I was thinking about grace this week, that catchall word that we now throw around like a fireman throws candy in a parade. I was thinking about the beauty of grace, which is both the world’s creation and its redemption, both its beginning and its transformation. I was thinking about what grace means for us, the door that appears when we can’t find a way out, the invitation that appears without warning in our locked and bolted rooms. I was thinking, not as much as I should have been thinking, about a nondescript, unremarkable man from Galilee, who walked unseen from a tomb and somehow remains with us in all his strange power, power that comes without violence or intimidation, but with a love that overcomes all his enemies and binds all people into one, despite their own enmities and systems and ideologies. Love is the message of the Reformation, and it means that all the scaffolding we build to climb to God, the torture chambers we endure to prove our worth to God, the spiritual calisthenics we perform to allow ourselves the presumption of speaking to God, are worthless because God has come to us, wherever we are, a locked room, or encircled by despair, or even in the pride of our own strength and intelligence, and has come to speak the words we long to hear but cannot say to ourselves: that God’s love transforms us. That it is written on our hearts, that we can’t prove to God we’re worth it, which is just another way of proving to ourselves that God is worth it. I was thinking of those things, but then I thought of a poem by E.E. Cummings which you may have run across in English 101, or high school, the one that goes like this:
BY E. E. CUMMINGS
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
I carry your heart—I carry it in my heart. There’s a standard critique of E.E. Cummings, that he never really grew as a poet, that he just threw a grenade in the English language and sat there for the rest of his life in a state of suspended artistic adolescence. Which is ok—if you’ve been in love, you know what cummings is talking about here, about carrying another heart in yours, and I suppose having named a feeling almost beyond language means you’ve succeeded as a poet, critics be damned. And I also feel, even though this is a poem about love between two people, it almost tells us the message that all the reformers of the church, from St. Francis to Luther to Kierkegaard to whomever, have all been trying to say—that when it comes to God we’re dealing in matters of love and the heart and things we can adore but can’t understand. And perhaps, finally, it comes down to the Father who says to us, I give you my heart, my Son. Carry him in your heart. Carry my heart in yours.
In the Gospel of John, which we heard today, everything points to the gift of Jesus to the world. For God so loved the world, the Son makes you free. No longer slaves, no longer in the darkness without light, no longer wayward and wandering. Free. There’s a tongue twisting passage later in John, when Jesus prays, saying, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” We carry the name of Christ, we carry the heart of God—God, whose love keeps the stars apart, but makes us one with Christ in love. The son shall make you free indeed, says Jesus today, but the freedom he means is not the freedom of the pioneer on the plains, clearing the land, tilling the field, the scourging of the Indians—this is the kind of freedom we typically imagine as Americans. Self-reliance, independence, dominance. We like to sing that we did it—well, my way. But God’s freedom is different. It is independence that also rejoices in interdependence. It is the kind of freedom that does not detract from the freedom of others but amplifies it and encourages it. It is freedom that a well-loved child enjoys in the home, freedom that citizenship confers on an alien, freedom that comes from home and belonging. How free we can feel when we sit down with people who love us, how free God truly makes us when he gives us his own heart to carry in ours—for when we become one with God as God becomes one with us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Don’t let this language of righteousness and justification we hear today, this language of sin and bondage, fool you. Love is really the root of the root and the bud of the bud of these passages. Sin, righteousness, justification, all these buzzwords of the Reformation, are gates to the love of God. Yes, even sin which cannot separate us from God in the end, since God will leap over the unbridgeable chasm to stand with us. Sometimes we need to explain these things in technical language, which we can do with clear minds, but sometimes we need clear hearts and poetry to tell us truth—sometimes we need language written directly on the heart, and sometimes we need to fall completely into those words, so completely that even the memory of sin, and righteousness, and justification disappear into forgiveness. God’s grace takes those wrongs out of existence even as God brings into existence the beauty and wonder of redemption.
It’s tempting, on Reformation, to break out the protestant flag from its glass case, and wave it around and pledge allegiance to the sound doctrine of the Book of Concord. And of course, I’ve made an oath to preach and teach according to Scripture, the creeds, and the confessions of the church, which we uphold as proper interpretations of Scriptures. But if those things mean anything, if Scripture is at holy, if holiness itself is real and if can both quicken and kill, then I have to tell you that the root of the root and the bud of the bud of every word that comes from Scripture and every true confession the church has ever made comes from the power of God’s love for the world and everything in it, a love that doesn’t ignore the fallenness of all things but rather redeems them in glory and unites them in spirit. If anything true about God can be said, it points to the cross, where love stands before us, with arms spread to welcome the afflictions and falsehoods of the world in order to give love and blessing in exchange. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack