For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8
When I was first ordained, the priest I worked for used to talk from time to time about his experience as a chaplain-intern at San Quentin, the California state prison. He used to say that as he got to know some of the prisoners and their stories, that he could see himself in a similar situation, if his life had unfolded differently….there but for the grace of God go I. And if this story sounds a little familiar to you, it’s because the priest, Len Freeman, along with his wife Lindsay, is the author of our Lenten devotional booklet this year. Just this past Tuesday, Len’s reflection was about his time at San Quentin.
When I was in high school the New York state women’s prison, Bedford Hills – a maximum-security facility – decided to try having a less-restrictive family visitation day in the form of a carnival/fun fair day, for the inmates’ children. The organizers reached out to our local Girl Scout council to organize some of the activities and provide volunteers. I went as a volunteer, and while I was there I had the opportunity to talk with some of the women as they watched their kids having fun with the different games, winning prizes, showing off for their moms. It was only later that I learned from one of the guards that a woman I talked to for a while had been convicted of murdering her husband for the insurance money. There is no way from my conversation with her that I would ever have guessed...there but for the grace of God go I.
And I’m sure we all have had the experience of watching or reading or hearing a news story about something that went wrong in a person’s life, someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or made a series of bad choices – and found ourselves saying…there but for the grace of God go I.
Now, there are several ways to say those words. The first is to shake our heads, and cluck our tongues, using them to distance ourselves from the other person’s misfortune or wrong-doing: “There but for the grace of God go I; thank God I am not like that!” Then, if we think a little more honestly about what we are hearing and seeing and find ourselves saying, we probably feel that we are lucky, that we while we have been vulnerable, we have not fallen off the precipice: “Phew, dodged a bullet...there but for the grace of God go I.”
There’s a third way to say those words – recognizing within ourselves the very same tendencies, nature, sinfulness, capacity for failure, bad circumstances, as the person the news is talking about – and then feel gratitude, relief, and renewal that God has intervened in our life somehow to lead us away from the edge of the cliff: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And if we’ve actually fallen off the cliff at some time in our lives, and have found our way back to life and wholeness and truth, then we know that we are where we are solely by God’s good and generous grace.
For by grace you have been saved, through faith – Paul says in the letter to the church in Ephesus, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
What, then, is grace all about?
Grace is the favor, goodness, loving-kindness, and mercy of God towards us – us as humanity, and us as individuals. We don’t earn God’s grace, or merit it, or win it, or even cajole God into giving it to us. We don’t earn brownie points, collect them all up, and then come up with the grace prize at the end. Instead, grace is given to us as a gift by a generous and loving God. Grace precedes us, and follows us, we can grow the roots of our soul deep into God’s gracious love and care for us. And grace isn’t given just once, or twice, or even three times – a spiritual “three strikes and you’re out.” God’s grace is like a spring of water, bubbling up from the dry and thirty ground, ready to refresh and water our lives.
There is a small hitch in all of this, however. Just like any gift, we have to be willing to receive grace – to receive the love, favor, goodness, and mercy of God. Imagine a door into a hallway, and you are on the inside. From under the edge of the door comes a beautiful light, and all around the door frame the light is seeping through, as well, trying to get in. But you have the door closed; and more than that, you have your foot bracing the bottom of the door so that no one on the other side can get in. If you’ve ever had a teenager barricade him or herself in their room, or if you’ve ever braced a door like that yourself, you’ll know what I mean. The grace of God comes to us as the light of life-giving love. Yet unless we take our foot off the door, our hand off the lock, God will not come in - that’s where faith comes is. We trust that as we take our foot off the door, the grace of God enters our lives, and restores us to wholeness, goodness; right-relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves; God’s grace brings us salvation, freedom, and joy through the vehicle of our faith and trust. And out of that renewal and wholeness, we turn to God with thanksgiving, and offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies in service through generous good works and right actions.
The gift of grace is like a flower; when we first receive it, it is a tightly curled bud, lovely and fresh, but showing only a bit of color. As time goes on, the bud opens, blooms, reveals depths of color and texture and shape that surprise and delight us. The difference between God’s grace and the flower, however, is that grace continues to unfold, develop, blossom; with grace there is no end and no decay.
And all of this is available to us because Jesus, God Incarnate, fully human and fully divine, willing and voluntarily stepped into the stream of human existence, human sin and failure, human death and destruction. Jesus could have done something different, but he didn’t. He faced the powers-that-be, he sorrowed over suffering humanity and made our grief and wounds his own. He accepted death on a cross so that he might rob death of its meaning and power. Death was not the end of grace, but Christ’s death and resurrection was the means of God’s grace to us.
So wherever we find ourselves this day – whatever our struggles, our sins, our failures, our short-comings, our fears; whatever our hopes, and joys, and longings – the grace of God is there…for us, and for our salvation, that we may be God’s whole, renewed, and redeemed people in the world, signs of God’s grace and favor to all.
Let us pray. Lord, let us lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred Name. Amen. ~ Hymn 473
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2015