To live by grace
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Romans 5:6-11
To Live By Grace
“While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This sentence is the heart of the gospel. John Newton understood that sentence fully. Two hundred-some years ago, he was pastor for the people of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. He was also a hymn writer, his best known hymn being “Amazing Grace.” But long before that, John Newton served as a sailor and then captain of a slave ship. He transported African men, women and children to distant ports where they would be sold. He first went to sea at age eleven. And over time, he coarsened, and gained a reputation for vulgarity and depravity. Newton looked back on his sea-faring years as one continuous round of rebellion and excess.
But in 1748, his ship was caught in a storm at sea, and he experienced a dramatic conversion. He renounced slave trading – gave it up – and later, accepted a call to the Christian ministry. He became one of the great evangelical preachers of the eighteenth century. The hymn “Amazing Grace” is John Newton’s summary of God’s transformation of his life. In the Olney churchyard, there is a marker with the epitaph he himself wrote. It says:
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE
A SERVANT OF SLAVERS IN AFRICA
BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR
PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,
AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
HE HAD LONG SOUGHT TO DESTROY
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton experienced what the Apostle Paul learned in his own experience, the astonishing gift of God’s redemptive acceptance, in no way deserved. Paul, who had been a deadly persecutor of the followers of Christ, was startled to discover that despite his ruthlessness, even “while I was still a sinner,” he wrote in Romans, “Christ died for me.”
* * * *
Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables is another story of God’s amazing grace. As Les Miz begins – you’ve probably seen the stage play – its central character, Jean Valjean, has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Bitter, ferocious, seething with the injustice of it all, with no place else to go, he turns to the church, where a bishop befriends him, takes him in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep. But during the night, Jean Valjean slips into the bishop’s quarters, steals some silverware, and flees.
He is quickly apprehended by the police and hauled back to the rectory. He is caught red-handed – undeniably guilty – but to everyone’s astonishment, the bishop says, mercifully, “Oh, Jean Valjean, when I gave you the silver, I meant for you to have the candlesticks as well. Here. Take them. And don’t forget, you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
The police are left with no choice but to release Valjean without charge. He is not innocent. Everybody knows it. But innocence has been bestowed on him. This is a parable about the grace of God.
God’s love initiates, doesn’t wait for our prior worthiness. (It would be a long wait.) God makes the first move, and does so again and again. Continuous new beginnings are what the Old and New Testaments are all about and, above all, it is what the cross of Christ signifies. God doesn’t wait for worthiness. God creates worthiness.
* * * *
Let’s do some theological work, starting with an old-fashioned word that is straight out of our Reformation heritage. The word is “righteousness.” And what is righteousness, but the opposite of what we are by ourselves, given things we have done, and things we have left undone. “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
Martin Luther, commenting on this verse from Romans, called our righteousness an “alien righteousness,” because it is a righteousness, like Jean Valjean’s, that is not of our own making; it is bestowed on us by someone else. We are accepted, not because of our worthiness – what we have done, or not done, or hope or promise to do – but because of God’s redemptive and persistent love for us. “Alien righteousness” is God’s gift of grace to us.
But then, Martin Luther suggested another kind of righteousness, which he called “proper righteousness.” By proper righteousness, he meant the good that we ourselves may do. Proper righteousness is our living into God’s acceptance of us – in gratitude, taking on the tasks of mercy and forgiveness and responsibility for which the gift of loving us in spite of ourselves was given in the first place.
Now, we mainline Protestants characteristically have some difficulty understanding “alien righteousness.” We are generally not people whose personal biographies resonate with
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
We tend to be decent, law-abiding people of moderation, not given to excess, making our own way responsibly in the world. We are not used to thinking of ourselves as the “once was lost, now am found” kind of Christian. But – if we look back, and are honest – there have been times, haven’t there? when we also failed to live up to the standards of our parents, our communities, our own selves. There were periods in our own histories about which – when we remember what we did, what we said, what hardly anybody knew – we can’t help but shudder and thank God that somehow we got past it, got over it. We were forgiven. It is forgotten. Amazing grace.
And if we dare to remember our own painful experiences with the forgiving grace of God, it will surely help us to forgive and embrace others in their life struggles, and to live our lives with gratitude and generosity.
* * * *
In Les Miserables, you may remember what happened to Jean Valjean after the incident with the bishop’s stolen silverware. The story relates the step-by-step transformation of a defiant and cynical outcast into a socially responsible, generous, loving, even noble human being.
Jean Valjean’s metamorphosis isn’t a sudden turn-around. It is full of setbacks and heartbreaks. Which is the way life is, isn’t it?
Victor Hugo called Les Miserables “a drama in which the hero is the Infinite, the second character [humanity].” Jean Valjean’s story is a fictionalized telling of God’s way in the world, and with each one of us: each day with challenges for our renewal and transformation, each day learning from the past, internalizing God’s gift, responding in love, making mistakes, reevaluating, realigning, growing.
In the closing pages of the novel, there is a glimpse of the essence of the story. It would be very easy to miss because Victor Hugo is an artist; he is careful not to shout, not to preach. He speaks his deepest convictions in a whisper, so the reader may fail to recognize them. But, at the very end, when Jean Valjean is very old and ill, he lies alone in his bed. He feels for his own pulse, but can’t find it. Driven to try to tie things together before he dies, Valjean, with great difficulty and effort, gets out of bed, dresses, and goes to his desk to write a letter to those whom he loves. There are some things about the past that he wants to explain. And what you might miss is that, as the old man shuffles across the room toward his writing desk, he reaches for the silver candlesticks – the same candlesticks the bishop gave him years before.
Valjean moves the candlesticks to the desk and lights the candles as he sits to write the epilogue to his long pilgrimage toward a moral and responsible life. Victor Hugo doesn’t say it. But the words of the bishop echo off the page for those who remember how the story began: “Don’t forget, Valjean. Don’t forget: you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
-- with thanks to Buddy Ennis, Linda Jo McKim and Kenneth Osbeck
The view from a hawley lake cabin
Text: Psalm 24:1-6, Matthew 6:25-33
Today’s sermon is in response to the President’s decision last week to pull America out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed by all but two nations, Syria and Nicaragua, with Nicaragua’s objecting that the agreement didn’t go far enough. In a statement, United Church of Christ leaders have called this “a tragic mistake,” going on to applaud the Parliament of World’s Religions’ calling the decision “scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong.”
I am sorely tempted to indulge myself in a righteous political rant. But I know it is wiser, and worthier, for my response today to be more thoughtful, theological, and Biblical. So, we begin with the Psalmist’s reminder that “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”
* * * *
Vicky and I used to live in southern Arizona, which is desert. In Tucson, temperatures of 112, 113, 114 degrees Fahrenheit were commonplace. So anytime in the summer we could get up into Arizona’s “high country,” we would.
I remember the August week we spent in the White Mountains, at the lakeside cabin of friends. Hawley Lake is 8,000 feet above sea level. So we left behind the bake-oven terrain of cactus and lizard to enter the green environment of deer and bear, of Ponderosa pines and Indian paint brush, where it rained almost every day. It was a restorative week for us.
Especially, that summer, it was 1988. In our home states of Ohio and Illinois, farmers were desperate, their crops withering from drought. And that summer a NASA scientist testified before Congress about what he called “the first unmistakable indication of the ‘greenhouse effect.’”
The NASA scientist, James Hansen, said the warming trend had almost certainly been caused by the burning of fossil fuels, by other gases emitted from human activities, and by wide-scale deforestation. Because gases, discharged into the atmosphere, act like the glass in a greenhouse, making the earth warmer and warmer. “We have altered the global climate,” Dr. Hansen said, “in a manner that will affect life on earth for centuries to come.” That was 1988.
In the twenty-nine years since, it has gotten worse. Plant and animal species are dying off. Glaciers and ice are melting. Some scientists say there will be no polar ice cap by 2060. A United Nations panel on climate change predicts permanent drought and famine in Africa, massive flooding in low-lying Asian deltas, and severe hardship for billions of people. Hurricanes, tornados and tsunamis may be ahead repeatedly, not only for Asian islands, but also… cities like Miami, Charleston, Washington, New York and Boston are threatened by massive flooding. The co-chair of the UN panel pointed out that these conclusions, from the research of thousands of scientists, are based on changes already being observed. “This is not speculation,” said Martin Parry. “This is empirical. We can measure it.”
Which all brings back the sadness – grief, really – that I first felt during that baking summer of 1988, when I read the headline: “Scientist says, Greenhouse effect is here.”
* * * *
A book I took along that August – to Hawley Lake, in the White Mountains of Arizona – was Robert Heilbroner’s Inquiry into the Human Prospect, because he had warned in 1974 about “global thermal pollution.” So up there, in God’s wonderfully ever-green Creation, I read, in a chapter titled, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?” these words:
“Will [hu]mankind survive? Who knows?” “But,” Heilbroner went on, “the question I want to put is more searching: Who cares? It is clear that too many of us do not care – or do not care enough. How many of us would be willing to give up some minor convenience –say, the use of aerosols – in hope that this might extend the life of [humanity] on earth by a hundred years? Suppose we all knew...that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diet[s]..., abandoned all pleasure driving, [and] cut back on every use of energy that was not essential... Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival?
“I doubt it,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “A thousand years is unimaginably distant. Even a century far exceeds our powers of empathetic imagination. By [then], I shall probably have been dead for three quarters of a century. My children will also likely be dead, and my grandchildren... will be in their dotage. What does it matter to me, then, what life will be like? Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me seventy-five years after my death than those that happened seventy-five years before I was born?
“There is no rational answer,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “There is no rational answer to that terrible question.”
* * * *
And so, despite decades of warnings that this finite biosphere is fragile, we keep doing what we have been doing. In the terrible trade-off between economics and the environment – the near-term emphasis on jobs over against the long term question of planetary survival – once again the immediate has been chosen over against the supposedly further-off. But, friends, the limits to our short-sightedness – and our excesses – are coming ever closer.
I once heard our situation described as our “out-running our headlights.” It’s like a driver, at night, going so fast that when the brick wall in the road ahead appears in the headlights, there isn’t enough time to stop the car before hitting it.
At last, we see it: the brick wall ahead, called “global warming,” or “climate change” – not to mention the hole in the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution of the air and waters, over-population. Even if we hit the brakes now, there are collisions ahead.
Do we care? Well, we do. But how much do we care? And how much does the rest of the American citizenry care? And our public leaders? Enough to make significant changes?
But then, why should we? “There is no rational answer,” said Robert Heilbroner. But there is a Scriptural answer: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it...”
* * * *
When it was time to leave Hawley Lake and the mountains, we bustled about the cabin, cleaning up, in gratitude to the people who let us use it. With broom and dustpan, soap and sponge, we got the cabin ready for those who would come after us. Why?
You know. Because – we didn’t own it. It wasn’t ours. We were guests. That’s it. That’s the point. “The earth is the Lord’s.” We don’t own it. It isn’t ours. We are guests.
There was a brochure I found in the cabin, which advertised the nearby Sunrise ski resort; it’s owned by the Apache tribe of northeast Arizona. There was a message in the brochure from the tribal chief that caught my eye. “Come...” he said. “Come, share with us this gift from the Creator that we carefully protect.”
* * * *
When our European ancestors came to this great land, they brought with them an understanding of our relationship to nature that was quite different from that of Native Americans. Our pioneering forbearers read in their Bibles,
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it...
“The fear of you and the dread of you shall be put upon every beast...
“Look at the birds... Are you not of more value than they?”
And “subdue the earth” our ancestors did, leading to the greatest national, industrial energy, and power and prosperity in the history of the world. But – at a price.
“Subdue the earth,” it says, in Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Book. But there is another strand in our Biblical heritage. And it is now past time for us as a people to heed it.
It is true that the Noah story ends with the fateful deliverance of Creation into human hands. But there is also Genesis 2, in which Adam is invited to be God’s care taker, giving the animals names, tending the Creator’s garden.
In one strand, all creation is implicated in the Fall, but in another, only human beings are fallen – because we have misused our free will – while nature and the rest of God’s creatures remain unimpaired.
In one strand, the names for God stress power and authority – names like “Lord” and “King” – emphasizing hierarchy, suggesting that earth is to be dominated. But in another stand, God’s presence in nature is emphasized – through images like “living water,” “shelter,” even “womb” – which help us to recognize the world as cherished and embraced by God.
In one strand, nature is the wilderness, the abyss, chaos, an enemy to be overcome; but in another strand, nature is the realm of renewal, refuge, retreat, revelation.
We can no longer act as if we are above nature, or against nature. Human destiny is intertwined with nature. We are in nature, according to the plan of God – to whom we and the earth belong.
Some of our industrial, technological, “modern” concepts of progress and growth need to be redefined. And the time to do this is surely now. There are built-in walls ahead in this, God’s precious world.
With thanks to Elizabeth Dotson-Gray, Patricia Fort, Jeffrey Kluger and George Williams
what are you trying to say?
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
What Are You Trying to Say?
At Pentecost a group of people were able to speak in such a way that they were understood by everybody. It was a considered a miracle, a gift of the Holy Spirit: to be understood by everybody. It makes you wonder, what language they used.
The word “Pentecost” comes from the day when it happened. Pentecost is a Jewish festival that arrives fifty days after Passover – the word Pentecost meaning “fifty.” So, on this particular Pentecost, it was also fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection.
The disciples assembled in Jerusalem. They were expecting something. Jesus had told them not to leave the city until they had received power there. So they gathered, and continued to gather, praying, singing songs, reading the Scriptures, sharing a meal “in remembrance of [him].” And suddenly, on that morning, there was a rush of wind, and there appeared to them tongues of fire.
In the Hebrew Bible fire and wind are familiar disguises of God. God approached Moses in the burning bush. God appeared in the desert after the Exodus as “a pillar of fire by night.” And the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word as for wind.
So when fire and wind both appear, this is major, something world class. God is here in an extraordinary way, giving the followers of Jesus an unexpected gift, the gift to speak in such a way that everyone will understand you.
* * * *
Pentecost is a wonderful story in itself. But it is really the sequel to another story, about the Tower of Babel – Babel probably being the root word for Babylon, where there used to be a huge tower that dominated the city.
Archaeologists say Babylon was a magnificent city, a remarkable achievement of human civilization. But… given the threat that the empire to the north was for ancient Israel, in the view of the Bible Babylon was an evil city, built on the deadly sin called pride.
The Tower of Babel story begins, in the Revised Standard Version, with this intriguing sentence: “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.” What “few words” do you suppose they were if the world was the way God intended.
In the beginning, there was “one language and few words.” But then, according to the ancient myth, human beings built a tower climbing to the heavens. They are trying to usurp heaven, trying to take the place of God. In the stories of ancient cultures, we see this kind of over-reaching pride most often in Greek mythology. The Greeks called it hubris. Hubris is the arrogance that goes before a fall. Which is the point of the Babel narrative. With the result being: many languages, many words – and no communication.
The Tower of Babel story is a description of the human condition. Writ large in the news these days. Just listen to the bravado, the boasting and bluster, that emanates from the highest precincts in Washington these days. Illustrating humanity’s besetting sin, pride. And pride’s consequences are alienation and separation. Its cure is modesty, humility, which is a language spoken so that all can be included, all can comprehend. It makes you wonder, What could that original language have been that all people could understand?
* * *
There is something else about these texts that we shouldn’t miss. They both concern cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Both were real cities in the ancient world. But in the Bible they take on a mythical dimension. In the Bible, Babylon symbolizes what is wrong with the world. And Jerusalem symbolizes God’s plan for the world.
Babylon is the image many people have of the city. That suspicion is deeply imbedded in middle-American consciousness. It is as if cities are intrinsically evil, and small towns are inherently good and virtuous. Generally, Americans feel little loyalty to cities – except maybe to their sports teams.
I remember my first exposure to Chicago. My dad was doing post-graduate study at the University of Chicago. I was in the eighth grade. I came home from my first day at Ray School very excited. In my class there were Filipinos, Japanese, Germans, a Swedish girl, a Finnish boy, Mexicans, “Negroes,” and… – to me, this was the climax – and… a boy from Atlanta, Georgia! Chicago is amazingly multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. How much more so now, 60-some years later. A babel of tongues are spoken in Chicago. Is the city – like Babylon? Or Jerusalem?
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Acts then proceeds to name them all: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesapotamians, the whole lot of them, all named, so you would know every nation and culture was represented in that city.
If Babylon means babel, confusion, Jerusalem means peace, harmony, symbolically. The name Jerusalem is derived from shalom, the Hebrew word for peace: Jeru – shalom, the foundation of shalom. It was the vision of the prophets that some day all the peoples of the earth would come to Jerusalem, the city of peace, and live together as one family. It’s the vision of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, that the perfect city is Jerusalem, now existing in heaven, waiting until history is complete, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Then Jerusalem, the perfect city, will descend to earth and God will dwell with us.
What a beautiful image: the city as the model of what God has in mind for the world, a place where all people of all nations, all of God’s creation, will dwell together in peace. And at Pentecost it was that way for a few days, or maybe just a few hours. The point is, the day of Pentecost is remembered as one extraordinary instance when it happened: God’s Spirit came down. And Jerusalem, the city of shalom / salaam, became for a moment what it is called to be, a place where all peoples are reconciled and remade as one.
Here’s the point: it happened because these followers of Jesus were empowered by the Holy Spirit to transform the city that was filled with a babel of tongues into one community, with a language that all people could comprehend. If we wonder what that language was, it was surely the language of reconciliation and understanding.
* * * *
We, in our time, face a similar challenge. America is now filled with people and traditions from every nation under heaven. Every one of the world’s religions can now be encountered in this country. The question is: What do we have here? Babylon? Or Jerusalem? Is this a curse? or a blessing? Clearly, a lot of middle America has decided that this is Babel. And wants to keep racial and religious minorities out.
But I would suggest in light of Pentecost that we, followers of Jesus, have no choice but to see this as a blessing. God has invited us – and others – to be ambassadors of hospitality and reconciliation, to speak in such a way that all people can understand, to challenge whatever continues to alienate peoples, and to create communities in which all the diversity of God’s creation may meet.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Stay in Jerusalem.” And they did, until they received power to discern a new city. That power enabled them to speak so as to be understood. The language they spoke was a language of reconciliation.
There is no question what the content of the message was. It’s recorded in the second chapter of Acts. It’s Peter’s sermon. In it he proclaimed what God did in Jesus Christ, and everybody understood that in their own language. That’s the crux of it. It has to be spoken in such a way that it will be heard.
I don’t expect it will be heard if we proclaim it the way Peter did, standing on the street corner and shouting it. Today, that delivers a different message. People just shake their heads and walk on by. Briskly. So, what language would recreate the miracle of Pentecost today, the miracle of universal understanding?
We search for such a language in ecumenical and interfaith efforts. Your Council sought such a language by signing the “Out of Many, One” anti-bigotry statement. The Rainbow Flag out front is an attempt also. Underneath such endeavors there is one original miracle. That basic Pentecost miracle is simple, transforming, persuasive – and it can’t be faked.
It is love. Love is the language that all people understand. Love is surely the original language with few words.
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