Amazing Grace

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 15: 1-10

About a year ago I buried one of our church’s founding members. Back in 1968, Archie McDonald and a handful of others started our congregation, in order to have a local church with membership policies that were not segregated. Archie was a professor and historian, ornery and rough-hewn, but he had a profound sense that it was only due to the grace of a loving God that he existed at all and only by God’s grace did our church exist. He knew what the dying priest knew in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, “It’s all grace.”

The very meaning of the word “grace” is “undeserved favor.” We do not deserve it. If it is deserved, then it is not grace and it is certainly not amazing.

Which is why Archie’s favorite hymn was “Amazing Grace.” As he said, “it is the one hymn most about me, especially the part about saving wretches and being found.” And he liked to call our congregation, the “Amazing Grace Baptist Church” because there was and continues to be a sense that we’re all lost yet we’ve been found by the loving Good Shepherd.

In Wendell Berry’s short story, “Watch With Me,” one of the characters, nicknamed “Nightlife” in his close-knit farming community, a man considered “just not right,” gets up in the barn and starts preaching to everyone who’s gathered there to get out of a storm. He preaches on the parable of the lost sheep, and Berry says, “Though Christ, in speaking this parable, asked his hearers to think of the shepherd, Nightlife understood it entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep, who could imagine fully the condition of being lost and even the hope of rescue…”

That was Archie – he understood the parable of the lost sheep entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep. And that’s how he understood church and his relationship with God. By the grace of the loving shepherd, we’ve been found.

This is no small thing in today’s world. We are surrounded by global capitalism, mass-marketing, big-box retailers, mega-everything with large-scale-industrial-mass-production of televisions to cars to Christians. Yet the Way of Jesus Christ calls us to see differently and live differently. The shepherd of Luke’s story of the lost sheep notices each and every single sheep.

In addition, when we know how to look from the perspective of the lost sheep, we especially pay attention to who else in this world is left out, abused, exploited, ground-down, and stepped on, and we notice that not only people but creation too, is being destroyed and cast off. And sometimes, within the daily hurly-burly of lives shared within a congregation, it might mean that we cut each other a little slack. Instead of sharp disagreement, perhaps we might respond with a little patient mercy.

Seventeenth century English Puritan John Bradford was watching some convicts being led through the streets of London on their way to the gallows. Bradford said, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”

That gives me pause when thinking about our societal zeal for capital punishment and mandatory sentencing and a criminal justice system that seems to be more about retribution than justice. No humility. No mercy. No grace.

Archie McDonald had a profound sense when he looked around at the world, “There but for the grace of God goes Archie McDonald.” It is why, beneath his orneriness and cussedness, there was a humility and mercy and grace extended toward others.

In contrast, John tells us that the religious leader Caiaphas said, “Don’t you understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:50). In other words, Caiaphas and his types say, sometimes it’s okay, even necessary, to sacrifice someone or something for some greater cause: the corporate bottom-line, making a profit, freedom and democracy, efficiency, a brighter future, and on and on. Seems there is always someone willing to find scapegoats to sacrifice. There is always one sheep that we might have to lose.

Author Rick Atkinson tells in his Pulitzer Prize winning history of the American army in North Africa during World War II, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943, that General Eisenhower wrote to Churchill early in the campaign that the loss of lives was “insignificant compared to the advantages we have so far won.” Then Atkinson adds, “Few commanders in this war could function without arriving at a sensibility in which thousands of dead and wounded men could be waved away as ‘insignificant’” (p. 158).

In Luke 15, the shepherd might say, “I beg to differ. Even the loss of one is significant.”

We sheep of the Good Shepherd, followers of Jesus, are to see differently. We beg to differ with Caiaphas, the generals, and the corporate CEOs. We see through the eyes of the one lost sheep who by the grace of the Good Shepherd has been found and brought home. We see from the perspective of the left out and the lost. It’s all grace.

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