embodied the grace of God - he offered forgiveness, healing, and redemption.  He gave people their lives back.  He told them they matter, that they were important.  Sometimes what he had to say about God was difficult to hear, confusing, too tough to acknowledge, regarded as blasphemous and heretical, but whatever he said he offered it in love.

What makes Jesus a compelling figure for people today is that for everyone who has encountered him, who knows that he is alive, who knows he lives within us and abides with us is that he continues to embody the grace of God - he still offers forgiveness and healing and redemption.  He gives people their life back and brings them to life and shows them how to be human.  He tells people that they matter.  That everyone is precious.  Important.  Sometimes what he says to us - what he has said to me in my life - is difficult to hear, confusing, too tough to acknowledge, that I resist and count it as blasphemous and heretical, yet whatever he offers - and every time he offers it to me -  he offers it in love - through grace.

It’s all about grace.  The Christian life is all about grace.  If you don’t know this, then you have far to go and the journey is great.  Grace is the power of God’s love that reverses everything in our lives which seeks to take love away.  It’s the power of light and life offered in moments of darkness and death.  It takes your heart of stone and melts it away.  It’s the power of God that meets you right at your sin and loves you – nevertheless.  Grace is Nevertheless!  

In order to find grace, you have to know what you’re looking for.  You know it when you see it because you’ve experienced it yourself.  When you’ve experienced grace, the way you see the world changes - everything changes.  Grace is like a light that pours through a storm cloud.  Instead of reporting bad news, perhaps we need to hear more about grace sightings.  Let’s here about moments of grace.  In the midst of destruction and violence, there are always signs of hope.  Grace aborts the cycle of violence begetting violence. 

I’ll tell you some of mine this past week.  Watching our troops in Iraq spending time with the Iraqis, all the moments of human kindness.  Watching our troops playing with the children and seeing them smile, teaching them a new dance called the Baghdad Boogey - watching the children laugh, enjoying candy.   The British troops playing soccer with Iraqi villagers.  Two weeks ago when several of our Marines were killed near Nasiryah, it was impossible to retrieve their bodies.  It was several days later when the troops returned to the sight that some Iraqis approached them.  An Iraqi had taken the bodies of the Marines, and out of respect, buried them.  He removed their dog tags and private belongings.  When our soldiers returned, they were brought to the sight of burial and all the personal effects returned.

If humanity knows how to be kind and gracious, even with our sinfulness, how much more is the kindness and graciousness of God?  The will of God for our lives is that we increase our capacity to be gracious.  It’s really this simple.  God’s will for your life is that you increase your capacity to be gracious.  You can teach human beings how to be moral, but I don’t think you can teach them to be gracious.  God wants you to be more than moral.  God wants gracious people. Grace is more powerful.  Grace is a gift.  It cannot be taught, only received.  We are graceful only because somewhere, somehow we were the recipients of grace that left us thunderstruck, speechless -- it’s miraculous and scary at the same time.

Over a week ago, I was watching a journalist talking with a mother and her child in Baghdad.  They live in the most poverty stricken section of the city.  These people had nothing.  They were talking about their experiences.  I came upon the interview just as it was ending, at which time the woman –  this woman who had close to nothing – invited all the journalists into her house for lunch.

That’s why Jesus gave us this table and gave us this meal.  Never, ever underestimate the power of this meal.  Never, ever underestimate what we are doing here.  John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted communion served every week in worship (but the elders rejected his request because they thought it was too Roman Catholic).  We need this meal, because here we are given tangible evidence of God’s grace.[4]  Over and over again at this table we are the recipients of grace, which when received in faith, has the power to transform us into the gracious people the world so acutely needs, into the gracious people that God so deeply desires.  God does all of this with a heart that is willing to suffer all things that we might experience the gift of grace.

[1]This story is taken from Tom Junod,” Can You Say . . . ‘Here’?” which originally appeared in Esquire (November 1998), included in Philip Zaleski, Editor, The Best Spiritual Writing, 1999, Introduced by Kathleen Norris (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 153-155.

[2]Junod, p. 159.

[3]Junod, p. 158.

[4]Cf. the quotation from Sunday’s bulletin: “We call it either ‘the Lord’s Supper’ or ‘the Eucharist’ because in it we both are spiritually fed by the liberality of the Lord and also give him thanks for his kindness. . . .  In this sacrament . . . the Lord recalls the great bounty of his goodness to our memory and stirs us up to acknowledge it; and at the same time he admonishes us not to be ungrateful for such lavish liberality, but rather to proclaim it with fitting praises and to celebrate it by giving thanks. . . .  We see that this sacred bread of the Lord’s Supper is spiritual food, sweet and delicious to those to whom it shows that Christ is their life. . . .  All the delights of the gospel are laid before us.  Surely the Devil could have found no shorter way to destroy people than by so deluding them that they could not taste or savor this nourishment with which their good (optimus) Heavenly Father wanted to feed them.”  John Calvin (1509-1564), Institution of the Christian Religion (1536).