Where's the Grace in That?
Text: Luke 6:27-38; Genesis 45:3-11, 15
I have spent far too many hours in graveyards. As a pastor, there is not much choice. Sometimes after a burial, I will walk about in the quiet beauty of a cemetery gazing at headstones. It is fascinating to look at the epithets carved on gravestones. Some carve simply a name, a birth date and a date of death. Some carve a favorite saying or a line from a poem or a preferred biblical verse. Some carve out a few words that describe how they would like to be remembered.
If you could write your own epithet, what would it say? Would it declare, “Here lies a woman who never let anyone get the best of her” or “Here lies a man who could hold a grudge as long as the sun stays in the sky” or “Here lies one who never wanted for anything and had nothing to do with those who did”?
In his provocative sermon on the plain, Jesus says that you and I write our own epithet on a daily basis whether we are aware of it or not. He holds a mirror to the adoring crowd and preaches in effect, “Your choice. How do you want to live? How do you wish to be remembered?”
In the Southern slang of the late Georgia preacher, Clarence Jordan, Jesus says: “But let me tell you people something: Love your enemies, deal kindly with those who hate you, give your blessings to those who give you their cursing, pray for those insulting you. When somebody slaps you on one side of the face, offer the other side too. And if a guy takes your shirt, don’t stop him from taking your undershirt. Give to every beggar, and don’t ask someone who takes your stuff to bring it back.”
I wonder how many people in the crowd shouted: “Get real, Jesus. You can’t be serious!”? “Jesus, we live in a tough world where only the tough survive and only the cunning flourish. We live in a world where the abused are told to sit tight and keep being abused. We know the truth that Zora Neale Hurston spoke, ‘If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it’. Preach your silly nonsense somewhere else, Jesus. Teach us a nice little prayer to say, but please no more of this outrageous, dangerous tripe.”
After he retired, the Emory professor and renown preacher, Fred Craddock moved to the north Georgia mountains and worked to establish the Cherry Log Christian Church. It is hard work keeping an existing church going and growing; it is really hard work to start a new church, especially in a time when people are less likely to be interested in attending one.
Well, Fred persisted and after about a year of hard work, the Cherry Log Church was born. A worship service was held and fifteen charter members joined. Fred writes: “Everybody seemed to have had a good time except one man who waited with me with heavy brow and deeper voice . . . I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘The Scripture you read’. [By the way, it is the same Scripture I read this morning.] I said, ‘What was wrong with it?’ He said, ‘Bad choice’. I said, ‘Well, those were the words of Jesus’. And he said, ‘Well there are a lot of words in the Bible that are out of keeping with the spirit of our times . . . What people expect of the church now-a-days is not a lot of talk . . . about loving enemies, they want to come to church to feel better, be part of a group that will help them be successful . . . So, knock off the ‘ought’ and ‘must’ and ‘should’.”
I am sure that this man had a distant relative in the crowd to which Jesus was preaching. As Jesus continues, the sermon does not let up. He only insists more emphatically about how his followers are to live in the world. One thing I noticed for the first time this week is that the word usually translated as “credit” is actually “grace.” So, what Jesus really says in this sermon is: “If you love those who love you, where is the grace in that? If you do good to those who do good to you, where is the grace in that? If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, where is the grace in that?”
We are all too familiar with the well-worn path of reciprocity. “I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.” Most of us know every twist and turn in the crowded path of nursing resentments. “If you think you are going to get away with treating me like that, then you’ve got another think coming.” Grace is walking another path altogether. Jesus knows that God is full of grace, and so the final work of grace is to make us gracious as well. To walk the path of grace, in the words of Robert Frost, is to walk “the road less traveled.”
For all his many faults, Joseph eventually walked that path. Our text from Genesis is the story of a most unlikely glad reunion of Joseph with his band of brothers. When Joseph was a boy, he was his dad’s favorite child and he knew it. He was pompous and spoiled and uniformly despised by his brothers, and for good reason.
Joseph was left for dead and later sold into slavery by his resentful brothers, finally rid of this annoying member of the family. Years later, Joseph rises to the top of Egyptian power and his brothers come to Egypt looking for food, not knowing Joseph is alive, much less is holding considerable power in Egypt.
When they meet, the story takes a strange twist. Joseph does not do what is expected; he does not get his pound of flesh, but instead, he embraces his brothers, is honest about the horror of what they did, but he forgives them nonetheless. He does so because he believes that God’s redemptive grace is stronger than his brother’s murderous hate. Joseph knew that he had every right to treat his brothers as they had treated him, but where’s the grace in that?
In two weeks, you and I will begin another season of Lent. It is the annual time that Christians set aside to focus on the final days and hours of Jesus, days when the winds of hatred and malice blew with malignant force. During that time Christians typically ask, “What am I going to give up for Lent?” It is a time when Christians look to sacrifice something for the sake of the One who sacrificed everything for us.
So, this year, I want to suggest another question for us to ask during Lent. I want us to ask not “what will I give up?” but instead, “where’s the grace in that?” Before the next word of disgust comes out of our mouths toward a parent or a child, toward a colleague, a neighbor, a boss, ask, “where’s the grace in that?” Before we level the next cynical dig at a politician we absolutely abhor, ask, “where’s the grace in that?” Before we stiffen our resolve and refuse to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply, ask, “where’s the grace in that?”
My kneejerk response whenever I hear Jesus preach this sermon is to say, “Get real.” The hard but potentially life-changing truth is that he is. He is not asking us to have aspirations that he and we know will never be met. He really does believe in what God’s grace can make possible in our lives, how God’s grace can transform our language, our attitudes, and can set us in an entirely new direction.
That brings me back to the cemetery, a place that you and I will visit at the close of Lent with Jesus and his disciples as they leave the Passover supper. Before the meal is over, Jesus offers two possible epithets by which he might be remembered: “This is my body broken for you” and “Do this in remembrance of me.”
What about you? What is the epithet by which you wish to be remembered decades and even centuries from now? I know what I hope mine will say, “Before he spoke, before he acted, before he emailed, before he texted, before he tweeted, he asked, ‘Where’s the grace in that?’”