Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I don’t talk enough about grace. I know that because sometimes I talk about other things. Grace — God’s grace — is the fact and the central concept of the Gospel. God’s love for us is complete and absolute; nothing we do or fail to do can deflect, diminish, or weaken it. This news is so good that many people, even many faithful, intelligent, well-formed people, have struggled to believe it.
In Jesus’s time, Jewish worship centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish priests were required to observe a special set of religious laws in order to be eligible to perform their duties there and these laws were more detailed and arcane than the laws that applied to all Jews. But the Pharisees, a new movement, thought that everyone should follow the special priestly laws. They thought that somehow this would make everyone “priestly.” But there were three problems with this agenda. The first is that if they had succeeded, it would have become impossible to do some things that society really needs to have done, like burying the dead. The second is they assumed that being a priest made someone a better person. I assure you, it has never worked that way. The third was that in pushing this agenda, the Pharisees showed their monumental hubris; they revealed that they believed they knew better than the priests, and the tradition, and the scriptures, and by inference, better than God.
So it’s no wonder that Jesus had to call them out. The Pharisees had numbers and institutional power on their side, but Jesus had to stand his ground and stare them down. What they were pushing wasn’t just outrageous, it was dangerous, and in a perfect world, Jesus’s statement would have extinguished their error and the burden it imposes on faithful people. But Christians have often tried to replace the grace of God with a list of rules, sometimes, in a cruel irony, using Jesus’s own words to support their agenda.
The biggest proponent was a monk named Pelagius. He started out with a set of denials of the reality of sin that sounded very appealing, but they carried through to appalling logical consequences. On the one hand, Pelagius denied that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought any benefit to humanity: no forgiveness. On the other, he claimed that every human being could lead a perfectly sinless life if they just try hard enough. Since we can, he said, it is God’s requirement. That’s a hellacious burden to lay on anyone, manifestly unfair and patently intolerable. In theological terms, it makes God a cruel and disingenuous monster. In practical terms, Pelagius’s teaching means that one dirty thought, one profanity, and boom! Straight to hell. Yet his teachings were quite popular.
We might not have a figure as brazen as Pelagius trying to set intolerable burdens upon our shoulders, but we don’t have to look far to find people desperately in need of the grace of God and the true security its assurance provides. Without accepting God’s grace, we tend to grasp for any law that promises security or allow our most primitive impulses to rule us. Plenty of people will play on these tendencies, amassing power for themselves, driving us further from the source of all love, all while telling us they have our best interests at heart. Others try to mix a bit of legalism into the Gospel, making grace conditional, and therefore not grace.
Jesus showed that God loves us too much to be picky or pedantic. He revealed how much God loves us, and what excellent things God intends for us. He taught and showed us that God’s grace is bigger, better, stronger, and more desirable than anything we could invent, and he reminded us that only God has the authority to determine how these things work. Then James, as he tended to do, wrote about how to apply these teachings in our own lives. He talks about what makes a faithful life, what it means to be a “doer of the Word,” Jesus isn’t trying to replace one onerous burden with another, he is setting us free and giving us a challenge that will make us stronger. As such, James talks more about things to avoid than about new affirmative responsibilities: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
Caring for those in need is a quintessential feature of the Christian life, but we tend to forget that we are also called to give up selfish anger and entitlement. Not only because they harm the community, but because they deny grace. That is, how can we claim entitlement over the gifts of God, which we understand and acknowledge as given without regard to our merit? Rather than take on a burden that will crush us, and do nothing to help us or the world, the life of grace offers a challenge that will lead us to grow, make us stronger, and share God’s gifts to bless the world. The challenge is to meet every situation, every opposition, with grace.
Grace does not necessarily mean giving in, doing what someone else wants. Sometimes it even lets you maintain control. One night in Denver I was waiting for a bus on a busy, but seedy, block. A man about my size walked up to me and tried to strike up a conversation, but his idea of a conversation was asking increasingly personal questions while creeping closer to me. I made brief, deflecting answers and though I never disrespected him, I refused to give him the answers he wanted. He must have been frustrated, because he moved on to death threats. I realized he was baiting me, for God knows what purpose, and I realized that there was only one way to maintain control of the situation. So instead of taking the bait, I kept staring him down, alert to the slightest movement, steadfastly refusing to escalate the situation either with words or actions. I stood still and kept my voice low, reminded him that he did not know me, or anything about me. Then I noticed that he was moving a finger toward my watch. Just as he was about to make contact, I jerked it away, just enough to show him that I was attentive, determined, and fast. Ever so slightly, he moved back, and seconds later the bus came. The door opened, spilling pale fluorescent light onto the sidewalk, and he breathed an insult at me. I didn’t mind, because I knew what his insult meant: his twisted game was over, and I had won.
Sometimes grace means indulging the needs of the world. Other times it means being better than our circumstances, being stainless steel against the world’s rusted iron. Jesus did not promise that following him would make our lives easier; if anything, quite the opposite. But it’s worth following him because it will cause us to grow in grace. If we choose to follow him so closely, with ardent, singleminded devotion, we begin to take after him. He did promise to change us, and to be with us, always. Being immersed in his grace tends to make us more gracious ourselves. We receive his grace, and it operates within us, causing us to grow in wisdom and compassion, strengthening our identity and uniting us with Christ. Then, more and more, his grace operates in the world through us, sometimes in unpredictable ways, always better than anything we could invent.
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