The theme for my sermon today is alternatives. How should we live our lives in this season of Lent and beyond. What are our choices?
In our readings for today, we hear this theme of alternatives.
In Genesis: God told Abram that He is his protector, and that Abram will be greatly blessed. Abram wonders what this means and thinks rather small and just asks for a true heir. God gives him a much larger and better alternative; He makes his covenant with Abram, with details of its future historical dimensions, that his true offspring will be his heir and his descendants will be many, like the stars. (Of course Abram first had to question this and have it shown to him in a dream, but he did eventually get to his blessing.)
In Philippians: Paul’s told his friends in Philippi that they have a wonderful alternative to living the life of their neighbors around them. Their preoccupation was on earthly things; Paul reminded them that Jesus is their way to eternal life, and to live by Paul’s example of a steadfast life focused on the prize of heavenly salvation.
In Luke: Some of the Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod, wanting Him to avoid Herod and Jerusalem and stop doing His ministry. Jesus told them His own alternative to this--He condemned both Herod and the city of Jerusalem as killers of their own prophets, and said He was going to move on with His ministry and toward His inevitable death and resurrection IN Jerusalem.
In this season of Lent there are alternatives as to how we can observe it. Some churches in the past and even today still have a rigid schedule of fasting on certain days during Lent, especially the giving up of meat, alcohol, sweets, and other types of food. Other traditions do not place as great an emphasis on fasting, but focus on charitable deeds, especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or simply the giving of money to charities. Most Christian churches that observe Lent at all focus on it as a time of prayer, especially penance, repenting for failures and sin as a way to focus on the need for God’s grace. Overall, it has become a time of preparation to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope for, as Christians.
I’ve been doing some radical (for me!) alternative reading the past two weeks. Usually my reading consists of looking online the web at sports, political, and other human interest articles, with no real depth of thought or contemplation of anything religious. I’m reading a book called, “If God is Love?” (the title even suggests an alternative) by Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister from Indiana, who has some very interesting perspectives about Christianity--living a life true to Jesus’ real message to all Christians. His other religious books are: “If Grace is True?” and “If the Church Were Christian?”—more titles that invoke thoughts of alternatives--how things could be in a truly Christian world. The rest of the title for his “If God is Love?” book is “Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World.”
Philip Guffey gives his definition of grace as “the unfailing commitment to love all persons, regardless of their beliefs.” He says that “only grace makes it possible for those who believe differently to respect and relate to one another, and that grace empowers us to embrace deeply divergent convictions even as we embrace one another.” He believes that, “Grace is God’s commitment to love us regardless, not because we believe in Him or because we are chosen or obedient. This was modeled and taught by Jesus—it was offered to the outcasts, sinners, and the unloved, to both neighbor and enemy.”
He describes ungracious Christian living (he even uses the word “hypocritical”) as life based on worshiping God through Jesus Christ providing our grace and salvation, which leads to our selfish response in knowing we are saved and therefore going around trying to save others, like we’re somehow better than them. Alternatively, he says a gracious Christian has a life based on the grace of God through Jesus calling us to be in close relationship with God and everyone around us, even our so-called “enemies”. He takes us out of the salvation-based Christian theology and asks us to consider living an alternative Christian life where we are called to reconcile the world to be a better place for everyone, not just for those who would hear the message of Christ dying for us and ask for His salvation.
When I first read this I thought, “Well, I’m not one of those ungracious Christians! I don’t believe that I push my form of Christianity on everyone, I give to help the poor and support the rights of the oppressed and those without voices to need help. I respect the rights of all to speak their mind (although I’m pretty sure I’m right most of the time!). I’m not a hypocrite!”
Things can look just great on the outside of one’s being, but there can be struggles on the inside and behind what you can see. But I think I am in a caring Christian community where we can talk about our challenges and get support and even help with them.
With some of the examples Philip provides in this book, I am reminded how I fall far short of truly being a gracious Christian. First, Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How hard is that? I find that really hard when I’m thinking about issues like the health care debates, immigration, racism and prejudice, and the economic challenges these days, and I watch on television or read about how our government leaders are handling them. I get really mad at some politicians and media people who disagree with my positions on these issues and others. I’m sure they must be horrible people, totally out for themselves, and I want them to go away or something to happen to them so they aren’t in control or leading things anywhere. Is that what Jesus wants for us to think or do? I also struggle to do as Jesus calls us to do when I’m dealing with those in our larger Church who have opposing views to me about homosexuality, abortion, women clergy, and other matters that seem to drag us all down and away from God’s mission for us. I even struggle here at St. Mark’s when thinking about our mission and someone thinks about it differently than I do.
Jesus tells us to “Love God, and then Love your Neighbor as Yourself. Treat others as you would want to be treated”. This shows up harshly for me when I look at how I sometimes treat my grandsons Caleb and Aaron. In my dim, failing memory I grew up as a docile, although outspoken child, who respected authority and the reverence of the church and all things religious, and I think that my grandsons should act as I once acted in church (and in all things when around me!). Funny, recently in Bible study and in discernment class I have talked about how those times growing up were not very good, that I did not like “the fear of God theology and of authority” that I was taught in church and home. This all came to a head a couple of weeks ago when I grabbed Caleb by the collar in the back of the church after Bonnie’s sermon and gave him a terrible look of threat of physical harm if he did not get quiet. I also have walked around glaring at other kids here at church when I see them act up. Philip says that “grace begins at home”, and that “one gift we as gracious Christians can give to the world is homes (and churches) full of grace and acceptance, where spouses (and grandparents) and children can learn from and teach one another.” I need to be a much better example of grace like this, for my grandsons (and our other kids here at church) to learn how to live graciously in their worlds, too.
Being a gracious Christian means we can have our own views about everything, but we also respect others’ views on these things. The Gospel today calls for all of us, who may be so sure of ourselves about a particular religious tradition or point of faith, to search ourselves. The Pharisees, who looked like they were Jesus’ friends in this passage, actually hoped he would quiet down and go away, so they could have their Jewish religious status quo and not have the Romans at their throats. Our own Christian faith should not be about believing just the right things about God and then using that premise to try to control everything and everyone around us, but about trusting that God will remake us in His image, full of grace and truth.
One really good thing about our Anglican/Episcopalian tradition that fits well with being gracious is that at our core we believe there is a middle way, a place where we of varied ideas and beliefs all can work together. As it says in #23 of the 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian (this one must be either somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or it must include all of us): “We’re a church where you can come in without leaving your brain at the door and then have the opportunity to love all of those who managed to come in with their “wrong” ideas.” The Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, D.D., Diocese of Southeast Florida
So, I have an alternative to try for my Lenten discipline this year, and hopefully beyond--not to give up something or to fast or the like, but to look at my own Christian living and look for ways to be more gracious, in every way I can. Maybe this can work for you, too! AMEN!