Sermon: “According to the Riches of His Grace” (July 12, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“According to the Riches of His Grace” (Ephesians 1:7)
July 12, 2015
Dave Johnson

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

This morning I am preaching from a verse in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in which the apostle assures us that “In (Jesus Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7).

Last year a classic 1986 teenage comedy film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It is a film I fondly remember seeing in a packed out cinema on a clear June evening with a group of my high school friends—all of us laughing hysterically at scene after scene. The film is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Matthew Broderick stars as Ferris Bueller, a popular senior in high school who on a perfect spring day decides to take the day off from his Chicago area high school. He convinces his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) to join him.

Ferris is notorious for skipping school, and Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is fed-up with Ferris’ antics and determined to catch him red-handed and punish him severely, if possible with the most dreaded punishment for any high school senior—making him repeat his senior year. Principal Rooney vents to his administrative assistant, Grace (Edie McClurg): “What’s so dangerous about a kid like Ferris Bueller is that he gives good kids bad ideas. The last thing I need at this point in my career is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.”

Grace stands up for Ferris, “Well, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies…they all adore him—they think he’s a righteous dude.” Principal Rooney is exasperated, “And that is why I have got to catch him this time…to show these kids that the example he sets is a first class ticket to nowhere!” “Oh Ed,” Grace replies “You sounded like Dirty Harry just then.” Principal Rooney feels encouraged, “Really?”

The film is bookended by Ferris looking at the camera and stating this: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” How true. One minute you’re a high school student with your friends in a movie theatre as Ferris Bueller says this to you, and the next minute you’re driving your own kids in high school with their friends in a van to Chattanooga for a mission trip as Ferris Bueller is being played on a DVD player in a rental van.

While the National Film Registry considers Ferris Bueller’s Day Off “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” I would add that in a unique off-the-wall way, it is also theologically significant. Why did all the different types of kids at Ferris Bueller’s high school love Ferris? As Grace bluntly informed Principal Rooney, all the students had been categorized and labeled—and yet all of them, in spite of their radical differences in personalities and interests, loved Ferris.

In fact, later in the film when the rumor spread that Ferris was missing school because he needed an organ transplant all these students began a fund-collecting campaign to “Save Ferris.” It was even projected on the scoreboard at Wrigley Field—“Save Ferris.” Why did all the labeled kids in his high school love him? Why did they want to “Save Ferris”? I suspect that all the labeled kids loved Ferris because Ferris did not label them or categorize them. Instead, in his own way, Ferris gave them grace, and loved them—and in return, they loved him back.

And when it comes to labeling people, things have not changed much since 1986, have they? We still label and categorize one another all the time based on what clothes we wear, the neighborhood in which we reside, the school we attend or attended, the vehicle we drive, where we vacation, how many “likes” we tally on our Facebook page, what kind of music we enjoy, what team we support. We label one another according to career phases—an up-and-comer, a has-been, a never-was. On and on it goes.

We mentally generate and affix labels on one another all the time. Little kids in elementary school are labeled according to their apparent or unapparent learning ability or athletic ability or musical ability or social ability, and the labeling fun never stops. Sadly some children labeled as “challenged” or “difficult” or “awkward” or “lacking self-confidence” internalize those labels and even as adults many years later, still see themselves that way.

Sometimes labeling can be quite literal. In the mid 90’s Steph and I lived in Sheridan, Wyoming for a year. There were some families at our church, St. Peter’s Episcopal, who had cattle ranches, and we were invited to a couple brandings at which I was invited to participate. As a product of the Northern Virginia suburbs I was way out of my element. Each calf was isolated and led into a pen two of us would wrestle it to the ground, keeping it pinned down while a third person branded it with the symbol of that particular ranch. As you could imagine, the calves did not enjoy their being branded or labeled, one bit.

On a side note this experience reminded me of Gary Larson’s hysterical cartoon strip, The Far Side, specifically the one that featured several terrified bulls watching as a cowboy heating up an enormous branding iron that would cover their whole side that read in huge letters: “This cow belongs to Daryl Jones, so hands off!”

We see the literal expression of labeling in literature as well—from Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter bearing an A for “adulterer” on her clothes, to Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables being branded with his prisoner number 24601.

Some of us label ourselves. When I was a kid my parents had a coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings that I enjoyed perusing. One featured a sailor with a weathered complexion getting yet another woman’s name tattooed on his left arm. Six names had been previously tattooed and lined through—Sadie, Rosietta, Ming Fu, Mimi, Olga, and Sing Lee—and the tattoo artist was now adding a new name under those crossed out: Betty. Beware, Betty!

Unfortunately labeling even happens in the church. Christians often label one another according to their denomination or stand on social issues or type of worship music or liturgical style. They label one another according to a predominant socio-economic representation—this church is a “blue collar” church, that one is a “town and gown” church, and that one over there is the “country club church.”

Clergy can be the worst with this, often labeling one another based on where they attended seminary or in what diocese they serve (this often determines which “club” you’re in)—or labeling people in the congregation as “seekers” or “nominal Christians” or “C and E’ers” (Christmas and Easter service attenders only) or “fully formed disciples”—using terms like “target audience” or “pledging units” like the church was a labeling machine of some kind. Really? Please make it stop!

Let me ask you this morning…how have you been labeled in your life? How have you been labeled by others—categorized, defined, stereotyped—by your family, by the church, by yourself? How has that made you feel?

The reality is whether we try to live up to our labels or live in defiance of them, either way we resent them. Labeling does not bring life. It undermines relationships and precludes authentic friendship, because who is interested in being a friend with someone who labels them? When labeling occurs, the walls go up.

Early in friendships or relationships people find themselves on edge, their “label detectors” in full operational mode, fearing being labeled. In 1964 Bob Dylan released a song called “All I Really Wanna Do” (later covered by The Byrds). In this song he tries to reassure a potential girlfriend who feared being labeled:

I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

(from his album Another Side of Bob Dylan).

And this is where the gospel comes in…Jesus did not label people.

People who were used to being labeled by others—lepers and lunatics, tax collectors and prostitutes, adulterers and thieves, religious leaders and fishermen—were not labeled by Jesus. Instead of labeling them Jesus loved them, and ministered to them “according to the riches of his grace.” Of course this meant that Jesus himself was labeled as a “Friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19)—a label incidentally, Jesus did not seem to mind, which is very good news for sinners like you and me.

But later Jesus was falsely labeled as a blasphemer by the religious leaders and falsely labeled as a threat by the political leaders. When Jesus was condemned to death—issued a “first class ticket to nowhere”—there was no campaign to “Save Jesus.” Instead, the labeling continued. Even as he was on the cross Jesus was labeled as a false messiah, mocked and jeered.

And even though “according to the riches of his grace” all Jesus wanted to do was be a friend, a true friend, to sinners, in response they still beat him, cheated him, and mistreated him—in response they denied him, defied him, and crucified him.

But that did not stop Jesus from redeeming these same sinners with his blood and that did not stop Jesus from forgiving them of their trespasses, because the riches of his grace are immeasurable. The riches of his grace are greater than any label.

And this applies to you…you have been redeemed by Jesus’ blood, and your trespasses have been forgiven. According to the riches of his grace a different scarlet letter labels you: L for loved—and because Jesus was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), your prisoner number has been permanently removed.
You will not have to repeat your senior year, and your name will never be crossed out.

Moreover, “according to the riches of his grace” the labels are removed, so that as Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians, the walls come down: “For (Jesus Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14). So when it comes to labeling others, well, “hands off.”

Rather than Ferris Bueller disciples running around the halls of a high school, imagine Jesus Christ disciples running around Valdosta simply loving people for the sake of the gospel—no labels, no strings attached—ministering freely by the power of the Holy Spirit “according to the riches of his grace.” That could be even more fun than skipping school.

Yes, life moves pretty fast, but not too fast for God’s grace. According to the riches of his grace, Jesus stopped and looked around for you so that you would not miss it.

Amen.