Grace. What a beautiful word. Meghan greets us at the start of every service with a blessing of God’s Grace. Those of us who have been associated with the Catholic Church surely think of Mary when we hear the word, because the angel told her she is Full of Grace. And we hear it sometimes in the scriptures we read or sing during our own services.
But what is it, really? What is Grace? It’s one of those mysterious words that religious people use, and we’re not quite sure what it really is. Anne Lamott says this: “I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace. Only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”
What is “it”?
The word itself comes from Latin—gratia—and it’s related to gracias in Spanish, grazie in Italian, and gratitude in English. So it has to do with saying thank you, or recognizing that there’s something we can be thankful for. That something is a VALUABLE FREE GIFT!! From God. St. Paul tells us and the Ephesians that Grace can’t be earned. So it’s not something we can work to get better at. It is an unearned gift.
What I’d like to do now is tell you some stories about Grace. Maybe by putting these stories together, we can get an idea of what it is we’re talking about.
The first story is the one where Jesus heals the Ten Lepers. He’s on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples, and these ten ill men confront him, from a safe distance, and beg him to heal them. Because of their terrible disease, these men are treated as non-human. They have no rights. Anything or anyone they touch is instantly considered contaminated. They live on the edge of town, eat what they can scavenge, and ring bells to warn people away from themselves. What they are asking from Jesus is to be restored to the human community. They are begging for renewed wholeness and relationship.
And what I love about this story is that Jesus doesn’t say “You are healed!” No magic words. No laying on of hands. He simply says, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” See, the book of Leviticus includes instructions for people who believe they have been healed of leprosy. The first step in the process is to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, and show a priest. So what Jesus is saying and what the men believe, is that healing has already happened, and they are ready to take that first step back to full acceptance of the humanity they are now aware of.
There’s an odd thing about this story, though. Nine of the men set off to the Temple. The tenth man turns around and thanks Jesus, and the story says “And that man was a Samaritan.” Now, Samaritans were second-class citizens in Israel, because they worshipped God in the wrong place. So it would be impossible for this man to show the priest. What’s left for him is to acknowledge directly that healing has happened for him, and to say thank you.
The next story is my own. Some of you know that my relationship with my mother was a challenging one, and was so all my life. Conversations with her frequently turned into dangerous mousetraps where even neutral questions had no right or safe answer. She was unable ever to admit to being wrong about anything, and she was amazingly creative about deflecting blame onto everyone else.
My sisters had similar experiences, and at various times in our lives, each of us had to take time out—sometimes months—from interacting with our mother. In her later years, we made sure to visit her in pairs or all together, so we would at least have a witness to what reality was in those encounters.
About five years ago, I began to pray that I could give my mother the love she craved. But it seemed still that every visit ended in either hurt feelings or cautious silence. I grieved for the relationship we seemed unable to have. Both of us wanted it, and neither of us could achieve it, and it seemed impossible as her deafness and dementia increased.
In December of 2016, she was hospitalized with severe breathing problems, and my sisters and I went to visit her there. When we arrived, she was away from her room, but we could hear her coming down the hall, and we all braced ourselves. The nurse’s aide helped her off the gurney, and held both her hands to steady her. And she said, “Let’s dance to the bed!” My mother began to smile and laugh and dance. The aide said to her, “You are just adorable!”
And there was my personal miracle, my moment of Grace. I looked at my mom and I fell in love with the sweet, spontaneous child she had once been and had become again. I could finally see her. And so I was able to spend the last year of her life loving her and enjoying the time I got to have with her, and at my last visit with her, five days before she died, we even sang together.
I heard the third story on National Public Radio, sometime in the early 1990s. A young woman was assaulted and left in a coma on a sidewalk in downtown Toronto. The next morning, people on their way to work passed her by or even stepped over her. No one stopped to help. Across the street, there was a call center—one of those workplaces where a lot of people on low hourly wages make calls to your home, and yours, and mine, as fast as possible, trying to make their daily quotas. They could see the young woman on the sidewalk from their workstations. Some of them thought she’d partied too hard, and they made cruel and obscene jokes. A few of them wanted to help, but their supervisor told them they had one job: get back to making those calls. And they did.
Finally, one young man in the call center dialed 911, against orders. The emergency medical techs quickly arrived, gently loaded the young woman onto a stretcher and into the van, and got her to a hospital, where she recovered.
Each of these stories shows us what Grace is and what it looks like. In each of them, there is a damaged relationship—to community, to family, to integrity, even to life itself. And in each story, a miracle happens. Love pours into the broken place, and heals it, makes it whole again. Lepers realize that they have been human beings all along. I get to see my mother’s tender beauty. A young man goes against authority to save a life.
So the first part of what Grace is, is boundless, immeasurable, unconditional love. It’s a love so huge that it can hold and heal everyone and everything. And it’s always there, always waiting for us to see it. That’s how and why the nine Lepers knew they’d pass their tests at the Temple. They knew they were whole and healed, and the tenth man knew it too, even if he was unable to go to the Temple. The role of Jesus in that healing was to open their eyes to that truth.
That huge love could wrap itself around the pain and grief my mother and I had caused each other and the pain she had inherited from her mother’s suffering at the hands of her stepparents. And that love opened my eyes to the truth of my mother’s beauty.
And that great love could move the young man in the call center to rise above his role as an expendable dialer of phones and reader of scripts. He saw that he could take action to save a life. And so his act was a moment of Grace for the young woman, too.
The second part of Grace is the built-in desire we have for that huge love, our longing for wholeness, for healing. Psalm 42 says, “As a deer longs for fresh water, so my soul longs for you, beloved. My soul thirsts for the One.” That desire is hard-wired into us from our birth. We are designed to want connection, wholeness, love. That longing is what started me praying to be able to love my mother. It’s the boldness of the Lepers who dared to call to Jesus instead of warning him away. It’s the impulse of the young man who found the courage to risk his job to save a life.
The third part of Grace is perception. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you know that little ritual at the eye doctor. You’re sitting in a chair trying to read the blurry letters on the far wall as the doctor slides lenses in front of your eyes, one after another. “Which is better? Number one or number two? Number two or number three? Number three or number four?” And then he finds the right combination of lenses, and suddenly the blur across the room becomes
T O Z!
And so on as far down as your clear new vision can take you. That’s what Grace is like. You can’t see, can’t hear, can’t touch. And then you can. And the amazing thing is that there’s nothing you can do to make that happen. You can only accept it.
And that’s the fourth part of Grace—the willingness to accept the new vision. And that’s part of the gift, too, not something we can will to happen. The Lepers didn’t even question whether they should go to the Temple and risk polluting it. They knew they’d been changed and they embraced the change totally. And the tenth man also took a risk by approaching Jesus to thank him, because he, too, knew and embraced his healing.
I was given the Grace to let go of my fear and anger toward my mother, and allow that new transformational perception in.
And the young man at the call center was given the gift of courage to actually follow through on his new perception of what was right to do. And because he accepted that course of action, the young woman was given the gift of renewed life.
So Grace is God—the God who is Love—communicating God’s own self to us as that VALUABLE FREE GIFT! I mentioned. But part of the gift is the fact that we’re able, first to long for it, then to see it, and then to accept it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, forever. We are always transformed by it.
A couple of days ago, someone posted on Facebook a photo of a glorious, golden and orange sunrise over a field near Moses Lake. And his comment was “I don’t deserve this sunrise!” And of course he doesn’t. Nor do you, nor do I, and we don’t “deserve” Mt. Rainier, or blackberries right off the vine, or waterfalls. Or Grace. Not because we are so unworthy, as some churches want us to believe, but because “deserving” doesn’t even belong in the same sentence as any of these things. What could you or I possibly do to deserve these miracles? There’s nothing we could ever do to earn them. The concept is ridiculous.
Our job is only to keep our eyes open for those miracles, appreciate them for the gift they are to our beloved selves, and say Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May God’s Grace overwhelm you with joy and gratitude.