By Kathy Berken
The day I stopped at Trader Joe’s I was not in the mood for God to show up out of nowhere. Tired after a series of meetings, I just wanted to get my groceries and go home. On the way out, a young woman handed me a leaflet. I asked her, “What’s this?” She said it was about Jesus Christ. I said thanks and kept walking and she kept talking. “It’s important to know Jesus Christ,” she said. “Thanks, I’ll remember that,” I said, and she walked away. I really wasn’t in the mood to have a theological discussion about soteriology, the doctrine about being saved.
I put the leaflet in my pocket rather than tossing it because she seemed different from the gray-haired man in the suit and topcoat who sat next to me on the Greyhound bus on my way home from college one weekend in 1969. I was just 19 and emerging with new Vatican II ideals, involved in campus ministry and Search retreats. I was learning to find Christ in others and to embrace Gospel values in social justice. “Have you been saved?” he asked almost immediately. “Um, well, sure,” I mumbled. For the next two hours, he preached to me about salvation, ideas for which I had no tools to respond intelligently. He had me there. I was a college kid, just beginning to find my new spiritual and religious footing.
Since then, a number of people have asked if I’ve been saved, handing me papers with warnings and accompanying Bible quotes. But because the young woman outside Trader Joe’s seemed less aggressive, I decided to read her leaflet. Amidst all the Bible quotes and Catholic bashing, something indeed caught my eye.
No, it wasn’t the picture of the gavel leaning against a Bible on the cover warning me that I will someday stand before God. No, it wasn’t all the bold-faced capital letters and exclamation points cautioning about hell and damnation. Instead, it was this headline: “You cannot work for it!” I agreed! You can’t work for any of God’s gifts, and in this Year of Mercy that notion especially is at the front of my mind. Mercy is a gift God gives without merit.
The headline was buried treasure in an otherwise fire-and-brimstone tract that said that salvation comes to us by faith alone and not by good works. I might have argued that in 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. Finally, after nearly 500 years, we officially agreed on a compromise. We do nothing to merit God’s grace; it is the Holy Spirit who equips us and calls us to do good works. Would I have wanted to have that conversation with the woman? Maybe.
My point is that these few words about unmerited gifts are what Pope Francis has been reminding us for some time. Mercy is not a reward for behaving well. As Father Ronald Rolheiser said recently, mercy is not dependent on anything we do. Not on guilt or innocence. Not on whether or not you think you deserve it. Mercy is a free gift, no strings attached.
Ah, but here’s the catch. Mercy comes in God’s time, not ours. When mercy feels far away, that’s because it always is. Unless you can predict the future, when we are in need of mercy even a minute can seem like eternity. So that’s where hope comes in to save us. We can ask God for something to hang onto, for some meaning, until mercy arrives. Or we can be the bearers of mercy to help lessen another’s time of suffering.
Yes, God showed up in the form of an enthusiastic young woman at Trader Joe’s with a message: here, take this paper, it’s a gift, it’s about Jesus. You didn’t ask for it and I don’t know if you even deserve it. It doesn’t matter. It’s yours, free of charge, no strings attached.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)