Sermon preached August 30, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
The Beatles, “Within You, Without You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljnv3KGtcyI
This song is rather famous in the history of popular music for the use it made of classical Indian music. That is an interesting story, but let me tell you another story entirely.
Earlier this year I was preparing to officiate at a funeral. I was having a conversation with a daughter of the person who had died and whose life we would be celebrating. The daughter asked me what I would preach. The tone of the question was a little interesting, but I responded that during my reflection I wove stories about the person with thoughts about Christian faith. “So you preach salvation?” This seemed to be coming from a certain Christian theological perspective that I was not sure I shared with this person, and I wanted to be forthcoming. I did not want them to expect me to say something I would not say. “If by that you mean do I tell people unless they get their hearts right with God through Jesus they are going to hell, no, that’s not what I think funerals are for. I invite people to trust their lives to God, but I say that in the context of celebrating a person’s life.” “Well, you know,” she said, “it’s about more than being good.”
At that moment it became clear to me that this person, who was not United Methodist, nor, I think a member of a church in what has come to be called mainline Christianity, this person was concerned that I was going to say what a good person her father was and because he was a good person, he was now in heaven. That was her view of what mainline churches teach about Christianity, and she clearly thinks that such a view is wrong.
It’s about more than being good. Christian faith is about more than being good. Is it? A few years ago, a theologian whose works I find interesting and helpful, Robert Neville – who also happened to teach at a United Methodist seminary and to be an ordained United Methodist – Robert Neville wrote this: Christianity first and foremost is about being kind. Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity…. Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists…. But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. These include being generous, sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
I’m not sure I find much to disagree with in this passage of writing, but here’s where I think confusion sometimes enters. Sometimes we hear that Christianity is first and foremost about being kind as a statement that says, “If we are kind, then God will like us and will admit us into heaven when we die.” For some reason, we might slip into thinking that Christian faith is about how we earn God’s love and favor. Christian faith is NOT about that. It is about kindness and doing good, but not as a way to earn God’s love, earn God’s favor. If I emphasize kindness and goodness as essential to Christian faith, I do not in any way mean to say that they are what earn us God’s love. We are not about chalking up brownie points in order to punch our ticket to heaven.
Christian faith, at a deep level, is really about grace, about a love that does not fit into calculations of earning. Christian faith is about a God of grace, and our response to this God and this grace in trust and openness. What the woman questioning me about salvation and her father’s funeral seemed to think, or at least what many Christians who criticize more liberal or mainline Christians think is that it is all about accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. Do that and you’re in, meaning in heaven, and that’s the heart of Christianity. I think this, too, is a misunderstanding of the heart of Christianity just as is the idea that we earn our way into God’s love.
Let me explain. We ask, at baptism, for instance, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace.” That is an important question, a vitally important question. At its best what it means is that we are saying “yes” to the God who is already touching our lives with grace. To accept Jesus Christ as savior is to trust in God’s love. Trust is the essence of faith. As I mentioned last week, the religious philosopher Donald Evans argues that “the most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality, and life is between trust and distrust” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 2). Evans argues that it is a struggle between basic trust and basic distrust, where basic trust is “an initial openness to whatever is life-affirming in nature and other people and oneself” (2). We trust that God is gracious and at work in the world creating and encouraging the creation of what Patricia Adams Farmer calls “the fullness of Beauty’s gifts: love, creativity, joy, forgiveness, courage, compassion, enchantment, serenity, and faith for coping and transcending whatever challenges you face in this unsettling world of ours” (Embracing a Beautiful God, 2).
Christian faith is not about earning, it is about response, a trusting response to God’s grace, love, and beauty. Our response is not simply to soak it all in, though there should be moments for that, moments when the grace of God and love of God and beauty of God simply seep over and into us. Our response is not simply to soak it all in, but to serve. Christian faith is about being loved and then loving. Christian faith is about being embraced and then embracing. This grace of God is a grace that is up to something. It moves us, shapes us, embraces us, nudges us. This is what the writer of James is getting at, active grace. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:22, 27) The baptismal question is a little longer: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to all people?
This active grace of God does not simply affect how we act. The grace of God touches and shapes our hearts, our souls, our innards. James, who so strongly speaks of actions that respond to grace, also speaks about the power of grace within. He writes of “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21) Jesus emphasizes the human heart in the controversy with some Pharisees in Mark 7. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (7:21). Our hearts need work, too, need the touch of grace. Responding to God’s grace affects us, within you, without you. It is not just about the afterlife but about what we are after in this life.
Within and without, both are needed. Both dimensions of our lives are meant to be places where we respond to God’s grace and so are changed. Christian faith is not about earning God’s love or God’s favor, it is about being touched and transformed by God’s grace within you, without you.
Biblical scholar and theologian Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103). “The Christian life is about… ‘being born again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’” (126).
Therapist Michael Eigen, whose works continue to help me think and grow, hints at this need for multidimensional transformation. You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society…. Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (Michael Eigen, Faith, 96, 7).
I’ve used this image of the Mobius strip before to describe how God’s grace works in our lives, to talk about the kind of transformation God seeks to work in our lives. The Mobius strip links inner and outer – heart and mind and action, kind actions with kind souls. Responding to God’s grace, we are changed inside. Responding to God’s grace, we live differently, more joyously, more genuinely, more gently, more generously, working for justice.
At the end of things, I structured my remarks at the funeral I began with in the ways that I typically do, weaving life story and Christian faith together. The woman’s father was a good man, and a person of Christian faith. I did not say that because he was good, he had earned his way into heaven. That’s not what I believe. That’s not the story for mainline churches. I affirmed that God received this man in love and that God’s love was there for all who were grieving. Whatever qualms the daughter may have had before the service, she was pleased afterwards.
Christian faith and life are about inner transformation. They are about doing good, living with kindness. And centrally, Christian faith and life are about trusting a God of grace and love who is ultimately trustworthy. Christian faith and life are not about “earning salvation” but about yearning for more. In words I used last week from theologian Andrew Shanks, yearning “to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed. Changed, in the sense of saved.” (Shanks, What is Truth?, 5)
I am a Christian not because I fear death and have a gnawing sense that I might be cast into the abyss. I am a Christian because I know something of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and being touched by that grace I am on a journey of being made different, within and without. In the grace of God I find some sense made of my yearnings to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more. This Mobius strip I have here I made on a retreat. I made it in response to an exercise in self-description. God’s grace helps me make sense of my life. I am not worried about earning God’s grace, instead I yearn to be made whole by that grace, to be forgiven, to be made new. When the end of my life comes, and I hope that will be awhile yet, but when the end of my life comes, I will trust God for it, even as I trust God now. For now, the journey continues - the journey with Jesus for a heart out of which kindness will flow, rather than evil intention, the journey with Jesus to be a doer and not just a hearer. The journey is open to all of us. God’s grace is there for all of us, awaiting our response in trust and openness. Amen.