Who are we to withhold the grace of God?
Sermon at Sophia Chapel on July 9, 2017
The following is a reflection on the Gospel according to Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30 (NIV) and delivered by Gerald Farinas at the Sophia Chapel in Evanston, Ill. on July 9, 2017.
It just happens to be a coincidence that I get to preach on a day that the appointed Gospel is one that speaks to the idea that God reaches out to the margins.
Ministering to the margins is a basic tenet of the faith community I belong to. God reaches out to the people whom we are quick to condemn that are unlike us. The people who are different and live their day to day lives that we see but do not understand, or choose not to understand, or choose to condemn, or choose to not even to see.
Because they’re different.
We are at a point in the Gospels today that the disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus are starting to see two different kinds of pastoral and faithful life.
And human nature sets in:
“Hey, who are you gonna follow? John’s way? Or Jesus’ way?”
The disciples kinda think about it. It kinda gets political when they start asking that question among themselves — because it means picking a version of their faith, picking a style of living that faith, picking an approach to sharing that faith with other people.
There is the type that John the Baptist preaches — that you and I have to repent, that you and I have to beg to be saved, that you and I must remind ourselves constantly that we are not worthy of the grace of God, and that the only way to get that grace is to follow the strict rules of conduct and living, and tear ourselves completely from anything that diverts us from God’s ideal.
It’s a stringent way to God.
And then there is the type of pastoral and faithful life that Jesus is offering.
John’s disciples are asking Jesus, “Are you the guy we’ve been waiting for? Are you the one who’s going to make good on the promise of bringing us to the kingdom of God?”
And Jesus explains his vision of pastoral and faithful life. It’s not as stringent as the one John lives by. In fact, as revolutionary as John the Baptist was, Jesus’ vision is even more revolutionary.
Jesus isn’t saying that John the Baptist is not doing it right. What Jesus is telling us is that God’s vision is so much bigger.
Jesus presents something that opens up the path, the way to God, to more people—that there is an element of grace that welcomes people who can’t measure up to the rules and regulations that John believes is the expectation of someone chosen as one of God’s people.
And Jesus understands the revolutionary nature of his vision.
He understands, and shares, that the political question of “who do you choose, which style do you choose” is an unfair one.
It’s not a choice of which one is more righteous. Jesus is just saying, God’s idea for us is bigger than what has been preached.
Tony Campolo is a Philadelphia-based Baptist pastor and author of over 35 books. Among them are “Ideas for Social Action,” “Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith,” “Is Jesus a Republican or Democrat?” (please don’t answer that one in church), and my favorite, “Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People.”
Pastor Tony was in my hometown of Honolulu, sitting at a cafe near the beachfront hotels drinking his coffee:
A group of prostitutes walked in and sat in the empty stools at the counter to his left and right. In conversations amongst the group, one of the girls, Agnes, sadly mentioned that it was her birthday tomorrow and she had never had a birthday party.
Tony the Baptist minister thought it would be a great idea to surprise Agnes with a birthday party. Tony asked the cafe owner, Harry, what he knew about the girls and found out that they came in every morning around 3:30.
Tony and Harry got the place all setup for a birthday party before then. Somehow word got out and by 3 the next morning, the cafe was packed with prostitutes.
Agnes walked in.
She saw the streamers, she saw the balloons, she saw Harry holding a beautiful birthday cake. Everyone screamed, “Happy Birthday!”
Agnes was overwhelmed. Tears poured down her face as the room filled with the graceful singing of Happy Birthday.
Harry said, “Come on up here and cut your cake!”
Agnes, just kept crying and thought about it. She said she’s never had a birthday cake that she can remember. And she, quite embarrassingly, asked if she could take the cake home so she could show it to her mother.
They said yes, to the teary-eyed young woman. And she left.
Tony did what any Christian leader would do. He led the room full of sex workers in prayer for Agnes. And their “Amen” was just full of a certain conviction that their prayer would be met with the welcome of God.
This is not a birthday party you would see normally—a Baptist minister throwing a party for a sex worker.
This is the kind of pastoral and faithful life Jesus wants of us.
God’s vision of us, God’s vision for us, is one that welcomes all of us — no matter our perceived shortcomings, our perceived failures, the things we have done, the things we have failed to do.
All God wants of us is to come and receive his grace.
Here is God’s mission statement:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
God is offering a promise — not one of anger and frustration because we can’t measure up to the expectations of God’s ideal.
He will not turn any of us away because we don’t measure up.
God is telling us, “I see your life. I see how hard it is. I see the bad stuff that happens. I see the disappointment, the sadness, the anger, the regrets in your life.”
God is asking, “Aren’t you tired of burdening yourself with such worries because your life isn’t that saintly one people say is God’s favored?”
God is saying, “I don’t care. Just come. All of you. And you will find rest in my grace.”
Agnes lived in the margins as a sex worker. Agnes, through Tony’s understanding of this Gospel, found the grace of God despite all the ideas we have of a sex worker.
Who are we to withhold the grace of God to anyone in our communities?
Whether they are immigrants (both documented and undocumented), north siders versus south siders, people with physical and mental disabilities, people who suffer the physical and emotional challenges of cancer, HIV, AIDS, people who are far poorer than we are, people who are LGBT, people who aren’t your Christian denomination, and yes, people who aren’t Christian at all, even atheist?
If we are to truly believe this vision and mission of our faith, we must hold fast to this idea given to us in this Gospel that God is inviting everyone, all people, to accept this grace.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
But I must remind you of another important component of this vision and mission.
When I asked, “Who are we to withhold the grace of God,” there is an understanding in that question that yes, we indeed have the ability to withhold it.
And unfortunately, many Christians do. Unfortunately, we do.
One of the most important theologians of our time was the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He often preached that an essential part of our faith is to be humans for each other.
A lot of us, in our deepest, impassioned moments of prayer look up, pray upwards for a God up there. But what we forget is that God is down here. For the most part, the work of God just doesn’t appear out of nowhere. Yes, miracles happen, but a huge portion of God’s grace, comes from our individual hands. Yours and mine. God’s grace is most abundant coming from you and me.
One of my friends who embodies a lot of what we try to do in the Society of Joseph Dutton likes to do some of her work at the Feinberg Pavillion at Northwestern Hospital. The pavillion, which is normally empty and quiet, has a 24-hour Starbucks and a lot of Chicago Police officers. ICU is right next door.
Maureen Keane shared a story of working there one night when a man and woman came into the pavilion and sat next to her. Their son was shot five times — as has unfortunately become far too common in Chicago. He was alive, and that was all that mattered. Mom and dad were holding strong. Mom left and went to go to the restroom.
Maureen shares her story:
“When I finished working a few minutes later, I went into the bathroom and found her sobbing in one of the stalls. I called out to her and told that I was sorry for what happened and for her pain and would sit with her as long as needed. She came out of the stall and we sat on the ground together and both cried. We didn’t say anything to each other, we didn’t even hug. Just sat shoulder to shoulder until she had no more tears. Then she got up, brushed herself off and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go back to Frank.’”
Grace is sometimes less complicated than we think. Sometimes the grace that works through us may just be a matter of listening to someone.
God gave that mother of a Chicago shooting victim a bit of grace through Maureen in that hospital restroom.
God gave Agnes the sex worker that grace. God’s grace worked through Tony and that cafe owner.
There’s a famous story that is often shared from pulpits around the world that takes place during World War II:
Soldiers serving in France wanted to bury a friend who had been killed in battle. They wanted to make sure their friend would be laid to rest in a proper grave. They found a picturesque cemetery with a fence around it. A Catholic church rose above it — like a peaceful guardian. This was the perfect resting place for a fallen friend.
When they met the priest, he said that their friend could only be buried there of he was a devout, baptized Catholic. He wasn’t.
Knowing the weary soldiers were dismayed, the priest showed them a nice spot outside the cemetery fence where they could bury their friend. They were reluctant, but they dug the grave and laid their comrade there.
Having to move on, the soldiers returned the next day to pay their final respects but couldn’t find the grave.
“He was right here!” they exclaimed.
Confused, they found the priest and demanded answers.
“Last night I couldn’t sleep,” said the priest. “I was troubled that your friend had to be buried outside the cemetery, so I got up and moved the fence.”
While our own hands, and even our hearts, too, are instruments of God’s grace, we must be very careful to consider that the grace that comes through us must meet the invitation completely:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
The invitation is to all people, for all people. The grace that God gives is to all people, for all people.
Let the people of God say, “Amen.”