Robert Farrar Capon 1925 – September 5, 2013
Anyone who knows me at all knows how much I am indebted to Robert Farrar Capon. He is the one of my spiritual heroes who taught me more about grace than anyone. Robert was RUTHLESS about grace which got him in trouble regularly, especially with good church people. I know because I saw it happen in front of my eyes. It was a Sunday night in Madison, Mississippi, deep behind the Magnolia Curtain. At the Chapel of the Cross, the parish I served there, we had a Lecture in Easter-tide. Whoever was invited was simply asked to speak to us about grace. I learned that Father Capon was leading a retreat at the nearby Diocesan Conference Center. I called him immediately and asked if he would care to do our lecture on either end of his other engagement. He graciously agreed and now back at the ranch it was Sunday night and he was lecturing in the parish hall to at least a couple of hundred people.
He launched into a vintage set-piece, a “tirade” about grace, and said that it was “grace plus nothing!” A man in the back of the room raised his hand (I’m standing in the back of the room watching this) and right then and there asked, “Why be good?” This fellow came to Eucharist most every Sunday but was not a member. He and his family were from a very fundamentalist sectarian form of Christianity and though he was very attracted to what was going on in our service, afterward he beat a retreat home to accompany his wife and children to their congregation. He was by training a lawyer and by temperament a Pharisee. He asked his question with an edge. Robert totally unaware (or so he let on) of the implied hostility replied, “Because it’s more fun!” Well that sat a match to the cotton bale. “So, you’re saying it doesn’t matter how we live,” said the trial lawyer by day and Pharisee all day and night! “I didn’t say that,” said Capon. “Of course it matters how you live, it just doesn’t earn you anything; Its grace plus nothing!” That was when it happened.
Chapel of the Cross – Madison, Mississippi
The room divided about 60/40, with 60% offended beyond measure and 40% thrilled out of their minds. I thought this is how it was when Jesus taught. If I had been beside the lake it would have been just this way. Well, the 60% were not seen the next night at the second lecture, but the fascinating thing was that the 40% were back dragging with them whoever had been injured or offended by the righteous and for whatever reason didn’t accept or buy the Gospel. The net effect was that the attendance was about a third to a half larger than the night before. And this crowd heard Robert gladly. I’m here to tell you that that weekend I saw with my own eyes how deeply offended good people can be by the preaching of the Good News, the very ones who should have glad. The other folk, on the other hand, heard clearly what they would have hoped for if they had any notion of how good the genuine Good News really was!
The gravestone of Henry Grey Vick in the churchyard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Robert, I know that God chuckled when he saw you coming yesterday afternoon and said, “Son, put on that apron and let’s go cook a batch of grace to use at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. I know I made the recipe up originally but I have always enjoyed the sauce you made to go with it. Nobody could whip up a batch of grace like you.
Robert, please save me a place at the bar so I can tell the one about the time you preached behind the Magnolia Curtain.
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” May light perpetual shine upon him. JWS