Sermon: “His Embrace of Grace” (June 5, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“His Embrace of Grace” (Galatians 1:15-16)
June 5, 2016
Dave Johnson

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

For the second straight year Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are battling LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA championship.  Stephen Curry is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, pure shooters in NBA history.  During this past regular season made over 400 three-point shots, eclipsing his previous record, and for the second straight year was named the NBA’s most valuable player.

But when he was drafted out of Davidson College, many doubted Stephen Curry’s potential.  In fact, his 2009 NBA Draft Report reflected a very different perspective.  My daughter Becky, who also went to Davidson, sent me a Youtube video in which Stephen Curry reads this draft report about himself in a voiceover during footage of his intense training and practice.  Listen to this:

Stephen Curry: 6’3”, 185 pounds.  Position: point guard.  Stephen’s explosiveness and athleticism are below standard.  He is not a great finisher around the basket.  He needs to considerably improve in his ball handling.  He often struggles against physical defenders.  Stephen must develop as a point guard in order to make it in the league.  He will have limited success at the next level.  Do not rely on him to run your team.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLb8AwuZ7N8)

In his fascinating 2015 book, The Wright Brothers, David McCullough describes the “draft report” of two bike mechanics named Orville and Wilbur Wright:

They had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own…(but they did have) the entirely real possibility that that some point they could be killed (35).

Draft reports are not always accurate.

In today’s lesson from his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul gives us a glimpse of his “draft report”: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism.  I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).  In addition, in his First Letter to Timothy Paul refers to himself as “formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy1:13)—not exactly the draft report you would expect for the one destined to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and write thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.

And yet Paul experienced the reality that there is something that superseded his draft report, indeed something that supersedes every draft report, the grace of God—as he also writes in today’s passage:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being (Galatians 1:15-16).

Paul was called through the grace of God, and that grace changed everything.  Near the end of the Book of Acts, Paul is testifying before Agrippa and recounts how he experienced the grace of God on the road to Damascus this way:

When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.”  I asked, “Who are you, Lord?”  The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.  I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:14-18).

Even though Paul was guilty of violently persecuting and trying to destroy the church, he was still called through the grace of God by Jesus Christ and appointed as the Apostle to the Gentiles.  It all came back to the grace of God.

Think about your life for a moment.  What draft reports have been written about you?  How have those impacted you?  Have you lived up to them or tried to prove them wrong?  The reality is that throughout our lives we hear all sorts of draft reports about ourselves—from parents, teachers, coaches, employers, maybe even our in-laws—and in our minds we write our own draft reports too don’t we?

One of my favorite teachers growing up, and one who showed me grace before I had any idea of what it was, was my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Cole.  Each and every day of school, regardless of our questionable social skills or even more questionable personal hygiene, Mrs. Cole greeted every of us with a hug and a smile, “So glad you’re here today.”  In addition to teaching us many subjects she also read us J. R. R. Tolkien books and got to know each of us individually.

One day after reading another passage from Tolkien she put the book down and said, “I’m going to predict what each of you are going to be when you grow up.”  And one by one she made her predictions—“You’re going to be a police chief.  You’re going to be a famous writer.  You’re going to be a doctor.  You’re going to be movie star”…on and on she went.  Everyone was eager to hear her prediction, to hear their “draft report” from Mrs. Cole.  When she got to me, guess what she said?  “Dave, you’re going to be the President of the United States.”  (Thankfully there is no way that will ever come to pass).  But I never forgot that—to an insecure sixth grader with bucked teeth, stubborn cowlicks, and acute acne that draft report contained words of grace.

And to Paul, a violent persecutor of the church—sometimes, as with Stephen, violent to the point of death—Jesus said, “You’re going to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.”  As Paul put it, God had called him through his grace.

And it is the same with you.  Jesus’ draft report of you is filled with words of grace

Last week I read Pope Francis’ recent book, The Name of God is Mercy (2016), in which he brilliantly distills the essence of the gospel centered in the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ.  The book contains various questions posed by veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli and Pope Francis’ responses.  At one point Tornielli writes, “You have said many times, ‘God never tires of forgiving, it is we who get tired of asking him for forgiveness.’  Why does God never tire of forgiving us?”  Pope Francis replies:

Because he is God, because he is mercy, and because mercy is the first attribute of God.  The name of God is mercy…The more we acknowledge that we are in need, the more shame and humility we feel, the sooner we will feel his embrace of grace…Mercy will always be greater than any sin, no one can put a limit on the love of the all-forgiving God.  Just by looking at him, just by raising our eyes from ourselves and our wounds, we leave an opening for the action of his grace.  Jesus performs miracles with our sins, with what we are, with our nothingness, with our wretchedness” (85-86).

That is exactly what happened to Paul.  In response to Paul’s violent persecution Jesus gave Paul what Pope Francis brilliantly called “his embrace of grace”—and performed a miracle with Paul’s sins, turning him from a violent persecutor of the church to the Apostle to the Gentiles.

And yet some of us may still live our lives trying to prove wrong the various draft reports that have been written or spoken about us.  Some, like Stephen Curry and the Wright Brothers, may do just that; others, not so much.  But regardless of these draft reports, Jesus calls all of us through his grace—and not only that, offers each of us “his embrace of grace” again and again, particularly in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

In her poignant and at times hilarious 2015 book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how this has proven true for a parishioner in her church:

Stephen looks like an aging movie star, is the VP at a Fortune 500 company, is a state-wide elected official, lives in a loft downtown, and is still a hot mess of low self-esteem issues.  I had recently preached a sermon about the love of God, and later that week as Stephen and I sat in the basement of a local coffee shop, he said, “Man, I wonder what my life would look like if I really believed this?  How would my life be different if I was not scared, if I really believed that I am fully and totally loved by God?”  Then he added, “No wonder we have liturgy and Eucharist every week.  I have to hear this at least that often” (70).

Perhaps what is true for Stephen is true for you… it certainly is for me.

Every time you receive Holy Eucharist you are receiving Jesus’ “embrace of grace”—a tangible reminder that Jesus’ “draft report” of you is full of words of grace and supersedes any other draft report, period.  Pope Francis is exactly right—“God never tires of forgiving, it is we who get tired of asking him for forgiveness”—and Holy Eucharist reminds us that are fully forgiven, fully loved.

Back to the Wright Brothers for a moment…McCullough concludes his book with an account of very special flight:

In all the years they had been working together Wilbur and Orville had never once flown together, so if something were to go wrong and one of them should be killed, the other would live to carry on with the work.  But on this day at Huffington Prairie, where they had developed the first practical flying machine ever, the two of them, seated side by side, took off into the air with Orville at the controls…To many then and later, it seemed their way of saying they had accomplished all they had set out to do and so at last saw no reason to postpone any longer enjoying together the thrill of flight.

But there was one more passenger on this special flight: Orville and Wilbur’s father, Bishop Milton Wright.  McCullough continues:

Of the immediate family of 7 Hawthorne Street, only Bishop Wright had yet to fly.  Nor had anyone of his age ever flown anywhere on earth.  He had been with the brothers from the start, helping in every way he could, never losing faith in them or their aspirations.  Now, at eighty-two, with the crowd cheering, he walked out to the starting point, where Orville, without hesitation, asked him to climb aboard…They took off, soaring over Huffington Prairie at about 350 feet for a good six minutes, during which the Bishop’s only words were, “Higher, Orville, higher!” (253).

Regardless of the draft reports of your life, Jesus, whom the Bible calls “the Bishop of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25, KJV), has been with you from the start and has helped you any way he could—even giving his life on the cross for you.

Like the Apostle Paul, Jesus has called you through his grace and offered you “his embrace of grace”—and he still does.

Amen.