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.]

Clarity
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?

Attentiveness
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?

2014
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.

Grace
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.

###

 

 


Column by Bill Lewellis

Be not among those who hardly notice
Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, August 29, 2015
601 words 

[The link to The Morning Call is here. A version of this column, expanded for a sermon, is here.]

Friday, January 12, 2007, the morning rush hour in Washington DC.

A white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T and a Washington Nationals cap stood against a wall at the L’Enfant Plaza station. He removed a violin from a case, swiveled the open case toward the foot traffic … and began to play six classical pieces for 43 minutes.

The social experiment was sponsored by the Washington Post: If a world-famous musician played some of history’s most beautiful music in a DC metro station, would people stop to listen?

Hardly anyone noticed. Twenty-seven people stopped to listen. One thousand and seventy walked on by.

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 this non-event. (I have drawn some of my description from his story.) 

The 2007 stunt raised questions about beauty and society's perception of it.

Some $32 were dropped in the case that ordinarily held a $3 million fiddle.

Hardly anyone noticed.

Readers 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.

Last year, Joshua Bell gave it another try. This one was advertised by the Post: 12:30 p.m., Sept. 30. He dressed in his black shirt and trousers concert attire for his scheduled 30 minutes of Mendelssohn and Bach in the main hall of Union Station. The area was crowded. People not only stopped to listen; they came to listen.

A friend of mine, onetime 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.

We don’t deserve grace, to be sure, Jim Naughton acknowledged, 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.”

Let us pray: Guide us, gracious God. May we be attentive to our experience, to the voices and hearts of those around us;insightful in our interpretation of what we have been attentive to;reasonable in our judgments; responsible in our decisions;and always open to inner conversion, to transformation in your truth and your love.

 

Be one on whom nothing is lost. Especially grace. Be not among those who hardly notice. Be attentive.

 

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


An Analogy for Grace

Jim Naughton, Episcopal Café
September 25, 2014

Joshua Bell, the renowned violinist who once posed as a typical subway busker for a Washington Post magazine article, is back underground again.

The question posed by the original 2007 story was: “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? ‘In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?,’ the story wondered.”

The answer was, “Not really.” Twenty-seven people stopped. One thousand and seventy walked on by.

Now, seven years later, Bell is going to give it another try. The Post writes, “At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, Bell will perform for 30 minutes in the main hall of Union Station. He’ll trade the baseball hat [he wore in 2007] for a crisp black shirt, hidden cameras for media coverage and busy commuters for what he hopes will be a large and engaged audience there to hear a program of Mendelssohn and Bach.”

I am sure the crowds will be bigger and more appreciative, but it seems unlikely the music will be more beautiful, and this has me thinking about grace. We take as a theological given that we don’t deserve grace, but what we need to reckon with is the fact that we don’t recognize it. It wears the wrong clothes and shows up in the wrong places at the wrong times. It comes in the guise of people we generally avoid.

As a result, 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 is among the few spiritual disciplines that still make sense to me.

Here’s grace in the form of Joshua Bell:
http://www.episcopalcafe.com/an_analogy_for_grace/
or
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnOPu0_YWhw

[Jim Naughton is a partner in Canticle Communications, specializing in work for church agencies, organizations,parishes and advocacy groups. A former reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, Jim is founder and editor of Episcopal Café]