In the Dark Ages, when I was a child, we had a single television in our home. It was the size of a lunar landing craft, receiving distant rays from an antenna array bolted to the roof. The word “remote” referred to distance rather than television, but it didn’t matter. We had only three channel choices and somebody was always willing to jump up to change channels during commercial or bathroom breaks.
Then as now TV is a powerful tool to shape perceptions and attitudes. What did I learn from TV? The aw-shucks kindness of Andy Griffith, and the “good guys always win” narrative of Matt Dillon resonated with me. The Robinsons, always lost in space, frightened me. The Douglas family (“Green Acres”) and the Clampett’s (“Beverly Hillbillies”) confused me—they weren’t “rural” the way we were “rural.” (Though I still nurse a crush for Jethro Bodine.) Archie Bunker and my Dad bore striking resemblances. We kids didn’t watch a lot of television—we had a whole farm to explore—and my mother watched even less. But when “The Billy Graham Crusades” aired, we watched nothing else. I can still hear my Mom singing along with Ethel Waters’ “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and George Beverly Shea’s “How Great Thou Art.”
Rev. Graham’s death this week (at the same age as the patriarch Abraham of whom we will read Sunday) brought a rush of memories. And respect. Though Rev. Graham was part of the evangelical strand of the church, his message about God’s relentless grace and mercy transcended denominational boundaries. I read an obituary in a secular news source that said (my paraphrase), “Rev. Graham was unlike all other evangelical preachers of his time. Their God was angry and judgmental. The God Rev. Graham knew loved sinners and forgave them.”
How fitting that Sunday’s texts would reacquaint us with Abraham and Sarah, the elderly couple to whom God promised progeny and power. (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16) The God who led Abraham and Sarah from the safety of their homeland to a new land was characterized not by demands or judgements, but by magnanimous grace. Without putting any expectations on Abraham, God promised, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations; I will make you exceedingly faithful.” As in so many of the biblical covenants, God does all the heavy lifting with Abraham and Sarah, asking only that they walk with God. (And not giggle. They each laughed to think they would have a child “though as good as dead.”)
Sunday’s epistle reading delivers that same message of grace, but with a hammer. (Romans 4.13-25) Contrary to the assumptions of the Christians in Rome, Abraham was to be revered by them not because he upheld legal commitments but because he trusted God to the point of foolishness—“hoping against hope.” Abraham was a model for the early church of trusting God when there was no evidence to support that decision.
Jesus veers from the path of grace and mercy after Peter completely misreads Jesus’ intent and mission. (Mark 8.31-38) Accusing Peter of being in league with Satan, Jesus turns to the crowds and invites them to submit to death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What? This would have seemed a bizarre request on the face of it, but to ask them to pick up a cross? The cross was an ancient method of execution, like the firing squad or lethal injection in our time. “Take up your electric chair and follow me,” would be a fair corollary. I’d like to hear Rev. Graham soften and shape that message.
Please join us this Sunday, if you are in town. Our Sunday School children will be singing and beading prayer bracelets during Sunday School. We will extend Worship modestly to call our annual meeting to order. We will invite you to take up our Holy Family Lent Challenge to provide a full year’s education cost for three students. And we will learn again of God’s grace and mercy, God’s relentless love of and welcome for sinners.
In another week over-full of news about violence and corruption, the endless capacity of human beings to harm one another and shame themselves, I’ve been grateful for the gift Rev. Graham gave me and my Mom and millions of others—the gift of grace. If you need to be reminded of the mercy of God and share the song in my heart today, log-on to “Just As I Am Billy Graham Crusade Choir” on YouTube.
God welcomes sinners and forgives them. Though unverifiable and completely counter-intuitive, I believe it. Me and Abraham and Sarah.
Pastor JoAnn Post