May 10, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The poet Maya Angelou wrote about a time as a child when she was agnostic. She said that it wasn’t that she stopped believing in God, but that God just didn’t seem to be around the neighborhood she lived in. Angelou writes that she was taking voice lessons during that period of agnosticism, and one day at her lesson her teacher asked her to read from a religious pamphlet which ended with the words, “God loves me.” Maya read it, and then she closed the pamphlet and put it down. The teacher said to her, “Pick it up again. I want you to read that last sentence [– “God loves me” –] again.” Maya obeyed, but this time she read it with sarcasm. The teacher said, “Read it again.” Then, Maya Angelou writes:
“After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be truth in this statement, there was a possibility that God really loves me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things. I could try great things. I could learn anything. I could achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person, and God constitute the majority.”
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and shone with intense light upon him — a light that pierced through all of the surface swagger and penetrated to the depth of Paul’s soul — Paul could not remain standing under the grandness of it all. He — the persecutor of Christians, the man who had watched Stephen’s head crushed by stones, the man who had cursed the name of Jesus — he, Paul, was loved and forgiven by that same Jesus. We are so familiar with the story of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus that we forget what an astounding story it is: that Paul, of all people, the Himmler of the first century, that this cruel destroyer should receive the love of God, be baptized in God’s mercy, and be changed. If God can save Paul from himself, the story says, God can save anyone. God can even save you.
Grace is the powerful forgiving love of God which breaks down all of your barriers, passes by all of your sins and weaknesses, and penetrates to the very depth of your being until you are fully embraced by grace. God loves You completely. God doesn’t love only the “Good You” or the “Public You” or the “Parts of you that are O.K. and that you let other people see” but God loves the “Total You”. God loves the You that carries in your head all the mistakes of your past that you hope others will forget, the buried hurts that no one but you knows about, the parts of you that you are ashamed of and the parts that make you feel quite unlovable; God does the unthinkable and loves it all. God’s grace embraces completely.
And so Luke said, if you think you’re beyond hope, look at Paul. He stood by and held coats while God’s beloved Steven was stoned, for Pete’s sake. He dragged Christians out of their homes and threw them in prison. He spit on the name of Jesus. If God loved him, God can certainly love you.
The grace of God is given to us to remind us that we are loved people but God’s grace is given to us also that we might become more loving people. We in the church like to talk about the gentle side of grace, the sweet sound of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, but we must remember that if grace is given to us not only to remind us that we are loved people but also so that we might become more loving people, then we must be prepared for a more severe face of grace.
When I was in high school, my older brother, Rod, worked for a veterinarian in Geneseo who raised horses. He hired Rod to help him break the young horses to the saddle; to teach these frisky independent youngsters to treat their human compatriots with gentleness and respect. Rod told us of one stubborn horse that resisted his efforts — no matter how patient Rod was with this horse, it continued to buck and kick whenever the saddle was placed on its back, and whenever a person reached out to take its halter, the horse would give the person a nasty nip. Finally, one day, Rod came home and announced that he had managed to gain the horse’s respect; it no longer shied away from him, nor nipped at his hand. When asked his secret, Rod reported that that morning when the obstinate horse had reached out to take a bite from Rod’s hands, Rod grabbed the horse’s head, yanked it around, and bit the horse firmly on its nose! The horse was in such shock that it quieted down immediately and Rod was able, for the first time, to stand with the horse, stroking it and talking to it. Sometimes Jesus, too, practiced a tough love on the people around him. He prodded them, rebuked them, and pushed them to be more caring people. I don’t know that he ever bit anyone on the nose, but he frequently needed to use harsh words to break through people’s anxieties or pigheadedness in order to open them to the life-changing grace of God that they had been blocking out. In the story “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor, a self-righteous woman is finally made aware of her own arrogance when she is literally hit between the eyes with a book thrown at her by an exasperated young woman named Mary Grace. Flannery O’Connor, lived with the disability of lupus and she knew first-hand that grace is not always sweet and it’s not always easy but if we allow ourselves to hear its word for us, we will grow in love.
How does God speak a jolting word of grace in your life? Maybe God speaks to you through one of those rare and precious friends who can, in a caring way, occasionally give you a swift kick in your angst and say, “You know, you really need to move on.” We like our friends to be always supportive and empathetic but sometimes what we really need is a friend or a spouse who can hit us between the eyes with reality and help us to let go of our obsessions or our hurt and move on to the better person that lies ahead.
Or maybe God’s grace has hit you between the eyes in a disturbing question. One mother, forced to work at home, told of slaving at her computer in the evening on some reports when her young son came in and wanted to play a game with her. She shooed him away saying that she was much too busy right then. Her son came back a minute later and said, “Mommy, can I ask you one question?”
She replied, “Please make it quick.”
He said, “If a person had a dog and they worked very hard to make a lot of money so that they could build a beautiful big dog house and feed it very expensive food but they never played with the dog, would that be right?”
Love hit that mother right in the eye. She turned off her computer and went to play with her son.
And maybe grace comes not because of what God or anyone does intentionally to you, but because you have chosen to learn from and listen to the trials of life. A woman named Cherry Moore gave birth to a severely disabled son whom she chose to keep at home and raise in spite of the difficulties she would encounter. Moore wrote this poem about her experience of grace:
I have a first-born son who is severely disabled
But he brings great gifts to me.
He brings to my life
He looks at me.
He fully accepts me as I am.
He knows what love is
And because of him
I do, too.
He brings to my life
He points my life in new directions.
He opens doors I hadn’t seen.
I cannot heal my son
But I can look where he points.
I can go through doors he opens
and I do….
My son brings to my life
He is a means of grace to me
He makes me more aware of my blessings.
He will not let me ignore the grief of others.
All of these gifts I would gladly exchange
For a whole son
But that is not mine to choose.
I may choose to thank God
and my son
and I do.
Jesus’ powerful love struck Paul down on the road to Damascus and when he got up from that road he had to make a decision: would he accept the gift of grace and turn away from his former path onto the new one God set before him? We often think of the story of the road to Damascus as a conversion experience — the murderous Saul becomes the loving Paul — but what exactly is the change that God’s grace brings to Paul? Before Damascus, Paul was determined to cleanse Judaism of this strange Christian cult that had begun to contaminate the synagogues. He was full of zeal, fervor, and determination. After Damascus, Paul is determined to cleanse the pagan world of their strange pagan religions and establish Christianity. He is full of zeal, fervor, and determination. God didn’t really change Paul’s personality — God re-directed it. God’s grace struck Paul with a force he could not ignore, and when he had seen himself for who he really was and seen the amazing grace of God at work in his life, he put that same personality that had been set on destruction into serving a God of creating love.
In a beautiful passage about the origin of the human body, Father David Toolan contemplates the purpose of human life. He says, “[Look inside you; look at the cells and the DNA that give your physical existence shape.] “[Your] DNA molecule is …. composed of many atoms whose outer electron shells joined up with their atomic nuclei more than 5 billion years ago, in the starry nebula from which the Earth was formed…. [Peer] down even farther; [in that atom and] you can make out the trios of quarks that make up each proton and neutron in the nucleus. These quarks were bound together when the universe was but a few seconds old.
“Fifteen billion years of evolution, a proliferation of forms out of chaos, are inscribed in our bone marrow, in our nerves and tissue….. The question for a sacramental consciousness, I suggest, is, ‘What are we doing to turn raw materials into a sign that gives grace? Rather than a sign that spells nightmare?….’
“Whether the invisibly microscopic quarks [that were formed at the beginning of the universe and reside now in our flesh] acquire meaning depends on what the human species does with them… If Aquinas had been familiar with nuclear physics,” Toolan says, “I expect he might say that we are here to pour poetry into the quarks, to make something beautiful of them.”
Paul’s life before Damascus spelled nightmare; but God made him into a symbol of grace. To be a Christian doesn’t mean that we will all be sweet and saintly, cut from one mold and sharing one sugary amiable personality. To be a Christian means to believe that that person, sitting in the pew, with all of your personality flaws and foibles, can still serve Christ. You can take the raw material of your life and put it into the service of Christ letting the quirks and quarks of who you are work for God instead of against God.
God’s grace embraces you. God’s grace pushes you. God’s grace uses you if only you choose to allow God’s grace to take you.