“The Resiliency of Grace”
Psalms 118:1-2, 22-24; 16; John 20:24-29; and Another Voice: Lewis Smedes
In a wonderful book titled Running on Empty, Fil Anderson tells the story that had circulated around his home in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. A New York investment banker was vacationing and walked down to the pier one afternoon. There he saw a young fisherman docking his small boat. Inside the boat were several large yellowtail tuna. The banker complimented the fisherman on the size of the fish and asked him how long it took to catch them. The local replied, “Only a little while.” The banker then asked, “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The fisherman replied, “This is all I need to take care of the needs of my family.” The banker said, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The fisherman replied, “I play with my children, take a nap with my wife, stroll into town where I play guitar and sip wine with my friends. I have a full life.”
The banker said, “Oh, I can help you do better than that. If you catch and sell more fish, you could buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. In time, you could become the captain of a major seafood enterprise with boats all over the Eastern seaboard.”
The young fisherman was intrigued and asked, “But how long would all of that take?” The banker said, “Oh, 15 to 20 years.” “But what then?” asked the fisherman. The banker laughed and said, “Then you sell your company stock to the public, and become a millionaire.”
“Millions?” the fisherman said. “Then what?” The banker then shrugged and said, “Then you retire. You play with your children, take a nap with your wife, rest, stroll into town where you play guitar and sip wine with your friends.”
Our Way of Life
There is no shortage of rhetoric in the political arena and op/ed pages about “our way of life” in this country. We are always racing toward the next thing — the next accomplishment — we have become incredible multi-taskers. We are most proud of the freedoms which give us the opportunity to make something of ourselves. And from the time we were children we were taught to work hard, take advantage of our opportunities, do all we can do to get ahead and succeed in achieving dreams. That’s the American Dream. That’s our way of life.
It sure sounds good. And it has motivated us to achieve incredible success as individuals and as a nation. Now, I am not about to stand here and criticize achievement because I have spent too much of my life, like you, collecting degrees, working hard, trying to accomplish things that are important. And I am thankful that our way of life in this country permits us to do that. But clearly there are limits to what our way of life can accomplish.
Barbara Walters in an interview once asked Ted Turner about what it felt like to be so wealthy. Turner responded, “Well…..it is like holding a paper bag. Everybody sees the bag. Everybody wants it. But once you get the bag, you discover it is empty.” Isn’t it interesting that it is always the wealthy who say things like that? But I think that there is so much truth in that. And today, we are discovering just how much our culture, our institutions, our government, our technology and even our churches have defined our way of life so much and left us empty by ourselves.
Doubting Thomas: Touched by Grace
Shortly after Easter morning, Jesus meets with the disciple Thomas. You know the story about doubting Thomas — he needed to see the scars in order to believe that it really was Jesus. And when he sees them, he once again becomes a believer. And so the moral of the story is: Blessed are those who believe without seeing. End of story.
But I think that is way too simplistic and misses the point entirely. There is so much more to that story and especially — more to Thomas — as we read in his own writings. I think that story is not really about doubt or belief but about grace. Jesus comes to Thomas and offers him meaning and purpose that cannot be denied. Thomas was so disheartened after the death of Jesus, sitting in a well of despair, and the presence of Jesus gives him an indestructible grace that fills the cracks in his heart and is felt deep down in his bones. He discovers that the resurrection was not about the man named Jesus, but about the grace that is inside of each of us.
In his own Gospel account, not included in the Bible, Thomas writes: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Unlike conventional wisdom, Thomas never doubted Jesus, he doubted himself. At the time of his post-resurrection encounter with Jesus, he had yet to recognize grace. Instead, he was filling his life with meaningless busy-work, avoiding the pain of loss, stymied by inaction, until Jesus reminds him of the power of grace within.
Grace for Ourselves
So what is the purpose of all of our busy work and life’s achievements anyway? What is the purpose of all of the committees that make up Southminster? What is it that makes a life good whether you’re rich or poor, esteemed or forgotten? In the end, and I think you know this reality, all of the accumulated stuff of our lives will not matter. Whether we believed or doubted will not change the fact that our lives have been touched by grace — that strange feeling that affirms us just as we are, no matter how the day has gone, no matter how anyone else feels about us, no matter the achievements and failures of life, no matter if we are homeless or not, no matter if we are alone or in good company.
Grace is the deep-seated recognition that we don’t have to prove a thing to anybody. We have a right to be… who we are and where we are – we have a right to be made whole — to be loved unconditionally and treated with fairness! Grace does that for us!
Nadia Bolz-Weber defines grace in this way: “God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word….. it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit.” I would have never said that word in a sanctuary full of people, but in a virtual sermon, whose to stop me? (LOL).
But I do love Nadia’s writings and especially that quote. In what ways, have you, my friends, been touched by grace? Especially in these days, how can grace give you perspective and meaning and purpose beyond our cultural values — beyond our American Dream — beyond the dismay we hear in the news every day?
Grace allows us to move forward
Once we recognize grace for ourselves, we can freely give it to others. Grace is what allows us to move forward, especially in difficult times. It is not always easy to know where to start sometimes, but as Dr. King once said: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Just take the first step…. we don’t have to have all of the answers…. but perhaps, for us, in this season of the virus… the first step is to be present with ourselves and the suffering of others. We have all seen evidence of grace as a response to COVID-19:
- That impulse to want to help those who are suffering the most.
- That landlord in Chicago who did not collect the April rent from his 200 apartments.
- That lady in New York who lives in a building with elderly folk and she put up this sign-up sheet as a way to help people look out for each other.
- Those individuals across our country buying food for other shoppers in the store
- Those teachers who are delivering meals to all the kids who can’t eat at school.
- NBA players chipping in to pay arena workers while games are canceled.
Grace is all around us if we open our eyes. Grace is finding meaning in what you can give rather than merely in what you can get. Grace. That is where our hope lies this Spring. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love one another. Yes. To love is to feel with one another. To love is to feel for one another. To love is to act on behalf of others. Grace.
Redeemed by Grace
These individual acts of grace point toward the qualities of justice, equity and compassion that we must begin to build into the world that will follow this crisis. Because there will be a world that follows. As Christians, perhaps this is our opportunity to redeem that world. With hearts and minds broken open by death and disruption, we can challenge the systems of injustice in a way like never before. And perhaps this broken world will be open to change in a way like never before. We can only hope.
I believe as much as I believe anything right now, that the world can only be redeemed by grace. Sure, we can’t see the staircase. The change will not be painless. It won’t be easy.
But as people of faith, we know that it is possible. We just need to take the first step. Like Thomas so long ago, we know that the only choice possible for us is to believe in ourselves — to believe that we are the kingdom of God on earth — and to know that only grace can redeem us.
That amazing grace…. how sweet the sound…..