Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Free Gift of God’s Grace” (Romans 5:15-18)
March 5, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

At the 2017 Oscars before a television crowd of over 33 million viewers a monumental mistake occurred regarding the biggest Oscar of them all, the Oscar for Best Picture.  Warren Beatty showed Faye Dunaway the envelope he had been handed and she announced the winner as La La Land, when in fact a different film, Moonlight, had won.  The cast and crew of La La Land elatedly took the stage and were in the midst of their thank-you speeches when the error was finally revealed.

What happened?  Beatty had been given the wrong envelope by Brian Cullinan, a Pricewaterhouse Coopers accountant.  Cullinan and fellow PwC accountant Martha Ruiz were the only two people on the planet who knew all the Oscar winners, and had them memorized.  But Cullinan accidentally handed Beatty the back-up envelope announcing Emma Stone as Best Actress for La La Land, instead of the correct envelope announcing Moonlight as Best Picture.  In their New York Times article Brooks Barnes and Cara Buckley describe Cullinan earlier that evening:

Mr. Cullinan walks the red carpet…He told one TV crew that he had no nerves.  “We’ve done this a few times,” he said before Sunday night’s show, “and we prepare a lot.”  He was so at ease he even found time to tweet from backstage about Emma Stone as the show neared its climax.  Whoops (New York Times, February 27, 2017).

The Academy later issued a statement:

We apologize to the entire cast and crew of La La Land and Moonlight, whose experience was profoundly altered by this error…We salute the tremendous grace they displayed under the circumstances.  To all involved — including our presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the filmmakers, and our fans watching worldwide — we apologize.

The Academy also announced that Cullinan and Ruiz would not be invited back, which means they are persona non grata, unwelcome, unaccepted.

I don’t know about you, but I could have easily made the same mistake.  In fact, I have made many embarrassing mistakes, not necessary in front of 33 million viewers, but nonetheless in front of lots of people.  At the very first wedding I officiated I was well prepared and everything went smoothly, and everyone seemed happy.  But the moment I had finished following the wedding party out of the church after the wedding, I was accosted by multiple people—“There was no kiss!”  “Why wasn’t there a kiss?”  “How could you lead a wedding with no kiss?”  And they were right, I had forgotten to give the famous direction to the groom after the vows, “You may kiss the bride”—there was no kiss in that wedding.  Whoops.

The very first time I celebrated Holy Eucharist, after years of attending the Episcopal Church and hearing the liturgy hundreds of times, after years of seminary training, at the moment of the fraction when I broke the host and was supposed to say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” I got tongue tied and mixed up the words, then forgot what I was supposed to say, then turned purple with embarrassment, all while holding the two pieces of the broken host.  A fellow priest leaned over and whispered the right words in my ear, and then I got it right.  Someone in the front row commented, “Finally!”  And yes, after the service, I heard comments from several parishioners asking how I could forget such an important thing.  But there was one gentle parishioner who gave me a smile and had a different comment for me.  All she said was, “You did a good job today.”

Perhaps some of you can recall moments when you made an embarrassing mistake in front of lots of people, even regarding something for which you thought you were prepared, moments that ended with “Whoops.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson is an account of the greatest mistake in the history of the human race, when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden.  God had given them lots of freedom and only one command—“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17).  And as you know, Eve was tempted by the serpent to go ahead and eat the fruit from the one forbidden tree, and the writer of Genesis tells us what happened next:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (Genesis 3:6-7).

Adam and Eve had been given one commandment by God, and disobeyed it, they made that very mistake; they committed that very sin, that very trespass.  It is known simply as “The Fall.”  And all of us, without exception, are born with that same inclination to do the very thing we are commanded not to do.  If you are a kid and the one command is to not take a cookie from the cookie jar, what is the first thing you will do when your mom is not looking?  When you are a teenager and the one command is not to text while driving, what is the first thing you will do when stopped at a traffic light?  And it continues throughout our lives.  We have an internal inclination to trespass against the very thing we are commanded, against the very thing we know is right.  It never stops.

But there is something else that never stops.  The free gift of God’s grace.

In today’s reading from his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul hearkens back to this incident in the Garden of Eden and describes how God responded with the free gift of grace that ultimately reverses the trajectory of The Fall.  Listen to how Paul emphasizes this free gift of God’s grace over and over again in this passage:

If the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin.  For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.  If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all (Romans 5:15-18, italics added).

That is very good news.  The trespass Adam committed in the Garden of Eden, a trespass that impacted the entire human race, a trespass that brought condemnation to all of us because we all follow in Adam’s footsteps and have the same inclination to trespass against what God has commanded—all of it is overcome by the free gift of God’s grace in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

This free gift of God’s grace gives hope to all of us, and is the very heart of the gospel—as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

This free gift of God’s grace is lavished on us our whole life long, especially in the autumn days of our lives, as the late Brennan Manning wrote near the end of his final book entitled All is Grace:

We believe we’re invincible until cancer comes knocking, or we believe we’re making a comeback until we tumble down the stairs.  God strips away those falsehoods because it is better to live naked in truth than clothed in fantasy.  The last few years have been a “stripping away” like I’ve never experienced…Nowadays if I want to put on my jeans and shirt, someone has to help me.  If I want to eat a slice of pepperoni pizza or an ice cream cone, someone has to help me…To access my medicine or open my Diet Coke, I must have help.  To get into bed at night, help.  To rise in the morning, help…These are days of prayer without ceasing—“Help me!  Have mercy on me!”  And my Heavenly Father, who is so very fond of me, does (188).

Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” indeed “leads to justification and life for all,” including you.  You are not defined by the trespass of The Fall, but by the cross of Jesus Christ.  You are not defined not by what is in the envelopes you have given to others or in the envelopes others have given to you, but by what is in the envelope God gives you.  You are not persona non grata, but persona grata, welcomed and accepted by God.

You see, in spite of everything in your life, God has invited you back to the Oscars, where God personally hands you an envelope full of the free gift of God’s grace …and you can breathe easy because it is definitely the right envelope.