Harrowing Of Hell
March 31, 2018

The Great Vigil

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

The Gift of God’s Grace

Good evening Christians, seekers and friends:

Tonight, we have listened to the stories of God’s interaction with and promises to humanity. God is active and involved with the people in the Hebrew scriptures. God does things in the world and speaks to the people through the prophets. Yet the people, then, as now feel as if God is far away – that God does not hear—that God does not care. Looking back on these scriptures, if we are willing to believe them, gives us a different perspective than would have been possible for the people who were living through the events. While the Lord was definitely to be found – while the Lord was near—humanity and the people of Israel were right smack in the middle of life—with all that that entails. But Isaiah urges them to believe. What he shares with them is the truth that is so radically outside of human reason that we have a hard time making sense of it – that we, even these thousands of years later, as we await this wonderful thing that we have celebrated generation after generation in the church—still cannot comprehend; the inscrutable grace of God.

In Isaiah we read, “Listen, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

What did he say? You that have no money, come, buy and eat? What does this mean? How do we buy without money? We have long been schooled in the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And how are we to eat what is good and delight ourselves in rich food without paying for it? Everyone knows that quality costs money.

But it doesn’t. So, the prophet says. Or, maybe better said, it does cost—but the price is paid on one side only. The price is borne by God. God’s saving help and God’s covenant with us, has always been held up by God alone. We buy with what we do not own and we eat that for which we have not paid. And yet we, like our ancestors, still feel like God does not hear us or does not care. We like our ancestors are still often too afraid to step outside of our doubts and fears and to dare to buy into God’s grace. But Isaiah enjoins them: Believe. Receive.

What is God’s grace? In the Book of Common Prayer we define grace as “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts and strengthens our will.” In other words, God’s grace is what Isaiah is talking about – we who have no money are able to come and buy something to eat. God’s grace is about God’s own son Jesus taking on our human nature so that we can be adopted as children of God and become heirs, yes, heirs who will inherit all of God’s kingdom. We didn’t earn the Kingdom, but we inherit it. God’s grace is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ who, again, stepped in to uphold a covenant for which we have never been asked to pay and who made an offering that we humans could not make to free us from the power, the sin, of this world. We weren’t asked to sacrifice ourselves, but we are given the opportunity to be reconciled and re-united with God. God’s grace allows us to listen – to incline our ear and hear what God has been saying to us throughout our lives. God’s grace allows us to glimpse the ways of God and trust them. Believe. Receive.

Tonight, we will celebrate two of the major sacraments of the Church – Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. In the Episcopal Church, we recognize that through these sacraments we receive God’s grace. The Catechism notes that the sacraments are the “outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Which is to say, that when we take part in these sacraments this evening, we can be certain that we will receive God’s freely given gift of grace. When Zoe and Novalyn Grace are baptized into the church, we are sure and certain that they will receive God’s graceful gift of becoming members of Christ’s body, the Church. When we renew our baptismal covenant we can be sure, we, too, will receive help in fulfilling that gift. And when we receive the Holy Eucharist we can be sure that we will receive “the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and each other and, yes, a free foretaste of the heavenly banquet.” Believe. Receive.

God’s grace is freely-given tonight and every night. God’s grace makes out of the most wayward people and the most difficult of circumstances goodness, light and life. There is certainly no better example than what brings us here tonight: Jesus’ crucifixion and death paved the way for new and unending life. But examples of God’s grace abound. Perhaps that is why the hymn Amazing Grace speaks to so many of us –even outside of the church. Amazing Grace was written by John Newton whose original livelihood and trade could not have been more despicable—he not only put other sailors to shame with his wanton ways – he referred to himself as the Great Blasphemer—but he also worked in the slave-trade. After almost perishing in a storm on a slave ship, Newton credited God for saving him and received a religious conversion. He would later become an Anglican clergyperson. His conversion and his reception of God’s grace led him to write many hymns including “Amazing Grace.” Newton would also pen the book “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade” which influenced many –including parishioner William Wilberforce who led the movement that abolished slavery in Britain. Newton, who lived to be 82, “…continued to preach and have an active ministry until beset by fading health in the last …years of his life. Even then, Newton never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and told friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” He well understood God’s grace.

Newton’s legacy continued in the New World through his hymn. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mahalia Jackson and the Freedom Singers sang “Amazing Grace” as they peacefully walked with fellow Civil Rights marchers. Jackson wrote that she lifted up Amazing Grace “to give magical protection – a charm to ward off danger, an incantation to the angels of heaven to descend … She said, “I was not sure the magic worked outside the church walls …. But I wasn’t taking any chances.” Into the 1960’s the song became part of that era as well – sung by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and even performed at Woodstock in 1969 by Arlo Guthrie. And in 2015 at the memorial for Senator Clementa Pinckney, one of those murdered by Dylann Roof at Emmanuel AME Church, then-President Barak Obama sang Amazing Grace during his eulogy. Repeating the words— Amazing Grace—Amazing Grace President Obama began to sing and all the ministers behind him rose to their feet in witness to that Grace. The grace echoed the forgiveness shown by those who lost loved ones at Mother Emmanuel who one by one got up at his Roof’s bond hearing and offered forgiveness to the young man who had killed their loved ones. I forgive you. ‘ “I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”’

Tonight, as we hold our candles in the dark, awaiting something wonderful, let’s believe in God’s grace so freely given to us in the life, death and coming resurrection of our Lord. God does things in the world. God is near. God still prophesies through his people. God hears us, forgives us, and loves us. What we are waiting for will come – it is already here—that heavenly food for which we have not paid. But for which Jesus paid with his life. Zoë and Novalyn Grace I can’t wait to see how God’s grace will work in your lives. And for all of us here tonight, with God’s help, I pray that we find God’s grace in all that we have been given to do. When asked why, in his old age, he refused to retire John Newton said, “I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” Through God’s grace, anything is possible – even life out of death. Amazing Grace. Believe. Receive.