Column by Bill Lewellis
newSpin 150903

Clear Grace – Sermon by Bill Lewellis

Clear Grace
Pent 14B, Proper 17B, August 30, 2015
Redeemer, Longport NJ (Bill Lewellis)
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45
James 1:17-27; Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

[This sermon is an expanded version of my column – also here – published August 29 in The Morning Call.]

A nun who taught me in grade school had a technique more efficient than waterboarding. She would sit you down, sit across from you, look you in the eye, and say, “Now tell the truth and shame the devil.” Whatever you may think of that, you know it is clear.

Clear too are a few truths from today’s readings: Every generous act of giving is from above … Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers … You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition … There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

All of these are clear truths, clear commands. What can make them clearer? As an old priest friend used to say, “When you’ve made your point, stop boring.”


In concert, at the metro
On a cold Friday in January 2007, during morning rush hour, a white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T and a Washington Nationals baseball cap emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station in Washington.

He positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change: seed money. He swiveled the case to face pedestrian traffic … and began to play six classical pieces for the next 43 minutes.

It was a social experiment sponsored by the Washington Post: “If a world-famous musician and his $3 million fiddle brought some of history’s most beautiful music to a rush-hour crowd in a DC metro station, would people stop and listen”

Not really. Of 1,100 people walking by, 27 stopped to listen. Hardly anyone noticed.

Hardly anyone noticed when Joshua Bell played some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

[Journalist Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer for his feature story about it. I have drawn some of my description from his story.] 

Joshua Bell’s concert hall performances are regularly sold out. He earned just over $32 when he set out his case at the metro stop. Hardly anyone noticed.

Was that because it was free? Because it was unscheduled? Because of the clothes he wore? Because of the venue?

In any event, hardly anyone noticed.

People who have received emails from me may have noticed my signature line – running for some 25 years: Be attentive, Be intelligent, Be reasonable, Be responsible, Be in love, If necessary, change.

The first phrase, “Be attentive,” is about noticing. It’s about being attentive to all of our senses, to what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Being attentive to our experience, to our imagination, to the voices and hearts of those around us.

Be not among those who hardly notice.

Do we notice during Eucharist, when we receive the bread of life?

Seven years later, last year, Bell gave it another try. This one was advertised by the Post: at 12:30 p.m., Sept. 30, Bell would perform for 30 minutes in the main hall of Union Station.

He would trade the baseball cap and long-sleeve T for a crisp black shirt. Busy commuters would be traded for what the Post hoped would be a large and engaged audience, there to hear a program of Mendelssohn and Bach.

Not surprisingly, the area was crowded. Though the music was not more beautiful than seven years before.

Both events are evocative. They call out to us. They might say something to each of us, about how we go about our lives.

A friend of mine, one time journalist for the New York Times and the Washington Post who now helps Episcopal dioceses and agencies improve their communication, said that reflecting on these two events had him thinking about grace.

“Grace” is a common enough word, but also one of those in-words used often by those of us who have had the privilege of reading and thinking a lot about theology.

“Grace” suggests God’s love for us, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s forgiveness … all of this even before we ask.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become convinced that the less one says about God, the better.

When anyone goes on and on about God, be sure they don’t know what they’re talking about.

They may be sincere, but that’s not saying much if they don’t know what they’re talking about. To say someone is “sincere” may be the lowest form of compliment.

Think about how you use “sincere.” “And she’s sincere” is ok. “But he’s sincere,” however is not saying much. The “but” usually implies they’re wrong, but they’re “sincere.”

Two statements seem to me today to sum up all the theology I’ve ever learned.

One is that God is like Jesus.

The other is that grace is “undeserved blessing.”

And I’m “sincere” about that.

Among the few spiritual disciplines
We don’t deserve grace, to be sure, my journalist friend Jim Naughton wrote recently, but what we need to reckon with is the fact that we don’t recognize it.

“It wears the wrong clothes … shows up in the wrong places … at the wrong times. It comes in the guise of people we generally avoid. 
We hardly notice. We fail to see it for what it is.

“We take the word of others – experts, advance teams – for what grace is and what it isn’t, when we must pay attention and when we can walk on by.

“Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to recognize and respond to grace when we see it or hear it. Or perhaps life is constructed in such a way that grace needs references and a spot on our calendar before we can give it its due.

“Henry James once urged readers: ‘Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’

“This,” my friend said, “is among the few spiritual disciplines that still make sense to me.”

Trying to be one of those on whom nothing is lost. Not being among those who hardly notice. Being attentive.





The comments to this entry are closed.