“What Is Grace?”
by The Rev. Dr. Mark S. Anschutz
Delivered at Saint Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania
on October 15, 2017
I am so grateful for this invitation. I am a great admirer of your Rector and, along with thousands throughout our Episcopal Church and beyond, I am grateful to this parish for the initiatives it continues to spawn in preparing us to wisely engage this new century.
Now, to the task at hand, this morning’s Gospel! For this preacher, this is a Gospel that centers on GRACE.
In it Our Lord articulates a radically new vision of humanity that ignores suspicions, doubts, stereotypes and, instead recognizes every person, first, as a child of God, worthy of respect, love and compassion. Distinctions drawn according to economic class or influence or physical ability disappear before God. And in order for us to take our own place, we must show forth that same kind of boundless grace.
But us back up a bit and ask ourselves:
“What is Grace?”
At one level there is that grace of motion and action:
Being a fan of old movies, it is demonstrated in the fluid movement of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or, as a sports fan, the power and, at the same time, the shear grace of runners like Jim Brown or, the late, great, Walter Peyton.
“What is Grace?
At still another level there is that human grace of style and elegance: the very idea of growing old gracefully instead of allowing ourselves to move into inactivity, disengagement and despondency. Or that kind of grace of style and elegance reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickenson and the contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, or, for me personally, there is the grace of biographic pros, that of William Manchester or David McCullough or Jon Meachem…. each grace filled in their own way.
“What is Grace?”
I the context of this Gospel there is the greater sense of Divine Grace. It is the grace called for in implementing the thrust of this morning’s Gospel. It is grace as seen, understood, experienced and lived out through the lens of what Sinclair Lewis referred to as “the mind of God”.
Thus, consider this true story, as shared by the author Auburn Sandstrom. In 1992, Auburn was 29 years of age, the mother of a three year-old-son, trapped in an abusive marriage and an addict herself. One night she hit bottom. She was curled up on a filthy carpet in a cluttered apartment, suffering horrible withdrawal from a drug she had been addicted to for several years. In her hand was a little piece of paper. For hours, she had kept folding it and crumbling it. It was the phone number for a Christian counselor her mother had given her in one of their few moments of contact. Finally, the desperate young women punched the numbers into her phone. It rang. It was two in the morning. A man answered.
“Hi, I got this number from my mother. Uh, do you think you could talk to me?”
Auburn heard some shuffling at the other end of the line. A little radio in the background was snapped off and the man who answered became very present. “Yes, yes, yes. “What’s going on?”
For the first time, Auburn poured out her story. She told him that she wasn’t feeling good, that things had gotten pretty bad in her marriage, that she had a drug problem and she was profoundly frightened.
The man at the other end of the line didn’t judge. He just sat with her and listened. Auburn was encouraged by his kindness and gentleness.
The man stayed up with her, just talking, listening and being there until the sun rose. By daybreak, she had calmed down. The raw panic had passed. She was feeling better than she had felt in a long, long time.
She was also very grateful to him. “Hey, you know, I really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because that’ll be cool, I’ll do it, you know. It’s all right.”
He laughed and said, “Well, I am glad this was helpful to you.”
“No, really. You’re very good at this. I mean you’ve seriously done a big thing for me. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Auburn, please don’t hang up. I’ve been trying not to bring this up.”
“What?” she said.
“You won’t hang up?”
“No, I won’t hang up.”
“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called …..” He paused again. “You got the wrong number.”
Auburn didn’t hang up.
They talked a little longer.
As her telling of the story reveals Auburn Sandstrom not only survived that night. From that exact point she moved on to become an award winning author, and a highly regarded teacher. More importantly, she raised her son alone to become a magnificent young athlete and scholar who graduated from Princeton. She concluded her story of that night with these words:
“ …… the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I think I’ve heard them call it the peace that passeth understanding. I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of that was for me …. In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light …… all of the grace rushes in.”
Grace, in the theological sense, begins for me as being that force that infuses our lives with hope, meaning and joy. It is what we do for another when we, as this gospel parable so clearly articulates, recognize the unique value of every human being and do it with no sense of reward or payback. It becomes grace when it is rendered finally and freely and only for love’s sake.
For the Christian, it is perfectly exemplified in God’s sending His Son into the world to offer His very life for each of us ….. free, unmerited, unexpected, unearned and gratuitous love bestowed upon us.
I often think if I were forced to explain in only the fewest of words the very nature of God, I would be well served to say the best way to see God is through this attribute of grace, God’s fierce determination to freely: forgive, inform, challenge, save ands love God’s human children, …. however little we may deserve it.
But, to each of you …. and as a reminder to me, the preacher, real grace defies the preachers attempts at definition. It will never be fully known until it is consciously lived out, in and through our lives. That is when it becomes alive and vital and real. Grace is that natural state in which I believe God wants us to live our every moment …. “Grace” made manifest in the compassion, generosity, courtliness, patience, tolerance, and sensitivity we freely manifest in our lives to all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality or station.
A remarkably gifted priest/preacher/educator, in this instance my daughter, as Founding Head of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, she once remarked to her students, “As Jesus moved about, he was always looking out of his eye to see what human need was not being met by those who surrounded him on all sides.” (Can you just picture him in your imagination, “always looking out the corner of his eye?!!” I love it!)
Grace is like that, always attempting to live on the alert. Grace working in our lives resulting in an untiring effort to love all persons, regardless of their differences from us …. to respect and choose to relate to others without violating their autonomy or dignity, that is so much a measure of what grace is. Letting go of any desire for reward or justification and doing so purely as an act of love; that is grace alive. Grace like that causes us to go beyond who we are and to grow into what God so desperately wants us to be.
I want to ask something of each of you this morning:
I can only speak for myself ……. but I imagine it is true for each and every one of us: where manifesting grace is most challenging is to be found not so much in that person who may differ from us in race or station, but in the conscious act of forgiving someone who has deliberately harmed us and has little sense of remorse or even recognition of the pain they have created.
You have them ….. in your past or in your present or, perhaps, both. They are those who we have moved to the margins of our lives, in the language of this Gospel they have been denied a place at our table. They loom often as an ache or source of anger or cause of frustration. Forgiveness in these instances demands an act of grace ….. to surrender for our own sake and, ultimately, theirs … those feelings.
I am not unaware that forgiveness is hard work and, most often, complicated ….. but it will never occur unless it is first shrouded in real grace. You know who they are. Thus, in Paul’s words, “I entreat you not to take the grace of God in vain.”