Christ Centered Resources

The Alphabet of Grace

Rev. Ed Searcy

Ephesians 2:1-10
University Hill United Church : Sun, March 9, 1997
They say that to know where you are going you have to know where you have come from. The same is true for individuals and countries and churches, too. The past is always alive in the present shaping our identity. Yes, to know where you are going you have to know where you have come from. And when it comes to the church we have a pretty good idea where we have come from. Just listen to the statisticians and the sociologists. For that matter, just look at the aging photographs in the archives. We were once a big church ... a big church with overflowing Sunday Schools and power ... power to shape social policy at the highest levels. In those days membership grew with each passing year and budgets were met. Those were the days ... the days when every school child knew the stories of Moses and Noah and probably Zaccheaus, too ... even knew how to spell it. We have come from a church full of life. Or so the story goes. But we know otherwise, of course. No matter what the historians or sociologists say ... no matter the rumours and myths and theories of a 'Golden Age' we know otherwise. We don't come from life. No. We have come from death ... from a life enslaved to the 'ruler of the power of the air', from a world that stands judged a broken down failure. This is our story, says Paul, our true story. How can we be a church in decline a church facing death when that is where we have come from? We were dead! Oh, it may not have felt like it to many ... but those who were around University Hill a decade ago how hopeless things looked. Still, it is hard not to believe what the experts tell us. Prophets abound armed with statistics and anecdotes that show the slow, steady decline. The cynical portray the church now on the sidelines ... although its not clear: the sidelines of whose game? The thing is, we know no such golden story. All gossip and rumours. By grace we have been saved. That is what we know. That is our story, our history, our sociology: our life. By grace, we have been saved: we are alive together with Christ. Alive when once we were dead; raised up, when once we followed the course of this world. Who can we thank for this resurrection? We know what the world says. 'You've got to pull yourself up your own bootstraps' ... 'There's no free lunch' ... 'To succeed in the real world you have to be a self-made man or woman'. This is the common sense that we inhale every day. This is what passes for 'wisdom' among those who follow the ruler of the power of the air. This is "the spirit that now is at work among those who are disobedient". Then one day a phone call comes to the church office. "Can you tell me where to find the saying ‘God helps those who help themselves’ in the Bible?” And no matter how hard you try she won’t believe that the Bible speaks no such word. No, the Bible's wisdom counters the wisdom of the world. It announces that God helps those who cannot help themselves. "This is not your own doing" ... that's what the Bible proclaims. Well, it doesn't take a lot of wisdom to see that. It isn't our doing. Never has been; never will be. It is the gift of God. But, oh, it is easy to forget ... easy to forget in a world of families and companies that live by another wisdom. That is why we bump into the font every time we gather here ... and every time we depart. "You were dead", it announces as we walk past, "and now you are alive" ... Stubbing a toe on the base of the font we hear its reminder: "Once you were enslaved in Egypt but now you are free in the land of promise" ... Then comes the whispered gospel: "and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." These are the 'abc's' of Christian faith. This is the alphabet of grace ... the stuff from which we fashion our own peculiar language ... and our own surprising stories. Surprising stories ... surprising, in part, because on the surface we look the same as anyone else. We hear the words dead and alive and imagine a God whose miracles are there for all to see. A deity like the one portrayed in the movies by George Burns. You remember, don't you? God as a cigar chomping, wisecracking grandfather who only needs to snap a finger or wink an eye to perform the impossible. Yet those "Oh! God" movies have it wrong. God's rich mercy does not work in the foreground ... rather, God's tender mercies go almost unnoticed in the background. "Tender Mercies". It has been over a decade since Robert Duval won the Academy Award as best actor for his role the movie of that name. ‘Tender Mercies’ is a quiet little film that portrays the almost hidden handiwork of God in the life of a broken down country singer named Mac Sledge. Watching the movie you can almost miss the fact that hidden under the sparse dialogue and in amongst the barren landscape the God of Ephesians, chapter two is doing it again ... gracing an undeserving man with new life ... life that he does not ask for or seek or earn ... life that comes as pure, unadulterated grace. The movie opens with Mac waking from a two day drunken sleep, broke and alone, bitter and angry, in the middle of nowhere, East Texas. A once famous singer he is dead. Yet slowly, ever so slowly, the gentle hospitality of a young widow and her son grace him with life. It is a low-key movie. There are no dramatic moments of conversion ... no "Oh! God" miracles to 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over. In 'Tender Mercies' you have to pay attention or you will miss the incremental changes in the great miracle that the movie is witness to. In the middle of the movie, Mac and the young boy Sunny are driving home from church following their baptism by the Baptist preacher. Sunny says "Well, we done it Mac, we were baptized. Everybody said I was gonna feel like a changed person. I guess I do feel a little different but not a whole lot different. Do you?" Mac shakes his head. No lightning bolt has struck him so far. Sunny says, "You don't look any different" and Sledge smiles, "not yet". There is no visible sign of God changing their lives. And yet, to view this movie is to witness the unmistakeable hand of a God whose tender mercies utterly transform a life. Invisibly, somwehere off camera, Mac's life is reborn. In the movie's final scene, as Mac and Sunny throw a football in the middle of an East Texas dirt farm there can be no mistaking it. "By grace he has been saved ... and this is not his own doing ... it is the gift of God." This is what is happening here, too. Whether we know it or not, whether we can see it or not, by grace we are being saved. We come here having failed ... failed to fulfill the dreams of our mothers and fathers failed to live up to the expectations of our spouses and children. failed to do what God surely wants us to do. We come dead in our tresspasses. Yet here we find home, shelter and family. Here we find life in spite of ourselves. This is who we are ... refugees who have no right to claim citizenship in the Commonwealth of God. No passport no work visa no nothing to show at the gates of the Kingdom. By all rights we do not belong here ... we have no business being here. And yet we are here, welcomed in by God's tender mercy. For God chooses to place no quota on the number of refugees who may enter the Kingdom. Remember G.K Chesterton describing his reasons for becoming a Christian? "It was their attitude", he said. "These Christians did not live as if they took life for granted. Instead they lived lives of gratitude. And", said Chesterton, "I wanted to do the same." Lives of gratitude. Perhaps this is what it means to say that we are not self-made people but rather that "we are what he has made us created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." Paul includes in his description of the grace of God the type of lives that are its result: "Good works" he says come as the product of grace ... God's love is the seed bed of social action not its reward. God's grace shapes personality and character in such a way that gratitude and grace become our way of life. My wife Wendy works in an Extended Care Facility. Every day she works with the frail elderly as they face the harsh realities of aging ... loosing independence, mobility, memory, friends. Loss is a way of life in Extended Care. Joy is not common currency there. But one couple does not seem to understand. He comes to visit her every day ... bringing flowers and candies. They have been married for decades ... but it is as if they have just fallen in love. They laugh and smile with abandon. Walking past them last week, Wendy overheard another resident say: "What are you two so happy about? You're going to confuse the rest of us!". That's it, isn't it?! A people who live in gratitude, a people whose story is not one of life giving way to death but of death giving way to life, will certainly confuse others. After all, the world has spent a lifetime figuring it all out ... learning that there is no 'free lunch', no undeserved grace for the asking. When, out of nowhere comes a people with a different tale to tell and a different story to live. We speak in the peculiar accents of God who confounds the common sense of our age with invisible but umistakeable love ... freely given. And we live, not 'waiting for the other shoe to drop' not avoiding the sad stories of other broken lives but trusting in the tender mercies of God to bring forth life out of death. No wonder we are to warmly welcome the stranger, in spite of our fear. No wonder we find ourselves freely loving the neighbour, in spite of the cost. No wonder we will surely make room for the refugee and free lunch for the homeless in spite of all the ambiguities and complexities that are involved. When you have been dead and are now alive your perspective changes ... and ours has. When you have been dead and are now alive you see things differently ... and we do. When you have been dead and are now alive you are eternally grateful ... and we are.