Grace Upon Grace

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John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Park Ridge

In 2005 we went to visit our oldest child and husband in their first house.   They lived in a nice cottage like home, in the heart of Park Ridge Illinois.  The church they served owned the home, which had a guest room on the second floor.

Park Ridge straddles the train line which brings people out from Chicago, following days of labor and study and loss and gain.   Theirs was the main church in town, the Community church, whose Senior Minister, Rev Dr Brett McCleneghan, is currently a member of the Marsh Chapel and Religious Life Advisory Board.  His daughter, Bromily, now a minister herself, is a BU alumna, who worshipped in these pews during her student years.  The town is a gem, a rich blend of history and activity, of urban and suburban, of prayer and work.  Our first grandchild was born there, in a hospital on Dempster Street, named for the same John Dempster who planted the seed in 1839 that became Boston University.  He planted another that became Northwestern University.

From the first, those visits, and the carrying of the suitcase up to the guest room, were delicious with grace.  To lie down and rest, to sleep, now under the roof of those who have for so long been the sole reason for your own roof, brings a soulful lightness of being.  You are in the embrace of the next generation, the future.  As John concludes: Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go (John 21:18). The torch is about to be passed to a new generation, and the weightlessness such a premonition brings is the peace of God, passing understanding.  It is a grace to sing, ‘O won’t come with me to my father’s house?’  It is grace upon grace to whisper, ‘O wont you come with me to my daughter’s house…where there is peace, peace, peace.’

On a walk one day in Park Ridge we came upon the Methodist church, a few blocks away, smaller, simpler, leaner.  Many of our churches seem to have been built one block away from success.  I pictured that church a month ago, on November 2, 2011.   I was thinking of their MYF, and of a famous alumna of the Park Ridge UMC MYF.   The day’s paper (NYT, 11/2/11, R McFadden) carried an obituary of a woman named Dorothy Rodham.  At middle age in the 1940’s, Dorothy joined that church.  They found a welcome, a peace, a place to grow in faith—a church family to love, a church home to enjoy.  They found there a grace to replace the grace that had brought them, a second generation kind of peace, after an earlier generation of grace under pressure.  Moses needed one kind of grace.  Joshua needed another.

Born in 1919, Dorothy  Howell had a life that the paper called Dickensyian.  Abandoned by divorced, dysfunctional parents.   Sent off alone by train to California to be raised by unwelcoming grandparents.  Her grandmother was strict woman who wore black dresses, and confined her to her room for a year, as punishment for Halloween trick or treating. Working by age 14 for $3 a week as a nanny.   She joined the scholarship club and Spanish club. Then back to Chicago on the bungled, mistaken assumption that her parents wanted her back.   Her mother in Chicago promised Dorothy a college education if she came home. ‘I had hoped so hard that my mother would love me that I had to take the chance and find out. ‘She put herself through high school and became a secretary.  Enough rain had fallen in Dorothy’s life to fill a dozen others, before she even married.  She married Mr Rodham, and they moved to Park Ridge.

They entered a second kind of grace.  Sometimes the grace of one era, epoch or season, gives way to another sort of grace, a grace upon grace.

The Rodhams raised their three children in Park Ridge, in eyeshot of where that second generation grace of slumber in the arms of the daughter Morpheus would so enchant me some years later.  They worshipped, served, enjoyed fellowship, and learned in the Methodist church, there.  Her two sons and her daughter survive her, with four grandchildren.  I think she knew the feeling of sleeping soundly under your grown children’s sturdy roof.

Now here is the gospel.  What she learned from the wounds of California, the grace to survive in a harsh setting, she taught as healing in Chicago.  One grace, the grace of endurance became another grace, the grace of persistence.  She taught her kids to defend themselves in the Park Ridge streets and ballfields.  She taught them to work, to sacrifice, to study, to prepare, to persist.

Later, her daughter decided to come to Boston for college.  This is where the country comes to study.   When the daughter struggled in the first fall term, and wanted to come home from Wellesley, Dorothy said no:  ‘You can’t quit.  You’ve got to see through what you have started’.

You may have wondered how Hillary Rodham Clinton found the grace to endure all that she publicly has endured over the last 30 years.  Reading her mother Dorothy’s obituary told me:  one grace gave birth to another.

Weeping may tarry for the night of one generation, and still joy will come with the morning of the next.  It makes you want to stretch out and take a nice long nap, under the sturdy roof of your daughter’s house.

Faith, when you ask people to describe its origins, comes from trouble.

Grace changes, morphs, and becomes a second grace.

Grace instead of Grace

Our gospel lesson is the John version of the Mark lesson last week about the Baptist.  Our lectionary gives only occasional place to John, the three year cycle highlighting Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Bits of John are sprinkled about, as here in Advent.  Further, not all of John 1 is read continuously, here, just the Baptist story, so you miss a crucial verse, 16, which we have added under the sermon title, ‘grace upon grace’.  This verse is a central one for the whole of the chapter.  To make matters more calamitously tangled, the translation of this verse, especially of its key preposition, ‘upon’, is fiercely contested.  Does this read, ‘grace added to grace’ or ‘grace instead of grace’ or ‘grace replacing grace’ or ‘grace upon grace’?  What is upon?  Added to or higher than?

A critical moderate would say the former, a moderate critic the latter.  I believe it is the latter.  That is, there is startling invitation here, for you, to sense the movement of movement, the change of change, the grace of grace.  Grace is not always the same.  It looks like one thing in California, and another in Chicago, one thing when you need to hang on for dear life and another when you are storing up the chestnuts of nourishment for the next generation’s coming winter of discontent.

Grace moves.  So should we.

We are not always nimble enough to do so.  We do not easily pivot, from grace to grace.  We do not always rightly judge what time it is.  We do not awake to the gift of grace upon grace, always and easily in good time.

Worship

We are on the journey of faith, in the season of Advent.  We are called to plan, to prepare, to practice patience, to know penitence.

To see grace moving, moving before us, grace beyond grace, we shall need every resource to our disposal.  Look hard at the daily, weekly points where you open yourself to grace.  Do you worship, come Sunday?  Do you listen in the morning and walk in the evening?  Do you read something ancient, and true, as life comes toward you?  Is there a smile on your lips and a song in your heart?  Are you giving your soul a chance to breath?

I see signs among us that this is so.

This week moments of prayer arose at hospital bedsides.  This week the bread of salvation and the cup of mercy were shared, outside and inside, at noon and at dusk.  This week the balm of personal conversation, pastoral conversation, was offered, in the thick of daily difficulties.  We shall return this morning, and soon, to the table of grace.

Midweek, this week, we celebrated the faithfulness of a fine man who saw his children grow and marry, who saw a grandchild born.  A most gracious, welcoming man, for whom the chance to meet and greet and listen and speak, to embrace and enjoy were the heart of life.  In eulogy, his son remembered going with Dad to Fenway Park, to see the game, on summer evenings.  He would be dropped at the office, and then would have to wait, cap on head and glove on hand, wait with anxious impatience, as his Dad answered the last phone calls, talked with every office worker, moved slowly out to the car, pausing for luxurious conversation with those above him, below him, beside him, all, in equal measure.  The boy stifled the desire to tug his Dad faster, but as a young man, remembering, he honored the welcoming gift of the his father’s life.  “He was such a welcoming man”

Later this week, in worship and memorial, we reckoned with another life, clergy woman similarly taken after six short decades.  With many of you she exemplified gladness and conscience and presence:  a deep gladness in the engagements of love and care, a hard and true sense of conscience as a built in radar which calls us to heel and to heal, a profound sense of presence, reflecting that Presence in whose Presence there is fullness of joy.  Like all clergy she was a wounded healer, as her teacher Henry Nouwen, reminded an earlier generation.  One’s capacity to help depends one’s candor about personal hurt.  She had something to say because she had been somewhere and seen something herself.  She could see in the dark and bring light to the dim places, because she had been acquainted herself with the dark.

I have been one acquainted with the night
I have walked out in rain and back in rain
I have out walked the furthest city light

I looked down the saddest city lane
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain

I have been one acquainted with the night
(Robert Frost)

This afternoon we shall gather again, to reach for and remember ‘grace for grace’.  We will sing, pray and listen, in particular, as those who know this loss and lack, even in the seasons of joy and light.  We will sing an unfamiliar, hauntingly beautiful carol.  The poem sings of grace which moves, grace with morphs,  grace which meets the different moments of history and life.

God of the Ages, by whose hand
Through years long past our lives were led
Give us new courage now to stand
New faith to find the paths ahead

Thou art the thought beyond all thought
The gift beyond our utmost prayer
No farthest reach where thou art not
No height but we may find thee there

Forgive our wavering trust in thee
Our wild alarms, our trembling fears
In thy strong hand eternally
Rests the unfolding of the years

Though there be dark uncharted space
With worlds on worlds beyond our sight
Still may we trust they love and grace
And wait thy word:  Let there be light.

(Elisabeth Burrowes)

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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