July 23, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
A few years ago, Bunker and I went into NYC for dinner at a Turkish restaurant. It was a belated anniversary celebration for us, because on our actual anniversary, Bunker was recovering from shoulder surgery. So, it felt great to be out and about, on one of those pleasant late June evenings that makes living here so wonderful. We enjoyed our meal, each other’s company, and as usual, we finished up our dessert and coffee, asked for the bill and gave the waiter our credit card.
But for some reason, this seemed to set off a great deal of commotion among the wait staff. We didn’t think too much about it at first. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see the manager on the phone, and then our waiter talking with the manager. I wondered if there was a problem with our card? Had it expired? Or maybe de-magnetized? Or maybe there was something wrong with the bill? Perhaps they’d left off our appetizer? Or forgotten to add in the dessert? Whatever it was, we were curious, and getting a little stressed about all the fuss.
Finally, the manager walked over, handed us back our credit card, and said, “Your dinner is paid for.” We were totally dumfounded. Confused. Wait, what? That couldn’t be. “What do you mean?” we asked. He repeated, “Your bill is already paid. A friend of yours called – they had seen us check-in on Facebook - and paid for your dinner.” Then he told us we could linger for as long as we’d like. So Bunker and I savored our coffee and tried digest such a wonderful gift.
It’s funny, but reflecting on this, I realized just how unsettling it was at first.
We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it.
All we had to do . . . was very simply, receive it.
And then, only after that could we revel in the unexpected love shown to us by our friends far away.
I can’t help but think that that is how Jacob felt, the morning he woke up from his beautiful dream out in the wilderness.
You see, Jacob – one of the forefathers of our faith - was a schemer. A crook. He jipped his older twin brother, Esau, from his birth rite and inheritance, in exchange for a simple bowl of hot chili. He played his old, blind, father Isaac for a fool, to steal his blessing. He conned his father-in-law out of most of his livestock, and later, even snuck off with both of his daughters as well as the family’s gold. And what our reading this morning doesn’t tell us, is that Jacob isn’t just ‘on his way’ to Haran. He’s actually on the run because his brother is so angry that he’s out to kill him.
So Jacob lays his guilt-ridden and fearful head down on a rock, and falls asleep for the night. What he deserved, perhaps, was a restless night’s sleep. A night of tossing and turning with worry and a guilty conscience.
But instead, he dreams about a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels moving up and down, and God’s reassuring voice of promise, faithfulness and blessing.
At a minimum, you would think Jacob deserved a tongue-lashing – or worse - from God.
But instead, Jacob was given love – and grace.
It was free.
And he had to do nothing other than receive it.
In our Christian tradition, it is so common to hear how the “Old Testament God” is a God of vengeance or anger. And yet, here we see a God of love, a God of grace.
Grace is one of those religious words that gets used fairly frequently in our lives. Credit card companies allow for a “grace period” between a bills due date and the date when they charge you a late fee. In band, I remember the term “grace note,” which was a little extra note added in for flare. “Grace,” in these instances, refers to something extra. And of course, there’s the saying “Grace” before our meals. [For Olivia, Georgia, Julie and Molly, who are heading up to Crossroads Camp today, just a heads’ up, you will be saying a fun “grace” before every meal.] It’s a way of saying “thanks” to God for our food and praying that our meal benefits our lives of service to God.
But in its purest form, Grace is simply and profoundly a free gift from God, a gift through which God connects with us. It is all about connection. Grace is that ladder, which connects heaven and earth, us and God. It is always available. And it is always free.
So, for those of us who haven’t had dreams of ladders and angels, or God’s voice of blessing, how is it that we know God’s grace? Well, I know God’s grace when I’m up and out, early in the morning with our puppy, and I look up to see the moon and stars just prior to daybreak. I know God’s grace when I hear a Beethoven symphony. I know God’s grace when I breathe in the smell of honeysuckle on my walks. I know God’s grace when our family laughs together. And I know God’s grace when we gather together, here, as a community and receive the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
How do you know and experience God’s grace?
We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. But it’s abundant and free.
And all we have to do is receive it.