Sermon: “Covered by Grace” (June 29, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Covered by Grace” (Romans 6:14)
June 29, 2014
Dave Johnson

Posted July 1, 2014

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Receiving the call to be your next rector is a tremendous privilege and honor—Christ Church is an amazing church—and I am humbled and thrilled to be here!

My family and I have been overwhelmed by the gracious welcome you have given us—in my opinion if you were to do a Google image search for “southern hospitality” a picture of Christ Church, Valdosta should be the first image that pops up—thank you so much! When we arrived Monday night there was a beautiful welcome basket on the kitchen counter, filled with all sorts of wonderful gifts, including a homemade CD with a collection of hits from 1968, the year in which “a friend of mine” and his wife were born.

I was out running errands late the other night and put the CD on in my truck, and the first song happened to be The Beatles’ classic, Hey Jude, which (for those of you keeping track) remained at number one on the Billboard charts for nine weeks, the longest of any of the twenty number one songs by The Beatles. Paul McCartney wrote Hey Jude for Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s son, to encourage him after his parents’ divorce. You probably know the opening lines:

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better

Last month I had the privilege of taking a trip to England with my oldest daughter, Cate. We spent a few days with some friends near Liverpool and we saw all sorts of Beatles sites. We went to St. Peter’s, Woolton where Paul McCartney and John Lennon met as teenagers at a youth group party (and also where Eleanor Rigby is buried), we saw Strawberry Fields, drove down Penny Lane, and toured the childhood homes of both Lennon and McCartney.

When Paul McCartney was a boy his family moved to a modest post-World War II government-built townhouse. His parents could not afford to pay full price for wallpaper and carpet, but his mother, desiring to have wallpaper and carpet to cover the ugly walls and floor of their family room, purchased cheap remnants of each, so that there were literally three differently types of wallpaper cobbled together to cover the walls, and three different carpet remnants cobbled together to cover the floor. It was there that Paul went through the turmoil of adolescence, there that his mother died when he was fourteen, there that he began writing songs.

In today’s passage from his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul writes about something that radically changed his life, something that covers all the ugly walls and floors of our lives, something that takes a sad song and makes it better …the grace of God.

“You are not under law,” Paul writes, “but under grace” (6:14).

The Apostle Paul had been a rising star among the Pharisees, a religious sect that emphasized one thing and one thing only—keeping the law. As you know, he vigorously persecuted Christians, harassing them, arresting them, and as in the case of Stephen, overseeing their execution, but on the road to Damascus Paul encountered the Risen Lord who gave him grace, and that grace changed the entire trajectory of his life. He went on to preach about the grace of God in Jesus Christ for about three decades until he was beheaded under the Roman Emperor Nero.

Near the end of his life in a letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul refers to himself prior to his conversion as “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” He then tells Timothy what he received from Jesus:

I received mercy… and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost (I Timothy 1:12-15).

“The grace of our Lord overflowed for me,” Paul writes.

And the grace of God not only overflowed for the Apostle Paul, it overflows for you. You are not under law, but under grace.

When I was in elementary school I had two different teachers who showed me very clearly the difference between being under law and being under grace.

When I was in first grade my family moved to Springfield, Virginia, just south of Washington D.C. On a bright windy chilly March morning my Dad walked me to my new classroom. I remember my heart racing and the palms of my hands sweating as I walked into that classroom as the new kid in class. I was given a seat on the left side of the front row. The day was going fine until I committed a cardinal sin. During quiet time, during which the lights were dimmed and everyone was to sit in silence and color at their desks, I did the unthinkable and whispered to the girl next to me, “Could I borrow a red crayon?”

The kids all looked stunned and began their collective “oooooooh…” and the teacher, whose name I don’t even remember, scolded me and made me stay in during recess and write “I will not talk during quiet time” over and over again on the chalkboard. From that moment on I was paranoid around that teacher, knots in my stomach, operating from a stance of fear instead of freedom, and I couldn’t wait for summer.

That’s the law.

Several years later I walked into school on the first day of sixth grade. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Cole, and the first thing she did when I walked into the classroom was give me a big hug and a huge smile. “I’m so glad you’re in my class,” she said, “we’re going to have a great year!” And each and every day of school, regardless of our questionable social skills or even more questionable personal hygiene, Mrs. Cole greeted each of us with a hug and a smile, “So glad you’re here today.” That was my favorite year of school, hands down, and the only year that I was actually sad on the last day of school.

That’s grace.

And when it comes to your relationship with God, you are not under law, but under grace, as John writes in the prologue to his account of the gospel: “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:15-16).

In his brilliant book Grace in Practice Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl describes this grace of God:

Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable…Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures… Grace is one-way love (36).

Let me share a true story of something that happened to me in early December many years ago. I was in my office on a Tuesday morning and an Episcopal priest friend of mine named Chuck, someone older and much wiser than me, called me out of the blue and asked me if I had any lunch plans. I didn’t and we met at a Ruby Tuesday awhile later. During lunch he asked me about me and my family, about how the ministry was going—no other agenda. At the end of lunch he insisted on paying for it, and as he was signing the credit card slip he asked me if I had any plans for the next hour or so. I didn’t, and he asked me if I could please meet him at Sam’s Club and help him with something.

As we both walked into Sam’s Club a few minutes later he asked me if I would do him the favor of allowing him to buy me and my family some food for the holidays. I was completely caught off guard, and he was just smiling. “Sure,” I said, “That’d be really great.”

It was so awkward at first. I just wandered around with the cart, not knowing where to start. He laughed, “Do you all like chicken?” he asked. I nodded and placed some chicken in the cart. I was trying to be a “good steward,” so I was getting things that were “good for you”—bread and vegetables and the like—but he continued, “Do you like steak?” I smiled, “Oh yeah.” I grabbed a couple cheap steaks but he stopped me— “I’ll pick the steaks out”—and he then grabbed a stack of the most expensive steaks and placed them in my cart.

A few minutes later he said he’d be right back, and after a moment he returned…with a second cart. He laughed, “This is so much fun! You and Steph like beer and wine, right? Load up—and get lots of snacks and desserts too.” Soon we had two carts heaping with groceries, even the racks under the carts were packed.

As we went through the checkout line I asked if I could at least pay for some of it—I wanted to “do my part.” But he insisted on paying for all of it—“I’ve got it all covered,” he smiled. Then we went to the parking lot and he helped me unload everything into the bed of my truck.

He grinned and gave me a big hug and thanked me for letting him do that! Then he got into his Volvo and drove off. I sat in my truck completely stunned, overwhelmed by Chuck’s kindness. It began to rain so I quickly drove home and my family and I laughed as we unloaded the truck in the pouring rain.

Chuck took the initiative and reached out to me. Chuck paid for lunch. Chuck paid for two overflowing carts of groceries. Chuck covered all of it.

And the grace of God, the unconditional love of God for sinners and sufferers, which includes you and me, covers everything.

One of my favorite Christian writers is the late Brennan Manning. Throughout the past twenty years his books have ministered the grace of God to me again and again. He died a little over a year ago and in his final book, All is Grace, he writes this:

My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is the message of grace…It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all of our might to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough. (192 and 194).

Brennan Manning is exactly right—the grace of God is not cheap, it’s free. It costs you nothing because it cost Jesus everything.

In today’s Old Testament lesson God commanded Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Isaac carried the wood on his back up the mountain, and Isaac was later bound to that wood. And of course at the last moment the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham and instead of offering Isaac, Abraham offered a ram that the Lord provided.

This powerful story points to something much more powerful that happened thousands of years after Abraham, when Jesus Christ, the only and beloved Son of God, carried the wood of the cross upon his back up a different mountain and was nailed to that wood. And there was no ram provided to take Jesus’ place because Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken your place and my place, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, whose blood covers everything.

You don’t need to try to cobble together various remnants to cover the sin in your life; it is already completely covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of the one-way love of God, the unconditional love of God, the overflowing grace of God…for you.

And this overflowing grace of God for you takes the “sad song” of your sin, and makes it better, and it means you can operate from a stance of freedom, not fear.

The good news of the gospel is that “you are not under law, but under grace”—you are fully covered by the grace of God.

Amen.