Sermon: “The Lord is Gracious and Full of Compassion” (February 1, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord is Gracious and Full of Compassion” (Psalm 111:4)
February 1, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Last week NBC aired the series finale of their acclaimed drama Parenthood, centered on the Braverman family who live in northern California. Two of the main characters in this show are Zeke Braverman (played by Craig T. Nelson), the patriarch of this family, and his adult daughter Sarah (played by Lauren Graham). Early in the series Sarah, whose marriage had fallen apart, and her two kids had been invited by Zeke to move back home to regroup. Sarah eventually falls in love with a photographer named Hank (played by Ray Romano), and they are planning to marry. In this series finale, Hank visits Zeke to ask for his blessing.

Hank reveals something to Zeke that he is embarrassed about, his Asperger’s syndrome, and hopes that Zeke is okay with it. Zeke, full of grace and compassion for Hank, reassures him, “If Sarah’s okay with it, I am too.” Hank grins with relief as his embarrassment and apprehension melt away. Zeke gives Hank his blessing and then continues:

“You know, Sarah, of all my kids, she’s been my teacher, you know, she’s the one that in life has taught me the most about unconditional love. She never went after the material things—the clothes, the cars, you know, all that stuff, the money. She was all about love. She was all about really giving her heart to the people she cared about the most.” With his eyes glistening Zeke then makes a request of Hank: “I would just ask that you take care of my daughter and be there for her” (Season 6, episode 13).

Zeke was full of grace and compassion, not just for Hank and Sarah, but for his whole family. And the foundation of his grace and compassion was unconditional love, unconditional love about which he had learned the most from his daughter Sarah.

Today I am preaching on Psalm 111:4—“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.”

When I was a youth minister in my early twenties the church in which I served purchased a brand new Kelly green, fifteen passenger van. That summer we drove from Virginia to Dade County, Florida for a week-long mission trip rebuilding homes that had been damaged by a hurricane. The trip went off without a hitch, and the day after we returned, I took this new van to the carwash.

While I was sitting in the van in the carwash I heard a horrific scraping sound on either side of me, and it lasted for several seconds. “That can’t be good,” I thought. When I drove out of the carwash I parked it and stepped outside to take a look. This brand new Kelly green van now had crooked racing stripes literally carved into it all the way down both sides, fender to fender. I was apoplectic toward myself, and could not believe it, and it was nobody’s fault but mine. I figured I would have to pay for it and began stressing out about that because my youth minister position was not exactly what you would call lucrative.

I drove back to the church, parked the new van with its even newer permanent racing stripes, and went into the administrator’s office. Our administrator’s name was Frank, one of the kindest people with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work. He saw the look on face, “Dave, what’s the matter? Are you okay?” I shook my head, “Can I show you something?” “Sure,” he replied as he arose from behind his desk.

We walked outside to the parking lot. “How’d the trip go?” he asked. “Really well,” I responded. “How did the new van work out for you all?” he continued. I could not even respond. By then we had arrived at the van, his jaw fell open. I gushed, “I’m so sorry, Frank. I took the van to the carwash and didn’t know it was too big for it.”

Frank walked slowly around the van, inspecting both of the new fender to fender racing stripes. I continued, “Frank, I feel like an idiot. I’ll pay to have it fixed. I’m so sorry.” Do you know what he did then? He smiled and gave me a hug, “Don’t worry about it, Dave. It’s all good.” “I’ll pay for it,” I insisted. He shook his head, “No need for that. The van just has a little character now. Don’t worry about it.” No lecture, no outburst of anger, no asking me if I had learned my lesson. We walked back into the church, and Frank never said another word about it to me again, ever. Frank was gracious and full of compassion for me.

A few months ago my Aunt Diana flew down from Ohio to be here for my induction as rector here at Christ Church. She is really kind, has a great sense of humor, and like some of you, she is a cancer survivor. While she was here we went out one evening and had a long life-giving conversation (some conversations are long but not necessarily life-giving ☺). As we talked she shared with me about her cancer.

She told me what it was like losing her hair due to the chemotherapy. Her doctor had encouraged her to get her hair cut short beforehand so that when it began to fall out it would not be so traumatic. A friend of hers from church went with her as she went to get her hair cut. She told me that she was surprised how hard it was for her, surprised that her hands were shaking as she sat in the chair, surprised that she found herself trying not to cry.

And then Aunt Diana was surprised by something else. Her friend who had come with her and was sitting next to her gently took her hand, and held it the entire time as she watched her long locks of hair fall to the floor. Her friend was full of grace and compassion for her—and that grace and compassion made all the difference.

“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,” the psalmist assures us—and Scripture also assures us that grace and compassion permeated, saturated, soaked the earthly ministry of Jesus: “When (Jesus) saw the crowds,” Matthew writes, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

And Jesus is full of grace and compassion for you, founded on his unconditional love for you.

It sounds too good to be true. We expect a lecture from God. We expect an outburst of anger from God. We expect to have to learn our lesson and pay the price to repair the damage we have caused the brand new van of our life. And instead, God gives us grace and compassion; instead God gives us unconditional love. It sounds too good to be true, but it is true—that’s why it’s good news, that’s why it’s the gospel.

In his 2009 book The Furious Longing of God, the late Brennan Manning acknowledges that it can be challenging to believe in this kind of love from God:

“The wild, unrestricted love of God is not simply an inspiring idea. When it imposes itself on mind and heart with the stark reality of ontological truth, it determines why and at what time you get up in the morning, how you pass your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, and who you hang with; it affects what breaks your heart, what amazes you, and what makes you happy…The revolutionary thinking that God loves me as I am and not as I should be requires radical rethinking and profound emotional readjustment…Christians find it easier to believe that God exists than that God loves them” (75-76).

Back to the television show Parenthood for a moment…later in the series finale Zeke and his daughter Sarah are talking on the porch one evening. In the midst of the conversation Zeke pauses and looks at Sarah: “Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite?” he asks. “Dad, come on!” Sarah grins and Zeke continues, “I think instinctively you must know.”

Sarah tries to jump in, “I mean it’s…” but Zeke keeps going, “Well, you’ve gotten away with everything.” “Dad, you don’t have to say that.” Zeke sighs, “You’re my little girl, who’s getting married.” “Again!” Sarah laughs. Zeke laughs too.

They talk about Hank for a moment and then Sarah says, “You know, I don’t think I would have ever found him if you hadn’t let me come home and stay for a while, it just changed everything. Thank you.” “Yeah,” Zeke tries to keep his composure, and asks her, “Have I been a good father?” Sarah nods with tears in her eyes, “The very best” (Season 6, episode 13).

Your Heavenly Father is not just a good father; he is the very best—full of grace and compassion for you, full of unconditional love for you, and you are his favorite.

And that is why he sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for you.

For those of you waiting for a music reference, no rock-and-roll today, a country song this time…“Fall into Me” by Sugarland is a beautiful song about grace and compassion and unconditional love. Instead of imagining Jennifer Nettles singing these lyrics to an audience, imagine Jesus singing these lyrics to you:

When the weight of the world bears down so strong
You leave footprints on the street
And there’s too many miles to face without a few more hours sleep
The storm clouds overhead won’t shed any rain to quench your thirst
I want to be the one you reach for first

When your faith is stretched so thin
That you can see straight through your soul
And you can’t find a nickel to buy a smile ‘cause your pockets all have holes
You want to shut the door and hide before the day can get much worse
I want to be the one you reach for first

Fall into me
My arms are open wide and you don’t have to say a word
‘Cause I already see
That it’s hard and you’re scared and you’re tired and it hurts
And I want to be the one you reach for first

I want to be the bottle you’ve been drinking with your eyes
Or the road you run away on
You’ve been running all your life
The third row pew that you last knew as a child in church
I want to be the one you reach for first…

Fall into me
My arms are open wide and you don’t have to say a word
‘Cause I already see That it’s hard and you’re scared and you’re tired and it hurts
And I want to be the one you reach for first
(from their 2008 album Love on the Inside).

When you reach for Jesus, you will find that he is already reaching for you, with arms open wide with grace and compassion and unconditional love—and that you are invited to come home and stay for a while—and that changes everything.

Amen.