The Thing about Grace

Do you remember a time as a kid when you thought you were going to get in Big Trouble for something—maybe a bad grade or a broken window or accidentally causing your little sister to trip and fall—but instead of anger and punishment, you were met with understanding? Or perhaps there was a time when you were older and you messed something up or made a bad choice or did something that hurt someone else and you knew you had to apologize, not knowing what their reaction would be. That moment of not knowing can be a scary thing. If we are met with grace, if we’re forgiven, a sense of relief floods our body, our shoulders relax, we breathe with a sense of grateful freedom. Everything’s going to be alright, we think. But if the other person’s response isn’t gracious—if they are still angry and judging and blaming us—we are still bound to that mistake or error or hurt, even though we regret it. We feel powerless, caught, sorry, maybe panicked. Until they forgive us, until they can let it go, we will both be tied to that painful event, and to some degree it will control and constrain our relationship, whatever it was. Suddenly the love we shared seems conditional on whether our behavior is “good enough” or not.

Graciousness is not only something nice that we do for people when they have—on purpose or accidentally—hurt us or caused trouble in some way. Graciousness is also a doorway to emotional, spiritual, and even physical health for us and the person we forgive. Grace sets all captives free. Any act of grace—which involves acceptance, understanding, forgiveness, and love—is a choice to look purposefully for “that of God” in each other, and to not give up on that effort until Christ’s vision in us is clear.

In our Old Testament reading today we hear that grace is characteristic of God’s nature, an important part of the goodness God has planned for everyone. It is part of the natural outpouring of God’s love. Isaiah says to the people of his time—who as you remember found it nearly impossible to trust and worship this God who had so long been angry at their disobedience, “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”

The Lord longs to be gracious to us, Isaiah says, waiting at the window, watching for us to turn our heart’s back in God’s direction. That is also the storyline of one of the best parables Jesus told, the story of Prodigal Son. As you heard in the New Testament reading, the story is about a man and his two sons. The younger one is ambitious, impetuous, impatient to get his life started. He didn’t want to live a long slow life of planting and harvesting, gradually increasing his earnings year by year, slowly creating security for himself through hard work and wisdom. That might have been his older brother’s story—he was willing to work hard and put sweat equity into everything their father asked of him. But that wasn’t his way–the younger son had other ideas: Get-rich quick schemes, easy money, lots of fun along the way. He was more interested in a fast turnaround, a life that was more exciting than crops and livestock and family meals.

The story says young son went to his father and asked for his share of the estate. Instead of arguing or trying to convince the young man his ideas were short-sighted, the father did what the son asked and gave him his inheritance. Scripture says that soon after, the young man gathered up his belongings and set off for a distant place, where he soon, “squandered his wealth in wild living.” We don’t know what exactly wild living might have been two thousand years ago, but chances are that it wasn’t too much different from what we might consider “wild living” today. The boy made foolish choices. He blew his money on momentary desires and failed to create anything lasting for himself. So when a terrible famine hit the land, he soon found himself in a bad spot. He took whatever jobs he could find, working as a field hand caring for pigs. One day he realized the pigs were eating better than he was. He suddenly thought of his father and how the hired workers on his father’s land had more than enough to eat. He wondered if he went home and asked for forgiveness whether he might be able to find work among them. It seems important to note here that he did seem to have had a change of heart and appeared to understand and truly regret the error of his ways; he wanted to ask for forgiveness and accept humbly whatever would come in response. He was hoping for the grace to work as a hired hand and simply have enough to eat and live. He planned to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

But we know that God longs to be gracious to us, and so there he was, long before the young son appeared on the road leading home, peering out the window, watching for any hopeful sign of his son’s return. Who knows but what God had been watching out that window every day since the boy left home. And now, suddenly, in a cloud of dust far off, the Father sees what he thinks is a glimpse of his son, and he runs from the house and down the road, filled and overflowing with compassion. Probably with tears and exclamations of joy, the father throws his arms around his son and kisses him.

The boy says what he intended to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father wasn’t hearing it. “Quick!” he called, “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” He calls for a feast and a celebration. In spite of the son’s regret and contrition, the father felt joy and elation. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again,” he said. “He was lost and is found.”

When you and I are met with grace—especially when we don’t deserve it—we are embraced and made whole again in the other person’s remembering of our worth, our goodness, our belovedness as children of God. The mistake, the hurt, the error—those things don’t matter now, because they were simply the evidence of how lost we were, and now we are found once again. When we are forgiven, we  are returned to our true state—our goodness and innocence as the children of God. And when that happens—what a grace it is!–it is truly cause for celebration. Because that grace sets everyone free.

But of course not everyone in this story is feeling particularly gracious. While all this was happening, the older son was out in the field, no doubt working hard. He was probably dirty and tired, sweaty and hungry. As he neared the house he heard music and saw dancing. He asked someone what was happening, and the person told him, “Your brother is back and we are celebrating because he is safe and sound.”

The brother is immediately angry and refuses to join in. His father comes out to persuade him and he explodes, saying “All these years I’ve been slaving away for you and never disobeyed you—not once! Yet you never celebrated anything I’ve done. But when my brother—who does everything wrong—comes home, you have a great celebration for him! It’s not fair!”

The older brother is not wrong. He is probably a good and responsible man, one who is conscientious and who has already tried to do things the right way. He has honored his father, done his best to make good choices, and hopes and expects that in the long run, things will go well for him. His feels the celebration for his irresponsible brother is unfair—and it’s understandable that he might feel that way, but it’s also misguided. Because this isn’t a parable about deservedness but about grace. If any of us had to earn our place in heaven, if we had to work hard and obey every rule and do everything right and sign ourselves up for every drudgery so that we could finally deserve some measure of God’s love, I’m sorry to say, we will never get there. Through our acts, or words, our behaviors, our achievements, we can never earn God’s love.

But the good news—the best news—is that God’s grace flows freely to us all, faster than we can ask for it—not because we have checked off all the boxes on the Ten Commandments but simply because of who God is, the fact that it is God’s nature to love. God rushes to us on the road not because of what we’ve done or might do in the future, but because God is Love and God cannot do otherwise. All it takes on our part is a little willingness to let the Light in, a glance toward home, and God will do the rest.

The inspiration for our message today came from a conversation I had earlier in the week with someone who talked a lot about regret. They said they have trouble feeling a sense of forgiveness for things that didn’t go well in the past, and it’s hard for them to move forward because the regrets and self-blame are so heavy. I offered a few ideas while we talked and that night I prayed about it. I woke up thinking of the way I’ve responded to regrets and difficulties in my own life, and it occurred to me that I believe so much more strongly in God’s grace than I do the messes and mistakes and bad choices I’ve made in my life, that confidence gives me great comfort and a sense of freedom from the past. I do feel forgiven. I feel like each of those situations taught me something important, something I needed to know to live with more truth and love. And that growing understanding comes not because of anything I’ve done, but because that’s who God is, graciously and continuously loving us with a perfect love, the unstoppable flow of God’s grace. The love God has for us is so infinitely much greater than anything we could possibly do to get in its way—it’s like trying to stop a tsunami—a tsunami of goodness–with an umbrella.

Early Friend Isaac Penington knew intimately the tender, faithful love God has for each of us and he encouraged Friends to care for one another in the same spirit, writing

“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”

That’s what life in touch with God’s grace can look like—for ourselves and our families, our communities and even our world. It’s a work already in progress, each time we feel that familiar tug on our hearts, urging us to be a little kinder, to give someone a break, to speak the truth in love, to reserve judgment, or forgive a past wrong. Each time we watch for the goodness of God to show up in a situation, whenever we expect someone to do the right thing, every time we remind ourselves there is “that of God” in every person we meet, we are helping God’s grace to do its perfect, freeing work in us.

In closing I’d like to offer a stanza from Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “Song of the Earth.” To me it says something of the freedom, renewal, and joy we feel when we, the prodigals, finally head home and let ourselves be embraced on the road by the grace of God:


From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s