- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – Mark 3:20-35
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
You can tell that pastors are really fired up about something when they write an open letter. I’ve signed my fair share of them over the years, and God knows there is more than enough to get fired up about. Headlines alone would keep us occupied full-time with all the letters to write. While I’m not sure that pastors’ letters have as much moral weight or social impact as they once did, they are still worthwhile. There’s a letter I’ve been thinking about writing. It’s over a fairly quiet headline from a few months ago. Did you hear that the company L.L. Bean changed it’s legendary return policy? This might matter more to preachers than to anyone else. Because when the company changed it’s policy, it ruined a near perfect metaphor for grace. God’s grace is not the easiest thing to understand or explain, and thanks a lot to the company’s new policy, it’s now even harder.
Preachers had it so great. The policy was a spot-on illustration of the gospel, and I know I’m not the only preacher to use it. Back in 1912 when the company was founded, in order to promote loyalty and confidence in his customers, Mr. Bean himself coined the store’s now legendary guarantee: “Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L. Bean that is not completely satisfactory.” For over 100 years, the company firmly stood by the founder’s promise. What became an urban legend was actually true: you could take anything you’ve ever purchased from L.L. Bean and return it at any time for any reason and receive store credit. You can see what was destined to happen.
Not surprisingly, there was an ethical spectrum when it came to the returns. Employees report that they got all kinds. Some people came in with legitimate returns, like a recently purchased turtleneck that was the wrong size. But others pushed the limits of the guarantee in outrageous ways. The best story is about a dissatisfied customer came back carrying a broken Adirondack chair just an hour after purchasing it. He wanted a new one, not because the chair was defective but because he did a pretty bad job of tying it the top of his car and it fell off on the highway. There seemed to be no limit to what people would try to return, like old bedding, slippers so long loved that they were falling apart, obviously used camping equipment, and my favorite, even a half-eaten cookie from the snack counter. People would pick up stuff at thrift stores or eBay and trade it in for full credit. One older gentleman brought in some shirts and said the stitching was coming undone. Turns out he had worn them for 40 years. He was issued store credit for new shirts. L.L. Bean took it all back with a smile, under that incredibly loose parameter of customer satisfaction (This American Life).
Everyone said the policy was crazy, but the company held out for a long time. Recently, however, under the pressure of the ways of the world instead of divine grace, you know, because it’s a company with a bottom line and not an actual dispenser of divine grace, they have now changed it. Returns can only be made within one year, and you need proof of purchase. Products may also be returned because of a defect based on materials or construction, not wear and tear for 40 years. It’s the end of an era.
Sadly, we have lost a perfect metaphor for grace that’s truly unconditional. But with the policy change, we gain a helpful example of how the world pushes back against grace. Which is the problem we see in today’s strange passage from Mark’s gospel. Before this scene, Jesus had been widening the circle, expanding the definition of who’s included in grace. He hung out with the wrong people, welcomed the unclean and undesirable, cast out demons, healed on the sabbath, and claimed an authority no one thought he earned. And the system was starting to push back. So, by the end of just three short chapters, Jesus’ own family thinks he’s crazy, the scribes think he’s possessed by the devil, and Jesus’ patience is starting to wear thin. Today we hear his rebuttal. The satan talk is nonsense. His family is anyone who does the will of God, and those who think he’s possessed by an evil spirit are really the ones blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Robert Capon). And in language that is strange to our ears and to the gospel of grace, he says that the last part is an unforgivable sin. Forgiveness will be granted to all sins except that one. Grace applies to everyone except those who speak against the Spirit. That sounds like a change in policy, like a clause added to reign in something that had been universal and maybe excessive. Why so harsh with that one sin, blaspheming against the Spirit?
Maybe we need to look at that slice of humanity at the L.L. Bean returns desk to find the answer. In walks everybody, the cheaters, the ones trying to follow rules, and the ones who have fallen on hard times. Tattered lives, tattered merchandise, even tattered ethics. And they are, or rather, were all rewarded with store credit. That’s how grace works. Whether it’s a lost sheep, a tax collector or sinner, a prodigal son or someone scamming the system with old slippers at the store, God seeks that person out and rejoices. Parable after parable, sermon after sermon, it’s the guarantee. It’s the gospel. Blasphemy is when we try to argue that God doesn’t have the right to be so generous.
If we’re honest, we are all prone to be grumblers, the ones who probably would have no business being an employee behind the returns counter because we are filled with too much judgment of others. The scribes started grumbling that Jesus was widening the circle too far. They wanted to be the arbiters of grace, deciders of who’s in and who’s out, even whether God’s own Son could be included. That’s the blasphemy. When grace is reaching further than before, the only unforgivable sin is to get in God’s way. While those around him grumbled, Jesus said essentially, Look, they’re all in, the lost and the least, even that one with the half-eaten cookie. When the good shepherd found the lost sheep, he said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” We are the ones who keep ourselves outside of that joy with our judgmental hearts. But we don’t have to. The circle is widening, even wide enough for us.
As followers of Jesus, let’s model something different than the cold judgments and normal calculations of this world. While earthly policies become stingier, heartbreakingly so, we can hold on to that Jesus-view of the returns desk. We can see our common brokenness and our common redemption. Who doesn’t need to hear that we are all being searched for by the one who loves the lost? And who doesn’t need to hear that when each of us is found, there will be no questions, no conditions? The heavens simply rejoice and say, “We’ll take you all.”
I probably won’t write an open letter to L.L. Bean for changing their return policy. There are more pressing issues after all. But the updated policy can remind us that the church is not a company. Unlike store credit, we are not the arbiters of grace. Today’s gospel tells us that grace moves through the world beyond our control or narrow-mindedness. The circle of who’s included in that grace keeps widening. In a moment, it will widen a bit more to welcome little Joseph through baptism. It’s a joyful occasion for Christ Church, and the heavens will surely rejoice with us. I pray that as Joseph grows up and comes to know Christ, he, like us, will learn that the only thing not welcome here is hardness of heart. That’s the one thing we must not return to a God of grace.