Constancy of Grace

3/16/03
Mk. 8:31-38
2 Lent

Every so often I have to beg your indulgence to allow me to share with you a recent experience. The object of the sharing is not to boast or be self-serving but rather to point to a truth in the Gospel message. Today I want to tell you about a conversation I had two Fridays ago and how it got me thinking about the constancy of God’s grace and our call to be followers of Christ.

A week ago Friday I went over to the Canterbury Restaurant for lunch. I was standing in line contemplating the offerings in the steam table when a man broke out of the line ahead of me and came up and stood right smack in front of me. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I looked at him closely. He was nicely dressed in a suit and tie and I swear I didn’t have a clue who he was. “No, I don’t.” I replied. “Look closely.” “No, I don’t recognize you. Perhaps you have me mistaken for another priest.” “No. It was you.” “You mean at St. John’s; that church there?” “Yes. It was you. Some time ago I was in a bad way, and I came to you and you helped me out. In fact I saw you ten times and you helped me. I lost my wife, my house, my car, everything and YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME. Finally my life got turned around and I have a good job and am back on track.” He handed me his business card and I recognized his name. “Yes, I remember you now.” We had talked from time to time and occasionally I slipped him a grubstake. What I remembered was that every time I saw him he was totally blitzed, more so than any other person I had met. “Are you in the program?” I asked. “Yes.” He replied. I used to go everyday. Now I’m down to three days a week.” (We were talking about A.A.) “Don’t let up,” I said. “Oh, no, I won’t.” “And thank you for telling me.” He offered to buy me lunch, but I declined and settled on a couple of meatballs.

Now I’m telling this story not to aggrandize myself, but rather because I was so struck by the experience and by the phrase, “YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME.” That afternoon I keep reflecting on the phrase, “You didn’t give up on me.” Isn’t that what we all yearn for from our parents - that they will always be in our corner? Isn’t that what we all want our kids to say about us - that regardless of how far they stray they are still our children and we will not give up on them? Isn’t that the marriage vow? “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer.” The tragedy in broken marriages is that the spouses give up on each other, and often in turn give up on themselves. Do we not all have in our experience a teacher who made a difference in our lives because he or she didn’t give up on us?

As I read today’s Gospel passage, I kept thinking that the message of the Gospel is that God did not give up on us. Last week Leander talked about the Garden of Eden and the Fall - that there is a propensity in man to stray, to become self-centered and to pursue false idols. Time and again God called His people to obedience and a close relationship to Him. Time and again they strayed, tempted by the world and by Satan. But God did not give up on them. He brought them out of Egypt and back from Babylon. Time and again the prophets proclaimed the failure of the people to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with their God.(Micah). Time and again there was punishment and redemption. Throughout the Old Testament there is the dominant theme of the constancy of God’s grace. God did not give up on His people.

When Jesus tells His followers that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed and rise again, that is not what they want to hear. Peter objects and Jesus rebukes him. As He often does, Jesus stands the religious expectations of His time on their collective heads. He is rejecting a military messiah, or the messiahship of a popular prophet. Rather Jesus is drawing upon the tradition of the messianic suffering servant of Isaiah and the tradition of the sacrificial Paschal Lamb of Exodus and Passover. In addition He is incorporating the tradition of the apocalyptic Son of Man from Daniel and I Enoch. Through using these three traditions, Jesus is saying that God is not giving up on mankind, on you and me. It is through suffering and atonement and through a transcendent participation in our lives that God is entering fully into our lives: living, breathing, laughing, crying, suffering, dying and then revealing the promise of eternal life. He is fully with us. The message of The Passion, Good Friday and Easter, to which this passage in Mark points, is that God in Christ Jesus is not giving up on us.

Jesus’ challenge to His disciples, and to you and me, is not to give up on Him. To take up your cross is to bear your burdens for Christ’s sake, not for your own gratification. It is to live a life where priorities are aligned, where there is self-denial and where you have lost your self in faithful commitment and service to Christ. Like an artist, or teacher or healer, you and I are to find our lives by losing them - in this case by losing them in a closer relationship to Christ, by living in the constancy of God’s grace.

How many times I have stood at the grave of someone and heard the unspoken question, “What did he/she do with his/her life? What counted? What was important?” Those who are honored are those who gave, not those who took; those who loved, not those who despised; those who cared, not those who turned away.” It is not enough to be able to say, “He/she was a nice person.” If they were not a person of faith, then there is a palpable emptiness about their life and about their memory. You and I are called not to give up on Christ because He has not given up on you and me.

When my friend identified me as the priest who did not give up on him, I could not help but think, “But that is the call of the Church - to not give up on people. That is why St. John’s is here in the middle of the city and didn’t move out to Newfield Avenue in the l980’s. We are here not to give handouts, but to proclaim the Gospel message of repentance and forgiveness. Our message is (as Andrew Greeley in his novels has pointed out) that in Jesus Christ you and I are offered a second chance. In the midst of the secular city our message is one of hope and life. Life is more than the benefits of the world, it is to have a life, or as the KJV translated it, to have a soul which is at peace with God.

My friend in the restaurant did not have to be told about bearing one’s cross. He bears his cross every day (and every night as well). So too do many of you. Mental illness in your own life or in that of another, physical illness, disappointments and setbacks, deaths and losses, crushing responsibilities and obligations - these are some of the crosses which many of you bear as you come to this altar each Sunday. You are to be commended in the bearing of your crosses, and you are to be encouraged that Christ Jesus bears your cross with you. He does not give up on you. The constancy of His grace, the constancy of God’s grace is everlasting.

This Lent respond to the constancy of God’s grace with the constancy of your faithfulness. Review where the temptations are (where Satan beckons). Be blunt. Look where there is and isn’t appropriate sacrifice, discipline and charity. Then review where you want to give up on others, or even on yourself, and offer that realization up to God as a sacrifice. Ask Him for His steadying presence in redemptive processes and solutions . As you come to the Eucharist today, and as you do every Sunday, hear the assurance of the constancy of God’s grace in the words of The Great Thanksgiving. Know that in the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, in the raising up of the bread and wine, the body and blood, that you are assured that Christ has not give up on you.

Then, in the constancy of God’s grace, in the assurance that Christ has not given up on you, go out from this church into the secular world feeling empowered to proclaim the Good News of the God’s grace. Feel empowered patiently and faithfully not to give up on those whose souls are restless until they find their rest in God (to paraphrase St. Augustine). Help those in need whom you know to receive the blessed assurance that Christ has not given up on them. Be not ashamed of Christ’s “words in this adulterous and sinful generation.” Rather, help others to say with you and with St. Paul that, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(I Cor. 8:39). In short, never give up. - Amen.