Today I’d like to talk with you about how grace changes people. In the name of the God of grace: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God’s grace changes people. We call this process conversion. The word “conversion” means simply “to turn around.” God’s grace turns us around. Sometimes the movement is slow, almost imperceptible. At other times we’re spun around so fast we end up dizzy. But in all cases, conversion, the process by which God’s grace changes people, means that once we were looking in one direction, and now we’re looking in the opposite direction. When conversion happens, we end up looking in the direction that formerly we had our back to, AND we have our back to the direction where we were formerly looking. It’s a turn-around, pure and simple.
There are several kinds of conversion in the Christian life. All of them are important, and they are all connected. They happen in a somewhat different order and way in every person. And the process is never quite finished. God’s grace keeps changing people–or at least trying to do so–because to build on a familiar saying, God isn’t finished with any of us yet.
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I’d like to focus on four kinds of conversion, different ways in which God’s grace changes us. This foursome is, I believe, mentioned by Richard Rohr somewhere in his writings. The four ways are: conversion to God, conversion to Jesus, conversion to the church, and — here’s a surprising one — conversion to the world.
But all this talk about conversion and God’s grace at work can seem a little unreal until we get down to cases. So I will tell you stories of two people who experienced God’s grace at work in their lives. As you hear their stories, see if you can recognize these ways in which grace changes people: conversion to God, conversion to Christ, conversion to the church, conversion to the world.
The first story is about Hank Hayes, who died five years ago in Alabama. [George Jones, “The Last Day on Death Row,” The Living Church (June 6, 1999), pp. 12-14.] Hank’s life got off to a pretty ugly start. He was raised in an atmosphere seething with hate. You see, Hank’s dad was a Klansman, and not just any Klansman, but imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hank bought the line he got from his dad. He grew up full of hate himself. He too became a Klansman.
And so he must have appeared as a likely suspect when a black man was lynched in Mobile. Hank was eventually convicted of murder in that high profile case.
The primary witness was a man who received a lenient sentence in return for his testimony, and later admitted that he had both lied and committed perjury. The jury set the sentence as life without parole, but the judge was able to overrule the jury and sentence Hank to death. The governor refused to intervene, even when somebody came forward saying that Hank was with him the night of the murder, far from the scene of the crime. And so after Hank spent seven years on death row and exhausted all his appeals, the State of Alabama put him to death in the electric chair.
There are lots of good arguments against capital punishment, but I’m not going to make them today. Rather than talk now about Hank’s death, I’m going to talk about his life, and how God’s grace invaded that life and changed him, transformed this Klansman who ended up in the electric chair for a crime he probably did not commit.
Grace came at Hank Hayes from several unexpected directions. When he first arrived on death row, he and the guards were worried about how black inmates would react to him. But two of the black leaders escorted him around. “The state’s trying to kill us all,” said one of them, a man named Jesse Morrison. “We haven’t got time to hate.”
During his death row stay, Hank was adopted by an English parish. He grew to love them, and they him. As a result, he became interested in Christianity, specifically Anglicanism.
After considerable reflection, he decided to become an Episcopalian. He hesitated because he was afraid that God would reject him because of his Klan background. George Jones from Leeds, Alabama, an Episcopal layman involved in prison ministry, assured Hank that God forgave him. After a program of preparation where Hank showed himself to be an outstanding student, the Bishop of Alabama confirmed him there on death row.
Some prisoners become adept at conning people, even chaplains and prison officials. But Hank’s conversion was no con job. Grace was real in his life, and it was real at the moment of his death. When the final day came, and they strapped him into the electric chair, the warden asked him if he had any last words.
What would somebody do in that situation? Cry out in agony, perhaps, or curse the crew intent on killing him? Hank smiled and spoke a word of grace. “I love you” is what he said, first to his executioners, then to the victim’s family and his friends in the viewing room. Once a Klansman full of hate, Hank had changed. Grace had transformed him.
Was Hank Hayes converted to God and to Christ? Was he converted to the church, the community of Christ? Was he converted to the world, a world full of black and white prisoners, chaplains and executioners? The answer in every instance is yes.
Hank Hayes was once a pretty nasty customer, someone many found it easy to dismiss. So too was the other person I want to tell you about: a man named Matthew.
Matthew’s job was collecting tolls on such things as the transportation of goods. He worked for a boss who had bought a contract for tax collection, but left the actual work to poor slobs like him. Matthew worked out of a crummy office in the commercial district.
People in general despised him, and had their reasons for doing so. He was seen as a collaborator, a stooge for the Roman Empire that dominated the Holy Land. He was a living reminder to his neighbors of their heavy tax burden: Jews were forced to pay both civil and religious taxes. Worst of all, it was widely known that many in Matthew’s position were out-and-out cheats. In both the popular mind and in religious writings they were lumped together with thieves, murderers, and other wholesale sinners. Tax collection appeared on the lists of despised occupations that no practicing Jew should follow. People like Matthew were regarded as lost souls.
Then one day, as Matthew is working away in his office, grace enters his life in the person of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ignore or condemn him, or otherwise treat him as he was accustomed to be treated by so many others. What Jesus does is invite him.
“Follow me,” is what Jesus says. Matthew is astounded, yet he knows a good deal when he hears one, so he leaves the tax office behind and follows Jesus, hardly stopping to lock the door behind him.
Unaware of what he’s getting himself into, Matthew follows Jesus. He experiences grace. His conversion begins as he turns his back on sordid rip-offs and follows someone who gives him all he needs for free.
Matthew follows Jesus, and follows him, and follows him. He walks with him along dusty roads, and, however unfaithfully, through the events of Holy Week. Yet still Jesus calls, and still Matthew follows.
Grace remains in the air, even stronger than before. Matthew becomes a witness to the resurrection. He becomes responsible for the book that bears his name, the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s been said that of the four Gospels, this one has been the most influential throughout the Church’s history.
Still Jesus calls, and still Matthew follows. Look at the church calendar for September, and see St. Matthew’s Day on the 21st. The numerals for that day are red, the color of blood, indicating that Matthew was a martyr, someone led by grace to offer his life in the cause of Christ.
Cheat. Collaborator. Greedy. Shameful. That’s how people saw Matthew as he took in money dishonestly, unjustly, there in his little office. But one day grace knocked on the door, and he was converted, turned around.
The change was manifold. Converted to God, the Lord of mercy. Converted to Jesus, who loves the unworthy. Converted to the church, those early Christians. And even converted to the world, for Matthew, the sometime cheat, whose heart was once as hard as silver coins, records that Jesus story where the King on judgment day announces: “Whatever you did to the little people, you did to me.” [Matthew 25:31-46]
Death row in Alabama. The office of a dishonest collaborator. Unlikely places for scenes of grace. But grace happens there to people like Hank Hayes and that man named Matthew. If grace touches characters like them, can the rest of us be immune?
How is grace appearing in your life? Consider your conversion to God; to Christ; to the church, the community at once sinful yet redeemed; and to the world, the world for which Christ died. In what ways are you being turned around, spun at top speed perhaps, or moved slowly, yet in the right direction?
Welcome grace when it comes today in the form of bread and wine. Then look for grace to appear to you again and over again in strange and funny ways. And give thanks whenever grace breaks into your life.
I have spoken to you today in the name of the God whose grace enwraps Hank and Matthew and you and me, the God who’s got the whole world in his hands: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
— Copyright 2002, the Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.