There’s a teacher named Ben Zander who works with anxious, perfectionist music students at the New England Conservatory. These students believe the stakes are extremely high as they seek careers as professional musicians. Tired of his students’ chronic state of anxiety and unwillingness to take risks, Ben came up with an experiment. At the beginning of a school year, he told his musical performance course, “Each student in this class will get an A for the course. There is one requirement: in the next two weeks, write me a letter, dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…’ and in this letter tell with as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.”
This is before the first assignment – well, this is the first assignment – and they already get an A if they can just imagine the course has ended and they have earned that A. He asked his students to put themselves in the future, as the student, musician, person they long to be, and look back on the school year to imagine how they got there. Don’t use phrases like “I hope” or “I intend,” he told them, just fall in love with the person you will be in May and declare how you became that person.
The experiment was an absolute success. One student wrote to Ben as her future self, “I got my A because I had the courage to examine my fears and I realized that they have no place in my life. I changed from someone who was scared to make a mistake in case she was noticed to someone who knows that she has a contribution to make to other people, musically and personally. I have changed from desiring inconsequentiality and anonymity to accepting the joy that comes from knowing that my music changes the world.” She hadn't even done the work yet, but the freedom of being given an A was all she needed to see the change she longed for, and then live into that change.
The experiment was a success for the students, and also for Ben. A classful of A students – that’s a teacher’s dream! Giving an A from the very beginning brought out the best in the students, and the class became a place and time of respite, risk and reward. A classful of A students encouraged one another. Without the competition of more traditional grading systems, the students came to trust one another and contribute to each other’s growth.
Getting an A from the start is grace. What fears could we release if we had the gift of getting an A? Of knowing that the one who walks alongside us through this life has given us an A, has created us and called us “good,” has delighted in the fullness of who we are? “If you knew Who walks beside you on the way that you have chosen, fear would be impossible,” wrote Helen Schulman. Maybe the One walking beside you is God. Maybe you call on the name of Jesus. Maybe the spirit of an ancestor or a guardian angel journeys with you. Maybe the One walking beside you is a living person who loves you unconditionally, truly, who loves you with absolute grace. It’s all God, we just have different ways of finding, feeling and naming God at our side. “If you know Who walks beside you on the way that you have chosen, fear is impossible.”
Paul understood that One to be God, revealed in Jesus. He wrote “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith--and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.” It’s like getting an A, from the beginning of the class, not as a reward for something we have done, but because we are Divinely created works of art. Our very nature and being get an A.
The gift of grace, of getting an A, is a paradox. Just like the students in Ben’s class, when we know we have an A we have the confidence and creativity to beam our A selves into this world. As Ben’s students imagined and put to paper the details of their own beaming – as musicians, students and people – they invited their own glory into the world.
Who or what has been the Ben in your life? Who has given you permission to see yourself as excellent? Who urges you to believe in your own worth? For many people, God is the giver of grace, the unconditional lover. The irony is that we’ve also turned God into the ultimate judge, the ruthless punisher, the One to fear. We gather here to resist dangerous and damaging theology. We gather here to cultivate the witness and wisdom of liberation and healing. As we seek to love ourselves and one another as best we can, let us celebrate a loving God who delights in our beings, who lavishes us with As, who graces us because we are worthy, not because we earn it. We are wholly beloved without lifting a finger, uttering a word, or making a choice.
This love and this grace, we read in Ephesians, is not a “reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
And the story doesn’t end there. Just like Ben’s students joyfully do excellent, A-level work in the musical performance class, we respond to God’s grace by becoming the best of ourselves. We get grace even when we aren’t our best, but our natural response is to be what we’re expected to be, to meet our own expectations and others’ expectations of us.
Like Robert Rosenthal’s research in education shows us. He gave elementary school students an IQ test and then randomly selected a few from each class, not based on their scores, simply at random. He told their teachers that these students were on the verge of becoming gifted students—that he expected their IQs to jump ahead in the coming year. At the end of the year, they had! Students who had randomly been labeled on-the-verge-of-gifted had higher IQ increases than their classmates.
And it wasn’t a coincidence, he’s done this experiment many times and found the same result.
So just what happens in those classrooms because of Rosenthal’s predictions? There are all sorts of subtle ways that teachers change their behavior. Say Harry is one of the randomly assigned on-the-verge-of-gifted students. Harry’s teacher asks him a question about the homework, and he’s having trouble coming up with an answer. The week before the teacher would’ve just called on Sally instead to save time, but now the teacher knows that Harry is about to become gifted, and just waits awhile until Harry comes up with the answer. So Harry experiences success instead of failure, and comes to believe that he is gifted.
Kind of a bummer for the kids who didn’t get randomly selected, huh? Thank God it doesn’t work that way with grace, because we’re all selected by God, equally and fully, we receive God’s grace without doing a thing.
And the beauty is that since we are inclined to meet people’s expectations (whether they’re lofty or low) God’s great expectations for us mean that we become the best of who we are. It is because God loves us unconditionally, that we can never fail in God’s eyes, that God is always ready for us to be the best of who we can be and loves us through every step, that we have unlimited chances to grow into our best selves.
Who are you at your best? Who are you in the beaming love of God’s grace?
Let’s all consider that, for a minute, in silence.
God's grace is kind of like a trust fund - what would you do with your time if you didn’t need to work for money? Would you travel? Sit around watching movies? Walk in the woods? Maybe we’d do that sort of stuff for awhile, it sounds good to me right now as we’re wrapping up a busy season. But after some serious relaxing I believe we would itch to contribute, to give to the world around us. How many people retire and plan to just play a lot of golf, but find they’re busier than ever volunteering and spending time with the people they love?
God’s grace is more than a trust fund – it’s unlimited love, but also unlimited faith in us, and God’s faith in us inspires us to be our best.
Who is this congregation at our best? Who is God calling us to be?
Like Ben’s students, what would we say in a letter to ourselves, to the Stone Church of next May? How will we have fallen in love with Stone Church throughout the coming change? As we say goodbye to Christy with all the love and gratitude of these 18 good years, and send her off with hearty well wishes for the next chapter of her life? As you and I say goodbye to each other? As we have a whole year settling into rhythm and harmony with Dante. As we say welcome one – maybe even two – new pastors? What will have happened in our life in the next year for us to have done all this well?
Because we are so deeply loved, so fully cherished, so graciously gifted by God, we are called to say yes to the best version of ourselves, to say, yes, God, here I am.
Let us raise our voices in song, to claim God’s grace and God’s call.