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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on March 26, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

March 26, 2006
Lent 6

There is a story of a mother who, wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on the piano, took him to a Paderewski concert. After they were seated, the mother got up and walked down the aisle to greet a friend she had spotted. Seizing the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the little boy rose and eventually wandered through a door marked “No Admittance.” When the houselights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered that her son was missing. Suddenly the curtains parted and a spotlight focused on the impressive Steinway on stage. Aghast, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

At that moment, Paderewski made his entrance. Realizing what was happening, the boy became terrified, but Paderewski quickly moved behind the boy and whispered in his ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” Then Paderewski reached around the boy with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child and he added a running obligato. It was a moment of transforming grace, when a wandering child was lifted up rather than dismissed, when a situation that could have been unpleasant became a gift, when something simple became profound—and those who witnessed it were transformed.

Today’s Gospel has a line that is often referred to as the Gospel in miniature: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have everlasting life.” That is the unique claim of Christianity: that God has taken on flesh and come among us. No other world religion makes that claim. And for us, it is the very good news of grace. It is the news that we are loved beyond measure, so much that God refuses to give up on us. When those he called to be his people went astray, he raised up prophets to call them back. When his people abandoned him to go after others gods, he made a people within a people. When those fell away, he finally came himself—in the flesh.

By responding to us in that way, God’s grace becomes evident. God in Christ refuses to diminish us when we wander where we shouldn’t wander. When we have lost our way through anger or greed or hatred; when we have given up on God or and/or given up on the human race, the incarnation continues to be God’s way of coming beside us, of reminding us that—with him by our side—we can keep going. With him by our side, we can together make something beautiful and creative out of the broken patterns in our lives. Through the incarnation of Christ, we are lifted up rather than dismissed; all of life—even the sorrowful and painful moments, become a gift; our simple lives become a profound revelation of God’s amazing grace, and through it, both we and others are transformed.

And yet, Christianity has been known to take this good news and make it bad. Some are quick to point out that today’s Gospel contains not only God loving the world, but judgment B and that judgment is then used by some as a threat. In fact, Annie Dillard once spoke about some missionaries who traveled to Alaska to tell the Eskimos the Good News. After listening to the missionaries, an Eskimo said, in effect, “Let me get this straight. If you had never come to tell us this news of Jesus, if we had never heard it and had died, nothing bad would have happened to us—because we’d never heard it. But now that you have come and told us this news, and if we do not believe it, we go to hell. So why was it that you came?”

Preaching the Good News is not an emotional or psychological version of the Crusades. We have a God who calls us to believe in response to God’s love, not in response to threats of judgment. In fact, judgment, like the incarnation, is an act of grace that arises out of God’s love. For in its truest sense, the word judgment simply means a proclamation of what is true. Judgment in a legal decision is the declaration of what, given the evidence, has really taken place. When Jesus judges us, he declares what is true about our lives, which includes declaring not only what is good about us but also the truth of the sins that separate us from him. Judgment is when Jesus says to us, “This is your sin and it’s killing you.”

And that judgment occurs not just at the end of time, but all the time, as Christ speaks to us through ourselves and others. As author Frederick Buechner has pointed out, “We are judged every day. We are judged by the face that looks back at us from the bathroom mirror. We are judged by the faces of the people we love...and by the faces of the people we do not love. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the road we have not taken as by the roads we have.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 58)

That judgment is painful—not because God is angry at us and one way or another is punishing us, but because we realize how far short we fall in responding to God’s love. In the various ways judgment occurs, Jesus is naming our sins for us—which may be the only way we can let go of them and give them over to him. Judgment is for transformation, not retribution. It is an act of love, not punishment. It is intended for our wholeness. It is intended to make us more the person we are meant to be by confirming what is good in us, as well as showing us those things which separate us from God and one another. Judgment is a side of God’s grace: a grace that is gentle and forgiving, a grace that comes beside us and tells us that we can keep going. But it is also a powerful, life-changing, transforming grace.

In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey tells the story of a night at Wembly Stadium in London. Various musical groups., mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa. For some reasons the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act. For 12 hours, groups like Guns ’n Roses blasted the crowd through banks of speakers. Finally, the time came for Jessye Norman to sing. A single circle of light followed that majestic African-American woman as she strolled on stage, wearing a flowing African dashiki. There was no backup band, no musical instruments, just her. Few recognized her. Some started yelling for more Guns ’n Roses. Others took up the cry. Alone, a capella, Jessye Norman began to sing Amazing Grace. And a remarkable thing happened that night in Wembly Stadium. Seventy thousand raucous fans fell silent. (Pp. 281-282)

Jessye Norman said she wasn’t sure what descended on Wembly stadium that night, but I think I know. It was a moment of transforming grace, when a raucous crowd was lifted up rather than dismissed, when a situation that could have been unpleasant became a gift, when something simple became profound—and those who witnessed it were transformed. Whether it is God coming beside us and telling us we can keep going, or whether it is a judgment that holds us accountable to become the person we are called to be, or whether it is a raucous crowd touched by an old church hymn—it is all an act of grace, and what else can we do but, in gratitude, fall silent before it.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission