Earlier this summer I was invited by a group of scholars to take part in this incredible consultation on theology in art. And so it took place in the Royal Academy which is this incredible, venerable institution in London. It was founded in the 18th century to help elevate the British people and to give them the values and the aesthetics and the things that should guide them as they took their place in the world around them. It was a magnificent moment and an incredible conversation.
And while I was there, the Director of Graduate Programs, Dr. Anna Dempster, she offered to take me and my family on a personal tour of the Royal Academies collection. They were having a special exhibit to celebrate a certain major anniversary. And so we jumped at the chance and we went into the exhibit, and we saw the place in the Royal Academy where Charles Darwin, in 1858, had given a lecture entitled The Origin of the Species. And we went over a couple of more rooms and we went inside this gallery and there were these two paintings that Dr. Dempster really liked.
Both were by John Everett Millais, who was an amazing painter. One was entitled My First Sermon, and I have that for you in your pews. And you have Millais’ daughter Effie, who was five years old at the time, and this is Millais’ portrait of her going to church for the first time. And so you see little Effie dressed to the nines in a red outfit with a beautiful hat and a nice feather coming out of it. Next to her is an incredible, venerable little prayer book. And she’s got a muffler that’s so she can keep her little hands warm in the midst of that cold church.
And Effie is just atremble with excitement. She is so happy to be there, and so ready to take on the obligations of being an adult Christian. And then when this painting came out, it came out at a special dinner, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to make remarks about the painting. His name was George Longley, and people loved him. And George said that Effie was a kind of emblem of true piety.
Millais then paints another painting called My Second Sermon, and this is on the flip side. And there you have Effie at her second sermon. In reality she had aged about two years, but that didn’t really matter because she still looked pretty much the same. And she’s wearing the same incredible red outfit, but Effie has just been knocked flat unconscious by the sermon. She is completely dead to the world. Her little hat has been taken off and placed on the pew beside her, and she is just at rest in that piece, completely having forgotten herself.
And my research has not shown that the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to that dinner for that showing of that painting. But he was approached by a member of the press, and being a good Archbishop and being a person with a good sense of humor, the Archbishop said well, this is a warning to us all not to preach long sermons, and to keep our prose lively.
Now when Dr. Dempster saw this – and I guess when she met me she thought this would be the perfect meeting between priest and paintings. And she said, “I hope this doesn’t offend you?” And in truth I wasn’t at all offended. I wasn’t even disturbed by it, because I was drawn so powerfully to the picture of Effie sleeping. And I suddenly had this kind of minor epiphany where I gave thanks to God that I serve a church that is Christ Church Cranbrook where a child would be welcomed, and affirmed, and included, and would be loved. And would be able to fall asleep safely.
And I became so incredibly proud of this church, and so willing to live up to the obligations of caring for that sleeping child. And then as I reflected on these two paintings, I thought about how these two paintings seemed to speak to two facets of the spiritual life, two incredibly important things for us to keep in mind this year as we begin our program year, and this year as we celebrate our 90th anniversary. Because one of the ways you can look at these two paintings is to see them as a whole, and not as discrete moments.
And the Effie who is sitting in her first sermon, she is so eager to please, she is so eager to occupy the place that has been prepared for her in the world, she is so eager to get things right. She looks, for all the world, that she could be auditioning for a new movie called Crazy Rich Caucasians. This Effie can be described in many ways as an emblem, not just of piety, but the law. And by the law I mean every kind of external authority that is applied to you from outside.
The law is not just what you read in the Bible or see in the Ten Commandments, but the law is every single obligation that is placed upon you from outside. Every measure that you are measured against. Every rule that you need to follow, every kind of expectation that you must fulfill. And all of us know what that law looks like, not only in our religious writings, but also in the world around us, we are surrounded by expectations. We are surrounded by rules. We are surrounded by obligations that are placed upon us by our society. And laws can be good.
But laws always tend to bring a kind of death in us, because we never fulfill the obligations of the law. We never get it right. We never are satisfied with the expectations that are placed upon us. Laws always kill us in the end. And the portrait of Effie in My Second Sermon, well that to me is a portrait of grace. Because in that moment Effie has completely forgotten who she is. Effie only knows that she is safe and secure, and loved and accepted. And that this church, for her, will be her home – a second home, a place of growth and enjoyment and relationship.
And grace can mean lots of things. Grace can mean, of course, mercy – the moment in which God chooses not to give us what we deserve. But grace is more than just mercy, grace is a larger category, a larger relationship. It’s more than just getting what we don’t deserve, but it’s also God’s presence in our lives – God’s healing relationship in us. God working in us, and through us, in spite of us. Grace is love in action. Grace is God with us. Grace is God’s working out in us all that we need to be in a right relationship with God.
Grace is God crossing the distance between us and God so that we would know God, and God would know us. And that’s good news. That’s gospel. And if we were to ask what made Christianity unique as a religion, it’s not the fact that we have laws, it’s the fact that we have grace. We have the grace that is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ who was unwilling and willing to suffer all things so that we could be reconciled to God. And as we come to our 90th anniversary, we have to keep all of that in mind because the founders of this parish wanted us to get that message of grace.
On the back of the church or at the entrance of the church as you come in there are two incredible tapestries. You sometimes don’t even look up to see them, but they were composed only a few years after Millais painted these paintings. And on the right of the church there is a tapestry that says that’s known as the Rule of Law. And on the left as you walk in, you see another tapestry that is the Rule of Love.
So when this congregation was founded, the founders wanted the worshippers to walk through that doorway through those two rules of law and love, and be pointed directly towards this altar where they would experience grace. So grace is key. The law indeed you have through Moses we read in the Gospel of John. But grace and truth have come through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. By grace you have been saved through faith, Paul writes in Ephesians. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not the result of works so that no one may boast.
All of our readings for today speak in one way or another about grace. In our reading from Isaiah, you have a depiction of the people of God lost in exile thinking that they were alone and that there was no way they could ever make the journey back to Jerusalem, make the journey back to the Promised Land. And grace comes to them as the promise of God which says I am here with you in exile. And grace comes to them as the presence of God and the power of God to heal them, and to make the way back passable and something that they can cross.
And in our reading from the Letter of James, it’s an incredible epistle in which James is confronting a congregation that is allowing the distinctions of the world around them to seep into the way the church does its business – the rich are getting special treatment, the poor are not. And moreover, the poor are being forgotten. And James is speaking about a kind of love and a kind of liberation and a kind of life that comes when we live by grace. It is easy to lose James’ point in the fact that he speaks about law.
But the point of this passage is to say that we have been redeemed by the love of God. So that when we love each other as we love ourselves, we begin to step into a kind of life-giving relationship in which there are no distinctions. We become able to step into the generosity, so that we can share our possessions and reach out to the poor. So that we can become the people of God, and faith, and life, and hope, and grace.
And finally, in our gospel for today we have an incredible moment in which Jesus has traveled outside of Jewish territory and is along on the coast north of Israel in Tyre. And He is approached by this woman who has asked him to help and begged him to help to heal her child. The woman is Syrophoenician which is what we read in the Greek itself, and that is meant to position her ethnically, and racially, and religiously.
And the fact that Jesus was being approached by a woman was crossing yet another divide, because in that culture, women did not approach men unless there had been an introduction. Men did not talk to women they weren’t married to or somehow engaged with formally. So in today’s gospel you have all of these divisions. And Jesus himself in the gospel seems to reinforce these divisions when he first says to the woman, it is not right for me to share the bread that is meant for children with dogs.
But the woman has grace, and full of grace she says, yet even the dogs gather at the crumbs under the master’s table. And in that moment all of the divisions between Jesus and that woman disappear. And in that moment there is healing, there is reconciliation, and there is renewal. And grace for us also is often a moment of healing and reconciliation and renewal. Grace is often like the healing that happens in the second part of our reading today from the gospel. It’s when our ears finally are open, our tongue is finally untied, when our hearts are finally broken open by the God who loves us, and the God who changes us, whose mercy is why.
In 2015, Pope Francis declared for the Roman Catholic Church a year of mercy. I want to be bold today and declare for this year and our 90th anniversary, a year of grace. Theologians once argued that grace happened before you, grace came to you in the moment in which Christ died for you, grace works through you through the Holy Spirit. And all of this I think is a way of trying to tell us that grace is everywhere when you are a Christian. When you are in right relationship with God, grace is everywhere.
And grace is not merely internal, I’m not talking about a change in attitude, but rather a movement into relationship in which God works in you from the inside to the outside. Years ago I had a parishioner who became a friend. His name was Andrew and he was working for Frank Stella, an incredible artist, he was in his shop. So anything that Frank Stella drew up on a napkin, Andrew had to put into practice and build.
Andrew belonged to the church I was serving in New York City at the time. He was 6’2”, he had long hair. His mother was Chinese and his father was from Tennessee. He dressed like an artist, and most of the women in the parish found him pretty irresistible. But he always kept his distance. And one time he asked me to go for a drive with him in his car – which describing this as a car is a bit of a stretch. It was a pickup truck that he somehow had repaired and cobbled together. I swear there was a log for the front bumper.
And somehow he would just take it out at night and he wouldn’t get picked up for inspection in New York City. And so he showed up and he picked me up and we’re driving through Manhattan, and he keeps on saying, “You know it’s just so difficult. I don’t know if this is it or not. It’s really – I’ve been thinking about it for years.” And finally I said, “Andrew, what is it? I need an antecedent. What is it?”
And then he told me that it was a story. He had been dating a young woman who was from one of the prominent members of the parish. And she became pregnant, and Andrew was willing to step in to take responsibility for the child, but her family thought it would not be right. And so they intervened and talked her into getting an abortion, and then the relationship fell apart. And Andrew was not questioning whether or not his girlfriend had a right to do what she wanted with her body, but he had been devastated by that experience.
He felt so excluded. And he wondered if it was because of who he was, or what he looked like that the parish had suddenly thought there was no way they could raise a child together. And Andrew had met a woman only a few months ago, and she had a son – she was a single mother. And the son was the exact age to the month as the child that he had originally conceived with his girlfriend. And so the ‘it’ that he wanted to know was whether or not this child in this relationship with this new woman would be the shape of God’s grace in his life. Was this it? Was this my way of finding my way again?
And Andrew stepped into that relationship. And they were married and he became a father to his step-son. And God began to work healing in his life. And he and his wife have been married for nearly 20 years now. And Andrew has become immensely successful. And why that pleases me must be because God is not finished with me. But I am happy for them and He has taught me what grace looks like. What does grace look like for you?