What kind of gift certificate?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on the 4th Sunday in Lent
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” That snippet from today’s reading from Ephesians 2 is one of those Bible passages you often see on coffee mugs or shared on Facebook. It is a truth that, on this day we call Refreshment Sunday, is, well, refreshing, and surely it’s one of the more commonly memorized verses of Scripture.
And that’s not surprising, because it embodies an absolutely foundational Christian teaching – we are made whole and reconciled with God not by anything we have to do, but by what Christ did. True identity, meaning and security cannot come to us as something we purchase or provide for ourselves, but only as a gift from God. I want to tell you a story about that, but before I do, we probably ought to put this Refreshment Sunday coffee mug verse in a fuller context. So let’s just look through the reading bit by bit.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead – why did God do this? His own mercy and love. What did we contribute? The same amount a dead man does.
OK, so what was it God did? Let’s go on: he made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. He saved us by grace, filled us with resurrection life, he put us side by side with Jesus himself.
OK, so what’s the result? Let’s go on: so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Everyone sees how infinite God’s grace is, how endless is the storehouse of his kindness, that’s the result. Not that we did a good enough job, but that God is completely good.
OK, so can you sum that all up again for us, Paul? And here’s our coffee mug verse. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us. Absolutely foundational, but also, as I’ve mentioned a couple times this Lent, completely countercultural and extremely difficult to take out of the realm of pious theory and live by. We want so badly to construct our identity and meaning and wholeness ourselves, not to have to accept grace, not to depend on a gift of mercy, but to pay our own way. Or at least some of our own way!
So I want to share with you a story about that. It’s from a priest named John Zahl, who is the Associate Priest at an Episcopal Church in a southern diocese. He writes:
A few years ago, just before Christmas, I received a very generous gift certificate to a local, high-end department store. The man who gave it to me was a member of my congregation and also the owner of the store.
About two weeks after I received it, I went into his store to make use of it. He met me at the entrance. I proceeded to select a lovely sports coat, one which I could wear in both professional and social settings, plus a nice dress shirt and some fancy loafers. I made sure to look at each of the price tags (on the sly) as he showed me different items that he thought would suit me well. In my head, I spent much of the time doing some calculations. My plan was to overshoot the gift certificate enough to be able to then put a bit of cash back into the store’s register, thereby showing my gratitude for the generosity I had been shown and also displaying my support for his shop.
When I got to the register, he proceeded to tally up the total. I put my wallet on the counter and got my card out of my wallet. But as he turned to face me, he placed the gift-certificate down in front of me, and said, “It looks like you’ve only spent a little more than half of your credit with us.” I was mortified. In that moment I realized that he had only been charging me half of the ticket price. It meant that I was still in his debt, and the feeling accompanying this realization was quite uncomfortable.
I knew what had to be done and explained the entire situation to Deirdre [my wife] upon my return home. She agreed to accompany me back to the store in a few weeks’ time, where she would “help” me spend the rest of the credit by finding some new clothes for herself. We agreed that we would spend well over the remaining amount, in a further attempt to show our appreciation.
So we did just that. After a little shopping, we approached the counter as a unified front, and with a veritable armload of wears we wished to acquire. I handed our friend the gift certificate. He took the gift certificate in hand and then began entering the purchases into the register, bagging them up one by one as he went along.
Finally, when the bags were full, and everything had been rung up, he turned to us with a look of seeming amazement on his face. “You’re not going to believe this,” He said, “but I’ve rung everything up, and the total comes to exactly zero.” We were horrified, and protested a bit. “That can’t be right. The total should be well above what was left of our store credit, etc…”
Then he got serious, and he said, “I don’t think you understand how this gift certificate works. No matter what you throw at it, the total will always continue to come up reading zero.” It was the first moment we understood the nature of the situation, which, for us, had to be spelled out. In our attempts to buy our way out of the debt, we had completely missed out on seeing the value of the credit, of the gift, which this generous man took such pleasure in bestowing upon us.
John, as I said, is a priest of the Episcopal Church. He makes his living teaching the grace of God from Scripture and offering it in the sacraments for free. And yet when grace was extended to him in a concrete situation as a gift and not the result of works, so that he could not boast, his default setting was to try and even the score. Because that’s the default setting of the human heart: “Everyone pays their own way.” We don’t understand how this kind of gift certificate works.
I love the last sentence of John’s narrative, because it is where so many of us are so much of the time. In our attempts to buy our way out of the debt, we had completely missed out on seeing the value of the credit, of the gift, which this generous man took such pleasure in bestowing upon us. Whether or not we affirm grace in theory, most of us are busy so much of the time doing the work of trying to balance the credits and debits of our own security and identity and meaning. Our default setting is to keep trying to buy our way out of the debt.
But that’s because we don’t understand how the kind of gift certificate God has given us works. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Once you realize -- and most of of us have to realize over and over -- that at the foot of the Cross, no matter how hard you try, the balance will always come up zero, then you can see the value of the credit, of the gift, which the owner of life, our generous God, took such pleasure in bestowing on us. And when you take that priceless gift instead of always trying to pay your own way in life, his love is set free to change you from the inside out. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
John Zahl's narrative may be found here.
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