Monday, February 27, 2012

Costly Grace - Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson
Rollins Chapel, 2.26.12
Romans 2:1-4, Matthew 5: 43-48
"Costly Grace."

It’s Lent again.
It seems to happen every year around this time.
That season of reflection.
Often of grayness and mud
A season penitence.
and of suffering,
of lacking and wanting,
A season of giving up things we like.
A season,
at least for me growing up,
of an extra church service per week
(and I might add, an extra-boring service it was).

If you went to a service on Ash Wednesday,
as I did,
you might have noticed that we read Matthew 6,
in which Jesus exhorts his followers to pray in secret.
And then we get smudged with ash on our faces,
and wander into the streets,
to proudly proclaim to the world,
via our foreheads, that we are dust.
It's a season
if we're paying attention,
that might just cause us to ask some questions.

And those of us who believe that the freely given,
undeserved grace of God,
is at the center of our life and faith,
might rightly wonder,
why do we do any of this?
Why should we be penitent?
Why should we fast or abstain from things?
Why should we suffer?
When we know we can't earn God's favor.
Aren’t we riders on God's grace train,
and aren’t such things simply vanity,
and false piety?
And indeed, we should pause,
in the season of Lent,
in the face of grace and ask such questions.

And then, depending our mood,
we might pause longer,
and wonder,
if we really believe in grace,
why should we be any different at all?
Simul Iustus Et Peccator,
said Martin Luther.
Always "at once, Justified and Sinner."
We don't stop sinning.
Indeed, we can't stop sinning.
We don't become perfect,
therefore wouldn't it be best,
if we just went with the flow?
Did whatever those around us are doing?
Took it easy on ourselves and others?
And indeed, we should pause
in the season of Lent,
 in the face of grace
and ask such questions.

And then, depending on our mood,
 we might pause a bit longer,
and ponder another of Martin Luther's great aphorisms:
Sin Boldly, but believe in God more boldly still.
And think to ourselves,
if we have faith,
and we have grace,
couldn't we pretty much just do whatever we want?
wouldn't that be more fun?
And won’t God love and forgive us anyway?

And indeed,
we might be able to.
And God might love us anyway.
And we should pause
in the season of Lent.
in the face of grace and ask such questions.
But we would,
as Dietrich Bonheoffer tells us,
be pushing up against "Cheap Grace." *

That is, Grace as a great cosmic,
always-replenishing bank.
"grace which has been paid in advance,"
and can thus "be had for nothing."
And, of course,
Grace is likely a little like that.
But, not entirely.

Before we delve too far into responding to such questions,
it’s worth noting, of course,
that while such characterizations
and questions might be glib,
they are not merely hypothetical.
Because, if we're being honest,
we who profess to follow Christ,
simply live as others do.
We support wars,
and oppress workers.
We say mean things to one another,
and abide the violence of the world.
We contribute to degradation of the planet,
and get divorced,
and devote ourselves to wealth,
and power, and success.
We just go to church more often.
And maybe feel a little more guilty about it.
So we probably ought not feel too high and mighty.
And, as Paul reminds us,
we should be pretty wary of judging others.

But, I would submit,
it is none other than grace,
given freely, and undeserved,
which calls us to something better.
it is grace that rings through,
in each of our texts for today.
“Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
says Paul.
And I really do believe,
that grace and kindness are a better starting point,
for repentance,
Than guilt, shame or fear.
Not because it makes us feel better,
but because it calls us to a more apt repentance.
A more full acceptance,
and, as Paul says, an unwillingness to judge.

Further, I think,
in strange ways,
it is grace,
which speaks those words,
“Be perfect.”

This is not a cheap grace,
But a grace that beckons us forward.
Grace that confronts us with those words,
“Love even your enemies.”
Grace which wants better for us,
and grace which makes us want better for ourselves.
Grace, which does not shy away from honesty,
but forces us to confront the ways,
in which we are not living into its promises.
But still, it is grace,
which forgives and loves,
in spite of the fact,
that we will not be perfect.
And thus we can perhaps affirm ideas,
like “At once sinner and justified”
and “sin boldy”
These are not,
as Bonheoffer reminds us, as presuppositions.
But as conclusions.

Let me explain with a literary flourish:
Faust, after a lifetime of seeking knowledge,
declares “I now do see that we can nothing know.”
Which is quite a different statement,
than a freshman entering his first year writing class,
declaring what’s the point of doing my work?
We can’t really know anything.
(Not a tactic I would recommend, by the way).
And so it is with Luther’s “Sin Boldly.”
Spoken after a lifetime of searching and seeking
and wondering.
Meant not to make us lazy,
but to allow us to boldly believe, boldly repent,
 and boldly live.

Cheap grace can indeed lead to laziness.
To that "do whatever"
“What’s the point?” perspective on the world.
But so too it can lead other ways.
It can lead to a life of escape.
To a life of cheap monasticism.
Cheap grace can call us away from the world.
To surround ourselves with only acceptable things,
and acceptable people.
To form Christian subcultures
where we needn't notice
or concern ourselves the world's troubles.
And instead focus only on our inward lives.

And so too,
cheap grace can call us to “Christianize” the world around us.
To make acceptable and inoffensive,
the message of unconditional love,
of peace, and of justice for all.
To make grace,
as Bonhoeffer says,
"common property."
A mere blessing of family values,
and low taxes.
And good business.
Instead of the radical call,
to "be perfect."
To come and follow.
To be disciples of the Word made flesh.
Fully in this troubled world.

And it is a costly call.
One which demands much of us.
Asks much of us.
Even knowing that we will not succeed,
and will be loved still.

And that brings us around again to Lent.
That season of giving up,
and penitence,
and reflection on mortality.
For it is not a season, so much,
of suffering.
Or of giving up.
But a season of simplifying.
A season we all desperately need,
to let go of all the distractions.
All the things that get in our way.
A season not of sadness
or joylessness.
But a season to remind ourselves,
that in following Christ,
we are not giving up joy,
or fun.
But giving up, perhaps,
some of the hollow, distracting joys of the world.
In hopes of discovering the much real-er joy,
of loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds,
and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
A season which reminds us of our call,
not to escape the world,
nor to succumb to it,
but to be in it,
witnesses to that real joy,
real love,
real grace.
For it is a troubled world in which we live.
a world in desperate need,
of that costly kind of love,
that costly kind of grace.
Which asks better of us.
Grace which neither blesses the things we do wrong,
nor asks of us solely guilt or shame.

Indeed, there is much at stake,
for those of us who believe in the costly grace of God.
because it can be so easily cheapened,
or sold out.
It can so easily turn into laziness,
or escape,
or a blessing of the structures that be.
And in this Lenten season,
we pray,
that we might take time to ponder,
That the first word is love,
freely given.
And that love then asks us to follow.
And wonder how we can live,
in a world of distractions,
a world of problems,
a world at once justified and full of sin,
as followers, disciples,
of love incarnate.

*Quotations and themes are drawn from “Costly Grace” by Dietrich Bonheoffer, from The Cost of Discipleship, Translation by R.H. Fuller, revisions by Irmgard Booth, Touchstone, 1995.

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