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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 5, 2018

Saying Grace

Psalm 111; John 6:22-34

            (The opinions expressed in the movie Talladega Nights are not necessarily those of First Presbyterian Church, its pastors, or session!)

            I must confess that I have never seen the Will Ferrell movie, Talladega Nights. I did, however, come across a scene from it on YouTube, and I am sure it’s famous.  Adam assures me that many a pastor has quoted it.  It’s Ricky Bobby saying grace at Sunday dinner.

            Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Hay-zeus, We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always-delicious Taco Bell.

            I just want to take time to say Thank You for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or TR as we call him.  And of course my red hot smokin’ wife, Carly, who is a stone-cold fox...

            When Ricky Bobby’s grace drags on longer than the prayers of the people at First Presbyterian Church on a Sunday, his wife Carly loses her temper and interrupts, “Finish the [dang] grace!” Whereupon his friend goes on a tangent,

            I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt ’cuz it says like, “I wanna be formal but I’m here to party, too,” ’cuz I like to party so I like my Jesus to party.

            And it continues to digress from there before Ricky Bobby concludes with,

            Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God, Amen.

            It’s not exactly the holy moment that Christians experience as we pause at the table, acknowledging something we cannot prove but know deep in our bones, that the God whom we cannot see is the Giver of the food that we can see. Ricky Bobby’s table is a parody of every table where people of faith gather.  It reminds me of Tom Selleck’s table in the T.V. show Blue Bloods, every episode concluding with the question, “Whose turn is it to say grace?”

            Saying grace. It’s so common that Will Ferrell can make you howl with laughter in recognition and in horror. It’s not so common that whenever you witness it, in all its authenticity, it creates holy time and space.  Saying grace: you acknowledge the thin line between heaven and earth, this palpable transcendence, this mysterious presence of God in the very ordinary stuff of life.  It can be as simple as “Bless us O Lord, for these thy gifts,” or as poetic as “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”

            Eugene Peterson says, “Most of the Christian life involves paying attention to who God is and what God does….  If we get too interested too soon in what we do and are, we go off the rails badly.  Still, we are part of [what God does] and need a term to designate the human side of spirituality….”

            For that term, Peterson chooses the compound word we heard in verse ten of Psalm 111: “fear-of-the-Lord.” He says, “It is the stock biblical phrase for the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  No one-word synonym seems adequate.  Only “fear-of-the-Lord” conveys the experience of “walking on holy ground and living in sacred time.”  And, he says, “the primary way we cultivate fear-of-the-Lord is in prayer and worship – personal prayer and corporate worship” (all quotations from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 40-41).

            I got to thinking about this last week because of the question asked of Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus replied enigmatically, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.”  One could conclude from Jesus’ answer that even faith itself, which is in us, comes from outside us.  Faith itself, which we sometimes think of as our response to God, is somehow God’s work in us.  I am not trying to argue about what God contributes to our salvation or what we do; I am trying to acknowledge the same mystery that Jesus expresses after Peter says to him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven did.”  I am trying to acknowledge what Paul tells the Philippians, “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

            How is it that a father and mother can raise their children the same way, with the result that some profess faith and others reject the same faith?  John Calvin would scratch his head as he looked out over his congregation, some of them eagerly lapping up the waters of the Gospel as others nodded off to sleep.

            I want to acknowledge that mystery enough that we avoid flattening faith, avoid treating faith as the simplest thing in the world, something that a person can claim according to some formula, as if God has one part and we have one part and it’s just math: One plus one equals two.  Praising God is not math.  The inspiration to praise God, and the language to praise God, and the holy experience of praising God, do not come by calculation.  Craig Barnes jokes, “When I drive my car over a bridge I want to be certain the engineers who built it weren’t thinking about faith but mathematics.  However, when I come to church for worship I’m hoping there won’t be an engineer in the pulpit” (The Christian Century, 07-18-18).  And trust me, as a pastor I am well aware of the ways in which prayer can go off the rails.  It’s so easy to become Ricky Bobby, praying with great sincerity and absolute blasphemy.  It’s so easy for Christians to turn their prayers into something other than faith, such as acts of defiance against the world.  A few years ago in Western North Carolina, people got so mad about prayers at high school football games that it became a campaign with bumper stickers, “We still pray.”  And I came away with the sense that the campaign was more about fighting with neighbors than communing with God.

            Prayer and worship live in constant threat of domestication.  Faith gets flattened, turned into something manageable and useful for the purposes of those praying.  So, saying grace is complicated.  God forbid, though, that I scare you away from praying!  I just want to point out the help you have as you pray.

            A.J. Jacobs is the secular Jew who wrote a poignant book called, The Year of Living Biblically. In it he confesses to a certain awkwardness with prayer.  He says, “I’d always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward.  The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension.  I am not used to talking like that.  It’s so over the top” (220).  Can you sympathize?  Can you feel it when it’s time for dinner, and someone says, “Whose turn is it to say grace?”  And someone says, “Not me.  I said it last week.”  How does a person get past that awkwardness?  How does God work inside you to create that experience of sacred space and holy ground?

            If the Psalmist is any clue, prayer involves marveling at the works of the Lord.  For the Israelites, prayer began in that miraculous experience of being delivered from slavery out of Egypt, carried through the waters of the Red Sea, fed some unknown food called manna, and made into a nation despite the fact that they crafted a golden calf along the way.  For the Psalmist, it is an openness to retelling a story that still strikes modern people as not history, but fable.

            “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.”  Here is praise for the gift on Mount Sinai of the law that would create a healthy, just, ordered society.  Where would we be without that?  What sort of chaos and anarchy would any people have to endure without the gift of law?  And the Israelites considered it not a human construction, but a gift.  They do not compare and contrast their law with the Code of Hammurabi.  They marvel at how a people who once were no people now are a people, and they live in society according to shared convictions of right and wrong.  And for that they thank God.  Prayer flows from studying the works of the Lord.

            “He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.”  Here is praise for God giving to Israel a promised land, a place of their own, an incarnate expression of law lived in society.  Here is thanks for the chance to demonstrate covenant community in a real place.  Surely the problem of the “holy land” is a vexing one today, as Jews, Christians and Muslims continue to struggle over who has a place in Israel.  But let us draw at least one conclusion: covenant life is more than a doctrine you confess or a political philosophy you ascribe to; covenant life is actual life with actual people.  And the people of God are actual, who worship together, pray together, eat together, serve together.  The people of God are called to justice and mercy and compassion in real life.  Prayer flows from studying the gift of such a life.

            “He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.”  Here is praise for the gift of manna in the wilderness, mysteriously sustaining recently-freed slaves day by day.  And anyone who prays this prayer, Jew or Christian, knows that it means the real food that satisfies our hunger, and symbolic food, spiritual food – because we all believe that a person doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  There is no greater sign of the challenge of faith to trust God for things that seem too wonderful to ask or imagine.  You cannot get manna by doing the math.

            A few weeks ago, Todd quoted Bart Simpson’s shocking table grace from years ago, and it bears repeating.  With Mr. Burns himself as a table guest, Homer invites his young son to say grace.  And Bart blurts out, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”  (I’ll add that on YouTube, there were plenty of comments affirming Bart’s theology, with plenty of “Likes” for the comments.)

            But people of faith actually say grace.  We marvel that the food we see comes from the God we don’t see.  And that there is another food, a mysterious, spiritual food, that also comes from God.

            I sympathize with people who don’t have faith.  I can’t tell you why some do and some don’t.  So I can honestly say that I have sympathy for the people who went to Jesus and said, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  And I am humbled by Jesus’ reply, “This is the work of God, that you believe.”

            I don’t know why I believe.  I can tell you my life story as the son of a minister and a Christian educator, but there are plenty of people with the same story who don’t believe.  And I am not inclined to take the credit for myself.  I am haunted by the words of Jesus’ questioners, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  They’re hungry.  They want to believe, but something gets in the way.  Maybe their desires aren’t right.  Maybe they want to domesticate God or use God in their own ways; I don’t know.  All I know is that what Jesus is saying makes no sense to them.

            This is a dinner invitation of sorts.  It’s an invitation, whether your faith is firm or practically nonexistent, to taste and see that the Lord is good.  I invite you into the “fear-of-the-Lord,” a meditation on who God is and what God does, in ways that defy mathematics.  I invite you to ignore your own awkwardness in prayer, and to pray anyway.  It’s almost like dancing.  You have to forget yourself and let the music carry you.    

            Anne and I saw the movie Christopher Robin on Friday.  It’s a wonderful story not unlike Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, a story about the struggle within Christopher Robin between the boy and the man, the child of wonder and the adult of heavy responsibility, the young one whose imagination can create a world and the grown one whose work as the director of efficiency at his company is constrained by what the math says.  I choose to take it as a parable about openness to faith, a willingness to acknowledge a reality of another category, one that does not fit into the small boxes of life that we ourselves make.

            You may recall that Christopher’s friend Winnie the Pooh describes himself as a “bear of little brain.”  The great fun, and the wonder, of A.A. Milne’s world is that the bear of little brain says some remarkably wise things; and we adults who enter that world feel summoned, somehow, to open up our little brains to things more wonderful than we could have asked, or imagined, or calculated.

            The line between heaven and earth is very thin.  The transcendent God is strangely palpable.  Somehow, God is present in the ordinary stuff of life.  So say your grace.  Give thanks to the Lord with your whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.  And let God open up your life to wonderful things.

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