Sermon: “The Final Word is a Word of Grace” (May 8, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Final Word is a Word of Grace” (Revelation 22:21)
May 8, 2016
Dave Johnson

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

On this Mother’s Day I will open with an anecdote from Mitch Albom’s touching 2006 book, For One More Day.  The concept behind this book is if you had one more day to spend with someone whom you love who has died, what would you do?  This book is written from the perspective of a middle aged man named Charley Benetto whose mother has died.  Charley wishes he had one more day to spend with her, and throughout the book he reminisces about their relationship.  One of the episodes entitled “Times My Mother Stood Up for Me” goes like this:

I am nine years old.  I am at the local library.  The woman behind the desk looks over her glasses.  I have chosen 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne.  I like the drawings on the cover and I like the idea of people living under the ocean.  I haven’t looked at how big the words are, or how narrow the print.  The librarian studies me.  My shirt is untucked and one shoe is untied.  “This is too hard for you,” she says.

I watch her put it on a shelf behind her.  It might as well be locked in a vault.  I go back to the children’s section and choose a picture book about a monkey.  I return to the desk.  She stamps this one without a comment.  When my mother drives up, I scramble into the front seat of her car.  She sees the book I’ve chosen.  “Haven’t you read that one already?” she asks.  “The lady wouldn’t let me take the one I wanted.”  “What lady?”  “The librarian lady.”  She turns off the ignition.  “Why wouldn’t she let you take it?”  “She said it was too hard.”  “What was too hard?”  “The book.”

My mother yanks me from the car.  She marches me through the door and up to the desk.  “I’m Mrs. Benetto.  This is my son, Charley.  Did you tell him a book was too hard for him to read?”  The librarian stiffens.  She is much older than my mother, and I am surprised at my mother’s tone, given how she usually talks to old people.

“He wanted to take out 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne,” she says, touching her glasses.  “He’s too young.  Look at him.”  I lower my head.  Look at me.  “Where’s the book?” my mother says.  “I beg your pardon?”  “Where’s the book?”  The woman reaches behind her.  She plops it on the counter, as if to make a point by its heft.  My mother grabs the book and shoves it in my arms.  “Don’t you ever tell a child something’s too hard,” she snaps, “and never—NEVER—this child.”  Next thing I know I am being yanked out the door, hanging tightly to Jules Verne.  I feel like we have just robbed a bank, my mother and me, and I wonder if we’re going to get in trouble (51-52).

Similarly, in Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities the elderly Jarvis Lorry waxes nostalgic about his deceased mother:

As I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning.  It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way.  My heart is touched now by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me” (A Tale of Two Cities, Bantam classic edition, 316)

Today’s New Testament passage from Revelation includes the final verses of the entire Bible, a book to which many hold on as tightly as others do to Jules Verne or Charles Dickens.  At the literal end of the Bible Jesus gives an invitation and a promise:

It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.  I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift….The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon” (22:16-17, 20).

Then the Bible finishes with these words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.  Amen” (22:21).  The Bible that opens with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) ends with, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”  The final word is a word of grace.

While Mother’s Day is happy and celebratory for many, for others it can be awkward or forced.  While for some Mother’s Day evokes gratitude or affection or nostalgia, for others it evokes guilt or sadness or regret.

I recently came across an interview with the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.  The interview was conducted in her California home by Jian Ghomeshi— “You’re a visual artist, you attend art school in Calgary for visual arts, for painting…then you end up in Toronto, how did music become the career?”

She responds, “Because I got pregnant.  I was the only virgin in art school.  I was holding on to this precious thing and I stupidly let it go…so I got called out immediately and I had to create a smokescreen.”  Ghomeshi continues, “So music becomes the smokescreen—you go to Toronto, you have the child, you put the child up for adoption.”  Mitchell replies:

Let’s clear up something that people assume erroneously, that I gave up my daughter to further my career.  This is so wrong…at the time I had her I was destitute, and there was no way I could take her out of the hospital into a blizzard with no job, no roof over my head….But she was beautiful and she found her way into a foster home, and I tried to get work and get a set-up that I could bring her to.  Well, I couldn’t get work in Toronto… I was beset by predators, people who wanted to take advantage of the situation…a lot of human ugliness came at me…you wouldn’t believe the gauntlet you have to run when you’re destitute and in a situation like that.

This happened in 1965, years before Joni Mitchell became a famous singer-songwriter.  It was during the aftermath of this heartbreaking season of her life, that she wrote her classic song “Both Sides, Now.”  In light of what Joni Mitchell had experienced, listen to these familiar lyrics:

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ‘em laughin’ when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

And the final verse…

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
(from her 1969 album Clouds).

Think about your life for a moment.  Like Joni Mitchell, do you have a smokescreen?  Like Mr. Lorry, have your faults been confirmed in you?  Like Charley Benetto, do you need someone to stand up for you?

Jesus, the Morning Star, arises in the darkest hour before the dawn.  Jesus, who has seen both sides now of heaven and hell, both sides now of life and death, both sides now of every smokescreen in your life, still invites you to come and take freely of the water of life as a gift.

In his passion and death a lot of human ugliness came at Jesus—you wouldn’t believe the gauntlet he had to run—but even so, when Jesus had one more day on this earth, he spent it laying down his life on the cross for you.  And at the foot of the cross Jesus’ mother Mary stood up for him.

Back to Joni Mitchell for a moment…over thirty years after giving up her daughter for adoption, she was trying to track down her daughter, not knowing that her daughter was simultaneously trying to track her down.  Over three decades after being separated, Joni and her daughter, Kilauren, reconnected.  In a phone conversation Joni apologized profusely, but Kilauren had already forgiven her.

On March 13, 1997 they met face to face at Joni’s home in California.  After the limousine arrived in the dark, Kilauren, carrying her son Marlin, walked up to the wrong door.  Kilauren said, “I heard a voice coming from above, looked up, and there she was, like Juliet on her balcony.”  Thirty-two years of separation vanished.  “It was very comfortable, very natural,” Kilauren said, “I immediately got the feeling that I was home.”  Perhaps that night Joni felt what she had sung about for all those years—“The dizzy dancing way you feel as every fairy tale comes real.”

The good news of the gospel is that in the same way Kilauren had already forgiven Joni, Jesus has already forgiven you, for all the times you may have stupidly thrown away his precious gifts.  And Jesus’ love can reach through every smokescreen in your life, through all your “tears and fears and feeling proud.”  And his invitation to take freely of the water of life as a gift still stands.

The final word belongs to Jesus Christ—and his final word is a word of grace.

Amen.