Monday, March 05, 2007
“A Lenten Discipline: The Graciousness of God.”
A Sermon on Luke 13:31-35
Lent II – March 4, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I want to start this sermon on the gospel by taking us back to the Collect.
In that prayer that “collects” the themes of the season and the scriptural lessons for the day, we ask God, “whose glory it is always to have mercy” to “be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways . . . .”
Gracious. Be gracious to us, Lord. Gracious. The word stayed in my head, buzzing around like an annoying mosquito in the heat of the summer. Gracious. As in: “kind.” As in: “Benevolent.” “Merciful.” “Generous.” “Understanding.” “Compassionate.” “Charitable.”
Gracious. I kept looking for evidence of it in all of the lessons. Clearly, God was gracious unto Abram (Gen. 15:1-12, 17-18), giving him land and the promise, to one who had not been able to have children with his lawful wife, of so many descendants that they would rival the number of the stars in the heavens.
The Psalmist (27) tells of the generous and boundless mercy of God, singing, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
Evidence of the gracious spirit of God is a bit more subtle in the gospel story. You’d miss it if you didn’t notice.
In previous gospels, Jesus can barely contain his contempt for the Pharisees or theirs for him.
In this story, they actually come to warn Jesus about Herod. Jesus does eat with Pharisees, at their invitation, but then again, Jesus is never one to turn down an invitation to a meal. He has a reputation for sharing a meal with anyone – tax collectors and women, sinners and prostitutes. Indeed, it’s one of the things the Pharisees find most distressing (if not absolutely disgusting) about him as a Rabbi.
Mostly there is open animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees. Not so in this story. This time, both are being gracious to the other. Perhaps that is because this time, they are in agreement about something.
This time, they are united against a common enemy. And that common enemy would be Herod: “That fox,” as Jesus calls him, who is killing off the chickens in the household of the Lord, which Jesus says, like a mother hen, he would draw under his wing (Luke 13:32).
The thing about graciousness is that it requires that we step out of our anxiety. and fears. It requres that we have confidence in knowing that, whether we want it or not, Jesus draws us under his wing like a mother hen and we are protected and defended. It requres that we sometimes moving beyond the expected norm, and being generous and kind even when others are not.
I suppose I’m struck by our collect petition for the graciousness of God because there seems to be so little of it these days.
For example, I am always so impressed when I see parents encouraging their young children in the ways of being gracious. Whether in the reception line or during coffee hour there are parents who insist that their children shake hands, look me in the eye and speak directly to me.
I also love it that some parents, when their child brings a friend to church or into my office, insist that their child makes a proper introduction of their friend.
Let me be clear: t’s not just social skills or manners we’re teaching here.
It is an example of being gracious because it requires that we step outside of our own social anxiety in order to offer the generosity of a warm greeting or welcome to another human being.
Good manners is an act of generosity and maturity – a manifestation of being gracious. It is a reflection of what we say we believe about the graciousness and mercy of God.
That’s an important lesson for a child of God, no matter hold old you are.
That’s such a refreshing change from the behavior I see in some restaurants or coffee shops where children run with abandon wherever and to whomever they choose, without regard for the fact that, unlike their parents or relatives, we don’t consider their behavior ‘cute.’
Indeed, some of us consider that kind of behavior quite rude and unacceptable – more of a reflection on poor parenting than on the nature and character of the child. One wonders exactly what these parents think they are teaching their children – how they are reflecting what they know (or don’t know) about the graciousness of God.
Okay, relax, everybody, I’m not talking about YOUR child or Grandchild.
And no, I’m not saying this because we’re ‘polite-white’ Episcopalians, God’s so-called ‘frozen chosen,’ who have a reputation to maintain.
Being gracious, like being generous and showing hospitality to the stranger, is a deeply theological issue.
Indeed, the Spirit of Anglicanism has always been about gracious accommodation. Some call it ‘tolerance.’ Some of you know that I’m not a big fan of ‘tolerance.’ I don’t know about you but I know when I’m being ‘tolerated’ and it doesn’t feel at all, well, tolerable, much less gracious.
However, I have been in the presence of people with whom I disagree on any number of things: politics, death, taxes and religion, and still found room to build a relationship, perhaps because we both held in common the same enemy: rudeness and incivility.
To be more accurate, we both held in common the same God, whose nature it is to be merciful and generous and gracious.
Goodness knows, there seems to be a real paucity of graciousness in the Anglican Communion these days. Can you believe that seven Primates, seven so-called Princes of the Church out of the 35 present,, refused to have Eucharist with our Presiding Bishop at their meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania? That was not only because she was a woman, but because their theology from theirs. Outrageous!
These educated men of the church obviously misread Matthew’s gospel of the exhortation from Jesus: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother (or sister), and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt. 5:23, 24).
The responsibility for reconciliation is with us, not the person with whom we have the problem. We are to step outside of our own anxiety. We are to be gracious and generous, as God has been gracious to us.
They have obviously forgotten the Exhortation of our Prayer Book (p. 317) to “ . . .acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven.”
(Psst. Did you catch that? “ . . .in order that you yourselves may be forgiven”)
You see, it’s not just about our being forgiven and loved. We are to forgive and love as well. We are to exhibit the gracious favor which is modeled for us by God in Christ Jesus with our fellow human being.
That takes a certain level of maturity – emotional and spiritual. It also takes a certain level of confidence and an absence of anxiety. It’s the one thing God is always saying, or sending his angels to say. We hear God saying it to Abram in this morning’s lesson, “The Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”(Genesis 15:1)
The vision of Abram is the vision God has for each of us, that of protection. If we really believed that, we have nothing to fear.
If we believed in the abundance promised of God, we would not be anxious. Indeed, we have more than enough to be grateful – so deeply, deeply grateful that we can afford to be generous and yes, even gracious.
I recently had breakfast with Mark Beckwith, our new Bishop. He and I were meeting because I have never before been President of the Standing Committee and he’s only been a bishop for ten and a half second. We were talking about how it was that we would build a collegial relationship in order to work effectively together.
I said, “You know what, Mark? Here’s my plan: I intend to love and support you enough that you can make the mistakes you need to make in order that you become the best bishop you can possibly be.”
His mouth opened and he took a breath before he said, “I think that’s probably the most gracious thing any bishop has had said to him (or her) by a President of the Standing Committee.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m sure I don’t know about that, but I will do to you what the wonderful people of St. Paul’s did for me when I first got there. They loved me enough to make my own mistakes. And, trust me: I made them. Still do. Yet, they love me anyway - enough to contiue to make mistakes so I can learn from them and be the kind of priest they deserve.”
“I give to you the same gift that was given to me,” I said. “You know, just the way God is with us.”
Being gracious. Well, it’s only taken two weeks, but I do believe I have settled into what it is I’m taking on for Lent.
I need to practice being more generous, more understanding, more compassionate. It’s an important Lenten discipline, I think, because it requires that I let go of worry and fear so that I can take in God’s protection.
To give up on anxiety and take on God’s abundance.
To let go of past hurts and resentment so I may find forgiveness and therefore forgive.
It’s an important disciple to be done with resentment, so that I may have the confidence to love without condition. To love those who don’t love me. To love anyway.
To remember what one of my spiritual teachers once told me about the resentment that follows not being able to forgive others: He said that resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the other person to die. Resentment only erodes your soul – it certainly doesn’t do anything to the object of our resentment.
Being gracious. It takes practice. Indeed, it takes discipline. A Lenten Disciple is a good place to start. But, I believe that when one is gracious, the time will come when those who see in you a reflection of the graciousness of God will be able to say, “Blessed is the one who comes n the name of the Lord.”
Being gracious. Mostly, it requires prayer.
So let us say again the Collect prayer:
God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring us again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ you Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God for ever and ever.
And let the church say, “Amen.”