Sermon preached at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis
October 14, 2018
Readings: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Ps. 90:12-17; Heb. 4:12-16; Mk. 10:17-31
More than once in church settings, I’ve been in conversations where at some point someone will finish stating an opinion on whatever the topic happens to be by saying, “and if that makes me a heretic, then I’m proud to be one!”
We take the word heresy a lot more lightly these days than we used to, and mostly I think that’s a good thing. Though in its strictest sense heresy is a contrary view on core orthodox Christian teachings, the accusation has been used as often as not to advance political agendas in both church and state, with catastrophic and bloody results. Fortunately, we are far removed from the days when the church was in the burning people at the stake business, but the public image of the church is that it is still very much in the scolding and self-righteousness business. So I’m generally on board with any effort to cut down on the judginess in favor of a bold witness to grace.
Still, looking back at the church’s earliest heresies is a worthwhile endeavor, because they are beliefs about the nature of God in Christ that our spiritual ancestors tested out and rejected, judging that they did not match what scholar Derek Olsen calls the “data” of their spiritual lives. Some of these can seem technical and arcane, like the many, many heresies about the nature of the Trinity - it’s not for nothing that preachers frequently refer to Trinity Sunday as “accidental heresy Sunday”. I would argue that despite the appearance of hairsplitting, the Trinitarian heresies are important, but that’s a whole other sermon.
Bur also dating from around the same time, in the fourth century, is one heresy that has lately made quite a comeback, Pelagianism. This heresy, named after an Irish monk whose actual involvement in its teachings is a bit murky, is the idea that humans are untainted by original sin, and that we are capable of choosing good over evil without divine aid. Or to put it more simply, that our own works can save us.
It’s an appealing idea, and one that at first glance seems to sit well with our church’s effort to be havens from the judgmentalism not just of other churches but also of a secular culture that constantly tells us that we’re not fit enough, skinny enough, healthy enough, rich enough, or pretty enough. It seems to reflect instead some kind of triumph of the irrepressible human spirit, and what’s not to like about that?
But experience suggests that Pelagianism just isn’t true. I was thinking about this recently when I was on retreat at a monastery in Michigan. Each night at compline the monks say a confession that is slightly modified from the one we say on Sunday, to emphasize that the monks’ sins are not just against God but are also against their own community. “What sins could they possibly be confessing?” I wondered. After all, a monastery seems like an environment that is optimized for virtue.
But then the next day while I was walking past the office I noticed one of the brothers watching internet cat videos during the time the monks are supposed to be working on the maintenance and improvement of the community. Later I learned that one of the monks had had a major health crisis that had him using a walker sometimes, but mostly a wheelchair. And while I only saw the brothers treat him with kindness and respect, any of you who have cared for an aging loved one know the awful thoughts that come unbidden and involuntary, no matter how much you love them.
Moreover, it is only on the surface that Pelagianism seems to endorse the nobility of the human soul. It is the duty of our churches to welcome people in, wherever they are on their spiritual journeys and whatever troubles or failings they have. Or as the sign at the Church of God down the road from here at 10th and Franklin put it as I was driving here this morning: “The Church: Where it’s ok not to be ok.” But, if we take the idea that humans are capable of making the right choice, always, on our own, to its logical conclusion, then all our shortcomings, failings, betrayals, and sins are not the result of the battle for our hearts waged by the hosts of heaven and the great Adversary. Instead, they're just our own fault. And so, by soft-pedaling original sin because it sounds so judgy, we risk squandering the church’s twin treasures of forgiveness and grace, trading them in for blame. And so the church becomes an unsafe place not to be ok.
A rich man kneels before Jesus and asks what is required of him to receive eternal life, and Jesus gives him an answer he cannot bear to hear, to sell everything he owns, give all the money he earns to the poor, and come to the truest possible relationship he can have with God: utter dependence.
I wonder what the man hoped to hear. You all know the story of Naaman the Aramean in 2 Kings: he was a great general. And yet however great he was, however many battles he won, he could never have full standing among his people, because he had leprosy, and was thus unclean. He encounters the prophet Elisha, who tells him the way to be healed, to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Naaman doesn’t want to do it - he was expecting something a lot more dramatic, and also, he complains that the Jordan isn’t that nice of a river anyway. He almost goes home uncured and still unclean, until his servants convince him, saying, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to you was “Wash, and be clean?” So Naaman washes, and is healed.
The rich man would have known this story, and in his pursuit of eternal life he was expecting something difficult, some way to earn extra credit over and above following the commandments. But he wasn’t expecting to be told this, to be stripped of his entire constructed identity, his wealth, his power, his possessions, and his choices, and as an unburdened child of God to follow his master, Jesus. And so he went away, for the cost of obtaining salvation on his own merits - total self denial - had been revealed to him. And he grieved, because he knew he didn’t have the strength to do it. So much for eternal life.
This teaching is too hard for the disciples, too. “Then who can be saved?” they ask. Jesus answers, “for mortals it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” In other words, salvation is by God’s grace.
Except for Peter - Peter doesn’t have a problem with this teaching. He’s all, “Hey Jesus, I’ve got this. I have left everything behind. I have followed you.” Sure Peter, sure. Let’s talk about this again after you deny Jesus three times.
When the rich man asks Jesus his question, notice what Jesus does before his delivers his impossible answer. He gazes upon him and loves him. The Word made flesh, living and active, recognizes one of his children, sees him as he is, in his sin, vulnerability, uncertainty, and need, and takes him into the heart of God. The man asks the question because he knows deep down that even though he has done all the “right things,” followed all the commandments from his youth, something is missing. Jesus’s true answer is grace.
So how are you doing, St. Matthew’s? If there’s a thing I worry about all the time in my role on the bishop’s staff, it’s that tension between loving - so deeply loving - the God who gives us life, while finding that being the church, and all the things we think we have to do to sustain it, can be so exhausting. I won’t make you say if that sounds familiar to you, but the struggle is real in a lot of places.
The job of the church is not to perpetuate the institution with the doing of the things and the keeping up of appearances. It is to love and follow Jesus, to tune our lives to the heartbeat of the one in whose love he invites us to abide.
What that takes is not more things to do or boxes to check, but a return to first things, recognizing that we are the people of God’s pasture, the sheep of God’s hand, and listen for our shepherd's voice.
That can be really hard in the noisiness of the world and the business of our lives. But Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has proposed one way to do this, returning to the core practices of discipleship that date back to the earliest Christians. He calls it The Way of Love, a seven-fold rule of life for living in a world where being serious about following Jesus is increasingly counter-cultural. And now more than ever, the world needs serious followers of Jesus.
Whether for a church of an individual, the practices of the Way of Love are intended to help you stay rooted in God’s love for you. I'll just summarize it here.
First, turn: once upon a time the word we’d use for this is “repent,” but that vocabulary term has acquired a reputation. But what this means is that wherever you are in your life, acknowledging your faults as matter-of-factly as you can, turn to the one who created you and sustains you.
Learn: know your faith. Engage with scripture. It’s stories are your story.
Worship weekly in community, to be nourished by God’s word, by each other, and by the Body and Blood of our Lord.
Establish a routine of prayer, an act of self-giving of time and attention to God on your own behalf and on behalf of others.
Bless: Let your life of faith be a blessing to others through acts of service and evangelism, sharing how a relationship with God has transformed and sustained you.
Go into the world with eyes trained to see where God is active, where people are celebrating, where hearts are broken.
And last, rest, for we are not made for endless striving. Sabbath is God’s gift to us.
These are not things to do so much as a way to be, not a way to earn God’s love so much as a way to receive it. Which is not to say this is easy. How might your life, your family’s life, your church’s life look when this is the guide?
The concept of original sin gets a bad rap today - too pessimistic about human nature, too judgmental - but it is profoundly liberating, because it means the wars fought in our hearts are not solely of our making, and we have Jesus fighting on our side as our redeemer, mediator, and advocate. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who is every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we me receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”