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Date Posted: June 25, 2018

Grace, Mercy, and Love

Thank you for returning for the next installment in the series of family systems sermons, based on the Royal family of Israel. Last week we talked about the almost inexplicable phenomenon of thinking about someone every day when for one or another reason we know it is unlikely we will ever see them again in this life.

And about how this obsession reflects the deep and divine connection that exists between people, a connection that does not necessarily track the usual path of close relationships; that is, the usual notion that if I’m thinking that much about someone, you’d think they’d be present in my life.

Instead, they become the beneficiaries of our prayers and steadfast devotion, very often without any idea that it is happening, thereby creating a rich opportunity for us to practice selflessness and for the Spirit to be able to move in that person’s life without our near presence as an impediment to the Spirit’s transforming work.

In the context of the ongoing saga of priests, prophets, and kings we arrive today at another moment of unexpected grace, and are present to witness its fruits.

Those who keep track of the scriptures by holding on to your service leaflets may be a little confused, since clearly last week David was chosen to replace Saul as king. So, why are we still dealing with “King” Saul this week? And why doesn’t David or someone – like maybe Samuel — explain to Saul that David is the king, not Saul?

David would certainly be within his rights to put down Saul from the throne, especially in the light of coming to him in the throne room carrying Goliath’s head and in effect announcing the end of the battle with the Philistines. Talk about street creds! “Hey, man! Get outta my chair! And, you’re welcome. The war is over.”

But David is no punk. He is both wise and clever. He knows that he is the king and that Saul is not. He also realizes that something is wrong with Saul, that he is not well, and that even though he may no longer be the king, he retains the benefits of the Lord’s anointing. It is this same principle at work when we seal an infant at its baptism with holy oil, marking it as “Christ’s own forever.”

Later on in this story of the man who would be king, when a foot soldier attempts to take credit for putting Saul to death, thinking that this would impress David who by that time will clearly be the king, he is caught up very short when David’s response is “How dare you lay your hand on the Lord’s anointed!”

On this occasion, however, David quickly assessed the situation following the defeat of the Philistines and Goliath’s death when Saul seemed not to recognize David – even though David had many times been his music therapist to help manage Saul’s hallucinations and mania – David made the choice to identify himself as a humble servant twice removed, virtually unworthy of any notice or regard by a king whatsoever.

“We are on the high ground now, Anakin.”

David is a very young man, and assumes rightly that he will have a long reign. He will reign until he dies peacefully in his sleep as a very old man. Only God could determine that David would replace Saul as King. But, only David could determine what sort of king he would be. And, to his credit, he elected to initiate his reign by taking his place among the other foot soldiers on the front lines of the battle against the Philistines, and extending honor and respect to his predecessor, Saul. There is no need at this point to belabor the fact that David’s reign will not be perfect, any more than it goes without saying that despite our best efforts, none of us is either.

But, it is what happens next that does deserve our labor.

If any of you have had the challenge of growing up in the same household with someone who is mentally ill, you can appreciate the complex sensitivity and defensiveness that characterizes your family system when you are in public.

As the old saying goes, “I can talk about my family. But don’t you dare agree with me. You can sympathize with me, but you will find yourself knocked into next week if you start talking smack about someone in my family. Only I get to call them crazy.” Or, in the words of King David to that foot soldier: “How dare you lay your hand on the Lord’s anointed!”

If you haven’t had this experience, consider yourself lucky and blessed. But, the rest of us can conjure up all too easily those public moments where we cringe and wish that a hole would open up in the ground beneath us and swallow us.

One wearies of trying to run interference, attempting to signal to strangers that all is not well. But, eventually, you just reconcile yourself to the fact that this is my life; this is my father/mother/brother/whatever. What can I say?

And then to our astonishment, a stranger quickly assesses the situation and graciously extends words or gestures that pull a cloak around our nakedness, and we feel our shoulders relax and a lump in our throat.

We can barely whisper, “Thank you.”

Alice (of Wonderland fame) observed that people want magical solutions to their problems, but no one believes in magic. This text ought to make believers of us all in the magic that is no sleight of hand, but rather the pure grace of God.

For in that moment where the deposed king Saul’s son Jonathan witnessed the grace of the new king David, the eternal wonder that is love bound these two men together.

Not just “regard”; not just deep gratitude. Jonathan loved David as he loved his own life, entering into a covenant relationship with him that very day.

Lest you think I have gone off track, I encourage you to read the entire story of David and Jonathan in 1 and 2 Samuel. When David learns much later in this saga that Jonathan has been killed in battle along with his father Saul, David will declare in a hymn to love that his love for Jonathan surpassed the love he had for any woman, and David’s notoriety with regard to women is well-established.

“Arriving at the other side, the storms beat against the boat so violently they feared they would perish. Waking Jesus they asked him ‘do you not even care that this might kill us?’ And Jesus said ‘Why are you so afraid?’”

I find it hard to believe that anyone who listens to the scriptures and hears and inwardly digests them is not pinched or uncomfortable with them on a weekly basis.

I don’t know about you, but I very often feel like the disciples. I am ready to take my little boat wherever the Lord leads me, but worried and frightened about what it might cost me. And yes, my prayers are frequently along the lines of ‘Seriously, Jesus? This is your idea? Do you not care that it will cost me so much?’

Why am I afraid? I’ll tell you. I have a pretty sweet life. I know who I am and where I fit in. And I fit me in first and then I consider how you fit in.

And if you are my new next door neighbor and you have a different family structure from mine, or have different holiday rituals, or are subject to unpredictable moods and behaviors, I need to think about how this is going to work for us to be neighbors.  And the moment I say that out loud, I realize the position of great privilege from which I speak. I am the one choosing the conditions of YOUR belonging. What arrogance!

And I have to be careful with what comes next that I might offer by way of defending my privilege. Because I am seeking the will of God within the context of my current situation but guided by the lessons in an ancient historical text that is riddled with narratives that are often at odds with themselves; they cry out against injustice while reporting a seemingly divinely ordained series of unending battles and conquests, yet pleading for the fair treatment of resident aliens but restricting marriage, diet, and civil codes to an extreme for its native citizens.

In short, I cannot wave off the Bible as irrelevant to the real world. These biblical narratives read way too much like an annual family Christmas letter in my real world.

Is that good news?

Well, if by “good news” you mean all those things in my life that I feel I am always trying to manage or cover up are common to all of human history, then yes. It’s good news.

But if you mean that there is no escaping Jesus asking me in the middle of a life-threatening storm “What are you so afraid of?” Then, no.

Maya Angelo wrote:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

I think that at their core, my fears are that if I allow myself to get caught up in the moments that take my breath away – especially when they happen in the context of the unfamiliar — I will become hopelessly unmoored from the careful lists that make up my life.

And my family, and my community, and yes even my priestly vocation, have all come to expect that I will continue to live by my lists.

Though we are who we are in terms of how we are wired to work best, that is NEVER an excuse for failing to preserve the dignity of every human being. I am convinced the more I study the sacred texts that have been handed down to us, that we are always being invited to stretch beyond our box on the genogram, not just constantly refine it.

I may not be very good yet at responding to every invitation I receive to “stretch” to the “other side.”  But, my prayer will always be for the help to take that chance, to risk my discomfort, in order to accommodate someone trying to belong; not just “act” in love, but to “be” love itself.

Defeating Goliath to save Israel was a noble act. Willfully releasing his royal privilege in order to preserve the dignity of another person was beyond noble. It was love.

And clearly by Jonathan’s response that sort of love always begets love.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
June 24, 2018 Year B