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“The Grammar of Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“The Grammar of Grace”
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 12, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan

Miss Ball was my eighth-grade English teacher, the best I ever had.  She forced us to diagram sentences, learn all the prepositions by memory, and know how to use who and whom, he and him, and she and her, properly.  Eleanor Ball did not suffer fools gladly: she once told me, before an assembled throng of fourteen year-olders, that I was the poorest English student of the entire Miller clan and that included my parents and sister, aunts and uncle.

If you had a teacher like Miss Ball, you were drilled in the figures of speech: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia.  I particularly struggled with remembering the difference between metaphor, simile, and hyperbole.  I will not bore you with the specifics but I invite you to review what Miss Ball said about hyberbole: “Hyperbole is an extravagant statement used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.”

Here are a few hyperboles: “If you insult a brother or sister…and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”

I, at least, pray Jesus was overstating the case here just to turn us from sin.

I wonder if this is hyberbole: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  If this is not stretching the case for effect, I am fearful you will soon be running off to make up with your sisters and brothers and never return to put your offering in the plate.  I fear attendance at Holy Communion will be pretty sparse!

Here’s why this all seems hyperbole to me.  Martin Luther teaches us, over and over again, that we cannot be perfect.  One of the primary reasons we teach our children the Ten Commandments is not so much to make them good little girls and boys but more to the point to help them realize they are hopeless sinners in need of God’s grace.

It is so tough to admit we are sinners.  We easily point our finger at others—you are a miserable sinner!—but it is another matter altogether to point that same finger at ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, “Life Together,” writes: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!”

Could it be that Jesus wants to shock us, scare us straight, so we know, without a doubt, that we cannot achieve perfection—even if we so desperately want to?

Church folks find it hard to admit to imperfection.  There are some groups, however, that are pretty good at this.  If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know that recovering alcoholics admit their shortcomings the moment the meeting begins, “Hello, I am Scotty and I am an alcoholic.” AAers are well versed in the twelve steps because they are read at every meeting.  Here are steps one and two: 1-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2-We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Do you know anyone who possesses such courage—elegance?—to admit their lives are unmanageable, that they need something beyond themselves—like God—to turn their lives around?

I recently saw such a person.  Patti Smith is, we might say, the 71-year old punk rock queen-mother of New York; she is also a serious author who has written the National Book Award winner, “Just Kids,” and my favorite, “M Train.”  She represented Bob Dylan at the recent Nobel Prize awards on December 10.  She sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song she has known since she was a teen-ager.

Patti Smith writes: “Every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line…I sang the words to myself, over and over…I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.

“….And then suddenly it was time…As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding…I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen…

“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them…Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue…

“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure…”

If you have not seen Patti Smith’s performance that night in Stockholm, Sweden, I beg you to go to YouTube.  You will witness a beautiful woman, not because of her perfection but because of the depths of her fragile nature.  As she sings and stumbles and is repeatedly rendered speechless and apologetic, the camera sweeps the audience and catches a woman in the audience so deeply moved by Patti Smith’s stunning humanity that she is wiping away tears.  You might call that a moment of grace, an occasion when someone is rendered beautiful not because of make-believe perfection but because of the profound honesty that she needs something more to help her get through the night.

I believe Jesus uses hyperbole, shocking stuff like plucking out eyes, chopping off hands, and sending people straight to hell fire, so we might all realize we are God’s beautiful, precious children.  I pray that this place’s deepest glory will come as we witness one another’s brokenness being bathed in the forgiving waters of heavenly grace.  If we do this, others will pass by here and be moved by tears because they will see just how much God loves us…and them, too.