Bill Leonard: Double-edged Grace: Up Close (and at a Distance)

Leonard_Bill-292x300My church history professor preached this sermon a few weeks ago at Harvard’s Memorial Church.  Bill Leonard is a respected historian and a wonderful preacher.  I have posted the text here, but I encourage you to listen to this recording of Dr. Leonard’s sermon. 

Double-edged Grace: Up Close (and at a Distance)
Luke 19:28-40—Luke 22: 52-62
Memorial Church, Harvard—April 14, 2019
Bill J. Leonard, Wake Forest University

I attended my first serpent handling up a hollow from Berea, Kentucky, one summer when teaching an Appalachian religion course in the area. A friend doing his dissertation on the people who take up serpents invited me to join him for the family-reunion-dinner-on-the-ground-revival-meeting-and-serpent-handling rolled into one. It was outside, thank God, beginning with lots of “hallelujah’s, speaking in tongues, and singing, with guitars and tambourines. I was sitting on a bench a safe distance from the “serpent box” containing 5-6 poisonous snakes. An old man sitting next to me was fully engaged, clad in a kaki shirt with a big pack of Camel cigarettes in the front pocket. When “Bro. Byron,” a Georgia Pentecostal pastor, “took the stand,” he reached into the box and took out a big timber-rattler, saying calmly, “I don’t fear this serpent more than I would a little bitty baby.” As the sermon began, Bro. Byron declared: “All those women who wear them short dresses need to come down here and kneel at the altar.” Old man next to me shouted: “Amen, praise God, Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!” Bro. Byron continued: “All those men who wear them tight jeans need to come and kneel at the altar.” Old man shouted: “Amen, praise God, Hallelujah!” Again Bro. Byron: “All those people who drink that whisky, need to come and kneel at the altar. Old Man: “Amen, praise God, Hallelujah!” Then came the real test: “All those people who smoke them cigarettes, need to come and kneel at the altar.” At that admonition, the man next to me stood up and exclaimed: “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listening!” And off he marched into the woods where he watched the rest of the event “at a distance.”   He reveled in the Holy Ghost and the demands of grace and gospel, until they applied to HIM.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot from Appalachian serpent-handlers. They are what we call “hot gospellers” who “get saved hard,” the ultimate biblical literalists, see Mark chapter 16. They’re not crazy, but they are rather weird. They taught me this: For serpent handlers, the sacrament is alive, and it can kill you. Every time you go to worship it is a matter of life and death. I often think of that at Holy Communion, speaking of body and blood, life and death.

Which brings us, believe it or not, to Palm Sunday and Holy Week in the Gospel and the Church. Jesus of Nazareth enters Jerusalem on “a colt that has never been ridden,” as “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice, shouting out, ‘Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’”   George Buttrick writes of that moment: “Part of the glory of it lay precisely in its lack of restraint. More or less would not serve: it was top to bottom now, altogether: and who was going to worry about what might happen [next]?”[1] That first-century charismatic event was apparently so UN-RESTRAINED that some folks thought the public outbursts of the Jesus crowd had gotten out of hand, insisting he shut it down. Jesus sees it differently. “If these [people] were silent,” he declares, “then the stones would SHOUT out.” Sometimes, when God’s grace comes near, we throw caution to the wind. Joy overtakes us, tempering restraint, at least for the moment.

In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin recalls images from black urban communities in the 1963, a century after Emancipation.  Throughout that volume, Baldwin’s lyrical prose spills over into gospel. He writes that amid racist oppression, “there was . . . a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.  Perhaps we were all of us . . . bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love. . .. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in JAZZ.  In all JAZZ, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.[2]

Baldwin’s imagery captures the wonder and terror of HIS times and OURS, extending to THIS Palm Sunday and Holy Week as “a zest and a joy; a capacity for facing and surviving disaster; a peculiar complex of risks.”  Today, as the road into Jerusalem winds toward Golgotha, the grace of God finds us, or we find grace that is “tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.” Palm Sunday declares that such grace manifested in Jesus of Nazareth, is wondrous and liberating—and we draw as close to it as we can—HOSANNA!

Ironically, however, the same grace that captivates us, can also make us wary, carrying us toward danger, testing our courage, our resolve, and yes, our faith. The grace that has the power to restore or reorient our joy, can turn double-edged at the drop of a hat, or the outbreak of a crisis. Simon Peter found that out as today’s second gospel text tells it. Peter, “Prince of the Apostles,” seems impetuous to a fault, leaving his nets behind when Jesus asked him to fish for persons, and saying whatever popped into his head: “You are the Christ;” “We have left everything to follow you;” “Everyone else may deny you, Jesus, but I won’t;” Present at the first Last Supper, Peter dozed in Gethsemani, saw Jesus get arrested, and carted off to trial. Luke’s commentary is chilling: “But Peter followed AT A DISTANCE,” and soon his words, “I never knew the man,” echo three times across the text. When the words and the moment finally sank in, Luke says, “Peter burst into tears.”

Let’s not put all the blame on Simon Peter. Today, we acknowledge that God’s grace finds us all somewhere between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, up close and at a distance, compelling us, like the old serpent handler to decide what is and what “ain’t,” Bible.  Sometimes we cling to that grace and sometimes we run like, well you know, to get away from its demands. Distance found even Jesus on the cross, remember? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God’s grace IS double edged, isn’t it? Sometimes like Palm Sunday, grace overwhelms, and we shout our unrestrained hosannas as if faith would hold forever. Then life or events descend on us inside or outside; grace gets costly; and faith demands courage; love demands compassion; and hope demands justice. Stunned or endangered by such reality, we may decide to keep our distance. Grace and distance can fall on all of us. History is full of stories.

Sometimes the people who talk the most about grace act in ways that distance themselves from it. History documents such moments. On April 9 this year, the 74th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis, my friend Alan Bean posted an essay entitled, “When Churches Fail: The enduring legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” In it he writes:

“In November 1933, on the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, 20,000 German

Christians held a mass rally celebrating four distinctive beliefs:

  • Adolf Hitler is the completion of the Protestant Reformations tarted by Martin Luther
  • Baptized Jews are to be dismissed from the Church
  • The Old Testament is to be excluded from Sacred Scriptures
  • “Jesus of Nazareth was not a Jew”

Bean comments: “Which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the challenge the Nazi movement posed to the German church had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with theology.  The Christian gospel opens God’s family to all people, regardless of race, gender or nationality.”[3] We’d do well to reflect on that a week after three more African American churches were burned, this time in Louisiana.

We celebrate when God’s grace comes near, not only because of the moment but because of the memory. Sometimes things are so difficult, situations so unjust, societies so unreconcilable, that grace itself seems distant, so we cling to the MEMORY of those Palm Sunday moments and hang on for dear life. Sometimes I show up at worship ready to praise God and give thanks; but sometimes life and distance is too imminent, and I need the memory of grace to sustain. And I need the community of faith to believe FOR me, that grace has come near and will again. With God and each other, we’re all vulnerable.

These days, many folks in our country haven’t distanced themselves from grace as much as from the church, faith communities that claims to be the Body of Christ while elements in both its Catholic and Protestant expressions perpetuated ministerial sexual abuse, while even protecting the abusers. So, this Palm Sunday we join Simon Peter in weeping our way back to grace. Again, James Baldwin offers the operative gospel image, whether he knew it or not, writing of those urban black communities: “We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”[4]  There’s a lot of gospel in that, don’t you think? “Tart and ironic; authoritative and double edged.” A gospel that sounds like jazz and acts like grace. Amen

[1] George Buttrick, Interpreter’s Bible, Luke (NY: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1952), 337.

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: A Dell Book, 1963), 59-60.

[3] Alan Bean, “When Churches Fail: The Abiding Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” FriendsofJustice. blog, November 2018, reposted, Face Book, April 9, 2019.

[4] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 60.