Year C 2019
October 13, 2019
“There but for the grace of God go I”. I have heard those words for most of my life. They are part of southern culture. These words mean ‘thank God we do not have to go through this aliment or this problem in life’. I know it is not meant this way but implicit in those words, if you listen carefully to them, is the belief that we can judge the love of God through the outward and visible gifts we receive. I know that is not what is often meant, but the words are clear. We can know the truth of God’s love for us if we do not have to face adversity. When we face adversity God’s grace is not there. God’s grace, God’s love has kept me from having those problems. It was a relationship with a man in Conyers, GA which changed how I understand these words.
Doug was one of the saints I have had the pleasure to get to know as priest. He graduated from high school and was accepted into college on an athletic scholarship. On his way to share that news, on a rain slick highway, Doug’s car spun off the road and he went backwards into a telephone pole. He was thrown through the back window of his car. His neck was broken, and he became a quadriplegic. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and lived in a nursing home. Doug died when he was 45.
I think I was always amazed at the man. Every Friday I would take communion to share with him. He would be ready for the visit. He had the nurses come and clean him, comb his hair and he had his Prayer Book and Bible in the desk attached to his chair. He shared with me and I shared with him and I was always amazed at the depth of grace he knew.
Doug was the president of the patient’s organization. He visited every patient in the nursing home to make sure that his or her rights were being advocated for. He was a vocal presence for the patients he served. He took the worst life could deal and from it he found a way to serve. I am stilled amazed at his spirit and God’s Spirit in him. I learned so much from Doug.
One week a parishioner went with me to visit. On the way out he said, “there but for the grace of God go I’. I knew what he meant but suddenly, I was overwhelmed. Doug was an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. It abounded in him. I don’t think the man who went with me understood his words. I know he did not mean to imply what the words said.
The wonderful story of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus has many parts which could be talked about. I want to talk about two; wholeness and gratitude; which are bound together for us if we want to understand what Doug did about God.
Jesus encounters ten lepers. The ten kept their distance as Jewish law required. They must have heard about Jesus and knew who he was. They probably heard about his power to heal and so they chanted to him, again required by law, “Unclean, Unclean” so that everyone would know not to come near them. They cried out to Jesus to have mercy. Jesus’ response to them is to go and show themselves to the priest at the temple which they did, and they were made clean. They were healed; again, acceptable to God. But one turns back and began to praise God and threw himself at Jesus’ feet.
Now comes the interesting part. Jesus says to this man ‘your faith has made you well’. There is a clear distinction between the physical healing which all received and being made well. Healing means more than getting fixed physically. Healing is more than physical perfection. It means more than getting the problems of sickness, disease, broken bodies … taken care of. The healing we seek is wellness and wholeness. We are a nation in need of wellness. We are a church in need of wellness. We are a people in need of wellness. Being healed of every disease and physical problem is not the same as being well in God’s Spirit.
Helen Keller wrote these words in response to walking through the woods with a friend, who at the end of the walk said she had seen nothing note-worthy.
“I wonder how it is possible to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing of note. I who cannot see find hundreds of things; the delicate symmetry of a leaf, the smooth skin of the silver birch, the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. I who am blind can give one hint to those who can see: use your eyes as if tomorrow you will be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the songs of the birds, the mighty strains of an orchestra as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never taste or smell again. Make the most of every sense. Glory in all the facets and pleasures and beauty which the world reveals to you”.
There is a common theme between Helen Keller, Doug and the Samaritan who returned to praise Jesus. Each found a way to give thanks. In the midst of what could have been darkness, they found light and they were made well. If we spend our time clamoring for money, or healing or power or whatever… if your life is always about what you don’t have, then we will never know the truth and joy intended by God for us. It was in this thanksgiving that each found that they were made well.