Graceful Moment

Lk. 18:9-14

Each summer Faye and I spend a week to ten days at Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Our motel room on the wharf looks directly out onto the harbor. Boats glide in and out and are silhouetted against the sky. The water is clear and chuckles against the pilings. We take our meals on verandahs and never tire of watching the water and the sky. Occasionally we explore roads less traveled or walk around what there is of the town, which is up the hill behind our inn. It took several years for me to figure out that we are at the end of the bay and that it is possible to cross to the other side by means of a foot bridge.

Since there are a number of inns and docks on the other side of the bay, one afternoon, several years ago, I suggested to Faye that we walk over and look around. We sauntered over only to discover that there was nowhere near the amount of activity at the inns as there was on the side whence we had come. So we sat on the verandah of one of the inns and watched the comings and goings out on the water.

At the end of our dock was a very large sailboat, which was for hire. It was skippered by a woman in her mid forties, who was muscular, overweight, and sort of a modern day “tug boat Annie.” I was fascinated watching her raise and lower sails, haul on ropes, and shove around various cargo. Obviously she was rugged, independent and self-reliant. After a while a family came down the walk towards the verandah and dock. There was a grandmother, a mother, father, young boy about fifteen and a boy in a stroller who was perhaps twelve and severely physically handicapped. His head lolled to one side, and his legs were about as big around as my wrist. After the father wrote out a check to the skipper, the mother, son and grandmother climbed on board the boat. The father reached down and lifted his younger son out of the stroller and held him up to the skipper. She reached down and with one motion lifted up the broken child, cradling him in her arms. She turned, paused for a moment and looked tenderly at his face. All of this was done in one gracious and graceful movement. There she was, a tough, homely sailor, balanced on the deck with her back to the sun, holding a broken young boy. I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Tears were rolling down my face as I turned to Faye and simultaneously we both said, “It’s Michaelangelo’s Pieta.” With utter ease and the gentlest of motions, this contemporary Madonna seated the child.

Faye and I watched the sailboat glide out into the bay and eventually disappear. Neither of us spoke for a long time. We were overwhelmed by the image of the woman holding the child and the metaphor there in implied. I said to Faye, “I think we have just seen an angel.” As you know, I believe that there are moments in life when all pretense and all affectation, all status and position are striped aside. It is in those moments when an individual, knowingly or unknowingly, simply steps forward and with instinctive, common humanity acts in a graceful and compassionate way, taking upon his or herself the burden, the heartache, or even the joy of another person. Those are moments of kindness and grace in which God reveals His love to us. They are fleeting moments of grace, often totally unrecognized at the time by the participants.

Jesus pointed to such a moment when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (publican). The Pharisee had done well by doing good. His piety was developed and extensive, and he had gone the extra mile in acts of devotion. His countryman, the tax collector, had sold out his people by becoming a “Quisling,” a collaborator with the occupying Romans. The tax collector’s hands were sullied by extortion, graft and venality. He was the antithesis of the professionally observant Pharisee. In his prayers the Pharisee listed his acts of devotion, done to serve God, and he was grateful that he had avoided the lot of the tax collector. In fact he was contemptuous of what the English would call the “villain.” On the other hand the tax collector knew in his heart who he was, his lack of integrity, broken self-respect and virtue. Even so, the tax collector had a basic self-awareness and sense of humanity, or conscience. Emotionally and morally striped and broken, he could only say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In that self recognition and in that act of acknowledgment there was a moment of grace. God heard his cry and blessed him. The Pharisee, who exalted in himself, was not justified. He had put himself at the center of his world and was “homeocentric.” Conversely, by throwing himself upon God’s grace, the tax collector placed God at the center of his world and became “theocentric.”

Jesus’ parable rings true to our own experiences of the constant contrast between pride and humility, between self-promotion and altruism. Daily we read in the papers of various political parties seeking to build themselves up by tearing others down. In the arena of religion the religious conservative right excoriates those who support gays, choice, and an ethically pluralistic society. In return, the ultra liberal left blisters the religious conservatives for lack of compassion and intelligence. Within the Church priests and laity vie for influence, the high moral ground, and spiritual authenticity and power. Races, ethic groups and religions despise each other, nations condemn one another — and all the while children die, hope dies, decency dies.

You and I know, we have learned it in church, we have felt it in our lives, that we must do good in order to serve God. And the good we do is truly good. But we also know that we have to do that good within the context of faith and trust in the power, justice and compassion of God. You and I know that we do not come to God’s table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in His manifold and great mercy. At best we are fragile and frail. We carry the burdens we have by the grace of God. Our small achievements are because God sustains us. Most of us know that we cannot earn our salvation by our own acts, for we are in many ways broken, ill formed and horribly vulnerable. We are blessed with moments of grace, of glimpses of grace, when with pure instinct or subtle reflex we respond with grace and compassion to our gracious creator and redeemer. Like the child in “Tug boat Annie’s” arms, like the crucified Jesus in the arms of Mary, so we are cradled and carried in the arms of our gracious God upon whom we ultimately place our trust.

In Christ Jesus you and I are assured that our gracious God hears our prayers and offers moments of grace to us constantly, guiding and sustaining us and others. You and I know that pride is always with us, flirting and coaxing, wheedling and enticing in its sinful way, tempting us to wear our religion on our sleave. You and I seek to fend off pride by genuine acts and postures of humility but they always seem to be self centered. In the last analysis, you and I know in our hearts that the antonym (the opposite) of pride is not humility, but faith. For it is faith in God, and in his gracious acts, that what true humility you and I have is grounded. You and I are called to be theocentric (God centered). Facing our journeys in life, confronting our public and private tempests, you and I have the assurance of Jesus on the cross, that our brokenness is assumed in His and our ultimate battle against hopelessness, evil and sin is born up in Christ’s victory over the grave and gate of death.

Today, this morning on a cool day in autumn, rejoice in the assurance that God is a gracious God, always offering moments of grace and compassion even at the most unexpected times. Amen.