Martin Luther lived with the guilt of being a disappointment to his father. His dad had pulled his family into the middle class by his hard work as a merchant. He wanted even better for his son Martin. He wanted him to move into the ranks of the educated elite and become a lawyer. Luther was on his way to fulfilling his father’s dreams, when a bolt of lightning during a storm caused him instead to promise God a life of service as a monk, a career any peasant could aspire and far short of what his father hoped for Martin. His father never forgave him.
Maybe his father’s harsh judgment had something to do with Luther’s well documented difficulty trusting God. As a young man he never felt worthy of God’s love or sure of God’s forgiveness. He was a devoted monk, he performed pilgrimages, humbled himself, prayed faithfully, took direction well and endlessly confessed to his confessor the minutest details of any possible sinful behavior, but still with all of these good works, he was keenly aware how far short he was of the glory of God. God knew the real Luther, the selfish man that had destroyed the hopes of his father and family because of his own vanity.
Something changed in Luther’s life. He discovered grace. Grace is God’s unconditional love that sees beyond our brokenness, our sinfulness, our ugliness to our shared beauty within that is God’s image. When we discover grace, our lives change and we are empowered to change the world. This was true for Luther. Once lit on fire by grace, Luther became relentless in his insistence that all people of faith understand that God is not itching to condemn us, but longing to welcome us.
The story goes that Luther learned of grace when he was studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. I don’t want to undermine the power of scripture to change lives, but I imagine it differently because it seems to happen differently in my life and the lives of people I know. We discover God’s unconditional love for us, by experiencing grace as a gift given to us by others. Someone in Luther’s life had to have made the words of Paul in Romans come alive, for this is how grace is made known, when we dare to love each other unconditionally.
This is how Sarah found grace. She had gotten married at 19 in 1969, and had three kids by the time 1972 rolled around. In the eighties, she put herself through college against her husband’s objections and began to realize that she wanted different things from life than staying in her marriage would allow. So, with hardly a job, and kids beginning their teen years, she moved out of her house, renting a small home around the block of where her husband would stay. The world judged her harshly. She had left her husband and children to pursue her own self interests. Her church kicked her out, literally excommunicated her. Several of her children remained angry for years. Many friends never talked to her again.
In the 1990’s she became a grandmother and this was the start of what would change her life. In 1998 she wrote in her journal, I was put on this earth to be a grandmother. Suddenly, I have unconditional love returned. Sarah knew about God’s grace from her years in the church, but she had not received it it and thus unable to trust it. Knowing about grace is not enough. We have to experience it to trust it. The grace her grandchildren offered helped her trust God and love again. And like Martin Luther, grace changed Sarah’s life.
I believe so few people trust God’s grace because so few people experience it. The love we share for each other is rarely unconditional. We, myself included, are quick to judge and short on forgiving. This means we are also unable to forgive ourselves. Our worst sins define us and we make sure the worst sins of our neighbors define them and are remembered. Our judgment of others and ourselves chokes out grace. For the world to experience grace, we must practice forgiveness.
I have a friend whose father went away to prison when he was a teenager for being a pedophile. Pedophiles are the lepers of our day. If there is anyone who few forgive, it is pedophiles. We pass laws to keep them out of our communities when they get out of jail. In a world of politically correct language, we can say the most horrible things about pedophiles and no one cares. Because they have harmed children and their perversion turns our stomachs, for most of us they deserve what they get.
When my friend was in his thirties, his father was to be released from prison. The only problem was that there was no place for him to go. None of his family wanted him at their house. He couldn’t afford to rent a place. If he couldn’t get a place to live, he would have to stay in prison. His family was willing to let that happen, after all he was a pedophile. This is what he deserved.
My friend and his wife, both people of deep faith invited his father into their home to live with his three young sons. Even though this meant making their family vulnerable in very real ways, this was the most loving thing to do. Even though this meant earning the scorn of their neighbors for bringing a pedophile into their neighborhood, this was the most grace filled thing to do. No one else was willing to love this man, let alone forgive him. His son and his son’s wife alone showed him grace. While his neighbors and family, all Christians, said I believe in love and forgiveness and all that, but when it comes to this no way.
Grace never takes a pass because grace is unconditional. If we put conditions on it, limits, than it stops being Godly and simply becomes another human emotion. Romantic love is about how we feel now. Grace is how we promise always to feel no matter what. Romantic love gives us hope for a future that looks bright. Grace gives us hope in spite of how our future looks or how hopeful others believe our lives to be. When my friend’s father received forgiveness, and given grace to begin to hope and imagine a future.
Grace helps us see ourselves differently. Even the smallest gifts of grace can make a difference in our lives. In the 12th grade, my American Government teacher, Mrs. Hamilton gave me grace and helped me trust my future. In high school, I was the classic class clown. I had been made fun of throughout school so my defense had become to get them to laugh with me before they would start laughing at me. Class clowns are not welcome additions to a teacher’s classroom. Even though by 17 I should have been more mature, I spent the semester in her class cracking jokes, interrupting with stupid comments, and being generally a jerk. Everyone knew that Mrs. Hamilton did not like me.
On the last day of class, Mrs. Hamilton who had all seniors, would go around to each student, lay her hand on them, and lift up publicly what was special about them. The very real possibility that she could find nothing special about me honestly frightened me because of the potential humiliation. Her judgment would be the condemnation I frankly deserved. She came to me last. Mrs. Hamilton looked me right in the eye, with her hands on my shoulders and all other eyes in the class were on us. She said, “Karl, when you grow up, you will be surprised but I won’t at how wonderful you are going to become. I don’t think there is anything you won’t be able to do. You are very special.” Her judgment of love gave me hope and I believe was pivotal to how I changed in college.
Grace is trusted not by studying it or knowing more about it. Grace is made known, when we dare to love each other unconditionally. For the world to experience grace, we must practice forgiveness. Grace judges us by the potential within us, not by our worst actions. Grace changes our life, because we trust people again, God again, most importantly love ourselves again. When we experience grace, we find hope for the future and this hope gives us the power to change the world, just ask Martin Luther. Amen