Cowan at the Core: People of Grace

The story at the beginning of this sermon was very difficult for me to write. It was also difficult to share on Sunday. Every time we drive by the Baileyton rest area (it was closed last time we had passed it) on our way to Milligan, I think of those horrible events.

When I drive by that rest area, I’m reminded over and over again that if we are called to be “People of the Book,” then we’re called to be “People of Grace.” Like I said on Sunday, I don’t have all the answers of what this is supposed to look like. I pray that as we continue our journey of faith together, we’ll be able to learn from each other as we strive to become the People of Grace we’re called to be.

Click here to listen to the audio. If you’d rather read it, the transcript is after the jump.

Cowan at the Core: People of Grace
Matthew 18:23-35
February 8, 2009
Matt Todd

Twelve years ago, the upper East Tennessee region was rocked with horrifying news. On the evening of April 16, 1997, a young couple and their two young children had a chance encounter with a group of five young adults and a teenager from Pikeville, Kentucky. This random meeting forever changed the lives of ten people that night.

The Lillelid family was on their way home from a regional religious conference in Johnson City, Tennessee when they stopped at a rest area near Baileyton, Tennessee. The group of six friends, known as a wild bunch, was also at the same rest area. They were on their way from their rural Kentucky homes to New Orleans. They had spent the morning driving around the county, visiting friends, picking up guns and ammunition, robbing homes and buying drugs. Once on the road, their car started overheating. They tried to hotwire a car from a used-car lot, but that was unsuccessful. They moved on and kept looking for another vehicle to steal.[1]

The car continued overheating, and they pulled over at the same rest stop as the Lillelids near Baileyton, Tennessee.

Vidar Lillelid, the father approached the motley looking crew with their pierced ears, noses, lips and eyebrows, black-dyed hair and razor-cut arms.[2] Initial reports were that he asked them for directions. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. He asked them if they believed in God.

Fresh off their crime spree through Kentucky and probably still buzzing off whatever high they’d scored earlier in the day, the group of friends didn’t want to hear any talk of God. They were on the run and they needed a new getaway vehicle.

The oldest member of the group, a twenty year-old named Joe, pulled out a handgun and climbed into the passenger seat of the Lillelids’ van. And while the family was still in the vehicle, three more from the gang piled in. Joe commanded Vidar to drive them away from the rest stop. Joe told his friends, Dean and Crystal, to follow them in the car that had been overheating.

Now these two groups: an innocent family on their way home from a religious conference and a group of rebellious teenagers were involved in something much more sinister. This had become a kidnapping.

Joe forced the father to drive the van to a deserted dirt road a few miles away from the rest area. The gang forced the family to get out of the car.

Now that they had a car, they had to decide what to do about the family. They’d already been pulled over once for speeding near Gate City, Virginia. And although the highway authorities had been warned by the families that the teenagers were missing, armed, and one was violating parole, the patrolman didn’t inspect their car for any weapons and they were sent on their way.

They’d already had one run-in with the law. They couldn’t afford another one.

Joe walked over to his friends and said, “They’ve seen us and they’ll call the police. They’ve all got to die.”

And they shot the family multiple times. The gang hopped into the stolen vehicle and took off, headed for New Orleans. In their haste to make a getaway, they ran over the bodies of their victims.

It’s a gruesome picture.

Every time we drive down to Tennessee to visit our friends from Milligan College, we pass that rest area. And the story still haunts me to this day.

The parents died holding their critically wounded children. Their daughter, Tabitha, died in the hospital the next day. Remarkably, their two year-old son, Peter, survived being shot in the head.

The rebels turned petty thieves turned kidnappers turned mass-murderers made it to New Orleans and decided to keep going. Somehow, they made it safely to Mexico. Two days later, the gang was stopped at a checkpoint and asked for credentials. Unable to produce the proper paperwork, they turned around and headed back towards the border. They were stopped by U.S. Customs and were immediately apprehended and extradited to Tennessee.

It’s a gruesome, ugly, horrible story.

The gang was met by a crowd of over one hundred people when they arrived at the Greene County Detention Center.[3] And their reception was not necessarily a happy one.

In a region that is considered by many to be the buckle of the Bible Belt, the population displayed their knowledge of the Scriptures through signs like, “Burn in hell!” and “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord!” One local gas station owner showed his feelings by prominently displaying six hangman’s nooses at his establishment. They received bags and bags of hate mail saying things like, “You’re gonna get fried,” and quoting Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death,” forgetting to share the rest of the verse: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The day of the hearings began and they had to increase security because there were threats on the criminals’ lives. And the hate mail kept coming.

They eventually pled guilty to the crimes, avoiding the death penalty but each one receiving three consecutive life-sentences.

And the hate mail kept coming.

I must confess that although I never visited the Greene County Jail; never wrote them any hate mail; and certainly never displayed any hangman’s nooses from my apartment; I can’t say that at the time I disagreed with those who did. The crime these six young people committed was unthinkable. It was horrible. And they deserved to be punished. There might have even been a little part of me that was disappointed when I learned that they weren’t given the death sentence.

I felt that way until I heard the story of how the pastor of a small church in Elizabethton, Tennessee, wrote a letter to Crystal, a member of the Six. All he said was this:

I realize that you may feel as if everyone is against you. I want you to know that it is not true. There are those of us in Tennessee who care for you and are concerned about you. I, for one, am concerned for your well-being.

From my study of the Bible, I can assure you that nothing you have ever done, thought or said is so bad that it will keep God from extending to you his forgiveness. No one has strayed too far to be forgiven. He is very willing to welcome you back to him. I would love to tell you about it.

The pastor’s name was Jack. And he was my pastor. Christy and I had been attending his church for the past year or so. When he shared what he’d done with the congregation, I was convicted. And I was even more moved when I learned that Crystal asked for Jack to visit her. During his visit, she told him that he was the only one that shared anything about grace or God’s love. Out of the entire population of upper East Tennessee, only one person was willing to extend God’s grace to this person so many considered a monster.

It’s shocking. We’re supposed to be people of grace. And all we’d become known as was people of revenge and payback.

Jesus Christ came to show us grace. While we were still sinners…while we were still set up in the Enemy’s camp…Christ died for you and for me. Because of the grace that we ourselves have received, we are called to show that same type of grace and forgiveness.

If you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew 18:21-35. Matthew’s one of the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ ministry here on earth and it’s the first book in the New Testament. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. Matthew 18:21 is found on page 852 in that Bible. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about what it means to be one of his followers and what the kingdom of God looks like. Immediately before this passage Jesus talks about how we should forgive our brothers and sisters if they have sinned against us. This prompts Peter to respond, wanting a little more detail.

Read Matthew 18:21-22

According to Jewish custom and tradition, Peter was being generous here. Rabbinic teaching was that an offended person needed to forgive his brother only three times. Peter figured he was doing a good thing by doubling it and add one. That would be forgiving enough, wouldn’t it?

While Peter’s number was generous and perhaps a little ridiculous, Jesus responded with a number that was even more generous and more outlandish: 70 times 7, or 490 times. Some translations say 77 times. There’s some debate here about which number the Greek actually means. But that’s getting lost in the point. Are  you really going to count until 77 times? And you’re definitely not going to count 490 times, are you? It’s merely an outlandish number that’s supposed to illustrate how generous we’re supposed to be with our own mercy and grace. Because, after all, that’s what Jesus has done for us, right?

And Jesus, being a master storyteller, uses a story to illustrate his point.

Read Matthew 18: 23-27

The main character in this story, the servant, owes 10,000 talents. In modern currency, this would be equivalent to several millions of dollars. Perhaps even a trillion dollars. Roman legal code at the time said that you could essentially do whatever necessary to recover a debt like this, so the master was ready to have the servant, his wife, and children sold into slavery to pay off the debt. This would, in essence, destroy his family as it would probably send them off in different directions. That was the price of paying the debt.

Because of sin that has stained our lives, we have an enormous debt that we owe the Father. Remember the verse that kept getting quoted to the Six murderers? The wages, or payment, for your sin and for my sin is death. There is separation between us and God because of our inability to hit the mark. And because of that, we have been given a death sentence.

But just like the master in the story, our Master has been merciful. He has gone to the ends of the earth so that we would be able to stand before the throne of God forgiven and blameless. Jesus Christ took on our own sins and the death that was the required punishment by spreading out his own arms and dying for us. Our debt, just like the servant’s in this story, has been paid in full.

That’s what we celebrate in the act of baptism. It’s through that act that we publicly put to death our old selves, the one that was destined for death because it had been stained by sin. As the old self is buried in the waters of baptism, we celebrate the new life that is resurrected as a result of God’s grace. Is it the water that saves? No. It’s the power of God’s grace as shown when His one and only Son willingly spread out his arms on the cross and died for you and for me and for all of humanity.

Ancient Christians understood the symbolism of this act of baptism. Before entering the baptismal pool, they would turn around and spit, showing that they renounced Satan and all of his deeds. And when they would come up out of the water, they would be given a new, white robe, symbolizing a pure life and the new creation that was their life in Christ Jesus.

As followers of Christ, we have been clothed in righteousness and the stain of our sins has been blotted away by the blood of Jesus Christ. Because grace has been poured out on us, we need to pour grace out on others.

Jesus continues the story.

Read Matthew 18:28-35

For the longest time, I used to think that this servant was going after his debtor so he could pay back his master. But that’s not the case here. The man owed this servant a very small amount. A denarius is essentially worth about 16 cents, which was a day’s wages. This isn’t even a drop in the bucket compared to the millions, if not trillions of dollars the servant owed his master. And more importantly, the master has already forgiven his debt. He doesn’t owe a thing. So he’s going after this other man out of selfishness and the unforgiveness in his own heart.

We have been forgiven much. We need to forgive much. Of course, this is still a struggle for me. I feel like I need to confess that I really struggle with the message of this parable. When someone wrongs me or my family, my first instinct is to carry a grudge and hope that someday I’ll be able to gain some type of retribution. I can probably relate to the actions of this servant who was forgiven much more than I’d like to admit.

So I don’t know how all of this fleshes out in my own life yet. I wish I did. I wish I could stand up here and tell you that my first reaction is to forgive and turn the other cheek. I’m just not there yet. I mean, how do we respond to this story when we know there are people halfway around the world who hate us and want us dead… and are willing to fly planes into buildings and blow themselves up to accomplish that goal? How does that flesh out when someone takes away the innocence of a little child? How does that flesh out in a bitter divorce battle or when someone stabs you in the back? I’m still trying to figure it out. I need to confess to you that I’m one to harbor resentment and unforgiveness in my heart. Shoot, I’m even having a hard time forgiving a certain coach for making impermissible phone calls last year! But seriously, I know that I need to allow God to work on my heart – to remind me of all that He has already forgiven of me. I need to allow God to soften my heart and shape it like His. And if we look at ourselves honestly, I’d imagine I’m not the only one.

You and I have been forgiven of much. We need to forgive much in response. We need to continue becoming people of grace.

If you’re like me and you struggle with an unforgiving heart, there’s good news for us. God will continue to forgive us. We need to turn to Him and ask Him to continue shaping us into His image. A few years ago, Ruth Graham, the late wife of famous evangelist, Billy Graham, half-jokingly said that she would like her epitaph to read: “End of Construction: Thank You for Your Patience.” We’re all under construction. God continues to work on us and shape us into the people He wants us to be. We just need to allow Him to work. That’s the beauty of grace. He continues to pour it out every day as He works on us every day.

If you’re here this morning and you’ve never made the conscious decision to follow Christ and if you’ve never chosen to follow His example by being baptized, I want you to know that He’s offering you an invitation today. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. You can become a new creation today. There’s nothing you have to do to earn his affection. He’s already crazy about you. And there’s nothing you have to do to earn the gift He has made available to you. Because God is a God of grace. And He’s making us a people of grace.



[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/cl/2000/003/3.32.html

[2] Knoxville News-Sentinel http://s2.excoboard.com/exco/thread.php?forumid=150573&threadid=1626279

[3] http://www.greeneville.com/trial/062.htm

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