… but for the grace of God

When Linda and I were living in Kansas, about once a month our weekly, local paper – The Prairie Star – would list all the traffic violations in Elk and Chautauqua Counties for the past month. I’m happy to report that I was never on that list – not because I’m particularly compliant – but because of the grace extended by a couple of sheriff’s deputies. This remembrance has been on my mind of late as I am settling into Toledo with its own particular interpretation of traffic rules. I won’t elaborate but to say they are new to me.

With respect to interpretation of rules, there are those of us who are conscientious rule followers, and there is no doubt that their names will not appear on any roll of violators. But there are others of us – myself included – that fall into another group. It may not be that this latter group doesn’t deserve tickets, but that we aren’t caught, or that we have learned how far we can stretch the limits without getting stopped. Many of us have figured this out over time and we use these windows of tolerance to our advantage. Nonetheless there are limits, and when we push them too far, there are consequences.

Other examples that come to mind are classes cut at school, unpaid credit card bills, deferred maintenance on the house or car, or neglected relationships. These things have consequences for us too, but for whatever reason the consequences may not seem real enough, pressing enough, or bad enough to discourage our neglect of them.

The bottom line is sometimes we test the limits of rules or prudent behavior when it suits our purpose. But what about when it suits the purpose of another person as seen from their perspective; are we so tolerant? If this is the case, we may be inclined to draw a clear line in the sand and say no further or no faster, especially if we are the one facing the consequences.

This is the setting confronting Jesus today in Luke’s account of his healing of a crippled woman in the synagogue. In this story Jesus stretches or tests the limits of three prohibited behaviors.

First, during a service of worship in a public space that is segregated by gender, Jesus invites a woman to cross the boundary that signifies she, and all that she represents, is not entitled to equal treatment as a human being. Second, Jesus lays hands on this woman who is not a family member – he is putting his hands where they do not belong. And third, he does all of this on the Sabbath – a day on which work is not permitted. How dare he?

The synagogue leader is infuriated by these violations of the rules, which are intended to preserve the morality and propriety of his worship community. As a privileged member of the religious establishment, I understand the synagogue leader’s indignation over the flaunting of these social norms. But then Jesus’ reply of “You hypocrites” brings me up short. Am I really a hypocrite? Well – if I’m honest – yeah, sometimes I am.

While pondering the soreness of this realization, I realize that there is also grace in Jesus’ reply. It is the implicit reminder, “There but for the grace of God go you; because you didn’t choose the circumstance of your birth. But remember that you choose to bend the rules to your own advantage, even as you hold others to a different standard.”

What is our own modern-day way of stretching the limits of moral behavior? Is it speeding, is it neglecting the common good, is it exploiting our circumstance for our advantage alone? We may rationalize our behavior saying, well everyone does it or it’s a victimless offense. And perhaps if we have enough resources, e.g., money, influence, or a good lawyer, we know we can beat the charge. But this is to be blind to the unintended consequences of our behavior, the consequences borne by others. Remember, “There but for the grace of God go we.”

As Christians, we live in a world of double standards. If we knowingly choose to exploit these double standards someone somewhere – a neighbor – bears the consequence. But many of these situations that are less than obvious, and we are often blissfully unaware of them. Jesus is speaking to these less obvious situations today – the social systems or structures that we are so accustomed to that we fail to see the offense; particularly if it does not directly affect the course of our daily lives. In our comfort we can become blind or oblivious to the reality that these systems hopelessly bind others, who have neither the resources nor the privilege we take for granted.

If our circumstance has become one of blind comfort, Jesus is calling us hypocrites – not to insult us – but to get our attention – to draw our attention to those seemingly benign institutions or systems that perpetuate injustices such as, trapping people in circumstances that deny them the same liberties and dignity we take for granted.

If Jesus were to publish the list of hypocrites in Lucas County we would be appalled by the names on the list. Thank goodness it is not a matter of public record. Nonetheless, we know well enough that we are all on that list from time to time. But we also know that we have access to forgiveness. This is the reason we gather as a community every week. Individually we are incomplete – we are imperfect. But through this weekly immersion in prayer, sacrament, and the Body of Christ, we are – bit by bit – made a little more whole. Through the grace shown us by sheriff’s deputies and the grace of the cloud of witnesses we recall today, we become a little more like the One we bless, praise, and offer thanks to.

In this becoming and in gratitude for this grace, we will become better about liberating other children of Abraham, who like the crippled woman, are bound by systems that we are complicit in or blind to. May we too be set free from our ailments so that we remember, there, but for the grace of God, go we.



Expectations are curious things. They inspire us. They challenge us. They surprise us. And they disappoint us. For example, think about any given Christmas. You’ve written your letter to Santa Claus, describing – perhaps in great detail – your expectations, such as finding a Lamborghini Aventador Roadster in the driveway. You’ve been as explicit as possible in your description – down to the color and trim – and you’re excitedly looking forward to Christmas day. That morning you rush to the front window; but there’s nothing in the driveway but untracked snow. You stick your head in the garage; but there’s nothing there either. Well maybe it’s on backorder, and perhaps – stuck in the boughs of the Christmas tree – there’s an envelope with a receipt confirming the pending delivery. But there’s nothing in the boughs either. Now you’re really beginning to wonder what’s up. As you puzzle about what has happened to your Aventador, you finally sit down to begin looking through your stocking where you find a smallish package with a bow on it and a gift tag signed, “From: Santa.” Beneath the wrapping you find a scale model of the Lamborghini Aventador that you have been longing for. Santa seems to have a peculiar sense of humor. And you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is either absurd or it is heartbreaking.

We often encounter such thwarted expectations, and – I think – this may be what God is experiencing this morning in the reading from Isaiah. In this lesson the metaphor of the vineyard is once again used for the house of Israel and people of Judah. God has high expectations for God’s people; expectations that they will be fruitful – that they will yield succulent, plump, juicy grapes. Instead they yield puny, bitter, wild grapes. In other words, where God expects justice God finds injustice. Where God expects righteousness God finds antipathy. God is in no laughing mood; God seems heartbroken and ready to abandon God’s expectation for us. But this isn’t the end of the story, and it’s not like the God we know.

As evidence, consider the beginning of the whole story; specifically the first chapter of Genesis – the first of two creation narratives. In this story – at every turn – God declares all that is created to be good. In fact, at the end “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[1] Not perfect – but very good. This often overlooked fact is a cornerstone of the entire narrative of Holy Scripture; God does not expect perfection – in fact it may even be chipped and cracked in places – but God does expect what is created to err toward goodness – toward righteousness – because that is God’s very nature. That is not to say God doesn’t chafe at our recurring contrariness, but God is our source and God knows what we are capable of – God has high expectations for us.

Yet if we reflect upon our history we see innumerable occasions in which we have disappointed God. The darkest of these have been periods when – in the grip of fear – we have tried to exert control over the circumstance of our lives by scapegoating – by blaming others for our problems. These scapegoats are chosen because we believe they are different from us. A different ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, faith, or even mental functioning. For the greatest generation and their baby boomer offspring the most vivid recollection of such scapegoating was about 80 years ago as fascism had taken hold of much of Europe and was spreading its tendrils into every country – even the United States. The world was in the grip of polarizing expectations – either conform to social biases – or conform to moral expectations. For many it was an intolerable bind. Only in retrospect was the choice clear. Despite the lessons learned – two generations later – we are still hearing the same discordant chorus of hate and fear. But this time the refrains of hate and fear are espoused by our own leadership.

This pattern of blaming those who have no agency, those who are on the margins of society, and those who are not like us is so tempting because it allows us to disclaim or not acknowledge our own less-than-benign complicity, such as chafing at acts of injustice and antipathy, but not reacting other than to mutter under our breath as we outwardly show restraint. Once again, we find ourselves confronted by competing expectations – each of which want us to make a choice. Do we seek cover or do we make ourselves vulnerable?

If the latter, at what point do we speak up to say enough? At what point do we become intolerant of those who serially abuse the bounds of propriety, the bounds of justice, the bounds of righteousness?

As human beings we have a long history of looking the other way, of overlooking injustice and antipathy rather than being vulnerable. This is the hypocrisy that Jesus decries in today’s Gospel; this is the hypocrisy that God deplores.

Such hypocrisy obscures ones ability to observe and love the wholeness of God’s creation– to know it is good. Such hypocrisy focuses on imperfection. Such hypocrisy empowers ones urge to differentiate – to parse – to focus upon what is different and assign relative value based upon those differences. What seems to be lacking in the lexicon of our current national discourse is the fundamental understanding that everything God made is “very good.” According to the current discourse, that which does not fit in is other and thus bad.

Jesus, like the prophet Micah whom he quotes today, would rather the social and familial bounds of comfort and fitting in be torn asunder in the name of justice and righteousness rather than accept the puny, bitter, wild grapes of injustice and antipathy.

So what are you and I to do in the face of these conflicting expectations?

Let us begin by coming to this table week-in-and-week-out, confessing our contrariness and antipathy, to give voice to the discomfort we feel, to love one another as Jesus loves us, and to be fed by the succulent and redeeming fruit of the body and blood of Jesus Christ so that we – imperfect as we are – through our Creator’s grace may ripen and bend toward justice and righteousness in abundance.

[1] Genesis 1:31a.

Consider well the mercies of the Lord.

As we were praying the psalm together, I was particularly struck by the last verse, “Whoever is wise will ponder these things, and consider well the mercies of the Lord.”[1] My initial reaction was to ponder, what are “these things” the wise ponder? Perhaps they are the great existential mysteries of life, things beyond most of our imaginations. But as I ponder the truly wise people I know, it occurs to me that a common trait among them is an interest in pondering all kinds of topics from the mundane to the divine. All matter of things are worthy of their sage consideration and conversation. And I say conversation because unlike the meme of the all-wise guru sitting in isolation on the top of the mountain, the wise people I know are usually found in conversation with others, sharing ideas, testing hypotheses, and sharing critical feedback as they seek to creatively distill the common threads of their individual imaginations through communal prayer and conversation. I suspect that most of us don’t feel we get to spend much time immersed in such rarified contemplation. And, as a former military officer and businessperson I completely sympathize with your inner eye roll and thoughts that nothing would ever get done this way. But I beg you indulgence and ask you to consider well the mercies of the Lord.

I suspect much of the wise consideration and conversation we hear and to respond to day-in-and-day-out may be of the following tenor. Mom! Marshall won’t share the ice cream with me! Dad! Patrick has my piggy bank and won’t give it back! If you’ve experienced life with preschoolers and older children you will recognize these or similar refrains and their appeal to the closest authority figure. Such self-serving appeals for “justice” are just part of family life. But you may have also observed these appeals for judgment are not limited to children; we see them among humans of all ages not only within our families but among our social and business circles as well. Repeated exposure such one-sided cultural or social complaints and their particular sense of justice or fairness are both self-affirming and other-excluding. But social complaints don’t have to be excluding or isolating. Consider well communities of the Middle East, where everybody is up in everybody’s business; decisions are not made in isolation. Normally, such decisions are made only after conversations and deliberations with friends, families, communities, and even villages – the wisdom of the community is distilled into the common threads that shape and inform a decision. Such discourse is lacking in the rich man’s deliberation as Jesus tells us “he thought to himself” and then narrates the monologue that takes place in rich man’s head. The suggestion of this monologue in a Middle Eastern context is that the rich man has neither friends nor family to offer him other opinions or insights. Perhaps he, like the brothers feuding over the inheritance, the ice cream and the piggy bank, has alienated others or isolated himself because of a petulant insistence on his own privilege or sense of right.

The issue is not that the rich fool will die tonight, nor is it that death is punishment for thinking only of ones self-interest. The issue is the cockiness of the rich man to presume he knows what is best without constraint, rather than considering well the mercies of the Lord – to acknowledge his rightful or just place within the order of creation. In contrast, Jesus knows well the mercies of the Lord, not only as God’s son, but by descent from his ancestor King David, who is well humbled by the mysteries of the Lord on numerous occasions such as when he has the nerve to presume he is the one to build the house of the Lord. Though David is cocky enough to be so presumptuous, he also – because of prior experience with the mercies of the Lord – is humble enough to hear the wise council of God and others who say, no, it is not your place, rather your son shall build God’s house. In the face of this correction, having already assembled the materials to build the temple, David has the grace to acknowledge God’s wisdom and justice – his mercies, and utters these words of offering, “[W]ho am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering, for all things come from you [O Lord], and of your own have we given you.”[2] This acknowledgement that all things – our possessions, our intellect, and our creativity – flow from our Creator and the acknowledgement that we are but temporary stewards of these things – invites our reflection about where we “store up treasure for” ourselves. Is it solely for ourselves, or is it for the benefit of others, for the community and my neighbor where I might not only encounter the face of God but might grow rich towards God.

“Whoever is wise will ponder these things, and consider well the mercies of the Lord.”

[1] Psalm 107:43

[2] 1 Chronicles 29:14