"Grits and Grace"

Reflections on Mark 7:24

 

Susan R. Andrews

Pastor, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD

September 19, 1997

Convening Gathering of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Chicago, Illinois


Last March, on the day after Amendment B passed the majority of presbyteries, a journalist in
my congregation called me on the phone. It seems that one of his friends is the commentary
editor for "All Things Considered" on NPR, and they were wondering if I wanted to do a
sixty-second commentary reacting to Amendment B - to be aired that very afternoon. The next
few hours were a blur; but by 4 o'clock, my voice was being heard on radio stations across
the country, expressing my sadness at the rigid and exclusive word that my denomination had
just spoken.

It was a very modest and pretty mild statement; but somehow it struck a chord in hearts
yearning for light in the midst of a very dark moment. I received e-mails, phone calls, notes
from strangers across the land. Three of the responses were negative. But over 100 responses
were positive - grateful that someone else out there was feeling pain and disappointment and
yes, even, shame.

Listen to these voices from the broad center of our church:

An elder in Illinois: "Amendment B leads us to a place where many centrist Presbyterians will
not remain for too long a period of time. Your message spoke for an overwhelming majority
of us who steadfastly believe that church doctrine should be measured against tolerance, love,
compassion, and understanding for all people."

An eighteen-year-old college student from North Carolina: "I am scared for the Presbyterian
Church. All my life, I've been raised to believe that we were about the best that Christianity
had to offer - but not after Amendment B. When people ask me about my religion, I don't
want to mumble 'Presbyterian' like it's a dirty secret; but I feel like someday I may have to. I
am no longer proud to be a Presbyterian."

An elder in Mobile, Alabama: "Your comments confirm my feelings on this matter. I pray for
two of my children as they consider seminary in their futures, hoping they will be able to
focus on the real opportunities of the church and not be caught in debate over who is equal in
the sight of God."

From an usher in Pennsylvania: "Your words on NPR give some of us hope. My partner and I
are approaching the 30-year mark of our monogamous relationship. The people, the pastor,
and our church are wonderful; but it is disturbing to be singled out by the national church and
to be made a 'second- class citizen' because of one's sexuality, which doesn't come with a
choice."

From a pastor in Michigan: "I certainly am not against church officers leading morally
upstanding lives, but this amendment seeks to exclude a select group from the possibility of
ever holding an ordained office unless they first apologize for leading a certain, private
lifestyle. I am a married, heterosexual person, but I do not feel any more qualified or pure than
anyone else."

And from a pastor in Colorado: "Keep the faith. The Holy Spirit is stirring us."

I guess on that early spring afternoon, what people needed was a word of grace.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for grace means "favor." Grace is God's favor,
bestowed upon us when we most need it and perhaps least deserve it. Grace is the
unanticipated, irresistible, extravagant, lavish blessing of God. Grace reminds us that we are
not self-made men and women - that we can't do it or produce it or win it on our own.

Grace works life in us when we are avidly playing the games of death. Grace invites when we
exclude. Grace is the very essence of God incarnated in Jesus Christ - and enfleshed in the
church, which is, of course, us. At its best, the church is grace resurrected and alive in the
world. Whether we like it or not, grace is our gift and grace is our call and grace is our job.

But we are not always at our best. And we are not always graceful. No matter what side of an
issue we are on, if there is no room for the other side, then we have chosen opinion over
openness, we have chosen law over love, we have chosen gravity over grace.

Mark's wonderful story about the Syrophoenician woman has been described by one
commentator as the story of Jesus and the Uppity Woman. Uppity or not, this Gentile, this
outcast, this "other" makes Jesus very uncomfortable. In fact, she uncovers the gracelessness
beneath his facade of grace. According to Mark, Jesus - this lover of the world and healer of
the needy - has all along unconsciously excluded the Gentiles. Yes, even Jesus has excluded
people he does not know, people he does not understand, people who do not seem to "fit" -
and in the process he has denied the very essence of the God he carries in his body.

It takes an odd, feisty woman to change Jesus. It takes this persistent, nagging Gentile to spar,
to test, to tease the grace out of Jesus - to pull him kicking and screaming - into the fullness of
the call that has been burned into his soul. My friends, Mark has given us a wonderful story of
God giving birth to a fuller God through the fragile vessel of humanity.

Last June, in Syracuse, a few uppity commissioners dared to confront our beloved church -
this contemporary embodiment of Christ - with the gracelessness which had been festering
beneath our facade of grace. Decently and in order, through the deliberative ponderings of a
General Assembly committee, some very garden-variety Presbyterians sparred and tested and
teased fresh grace out of the Body of Christ. And with the simple words of Amendment A,
God gave birth to a fuller God through the fragile vessel of humanity.

As an observer, I had the luxury of sitting through all the hearings, all the committee
deliberations, all the floor debate. I watched as openness replaced opinion, as love replaced
law, as grace replaced gravity. Just as the uppity woman changed Jesus' mind, so did a
majority of uppity commissioners change the church's mind.

Grace is not always warm and fuzzy and comfortable. Because grace is unanticipated and
undeserved, we often experience it as jarring or uncomfortable or strange. Scott Peck tells a
story about a Northerner who stopped for breakfast in a country restaurant in the rural part of
North Carolina. He ordered eggs, sausage, and toast. When his plate arrived, he noticed a pile
of gray white lumpy stuff. " What's this?" he asked his waitress. "Why sir, them is grits." But
I didn't order them," he protested." "Oh," the waitress responded, "you don't order grits.
They just come!"

My friends, we don't order grace. It just comes - like a rainbow in the sky, like a light in the
darkness - like a miracle in Syracuse. And when it comes, grace is meant to nourish us body
and soul. I believe that Amendment A is a word of grace to our church, and that we must, with
humble hearts and uppity spirits, make sure that this word becomes flesh in parishes and
presbyteries across this land.

May it be so. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all. Amen.


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