Sunday, January 4, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Grace Upon Grace"

John 1:10-18

The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. 11 The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. 12 But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, 13 born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’” 16 From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; 17 as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. (Common English Bible)

“Grace Upon Grace,” John 1:10-18

The clippers come out of her hairdresser kit, alongside the scissors and sprays and combs and any umpteen number of items and supplies necessary for her trade.  And the stylists's tattooed arms and hands get to work on her latest customer.  But instead of working in her salon, serving her paying customer base, 28-year-old (yep, a whippersnapper my age making a crazy difference in the world) licensed beautician Danika O’Leary sets up shop in Julliard Park in Santa Rosa, California, to offer free haircuts and beard trims to Santa Rosa’s sizeable population of homeless persons.

As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat writes, there are no sermons or strings attached.  There is no monetary price tag.  And the smiles that emerge, often from beneath previously unkempt and scraggly facial hair, are “of Biblical proportions.”

What we say when we talk of something in Biblical proportions is nothing more and nothing less is than to speak of that thing in terms of grace (or lack thereof).  And you would be hard pressed to tell me that grace is not somehow powerfully and profoundly present in a ministry that for us may simply be aesthetic—a new haircut—but for someone living on the streets represents the difference between having a healthier, more hygienic life in the days and weeks ahead.  There’s grace in that.

Grace comes to us in many ways.  I think we sometimes imagine it in the form of the earth-quaking, life-changing, everything-upside-down-turning sort of grace that John Newton wrote about when he penned the great hymn “Amazing Grace,” but other times, it is little shards of grace that bit by bit, piece by piece, add up to this thing that we call grace, and that John calls “grace upon grace.”

Just like every corn-fed, milk-drinking, stereotypical American kid, I grew up watching lots and lots of Sesame Street, or, “Sah-meet,” as I called it before I could pronounce multisyllabic words.  One skit on Sesame Street which was always guaranteed to hold my attention was where the kids would sing, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong,” while you were supposed to choose which item was out of place…it could be the letters A, O, Q, and the ampersand, or the numbers 2, 7, 5, and the Batman signal, you get the idea. 

If Sesame Street weren’t so devoted to remaining nondenominational, it could easily have done that with the four Gospels.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels, from the Greek term that literally means “seeing together,” “optic” meaning “sight,” and “syn” meaning “similar,” from which we get the word “synonym.”  Now, this was because the content and narratives of those three texts are so similar to one another.  But when the camera pans to the Gospel of John, the Sesame Street kids would be full-swing into “One of these things is not like other…” 

Close to 90% of John’s narrative appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and today’s lectionary passage is among that 90%.  Matthew and Luke open their Gospels with their respective versions of the traditional Christmas story, which we have just spent the last several weeks immersing ourselves in, while Mark begins his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism.  But batting leadoff in John’s Gospel is the poem, the hymn, really, that sings praise to the Logos, to the “Word.”  The first few verses of this hymn, “In the beginning was the Word…” and so on might be its most well-known lyrics, but today’s passage flows forth with this beautiful language of grace and of truth, about children of God and remaining close to the heart of the Father.  For, as in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which we explored just a few months ago, so too does John’s Jesus give us a way to claim the title of “child of God.”  In Matthew, it was the peacemakers who would be children of God.  But in John, the possibilities are even more expansive, for John’s Gospel is nothing if not profoundly expansive.

Yet, for such a lofty, inspirational text, with simple yet incredibly elegant prose, John’s Gospel surprisingly brings me down to earth, reminding me that before I was, God was.  Before any of us were, God was.  Before there were men, women, children, animals, plants, sea, or sky, God was.  It is a beautiful message…one so beautiful that it just has to be true—the storytellers of some American Indian tribes would begin stories of their own spiritual faiths and deities with the words, “I do not know if this is the way things happened or not, but I know that this story is
true.”  And so could this be said for the message of John’s hymn to the Word—the ancient Greek word “Logos” can be translated not only as the “word,” but as the “thought,” the “reason,” the “message,” or even the “story.”  Imagine now the passage we just heard—“the Story—God’s story—became flesh and lived among us.”  Or, “the message—God’s message—became flesh and lived among us.”  It’s limitless, and however it happens, I know that it is still true.

But, all of this, the massive being of truth and grace and love is also a story that seems ill-suited to the Christmas story that we have grown used to, the Christmas story that we cherish, the one where Mary gives birth in Bethlehem to a baby boy predestined to be the Son of Man.  Instead of the magi and shepherds, we are told by John that the world came into being through the Word.  Instead of angels and absurdly reverential barnyard animals, we are told that from the Word, we have received “grace upon grace.”  How would a church construct a nativity scene according to the parameters of John?  It is, after all, a little difficult to fit the entirety of grace into a donkey costume like one can with a five-year-old child, for which grace should consider itself damn lucky.  But how can everything in this Scripture passage, the Word, the Story, the Message, the Reason, the Tought, grace, divine truth, all of it fit into our own linear, day-by-day, slouching-towards-Bethlehem lives?

Because this…not merely grace, but as John emphasizes, grace upon grace, is central not only to his Gospel, but to us and our lives as we become children of God.  Grace upon grace, indeed.

And may, somehow, grace transcend mere things such as us.  For this to happen, for grace to be made manifest in something far greater than I can offer words to; for this to happen is one of God’s many great gifts to us.  For, as it is written by John, from the Word’s fullness, we have all—not some, not an elect, but all—received not merely grace, but grace upon grace, grace overflowing upon itself, grace unable to contain itself, grace that begs to leap up within each of you.  And as with the Word itself, before any of us were, this grace was.  Grace that has endured the vastness of space and of time, and has saw fit to live amongst us and within us.

But ultimately, in defining this grace, I honestly struggle (and here, I am about to sound like a heretic!) to draw upon the rich tradition of theological study within the church.  This is partly due to the fact that, especially in Protestant traditions, God’s grace seemingly always goes hand in hand with the so-called “total depravity” of humanity, a wholly depressing notion that I have always struggled with subscribing entirely to.  But maybe the definition of grace is to pierce the veil of total depravity and behold the Holy of Holies within humanity itself.  Grace upon grace, indeed.

Grace has so often been presented as something that humanity desperately needs because of our innately sinful nature, brought about by Adam and pushed aside by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  And yet, grace has been given to us, as John writes, because the Word was so full of grace and of truth, it was all God could do to give such gifts to us out of God’s abundance, so that it may be present not only in the extraordinariness of our lives, but in the ordinary as well.  And we receive that gift not because we must, in order to save us from ourselves, but because we can choose to do so.  It is that capacity to receive, notice, and behold God’s grace in the world that we truly become “children of God,” for we have accepted our own calling to belong to God and to be God’s own in the world.  It means that God still values us, calling us God’s children.

And you should not take that title lightly.  The name “Son of God” was originally reserved for the reigning Emperor of Rome, his father having been glorified and deified in death, and it reflected Caesar’s status as the highest of the high, to whom all manner of honor and reverence was due (think of it as kind of how the Kim family is revered in North Korea—the elder Kim is deified in death and thus confers this status onto the son).  By taking that royal title and offering it to all of us, God is telling us, “you and you and you are all as valuable to me as the person who claims the greatest glory on earth.”  In God’s eyes, all are as valuable and as worthy of praise as Caesar.  It is truly difficult to find an equivalent in the contemporary world; if there were a worldwide empire rich and powerful, ruled by a monarch who commanded reverence from his subjects as a god, we might come close.  And we are as important to God as that person could ever, ever hope to be…because that is what a gift as valuable as grace signifies.  You don’t give valuable gifts to people you don’t value, you give them last year’s fruitcake or you regift Aunt Gertrude’s awful socks.  But God gives us the best.  Grace upon grace, indeed.

As God beholds us, the creation which God labored over, meticulously crafting and molding out of love and excitement, may we be filled with God’s grace and pride in all of us.

May we be able to see that grace in each child of God—not merely in the well-dressed and wealthy, in the powerful and elite, but in all those who God saw reason enough to create.

May we work to fulfill the promise of this grace, knowing that to keep it solely within ourselves serves no purpose, and that we are called to let grace thrive through love and justice.

May that grace come to us in the most unexpected of ways, in the ordinary and the extraordinary, in the surreal and the mundane, in the everyday and in the once-in-a-lifetime alike.

And when that grace does come to us, as quickly as the breath of the wind or as steady and as sure as the changing of the seasons, may we still be able to see it for what it is, and to be overwhelmed by God’s presence in our lives.

Whenever that moment arrives, be it tomorrow or years from now, may we have the wisdom to call such presence grace upon grace upon grace, for we will not be wrong in doing so.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 4, 2015

If you would like to donate to Danika's haircuts for the homeless ministry, you may do so here.

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