I was trying to remember what I was doing five years ago at this time. The summer of 2011. That summer there was brutal warfare in Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, Hurricane Irene was working its way up the East Coast, the bitter fighting in Congress between the Democrats and the Republicans almost resulted in the government defaulting. I remember taking a little vacation out to LA and San Francisco with some friends, and hearing on the radio about a mission that NASA had just launched. And five years and 1.73 billion miles later, the Juno spacecraft slipped into orbit around Jupiter this past week on July 4th. Jupiter, which scientists believe was the first planet of our solar system formed when a star exploded five billion years ago. The hope was that by exploring that planet, Juno would help us understand how our world came to be, and how indeed we came to be.
On the most difficult day of my 400 mile pilgrimage in Spain last month, I attempted to walk almost 45 miles. After climbing up and down two mountains and walking for 16 hours, I approached the goal for the night--a small city called Gijon--with pain in my back, in my hips, and in my feet. I stopped to rest, and looked up at the night sky. It was filled with stars, and even though I was suffering, I was in awe at the astounding sky above me. It was one of those moments when you realize you are part of something way greater than your puny brain can really comprehend. Juno, without my knowing it, was coming to the end of its own long and lonely journey.
Suddenly a mass of clouds approached, like someone dragging a giant blanket over the earth, and it started to rain. I got up to walk, and I felt really crippled--my body resisting any more steps forward. I realized that I couldn’t make it on my own to the hostel where I was staying. Just a little ways up the street there was a restaurant that had just shut off its lights, closing for the night. I hobbled towards it, and when I got to the locked door, I knocked. Someone was cleaning up inside, and he ignored me. The rain was starting to really come down, and I was desperate and in a lot of pain. I knocked again. Someone else appeared inside, and he hesitated a moment, but then approached and cracked the door open. I’m sure I looked a mess, a huge pack on my back, my hair and my clothes soaked to the skin, my glasses fogged over. I sputtered out in broken Spanglish something about a taxi. If the guy could see my eyes, he would have noticed that I was on the verge of crying. I could see him deliberating, hesitating again.
And then the miracle: he understood my pain and my panic, and he opened the door. He had food for me to eat, and he called me a taxi and waited with me until it finally came to take me all the way across to the other side of the city. I never would have made it on my own. When that taxi came, I insisted on giving him some money. He refused several times, and helped me into the car with a gentle smile and arm around my back. I was never so grateful as I was that night.
The next morning I looked up at the morning sky. The rain was gone and so were the clouds. The sun hadn’t yet risen, and the moon was still very visible as the sky was brightening. I recalled, with gratitude, the kindness of the previous night. Somewhere on the other side of the city, my savior was probably sleeping, and I was glad.
And I suddenly remembered the beggars and homeless people who hung out around the cathedral in the last city I had entered several days before. I had been told to beware of them, and to be sure my valuables were always secure. As I have learned in NY, you can’t be too trusting. I deliberately made a wide berth around all of them, trying to avoid their pleading eyes and outstretched hands.
For weeks I had been walking across astonishingly magnificent landscapes along the northern coast of Spain. Everywhere the power of nature was on dramatic display—how wind and water had indifferently and brutally had their way in shaping solid rock and soft earth into giant natural monuments and spectacular cliffs. I looked out upon the crashing, pounding waves and marveled at the beauty, but I also recognized their power to destroy and to kill the life that struggled all around it to survive.
Sometimes it is good the try to get a bigger picture, a God’s-eye perspective on things. You know, our home--this earth with its continents and oceans--is really a small potato when you consider Juno’s journey 1.75 billion miles out to Jupiter, and everything that exists beyond it, billions of galaxies with billions of stars and their own planets. The universe out there is cold, and dark, and perhaps indifferent. But at least here on our small rock of a planet, there is something embedded that makes it holy. It is called grace.
On a rainy night in Spain, grace was at work. Someone was kind for no good reason at all. The rain came in torrents, regardless of whoever was caught up in it. It was indifferent to the plight of a pilgrim who could no longer walk. But a man in a restaurant wasn’t.
The universe is composed of two great competitive forces that clash through everything, including our lives: nature versus grace. Nature is hard-edged, violent, competitive. It’s the tough side of the lives we experience. Grace is compassion, gentleness, mercy, forgiveness. It is the expression and effect of love. Without grace, life anywhere could not survive.
At the moment you and I were conceived, grace was embedded within the embryonic cells from your mama and your papa that joined together to create your life. That is the difference between us and a rock: we were born with a secret, divine ingredient within the spinning atoms of our bodies. We were born with the potential for compassion, gentleness, mercy, forgiveness. Every baby across the world coming out of her mother’s womb at this very moment as we sit here is filled with that secret ingredient, a seed waiting to be watered and fertilized so that it might flower into goodness as it grows.
Grace is what makes us all the same, don’t you see, it is what makes us all related to one another, don’t you know, it is what makes us all brothers and sisters, one family, one tribe--regardless of what we look like, where we are planted, how we are made.
Grace enables us to wipe away the artificial differences that separate us, it enables us to seek and to reveal the real truth about everything, especially ourselves. Grace can enable us to do amazing things, far more astounding than the feats of nature, even to raise one another from the dead.
As Juno fell into orbit around Jupiter, it began to probe the origins of the matter that makes up our home: the gases, the liquids, the chemicals that swirl and combine and explode. But its investigations cannot not and will not reveal the Source that is far more powerful than anything in the universe: the power that directs us to love one another, no matter our skin color or our religious beliefs, our sexuality, our political thoughts, the history of our particular tribe, or the color of our uniforms. Grace, which is embedded in everyone—everyone--who lives in Minneapolis, or Baton Rouge, or Dallas, or Spain, or Syria, or Korea, or Harlem, the South Bronx, or Bed Sty or Meier’s Corner, or Huegenot or St George.
The story of the Good Samaritan is about grace, which enables us to see one another as brothers and sisters, and not as someone dangerous or an enemy. Grace empowers us to reach out to one another, to help one another--not just on a rainy night, or in a ditch beside the road, but every day. To take care of one another and every one of our children. To listen to one another, to share our blessings with one another, to bear one another’s burdens and pains. The story of the Good Samaritan is not about every one for themselves, the self-made man or woman pulling themselves up on their own bootstraps with sheer hard work and determination. It is about the holiness that we share with one another, that we owe to one another, that makes the universe in which we live more than a cold, indifferent place.
As Juno circles Jupiter, we need to circle one another down here, our arms outstretched, our guns discarded. We need to engage the grace that is embedded deep within each and every one of us. We need to listen to one another, to learn from one another, and most especially, we need to love one another.
We are all on a pilgrimage, we are all of us on the journey of our lives.
Who is my neighbor, someone asks Jesus. The way to find your neighbor is to become one.
It takes grace, and that, thank God, is in every one of us.