Grace for George

March 11, 2012

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Right before the Ash Wednesday service, I heard about George Huguely’s sentence. I’ll be honest – I welled up with tears. I have been praying for George since Yeardley’s death. During the trial I wrote him a letter telling him that I hoped he would feel that he is surrounded by God’s forgiveness, grace and love. I told him that I was praying that he would receive a manslaughter conviction and a lenient sentence. Instead he received a second degree murder charge and 26 years in prison. He’ll get out of prison when he is my age.
     I know there are people who wish George had received a harsher sentence and that justice wasn’t appropriately served. After all, a young life was wasted in the wake of anger and alcohol and jealousy. Well, far be it from me to comment on anyone’s sense of justice or to try to quantify the grief of a lost daughter by the number of years served in prison.
     I also know and believe that there are temporal consequences for our wrong actions. George needed to be held responsible for what he did. There is right and there is wrong: it is the law’s job to regulate and enforce order. Otherwise, given the reality of original sin, society could devolve into a kind of Lord of the Flies anarchy. Anybody who has ever driven in a third world country will come back to America with a new appreciation of highway regulation and state troopers.
   But I will reiterate what I preached the Sunday after the tragedy: any single one of us is capable of what George did. Any of us could be in the courtroom watching our child be led to his seat in handcuffs. The typical response, “How in the world could somebody do such a thing,” fails to understand Jesus’ most basic teaching about human nature: “out of a man’s heart comes all kind of evil.”
     Jesus is not saying that our hearts are entirely given to evil. But as Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
     I also believe that punishing people for the evil actions that come from the heart, though a necessary function of the law, or of parents raising
children, does not rehabilitate. It’s true that “lessons can be learned.” It’s true that experiencing the consequences of one’s actions humbles a person. But punishment has its limits – it alone is not sufficient to really help a person, whether that person be dressed in a prison jumpsuit and ankle cuffs, or that person be a straying spouse, a defiant teenager, or a terrible two.
     As far as I can tell, there is really only one reality that will begin to rehabilitate – or heal a person. And that is the grace of God. God’s grace can and usually needs to be mediated through a human being: a kind father, a compassionate friend, a merciful grandmother, and understanding teacher. The grace of God is based not on the merits of the recipient, but on the character and person of the Lover. It is by nature undeserved.
     This kind of undeserving love always begins with the God who loves us beyond our deserving. It is what we speak of in our Eucharistic prayer as we pray, “Although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.”  Grace, as we say here, is the One Way Love of God toward us and for us.
     The way of grace always opens itself up to the charges of the world. Grace is soft on crime. Grace doesn’t hold people accountable. Grace leads to licentiousness. Grace isn’t for the so-called “real world.” Grace isn’t practical. Grace is messy. Grace doesn’t satisfy justice. Grace is irresponsible.  Grace isn’t prudent or wise. In fact, grace is just plain foolish.
     OK. Grace isn’t wise. Grace is just plain foolish. Well, this doesn’t seem to bother God nearly as much as it bothers us. For as we read in this morning’s lesson from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.
     It’s true that grace doesn’t give you the tidy answers that a justice-seeking world demands. By the way, the justice seekers usually like to limit justice to other people and leave themselves out of it. They usually believe that the line running through their own hearts reveals way more good than evil.
      It’s also true that grace doesn’t shape things up in a let’s put the bad guys over here and the good guys over there kind of way. But it is also true that the Law does not do that either: if it did, why is the world still such a mess?
     God seemed to try that back in Noah’s day with the Flood, but then promised to leave that kind of head-knocking, ledger-keeping, evil-punishing activity behind. That’s what the rainbow in the sky is supposed to remind us of. We read in Genesis, I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
     So, grace isn’t going to leave the world ship-shape, or your family well behaved. Grace doesn’t promise to diminish the oscillating evil side of your heart. But grace will leave room for relationship, for the possibility of the redemptive power of love to bring healing to our lives.
Theologian Robert Capon illuminates the distinction between wisdom of the law (or what he calls direct line, right handed power) and the foolishness of grace (what he calls left-handed power.) “Direct, straight-line intervening power does, of course, have many uses. It is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.” Such is the wisdom of the wise, as we read in our passage.
     Capon continues. “Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight- line power becomes useless. Oh admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from a cliff, but just try interfering with his plans…when he is 20 and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good.
     But further suppose that he does it again anyway – and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can’t shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can’t beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till…But you see the point.
   At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed, unless you – who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed o use straight-line power – simply refuse to use it; unless you decide
that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself.”
 “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The foolishness of the cross is that God, not weighing our merits, decided to deal with punishment by taking the beating Himself. The power of God died on a cross, pardoning our offenses. The Bible says that when Jesus was hanging on the cross, there was darkness over the land and the sun’s light failed. I’ve got to believe that behind those dark clouds hid a rainbow, the sign of God’s grace for the world. Grace for George, grace for you, and grace for me.
 “We proclaim Christ crucified ”, St. Paul says.  Dying on a cross sure sounds like a foolish way for God to deal with the evil line running through the world’s heart. But for us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Amen.

Bible References

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18 - 25

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