Grace and Peace to you. But I will come back to those words in a few minutes.
I want to begin by telling you about my response to receiving the letter, which invited me to preach this sermon, in this place, on Maine day. I must confess that when my wife picked the letter out of the mail box, and we drove down the driveway to our house, she told me that there was a letter from the National Cathedral. I responded quickly, “It must be a fund raising letter.” As soon as we got into the garage, she asked, “Aren’t you going to open the letter?” I don’t usually open my mail in the garage, but, to humor her, I opened the envelope and began reading the letter. When I got to the part that said, “We would be pleased and honored if you would accept this invitation to preach the sermon on that occasion,” for just a moment I was speechless. Within minutes a series of responses formed in my mind. First there was the disbelief that I should be invited to represent the Great State of Maine at this event. It was just so, “out of the blue.” In addition to that, I know lots of preachers throughout Maine who are fine preachers and deserve this honor more than I do. Many of them are more eloquent, more prophetic and just better preachers.
My second response was one of growing apprehension. What do I have to say that would be appropriate for this occasion? What about preaching to our congressional delegation? What if the President should be here on this anniversary Sunday of September 11, 2001?
In response to my fears, I might add, I turned quickly to the scripture lessons for the day. I was amazed to discover that they were all about forgiveness. That started me on the road to this message.
After a week or two, as I began to settle into the idea that this invitation was real, not a dream, and I was going to come to Washington to preach, a modest confidence began to appear. I reminded myself that throughout my ministry I have tried to communicate words of grace for more than 40 years. While I have preached about controversial matters within our society and our world, they have not been the good news which God has ordained me to preach.
So, let me say again, “Grace and peace to you!” I am convinced that in one way or another these words need to be shared in every service of worship that takes place within the Church. Every time that we gather to worship God we need to be reminded of the forgiveness, which is available from God. The heart of every worship service is the gratitude which we offer to God for the forgiveness and grace which God offers to us. We sing our hymns, offer our prayers, read the old texts, and make our offerings because of what God has done for us.
For those of us who are Christians, Jesus the Christ is the ultimate symbol of God’s willingness to go to any length to demonstrate God’s love for us. For Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and others there are other symbols. But, here in this place of Christian worship we acknowledge that God gave us Jesus to provide for our reconciliation with God. What can separate us from God? Paul says, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”
I want to share a story with you. Some of you have heard me tell this story before, but, I want to tell it again. It was a Saturday morning and my 16-year-old son was playing basketball at the YMCA in Augusta, Maine. I was in the bleachers watching the game, about 22 years ago. Jim’s team had done very well that season. They had played almost every team in their league and had won every game. They were now playing the last team that they would face. If they could beat this team, there was a very high probability that they would win the league championship. I should mention that the key to their success had been their defensive play. They kept their hands up. They played close to their opponents, and they made it very difficult for the other teams to get good shots.
It only took about 10 minutes to see the direction the game was taking. Jim’s team had complete control of the game. It was as one sided a game as I had seen in a long time. Actually, it wasn’t much fun to watch. Then an interesting conversation got my attention. Two boys behind me had begun to talk. “Look,” one of them said, “the coach is going to put Petey in.” “Wow,” the other boy said, “Petey hasn’t played all season.” Now at that time Roger Katz and I coached a peewee team, and I knew that YMCA rules required that every player play at least one period of a game. How could it be that Petey hadn’t played in a single game?
Then I looked across the court and saw Petey kneeling by the scorer’s table, waiting anxiously to get into his first game. When a whistle was blown, the scorer buzzed Petey into the game. It was immediately apparent that Petey had some kind of handicapping condition. I don’t know if it was a physical or a mental condition, but Petey was not able to play basketball at the same level as the other nine players on the court.
When a basket was scored, the other nine players would race to the other end of the court. Petey would half run and half stumble toward the end where everyone else was playing. Soon another basket would be scored, or the ball would be stolen by the other team. By the time Petey got to that end of the court, play would have been completed and the players were racing to the opposite end. Petey was literally not able to keep up.
But, a strange thing happened. Quite by coincidence, Petey eventually ended up at the right end of the court and was standing, watching his teammates passing the ball back and forth in an effort to get a decent chance to score a basket. Then, and I’m convinced it was a mistake, someone passed the ball to Petey. He caught the ball and just stood there. Now, as he stood there, it was a little bit like time stopping. Every kid on my son’s team stopped playing basketball and watched. They forgot all about the defensive play which had brought them to this point. They put their hands down. They didn’t take the ball which was being held out in front of them. They just watched. During the same period, the referees forgot the rules. They didn’t keep track of how long Petey stood there. They didn’t watch to see if he traveled with the ball. They too, just watched. And, no one on Petey’s team tried to get the ball back from Petey.
Then someone from either the bench or the stands where we were sitting, called out, “Shoot the ball, Petey, shoot the ball.” Petey remembered what he was supposed to do, he walked a couple of steps toward the basket (without bothering to dribble the ball) and threw the ball up toward the hoop. It didn’t go anywhere near the basket, and soon my son’s team was racing toward their basket to score two more points.
The next time Petey’s team brought the ball down the court, someone shouted out, “Give it to Petey.” I suppose that since the game was so far out of reach, his teammates concluded, “Why not?” Someone threw the ball to Petey. Once again it was a little like time stopped in the game. Petey walked closer to the basket and threw the ball up in the air. Again, someone caught the ball and raced to the other end of the court to score a basket. The third time no one needed to call anything out from the bench. Someone gave the ball to Petey and the scenario was repeated. The sixth time that it happened, the ball went through the hoop. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Petey had scored his first basket in a real basketball game. And everyone in that gym was a winner as they witnessed that event.
After the game was over I couldn’t get that event out of my mind. Day after day, I found myself thinking about it, reflecting on it, and trying to understand what had taken place. Then it came to me. The drama which had unfolded so beautifully before our eyes was a parable of my life.
I saw a kid who was ill equipped to play basketball on a high school YMCA team, be given a chance to score a basket. There was no way that he should have scored a basket. But, as a matter of fact a group of people conspired to let him achieve a goal that he didn’t really deserve. The so-called, opposition, let him take shot after shot. The referees suspended the rules. And the community at large cheered him on when he was clearly the worst player on the court.
That’s my story. When I was kid growing up, in Brooklyn, New York, I put myself in places where I didn’t deserve to succeed. But others conspired to let me achieve goals that I simply couldn’t reach by myself. There were times when adults interceded on my behalf, times when it seemed that the rules were suspended, and, countless times when the community cheered me on in spite of my failures. People who could have stopped me, didn’t do so. I succeeded not because of who I was, but in spite of whom I was.
As a matter of fact, in one way or another, that story is everyone’s story. None of us deserve to be where we are. All of us have been helped by others, including our parents, friends, and even strangers.
It is a story of grace. It’s a reminder of how much God loves us in spite of our bad choices. It is another way of offering one more chance to accept God’s gift and to make things right with God.
I leave it up to you to make any applications of this concept of forgiveness and grace to interpersonal, community, national and international situations. The idea of forgiving those who have attacked us and murdered our loved ones is beyond reason. The thought of trying to get beyond the terrible acts of nine eleven, and to seek to respond to the conditions which lead to such acts, is not natural. And the ability to move on, when we have been wounded so severely is beyond a normal human response.
The Lessons from Scripture remind us of the importance of forgiveness. God’s grace is a gift which keeps on giving forgiveness from generation to generation. I pray that you accept the gift, and that you offer in to all who need it.
Grace and Peace to you!