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"Three stories of Grace"

We were enemies once and so we were as good as dead. But God loved us; God reached out to us; God saved us by grace.


[1] “Grace and Hope Mission,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library
[1] “Grace and Hope Mission,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Ephesians 2:1-10

March 10,024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


The first three chapters of Ephesians are widely regarded as a baptismal liturgy. No wonder the lectionary picks our text to include during a season that was used by the ancient church to prepare people for that sacrament!


Fred Craddock runs with the idea, asking, “What most needs to be impressed on the candidate on the occasion of being set apart for God and God’s service in a world confused and estranged from its Creator?”[2]


“The Ephesians text answers the question experientially,” Craddock observes. “The language is vivid: You were dead. This is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to desires of the flesh, seeking the approval of your culture, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourself. But God, rich in love and mercy, by free unmerited favor quickened your life and set you in a safe place in the constant presence of Christ.”


To sum up, using the words of Ephesians: “You have been saved by grace through faith!”


So, I want to explore this piece of scripture by considering three stories of grace.


 

The first is set on a battlefield –

a place of slaughter where one can still almost hear the cries of the dying;

a place where hatred and violence were unleashed with all their tragic consequences;

a place of memories (nightmares mostly), but also hard-won wisdom.


The battlefield is Gettysburg. In Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War, there were a number of scenes from the fiftieth anniversary of that battle.[3] The old men came back, one summer day in 1913, Confederate and Union veterans both, to commemorate the occasion. Burns included grainy movies of them as they moved jerkily on the light-struck film, eating, listening to speeches, talking over old times and swapping stories.


The reenactment of Pickett’s Charge was particularly moving. There were no pictures of it, but someone at the reenactment described it on the soundtrack. “The old Union soldiers took their places among the rocks on Cemetery Ridge, the old Confederate soldiers took theirs on the farmland below. After a while, the Confederates started to move forward across the broad, flat field where half a century earlier so many had died. ‘We could see not rifles and bayonets,’ the eyewitness account said, ‘but canes and crutches’ as they made their slow advance toward the ridge with the more able-bodied ones helping the disabled ones to maintain their place in the ranks.” As they neared the Union line, the Confederate troops broke into one long, defiant rebel yell … and then something remarkable took place.


“Unable to restrain themselves, the Yankees burst from behind the stone wall and flung themselves upon their former enemies. Only this time, unlike fifty years earlier, they did not do battle with them. Instead, they threw their arms around them – some in blue uniforms and some in grey — the old men embraced one another and wept.”[4]


Something had happened in the intervening half century –

these men who were as good as dead as they charged up that hill in 1863;

these men who, grey and crippled, were as good as dead again;

these men had known the grace of God.


They had experienced 50 years-worth of springtime and babies being born; 50 years of laughter and tears; 50 years of regrets and forgiveness. So on that day, they embraced.


Ephesians says something like that happened between us and God. We were enemies once and so we were as good as dead. But God loved us; God reached out to us; God saved us by grace. And so the horrible memories of how it once was, (and how it would have remained if God hadn’t acted), are just memories that make our present embrace all the sweeter!


 

The second story is set in the mountains of Bolivia –

a place of rugged beauty where the earth reaches up and heaven seems to stoop to touch;

a place where two cultures and languages mix awkwardly;

a place where the bestowing of grace is scheduled and shows up by surprise.


“Jesuit priest Greg Boyle tells a story about being a young priest sent to Bolivia’s mountains to lead the Mass. [His] Spanish was poor, and his Quechua, the indigenous language, was even worse. Climbing the mountain, he realizes he cannot say the Mass in Spanish, let alone Quechua, so he fanatically searches through his Spanish Bible to find the phrase “take and eat.”


Everyone meets in a field with a little makeshift altar in the center. After the sermon, Boyle stands to lead the Mass. It’s a disaster. When he runs out of words, he just kind of puts the bread above his head, [hoping they will recognize the motion]. He is despondent.


[Interrupting his] self-pity, an aging woman approaches him with a health worker. The health care worker says that the woman hasn’t given a confession in ten years. Boyle nods, and suddenly, the woman unloads ten years of sins in a language he can’t understand. She speaks for thirty minutes. By the time he coughs up some words of absolution, everyone is gone. Even his ride has left. He is left with his failure at the top of a mountain.


Boyle picks up his backpack and starts back down the mountain when he spies an old farmer walking toward him. The farmer is wearing tattered clothes, a rope for a belt, and his feet are caked in Bolivian mud. ‘Tatai,’ he says, which is Quechua for ‘Father,’ and motions Boyle to come close. As the young priest bends, the old campesino reaches into his coat pockets and retrieves a handful of rose petals. He then drops them all over Boyle’s head. He digs into his pocket and grabs more and then more. The petals fall and fall and fall.”[5]


Paul says something like that has happened to us. We are weighed down by our failures and even when we try and put on a brace face, that brutal knowledge hurts. But God does not see us as failures. God loves us. And to remind us, God showers us with grace, like rose petals falling from calloused hands.


 

The third story is set in your life … and only you can tell it.


I invite you to turn to your neighbor and tell them a story

Of how you have been shown love you did not deserve,

Of how your life has been changed in surprising ways,


In short, of how you have experienced grace.


[If you are at home or by yourself, jot down the story so you can retell it when you are with someone you can share it with.]


Let’s take five minutes and then we’ll close with prayer.


Almighty and gracious God:

You do not trade love for love, the way children bargain over lunchbox prizes.

You give love without price, without hesitation.

You do not return evil for evil, the stuff of schoolyard fights or border conflicts.

You overwhelm evil with good.

You do not crucify sinners, demanding full payment for their rebellion.

Instead, you die in their place, so they might live as new creations.

We are as helpless to explain your ways as we are anxious to share your grace.

We ask you to help us to find the right words, the right actions, to do so.

Use us as instruments of your good news so that someday all will know the peace your grace brings. Amen


[1] “Grace and Hope Mission,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library
[2] Here and following from “From God, to God”, his reflection on the text for Christian Century, 3/22/03
[3] From “The Civil War,” a documentary by Ken Burns aired on PBS in September of 1990.
[5] This story is shared by Adam Hearison in his reflection on the text at workingpreacher.org, 3/14/21

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