The following post is the transcript of a message given at Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, Portland, Maine, on June 26, 2016 as part of a Rock My Soul performance and service. © 2016 Dawn Boyer. All Rights Reserved.
I’ve been driven mad with frustration at the injustice and unfairness that abounds in this country and this world lately. I have been weeping, and yes, wailing, about too many innocents killed by guns, about the love of money and weapons over our people, about the deaf ear turned by the powerful against the millions who suffer, about the anger and uprising and sense of betrayal by those who are figuring out something is very, very wrong and has been for some time. I have been driven so mad, in fact, that when I tried to write today’s sermon, it was a jumble. So, I surrendered. I know when I’m beaten (well, sometimes, anyway). And when I’m beaten, I turn to those who have made it through.
In this case, I turned to a sermon by an Anglican minister named J. Jeffrey Smead. It’s called “It Is All About Grace / Grace Is The Difference.” And I found that it said exactly what I was trying to get at: The only way out of my madness and frustration is to show mercy to others. I know how the mercy shown to me has changed me at times in my life. I’ll bet it’s changed you, too. Isn’t it the least we can do to pause and remember that we need to pay that forward? With all the anger, the vitriol, the broken trust, the hurt, the blindness, we need mercy these days more than ever, do we not? And even more important, we need to be better at showing it to others. It starts with us. It always starts with us.
Here’s what Smead has to say. I have changed the text in some areas to reflect my own thoughts, but the story is his.
“A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City—which was during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of World War II—was called ‘The Little Flower’ by many New Yorkers because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel.
He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court in an area that served the poorest ward in the city.
LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread.
She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.
But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.
‘It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,’ the shopkeeper told the mayor. ‘She’s got to be punished to teach others around here a lesson.’
He turned to the woman and said, ‘I have to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.’
But even as he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket.
He extracted a bill and tossed it into his hat saying, ‘Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit, and furthermore, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.’
Some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner.
Here is my question: Did the elderly lady in the story get what she deserved?
Clearly the answer is, of course not. She had stolen a loaf of bread.
Yes, she may have had a reason, but stealing is stealing. And regardless of the reason, punishment would seem to be the order of the day.
What we see in this story is called grace.
Grace is when one in superior power shows kindness or mercy to one in a lesser position.
Mayor LaGuardia, rather than demanding punishment of the woman herself, paid the fine and then further helped her cause by collecting the fifty-cent fines and then giving the money to her.
It was more than she deserved. It was grace.
Now, I’m going to go all Christian on you and talk about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
In this parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner that went out and hired workers for his vineyard.
Some he hired early in the day, telling them that he would pay them the usual daily wage.
He went back at various times of the day and found more workers waiting to be hired.
Each time as he hired those that were there, he told them that he would pay them what was right.
We are not told why some had not found work, or if they had shown up at the marketplace late or any other details.
At the end of the day, he came to pay the workers.
He began with the ones most recently hired and he paid them a full daily wage.
That excited those who had been there all day. They thought that surely if he paid the late ones that much he obviously would pay them even more for all their hard work.
Their excitement was short lived.
In fact, they were pretty upset when they got the same pay for working all day as those who only worked an hour.
When the landowner heard them grumbling, he tried to explain that he was not unfair at all. He gave them what they had agreed upon; it was his money, and he could be generous … if that is what he chose to do. (Sound familiar?)
We are not told how the workers responded to his comment. But we can guess.
It would seem that the landowner did not know much about good business, for the next time he went out to hire help, none would go to work until the last hour of the day.
What the landowner also did not know much about was grace.
The workers that came at the end of the day did not get what they deserved–they got mercy.
And mercy is at the heart of grace.
Of course in the parable, the landowner is God, the workers are us, and the pay is the kingdom of heaven.
First of all, the parable says that grace is received, not deserved. For all of us who are people of faith, we know that we do not deserve God’s grace. Nothing that we can do will put us in a position of deserving God’s grace.
All we can do is receive the gift that God offers to us … freely.
No matter who we are, what titles we have, or how much we have, none of it can open the way to God’s grace.
Grace is given freely. What is left for us is to openly receive that grace.
Remember … grace is received, not deserved.
Secondly, and this is important: God’s grace is about mercy … not about fairness.
What would have been fair would be to pay the later workers less than the daily wage, or pay those who had worked all day more than the daily wage. What would have been fair would be to punish the woman who stole the bread.
When we speak about grace, it is about something different than fairness.
It is about mercy. God loves us … and mercifully gives us more than we deserve. Can we not in turn try to do the same to others, especially when it’s hard? Because it’s when it’s hard that it matters.
Smead, J. Jeffrey. “It Is All About Grace / Grace Is the Difference.” http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/it-is-all-about-grace–grace-is-the-difference-j-jeffrey-smead-sermon-on-grace-160550.asp