Another blind reach towards the smallest part of a small audience. I read a sermon last night by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and wish I'd heard it on the very heels of Sunday morning's experience. I might have understood better right then what I only suspected after Communion was served -- that feeling really crappy about "lusting in one's heart" is not exactly the point of Lent. The sermon begins on the premise that no, it's not enough simply to "be a good person." And it ends with this:
A professor of mine at Luther seminary says that this whole thing isn’t about moving from vice to virtue. We actually move from virtue to Christ. We can stop all of it because in Christ God has come to us. The direction is decidedly from God to us, not from us to God. So it ends up that it actually is good news that “just being a good person” is not enough. Because the cross is enough and perhaps we should remind each other of that whenever we slip in to pride or despair. We should remind each other that you do stand in righteousness before your God, not due to your virtue, but due to the cross. Only a God who slips into skin taking on flesh in all it’s broken glory – only this God of foolish love who dies a scandalous death without even lifting a finger to condemn the enemy – only this God can love you where you are. Right now. Because in the world according to God that’s how things work. And it’s beautifully, bafflingly foolish. Amen.
The phrase that culminates, resonates is that one I've set in bold type above. "Only this God of foolish love --" -- this God of loving anyone for no reason, and more, for loving the worst in myself along with my best; this God in Christ crucified, who doesn't accuse me but only points to the cross. "-- who dies a scandalous death without even lifting a finger to condemn the enemy--" It's a lesson to learn over and over, and it's so simple that it's difficult to grasp. "Only this God can love you where you are, right now" --
I was for a long time one of the people who said "I'm not religious; I think it's enough just to try to be a good person. And if there is a God I can believe in, it's that kind of God. (The kind I can please by trying hard to always be good.) And presumably, he'll let me into Heaven for being good even if I don't go to church." And I still get stuck in that occasionally; Lent is an easy time to get stuck. What are you giving up for Lent? Vice -- aiming to replace it with virtue. Which is evidently all fine and good, except it's not enough, not exactly the point. If it had been, I doubt I would have had that dream about the cross some four years ago. Because while I had made some mistakes over time (breaking not just one or two of the Commandments), I generally did try to be good (in an always-evolving sense of what "good" meant.) I volunteered thousands of hours for social justice. I stood up for the rights of the underrepresented. I thought about "the greater good," though it was a looooonnnnnnnggggg time before I had even the beginnings of a clue as to what that really meant.
The other option of course, if we do not look at the demands of God with self-congratulations, is to look on them with despair. Jesus helped to up the ante here for those of us who think “just being a good person is enough” To those who feel self-satisfied that out of virtue they do not commit adultery (check) he says anyone who has lust in their heart has committed adultery. (oh. Maybe un-check) To those who are prideful that out of our virtue we give to charity (check) Jesus says oh yeah, sell all you have and give it to the poor (ok, maybe un-check). It can feel like a set up. Looking at how impossible it is to really fulfill God’s demands leaves us with a tortured conscience. I wonder if moving from vice to virtue isn’t a really a lousy salvation plan namely because it’s not actually possible to pull it off. The thing is, me-based solutions don’t look very hopeful.
This comes about half-way through the sermon. The me-based solution to the tortured conscience. Well, what else is there? Asks the person trying to graduate from being a "good enough person" to being a "good enough Christian." Jesus is not, is NOT, the Old Testament -- he's not Leviticus, not a list of rules, not a play-book for life. And I know not a few people who want in their best hearts to believe in Jesus the teacher, Jesus the leader and philosopher, who are yet quite unwilling to "buy" Jesus as God made flesh, crucified for our sins and bodily resurrected.
See, Jesus isn’t a new Moses bringing a better law we’ll never live up to. Jesus isn’t just sitting in heaven waiting to see if we can pull off the impossible and then condemning us for our inevitable failure. Jesus subverts the entire paradigm. Jesus actually IS our righteousness. This righteousness we have is not our own, but that of a Merciful and gracious God who comes to us in vulnerability and suffering. And the thing is….with the righteousness of Christ there is no extra credit to be obtained.
I also know one or two people (including myself quite often) who don't want to think about the decimating grace of being loved by Christ, by a loving God, because it gets in the way of their anger, or their self-loathing -- because it's actually easier to be angry and self-loathing than it is to give oneself up for loved without actually being cured of or excused for one's worst habits, and without getting the whole wished-for package of answers to thorny problems like evil and loss.
I don't often consider what it would be like to see someone who loved me with their whole heart willingly put to death on account of something I did -- I never imagine what it would be like to see someone I love give up their life for me. And I DEFINITELY don't like to think about someone I love, who loves me, possibly giving up their life willingly for someone who could care less about them, who had never heard of them, who maybe even hated them -- someone I had never met. Because that would be horrible, wrong, crazy, wouldn't it?
So we offer no me-based solutions here. Not if we preach Christ and him crucified. Then you know what we have to offer? Divine foolishness. But to the weak and the cynical and the socially awkward and the gays and those injured by religion and the parentless and the unemployed and the alcoholics, Christ crucified – the foolishness of God – is life in a way that our own wisdom can never be. Only a God who intimately knows such pain and sorrow can take on all our crap at the cross and exchange it for Christ’s own tender blessings.
In my church we have lots and lots of sinners -- people who have done things that are really wrong, sinning against the law, against morality, against the Spirit --- including myself. But we are blessed, all of us, in really tangible ways. The love of God is not a hard-to-locate thing where I go to church. None of that really addresses though the shame and self-loathing I chose to feel on Sunday; but it does address the love I felt as I served Communion, and in just one or two cases where the person I was serving met my eye, they saw that love and they returned it in their way. "The blood of Christ, shed for you."
Don't call CSI and ask them for proof that blood was shed on such-and-such a day 2000+ years ago. Don't read the Bible looking for proof that Mary Magdalene got to the empty tomb first, or that the Virgin Mary really was a virgin. Ya ain't gonna find what you're looking for, possibly because you don't really know what you're looking for.
And what I have to get through my head is that my anger, my self-loathing, my self-pity, my pride, my self-aggrandizement, my judgement, my sorrow, ad nauseum -- is loved. Loved by someone I never knew, who for many years escaped my attention -- loved by someone I didn't care about at all, and sometimes hated -- loved by someone I cheated, lied to, stole from, cussed out, betrayed and murdered, maybe. I am loved for where I am right now by someone who died for me, died DEAD. I have to get that through my head, identify my heart's right response to that, and live that in the world.