Learning to Play into Love: The Blue of Grace

by Rev. Doug Gray

Leah Pelligrini tells the story of a guy who comes down with the flu. He’s the kind of guy who swims laps at the gym before work, who remembers to back up his computer on a weekly basis, who displays his kids’ crayon masterpieces in frames on his desk. He is used to being in control. But thanks to the flu, he is reduced to…” a dripping, miserable mess. “He is even forced to surrender the second half of a day when he had intended to Get Important Stuff Done.” Finally, the lunch hour drags in. He collapses into his car, crawls into his house and closes himself into his bedroom. We “can imagine him contorted under the covers with the curtains drawn, sniffling and writhing in the dark, and sputtering to himself through the garbles of congestion, “Everything is [garbage].” [1] At times, I have been that guy, maybe you have too—miserable, in the dark, feeling like nothing is going to get better, and if someone were to turn on the light, we feel like it would probably just hurt anyway. But light is just what we need.
Of course, the Bible is full of images of light. The first thing God says in the Bible is, “Let there be light!” And it was good. John would say of Jesus, “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5) One of the curious things about light is that it can be broken up into separate colors, and one way we use that electronically is to project red, green and blue to make color images on a screen. Christian Schwarz in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, uses this idea to help us talk about God’s love and our life with God. According to Schwarz, if we read the Old Testament closely, three words are used about God’s love all the time—hesed (grace), emunah (truth), and tsedaqah (justice). Over the next couple Sundays, we are going to explore all three of these, but it all starts with God’s love that blends all three of these perfectly together. In fact, as we will come to understand, in order to play into love we will need all of them. Today, we will focus on the blue of grace.
Grace is one of the few really good words Hallmark has not made too nice. It has a rich, complicated meaning for us. When you think of grace, what comes to mind? What is grace to you?

[take responses from the congregation]

Yes, wow! Excellent! Grace is indescribably beautiful and perhaps the best one word answer to who is God, because God’s love is grace. In the Old Testament, when the writers want to talk about God’s love—real love—the first word they start with in Hebrew is hesed. It’s not easily translated into English because at its core, hesed is a relationship that hangs in there, loves when it’s hard, forgives when it’s hurt, sacrifices when it’s not expected—love that gives itself away to make things better. And grace feels miraculous. In the movie, Bruce Almighty, God (played by Morgan Freeman) says that “a single mom who is working two jobs and still finds time to take her kid to soccer practice—that’s a miracle. A teen-ager says no to drugs and yes to an education—that’s a miracle.” For my money, the best English translation for hesed is steadfast love. But when we read the Bible for ourselves, we can find that rich, wonderful hesed translated as all kinds of things—mercy, love, covenantal love, compassion.
In our passages for today—yes, three of them!—we see God coaching us into the steadfast love of grace. Each of these passages helps us with a different piece of the hesed puzzle. The first piece of the hesed puzzle is to love with all we are. Before each of our children was in school, my day off during the week was often spent doing something with one of them. We’d go around and look at fish tanks, run errands for the family, play games in the yard—whatever would be fun for my 1–4-year-old at the time. One day I was getting phone calls from the office that were making it hard for me to focus on Hannah, and I saw a long-suffering look on her face and realized this was not the Dad I wanted to be. I thanked God for the insight, and after the second call, I silenced my phone, and put it away. Instantly, her face brightened and we went on to enjoy our time together, but I had to decide whether I was going to give her my whole attention or only part of it. Do we love like that? Do we love a little, but not give our whole heart? When we love, God longs for us to love like God—completely, utterly, ultimately. Go all in and love with all we are.
The second piece of the hesed puzzle is that love hangs in there. Do you ever do or say something, and afterward you think, “What was I thinking?!” I do it all the time! I try to have it together, keep it together—and sometimes it just comes out wrong or I do something I know better than to do. One of the things that astounds me in the world is that through all of those “What was a I thinking?!” moments, Cynthia has continued to love me. My parents have continued to love me. Steadfast love continues to hold on. Michael W. Smith sings, “And friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them. And a friend will not say never, ‘cause the welcome will not end.” That’s hesed, and it’s breath-takingly beautiful when someone’s love hangs in there.
The final piece of the hesed puzzle is that love is scandalously open-hearted. In the Old Testament, God chooses a couple, Abraham and Sarah, for a special, covenantal relationship. Why Abraham and Sarah? I don’t know! We can make guesses, but at the end of the day, we don’t know! That God chooses a single family—Abraham’s family—to become God’s special, chosen people—to love and defend and sacrifice and teach—it’s a scandal! Abraham and Sarah and their family are not right all the time, and sometimes they get it really wrong, but still God chooses them, loves them. According to Genesis, God’s vision was that the whole world would be blessed through these people, that they would be a light to the nations. Through these people God wants to show special care to the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst, to change people’s hearts. Hosea speaks for God, “I desire hesed and not sacrifice.” In the fullness of time, Jesus came to broaden this mission, so that the whole world might receive this same scandalous invitation from God: “I love you! And I want to be with you forever!” It’s the love we see as a father throws a party for a son who has squandered his wealth. It’s the love Jesus explains as he describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a heavenly banquet where God is going to make sure everyone comes in. That may offend us. Perhaps we want only the nice people, the good people to make it in, and Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps we want only the hard-workers or the people who look like us, and Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” God loves each person—even the ones we may not like—as if they were the only one. God’s love seems to be scandalously open-hearted.
And we can get grumpy sometimes. The world doesn’t go the way we want it to. We can be sick of body and diseased of soul, thinking to ourselves, maybe even thinking about ourselves, like the guy with the flu, “Everything is garbage.” The story teller continues, “After a few hours as he tossed and turned and ached, he heard tiny footsteps on the stairs, footsteps that paused briefly before gently opening his bedroom door. As he was about to rasp, ‘Please, please go away and leave me alone,’ he heard the voice of his 3-year-old son who said, ‘Daddy, I just came to hurt with you. I just came to hurt with you.’ The little boy crawled into bed beside him, put his arms around his neck and taught him as he would later reflect, the true meaning of what it means when we say Emmanuel, God with us.” That God is with us, [2] that we are loved—it’s a gift. Grace. Like all true grace, it reminds us that we are anything but garbage, that we are beautiful and wanted, that everybody is. God is with us and we are loved, and grace will play anywhere.

[1] Based on Leah Pelligrini’s (https://thecorestories.com/story-light/) retelling of the true story originally told by The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/

[2] Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/