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The Cycle of Grace

A sermon by, Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

I Kings 17:8-24

June 9, 2013

We know the mind, the soul, and the body, go hand-in-hand through life, linked together in some mysterious fashion. We’re born into life’s grand mystery and every waking moment and every breath is a confirmation that it is so.

From the beginning of our sojourn, we exist in time and space as “embodied spirits.” How do I know this, you might ask? From the beginning, the poets and the prophets and the philosophers have long described our unified self in complementarian terms of mind, body, and soul. The Apostle Paul described us this way: “This priceless treasure, we hold (so to speak) in a common earthenware jar” (II Corinthians 4:7, J.B. Phillips).

I see the tension waged in a battle between body and soul every Sunday. You do know I can see you, don’t you? But the struggle between the soul and the body is not just waged in our sleepy eyes. Singer/Songwriter Lyle Lovett sang about the soul-body connection in a song called, “Church,” when a struggle was waged between the preacher and his need to preach long and hard and the hunger of the choir members who waged their own insurrection as the noon hour drew nigh.

I went to church last Sunday so I could sing and pray. But something quite unusual happened on that day. Now church it started right on time just like it does without a doubt and everything was all just fine except when it came time to let us out. You know the preacher he kept preaching. He told us, ‘I have one more thing to say, children, before you think of leaving. You better think about the judgment day.’

Now everyone got nervous because everyone was hungry too. And everyone was wondering what was the next thing he would do. And the preacher, he kept preaching. He said now ‘I’ll remind you if I may, you all better pay attention or I might decide to preach all day.’

And now everyone was getting so hungry that the old ones started feeling ill, and the weak ones started passing out, and the young ones they could not sit still, and the preacher’s voice rose higher so I snuck up on the balcony, and I crept into the choir, and I begged them ‘Brothers, sisters, help me please.’ I said ‘When I give you a signal,’ I said, ‘When I raise up my hand won’t you please join with me together and praise the Lord?

And the preacher he kept preaching. Long is the struggle, hard the fight, and I prayed, ‘Father please forgive me and then I stood up and with all my might I sang to the Lord, ‘Let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat. We’ve got some beans and some good cornbread and I listened to what the preacher said, ‘Now it’s to the Lord let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat.’ (That’s the refrain)

And as we watched in disbelief, these were the words he spoke. He said, ‘Now mama’s in the kitchen and she’s been there all day and I know she’s cooking something good. So let’s bow our heads and pray.’

(Refrain) And he sang, ‘To the Lord let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat. We’ve got some beans and some good cornbread. Now listen to what the preacher said. He said, ‘To the Lord let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat.

And the moral of this story, children, it is plain but true. God knows if a preacher preaches long enough, even he’ll get hungry too.

(Refrain) And he’ll sing, ‘To the Lord let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat. We’ve got some beans and some good cornbread. Now listen to what the preacher said. He said to the Lord let praises be. It’s time for dinner, now let’s go eat.[1]

We read two of the three stories that make up this corner of the Good Book. These are three stories of tough circumstances that are both ordinary and extraordinary. The stories are linked by the demands of our bodies for nourishment, health, and purpose. A prophet of God walks on the earth just like the rest of us and the demands of life are the same for them as for anyone. Elijah was hungry in two of these stories and his need for food was taken care of by others. In the first story he was instructed to go down to the wadi and drink the water there, and the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening.

But the drought dried up the wadi and he was forced to go down to Sidon where a widow woman was living with her son. “The Lord had commanded the woman” to feed him and so he went there and announced to her that she should feed him. What Elijah did not seem to notice was the woman and her son were starving. Nevertheless, she took what she had and made the prophet a meal that depleted their food supplies. When Elijah learned of her plight he comforted her with the words we remember best from Jesus in just such moments of anxiety:  “Have no fear.”

There is a gentle rhythm to God’s grace. Sometimes we are the recipients of that grace while other times God puts in position to offer grace like a gift of a cool cup of water on a hot day. There’s an old saying, “Grace given, grace received,” that points us to the rhythms of life and how God partners with us. Even in crisis moments, this cycle of grace is a possibility. Think of grace as an intangible expression of God’s great and free goodness, spilling over in every moment and in every circumstance if one will open up their eyes to behold and experience it.

In the feeding of the five thousand, a situation unusually like this one occurs and Jesus gives a response to the practicality of the overrunning of supply by demand. And so we’re tempted to ask, “What good will my gift do in light of the world’s great need?” Jesus must have known this Elijah story because his answer is the same … one cup of cold water, one widow’s mite, five loaves of bread. The answer Jesus gives is, “Let’s see.”[2]

Don’t be so worried, is advice that demands a response most of us can imagine even if we do not voice it, “Well, that’s easy for you to say …” But “Have no fear” is not only a great line from the Bible, it’s a line that keeps surfacing in the Bible in the most stressful instances. Over and over again, this line gets repeated. “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus illustrated it this way in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry … about what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or about your body, what you shall wear.” Then he gives the illustration, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them” (Matthew 6:25-26, NRSV).

The God of the Bible holds a fondness for the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry, the widows and the orphans. At least Jesus seemed to think so. I believe God is ever present in all our struggles in life. God is present in the blessing and the curse that’s ours to experience, for all the good things and for all the many ways we slug it through from day to day. God is present when we’re unemployed and can’t find the path to our next job and the way in which we do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. God is present when our dearest relationships have gone belly up and our separation turns into divorce. God is present when we’re at our wits end in knowing which way to turn that will lead us out of the weeds and toward a hopeful future.

This starving woman simply gave what she had. Perhaps she was like the widow who gave her last two cents in her offering at the Temple. Jesus sat with his disciples at the entrance to the Temple watching the comings and goings and they sat where the gifts were made and watched what no one else noticed. He noticed what she did though and called her out to the boys as an example of extravagant generosity.

Even today, the scholars who study the giving habits of people paint this same picture: viz., that it’s the poor who more likely to be generous, not the rich, not the privileged, not the powerful. The rich tend to tip poorly, giving something that costs them nothing, while the poor tend to dig deep and give out of their substance. Generosity is an example of “Grace given, grace received” and it’s a lesson we can take away from this story.

Hunger gave way to grief and the power of this story was extended to the gift of life itself as the widow learned her boy had died. Here the cycle of grace comes full circle. She had given grace away through her generosity and now grace could be offered to her in return.

The late Forrester Church, former pastor of the All Souls Church in New York City, wrote deftly about the risk we face every day in the contract we accept in living. We pay a price to live in God’s grand world, sharing life with others who are equally fragile. We stand fully under the spout of life receiving everything that pours out over us, the good and the bad. He called these events “the trapdoors” of life. He wrote this about them, “Whenever the ground seems most secure, someone out there has his hand on the lever. A massive coronary, an embolism, a drunk driver, a strung-out addict drawing a pound of flesh for an ounce of crack. When the trapdoor springs, we haven’t time for regrets or second chances, for anger or recrimination. It just happens. Swoosh. No good-byes.”

He concluded where we must conclude as well by recognizing that the trapdoors in life have one massive saving grace:  “They add to our appreciation for life, even as they threaten to extinguish it.”[3]

We can come to terms with the fact that whether it’s poverty or hunger or illness or death itself, the great God stands with us and wants to accept the gift of life as a precious gift of grace. We’re to take our gift of life and share it as we live and breathe and have our being. “Grace given, grace received” all the way through the arc of our lives.

[1] Lyle Lovett, “Church” (lyrics), Joshua Judges Ruth, © Michael H. Goldsen, Inc

[2] Garret Keizer, The Christian Century, July 14-21, 1999, 707

[3] F. Forrester Church, Everyday Miracles, Stories From Life, New York: Harper and Row, 1988, 4