II Cor. 12:9b-10; Mark 6:6-13
Slaid Cleaves, a favorite song writer, sings songs about loggers, coalminers wives, and folks who are down to one key on their key-ring. Slaid has been writing songs most of his life and bases his characters on folks he heard about while playing checkers with men twice his age or sipping beer with self proclaimed desperadoes. Slaid sometimes even writes about himself. He and his wife travel from town to town, singing his stories and selling CD’s out of the back of their trunk. When times got really bad, they had been known to sell their blood for gas money. My favorite line in a Slaid Cleves song is, “Just give me one good year, to get my feet back on the ground; I am searching for grace and grace ain’t so easily found.”
That is the motto for many folks and rightly so. Life is not easy. I imagine our friends that just got back from Mexico chuckled when they heard our tales of woe brought about by a few days without electricity. If you have ventured south of the border, or even south of Massies Mill, you will find situations that most of us would declare impossible. And yet everything, including grace, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
When Paul wrote the words, “God’s grace is sufficient”, he was sharing a heavenly response to his earthly burden. Paul called this burden the “thorn in his side”. No one knows what his thorn was and he only mentions it briefly in the letter to the church in Corinth. It might have been physical, it was probably emotional, but we know that Paul says it kept him from being the person he wanted to be. He pleaded with God to remove the thorn but to no avail. Instead Paul was given a promise, a Godly assurance that Paul has been passed down to us, “God’s grace is sufficient”. For someone like Slaid Cleaves, or someone who lost not only their electricity but their home, or even for someone that seems completely over burdened by the events of a particular day, that answer might not be totally sufficient.
What is grace? Alan Richardson, professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham writes, “Grace is God’s redemptive love which is always active to save sinners and maintain them in a proper relationship with God. Grace represents God’s continual covenant of loving kindness. It is a free gift given through the sacrifice and redemption of Christ.”
Van Harvey, Professor of Religious Thought at the University of Pennsylvania adds, “Grace is the most crucial concept in Christian theology because it refers to an unmerited act through which God restores humankind to God’s self.”
Hearing grace spoken of in this way one might question Slaid Cleaves quandary and suggested poor Slaid just needs to suck it up and understand somedays are just better than others. On the other hand, I suspect most of you have been in those dark places where, at least for a moment, grace is not so easily found. The harder we wished our world would be restored the more discouraged we end up becoming. Early last week I was visiting an 82 year old woman who is three weeks this side of a hip replacement. She lives by herself up on the mountain near Waynesboro. On the night of the storm a floor to ceiling window exploded exposing a good portion of her house to the elements. She was sure rain would follow the wind. She somehow managed to find a hammer and nails and attach a huge blanket in front of the window. Then she went to bed. All night she prayed that God would either fix the window or send someone who would. On Saturday she received no answer to her prayer and spent the whole day worrying about the hole in her house. Sunday night she offered the same prayer and to her surprise, the next morning a contractor came by to visit. He told her there was no way he could fix the window. Wednesday, with the window still partially exposed and still without electricity she candidly said to me, “I’ve given up on prayer. I think I’ll try the yellow pages.” Then she laughed. I should send Kitty’s story to Slaid. He would turn it into a song.
I suspect most prayers remain unanswered. I would agree a prayer for a window no matter how large is a bit trivial, unless you are 82, just out of the hospital, and living by yourself without electricity. Besides, how does this story help us in our conversation about grace? Maybe there is a separation between grace in the afterlife and grace in the life in which we now live? That would certainly make for an interesting discussion in the halls of the University of Nottingham, but I am not sure it is real helpful right here where we all live. Anne Lamotte observed, “I wish grace was more an abracadabra sort of thing. I also wish there were silver bells to announce grace’s arrival. The awful truth is grace seems to scootch along the floor, in the silence, in the dark, somehow on a collision course with the missteps and roadblocks of my faith.”
What is grace? Can it be found in the midst of our broken windows and lives? I think there is a clue to be found in our gospel lesson. After the disciples had finished reading Discipleship for Idiots, Jesus divided them into pairs, sent them out into the surrounding small villages, and commanded them to preach the gospel and heal the sick. Talk about on the job training. There was absolutely no way they were going to be successful and Jesus knew it. Ever had a member of the Jehovah’s Witness knock on your door? Ever opened the door to speak to them? I had a neighbor once who hated it when they would come. She was such a nice lady and could not say no to anyone but she made an exception for Jehovah’s Witnesses. She would point them in my direction. She would promise them that I was willing to listen to their story. I even think she gave them my phone number. She would do anything to get them off her front porch. Jesus knew nine out of ten folks the disciples met would barely give them the time of day. He knew they would be discouraged. He knew they would want to give up. Jesus knew for the disciples to have any success at all it was going to take a great deal of sacrifice on their part.
Remember a few moments ago I read a definition of grace. Remember the last sentence mentioning sacrifice. Let me refresh your memories. Grace is a free gift given through the sacrifice of Christ. I suspect most of us are willing to acknowledge that grace is a free gift. I even suspect that most of us link that gift of grace with the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. So let me take a giant leap here. In order for the disciples to deliver the message of grace, they had to be willing become a living sacrifice on the behalf of others. They had to go out on the road taking nothing with them except a story, just like Jesus. They felt rejected, as Jesus was rejected. They felt great disappointment, as Jesus was disappointed. They sacrificed their time, their talents, trying to find that one person who would open up his or her heart and invite the disciples in for a cup of water and a conversation. These disciples became the first to fully understand what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call the Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance, communion without confession, absolution without sacrifice. Grace is dear and costly. One must be willing to give up their life if they intend on following Christ.”
How can something free be costly? Remember my 82 year old friend on the side of the mountain with a hole in the side of her house. She has a grandson who lives in Williamsburg. He and his girl friend had planned to take a couple of days off and go hiking in the mountains. I suspect when you are a 22 or 23 young man and your girl friend agrees to spend two days with you in the mountains that is a pretty big deal. Only word gets to him that his grandmother has a hole in her house. Playful excursions are put on hold and the day suddenly turns into ways of creatively extinguishing grandma’s worries. With the help of duct tape, card board and a lot of hours, the act of grace was complete. But it was not consummated without sacrifice.
God’s grace was not easily accomplished. It certainly was not without cost. But it is sufficient.
Perhaps the same goes for us. Our acts of grace are not always easily accomplished. They often come with a degree of sacrifice. But sometimes our sacrifice proves sufficient.
Slaid Cleaves will always have stories about folks looking for that elusive character called grace. Perhaps, two by two, we can take it upon ourselves, to make the sacrifice to fill the hole in someone’s roof, or perhaps even their soul.