Lent 4, Year C, 2016

When I was in high school and college, teachers loved group projects. Maybe that has always been the case and is still the case, but in the late 90s, the group project reigned. Group projects, I suppose, are designed to help a person learn to play nicely, to function well on a team. But as every tightly wound over functioning person knows, group projects are the WORST. In group projects everyone gets the same grade, whether one person does all the work or whether the work is evenly shared. You can be a member of a group project and do nothing but snap your gum and you can still succeed! Where is the justice?

I hate to break it to you other over-functioning types, but today’s Gospel is not going to make you feel much better. Well, it won’t at first. But hang in there, because this Gospel contains grace for all of us, whether we think we have it all together or whether we don’t.

Today’s Gospel is a family parable. We have a father and two sons. His eldest is a hard working, responsible typical first born. His younger son? Let’s just say he’s still “finding himself”. In a move that must have infuriated his older brother, the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance—while his father is still alive—and then goes and blows it all on fast cars, whiskey and women. Soon he is broke and working a terrible job as a pig feeder. The moment he realizes he would be grateful sharing the pigs’ food he “comes to himself”. He remembers who he is. He wakes up. And he goes home.

He prepares a whole speech, but before he can open his mouth, his father runs to him with open arms. Not only is this young man welcomed home, but his father throws him a huge party. His brother, though, is not happy. While the younger son has been out partying, who has held down the fort? Who has consoled their father? Who has done extra work? The first born. He just cannot understand his father’s forgiveness. His father assures him that “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but we are left not knowing if he ever comes around to accepting his father’s love and letting go of resentment.

Jesus told this story to some Pharisees who were NOT happy with the company Jesus was keeping. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners when he could be spending time with the rule followers. This prodigal son parable is the third one Jesus tells the Pharisees in response to their grumbling. The other parables are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. To Jesus, this prodigal son is also lost. And Jesus’ job was to find all the lost people and tell them how much God loves them.

And let’s be honest, the prodigal son is not any more lost than the first born son. Because the first born son thinks all his hard work and responsible behavior is what makes him a worthwhile person. He believes that love can be earned.

At the WomanKind conference at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber was the keynote speaker. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, but if you saw her on the street you would not guess that about her. She is 6’ 1”, has short spiky hair, wears combat boots, and is covered in tattoos. On one arm is a huge Mary Magdalene and on the other is Jesus. Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict, and once made a living as a stand up comic. So, not your typical pastor. She pastors a church in Denver called Sinners and All Saints that was designed for people on the margins, but now attracts a wide variety of followers.

One reason Bolz-Weber has been so popular, besides the fact that she curses like a sailor, is that she seems to truly, deeply understand the concept of grace. She was lost and she was found, and she continues to have a deep understanding of what it means to be found by God.

During her session at WomanKind, she talked about how all of us have an ideal version of ourselves. My ideal self, for example, goes to the gym three times a week and does yoga the other days. She reads poetry for fun and definitely does not snap, “Get your bottom in the car seat!” every single morning. My ideal self has a tidy house, eats quinoa, and drinks green tea. She does not have a problem with sugar.

There is a part of my brain that thinks I’ll get there some day. Like, if I just tried hard enough, I would get my act together. But Bolz-Weber reminded us that this ideal version of ourself? IT DOES NOT EXIST. It is a fictional person. The actual self? The sloppy, chocolate eating, Entertainment Weekly reading self? That is my real self. That is the self that God loves. Bolz-Weber says the Lutherans understand the gap—the gap between the real self and the ideal self as the Law. And the Gospel is the answer to that gap. Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and he wanted to redeem the actual human experience. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because our ideal selves do not exist.

Even the most responsible of us have this ideal self. And I think this understanding of the gap between our real self and our ideal self helps us understand God’s grace better. We may not all have spectacular moments of failure like the prodigal son, but that does not mean we do not need grace. Because none of us is perfectly comfortable in our own skin. We all think there is something else we need to be doing to be worthy of full love and acceptance. We all are striving to meet these ideals, to hit some external mark of success. In an interview with Commonweal, Bolz-Weber says,

“Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us.[1]

But the law won’t save us. We’ll either be in the position of the prodigal son—who completely fails to live up to expectations and feels deep shame, or we’ll be in the position of the first born son—who is so blinded by pride he cannot allow himself to experience the love of his father.

And I’m not just talking about religious law here. We delude ourselves into living under all kinds of systems of law—if we eat nothing but local food and drive a Prius we’ll be saved, if we make more money than our parents we’ll be saved, if we believe exactly the right conservative or liberal principles we’ll be saved, if our bodies look thin or strong enough we’ll be saved. All these systems lie to us.

Jesus did not come to earth just for the sinners and tax collectors. He came for everyone, Pharisees and Prius owners included. Jesus is the prodigal father, with his arms outstretched, delighted his son has returned. Jesus is the prodigal father, who would be just as delighted to celebrate his first born son.

Jesus chooses to love us, our actual messy imperfect selves. He chooses to love you. Right now. Not because you deserve it, not because you have your act together, but because his Father created you and his Father loves his creations.

You are loved by God whether you are rich or broke, responsible or a “failure”, whether the people in your life are kind to you or if they are awful, whether you complete your checklist every day or never get out of bed.

If you were a coin that went missing, Jesus would turn over every floorboard in this church to find you. If you were a sheep that wandered off, Jesus would hunt you down, throw you over his shoulders and carry you back home. If you were his son and you spit in his face and ran away from home, Jesus would run down the road to meet you on your way back.

So, we can let go. Let go of that ideal self. Get to know your actual self. And get to know the God that loves you.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/we-all-think-law-will-save-us

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Proper 9, Year A, 2014

I have fallen down a hole of BBC television programming this summer. My usual shows are over and so I started with Call the Midwife, which is a refreshingly good natured show after six months of Scandal and House of Cards! One of the actresses in that show is a comedienne and writer that has her own half hour sitcom called Miranda. Miranda is hysterical. She is an at least six foot tall woman who is as agile at slapstick as Lucille Ball. Her character owns a joke shop, much to the displeasure of her traditional mother, and has a big crush on the chef next door. One of Miranda’s problems is that every time she gets cornered or nervous she starts to lie. Crazy, elaborate lies that invent dead husbands and children, and fictive jobs that start out in retail and end up in the secret service. In the show, in the middle of one of these elaborate lies she’ll stop and look at the camera with an expression of utter confusion. As if she means to say, “Why am I doing this? How did I end up here?”

She might join the Apostle Paul in crying out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This is one of the most relatable passages in all Scripture, right? There is nothing that will get me to bake chocolate chip cookies faster than a vow that I’m going to eat healthier. Why are our brains such contrarians? We read this passage and wander down a road of psychological examination. But is that what Paul intended?

In Romans 5-8, Paul takes on the problem of human sin. He understands sin not only as the bad things we do, but also as a power that Christ has come to defeat. When we read Romans we think of ourselves as human beings as the main subject here, the star of the show who dramatically battle with sin. But to Paul, human beings are almost on the sidelines. We have found it impossible to battle sin alone! We need help! The real battle is between sin and God.

A very attractive and wise New Testament scholar, Beverly Gaventa, who also happens to be my mother-in-law, argues that all these “I” statements in Romans 7 aren’t meant to be Paul’s confession of weakness. She believes he is using the “I” in the same way the Psalmists, did, as a way for each person who read or heard Paul’s letters to the Romans identify with this very specific, but universal human condition. After all, the Romans were not hearing this letter from Paul’s mouth. Phoebe, who delivered the letter to them, read it to them, and as it got passed around from community to community, different voices spoke those plaintive sentences. And more specifically, Paul is describing here how the power of sin even corrupts the laws that are supposed to keep us from sinning! Here he is speaking specifically of the Mosaic law—the commandments God gave the Israelites. He is careful to make clear that it is not the law that is sinful. After all, the law is designed to guide us into holy living. But the power of sin is so pervasive that it can even make our relationship to the law broken.

In Immortal Diamond, the book we have been studying this summer, Richard Rohr writes, 

[Religion] is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, your inadequacy before God’s greatness. Whenever religion actually increases the gap, it becomes antireligion instead. I am afraid we have lots of antireligion in all denominations.

Now, as educated and liberated Episcopalians, it’s easy for us to point fingers and say, “Oh yes, I see how this principle has corrupted the Catholic Church, which is rife with abuse and cover ups!” Or we might look over to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters and see how rigid rule following has led to powerfully corrupt leaders and wounded followers. We even take some pleasure when some particularly vitriolic pastor ends up falling in a national scandal. But guess what, friends? We are just as likely to get entangled by sin as anyone else. As I was talking about the ideas in this passage with my husband he asked, “Well, for you Episcopalians, your law would be your liturgy, wouldn’t it? How does sin creep up there?” I literally gasped, you guys.

It never would occur to me that our liturgy could become an avenue for sin. For one thing, it’s kind of boring. I mean, when I think about Episcopalians and sin the first thing that comes to mind is alcohol, not Cranmer. We’ve got a lot of money and a lot of creative ways to break the commandments. If I were to write a novel about sin and Episcopalians, it would take place on a yacht or on the Upper East Side and there would be some private school back story that would lead to an affair or murder that took place after drinking way too much expensive Scotch. But you know what would not appear in this novel? Our liturgy! I mean, even in Call the Midwife, which takes place in an Anglican Convent, our Anglican service music is used for its comfort and beauty, for solace in the midst of poverty and suffering.

For me, our liturgy is a place of comfort and safety. Its timeless words remind us of eternal truths that comfort and challenge us. But is it possible that sin can creep in around the corners of our creed and service music? If we are to believe the Apostle Paul, then yes, it certainly can. Perhaps, as liturgy loving people, where we sin is an unwillingness to let the Holy Spirit change us. Perhaps we sin in fearing the new, in being too wedded to our books, pews and bricks and not open enough to the world around us. I don’t know, frankly, I’m too close to it! I love our liturgy and pews and bricks! But next time I, or one of you, get worked up about some change, or some imperfection in the bulletin or some misplaced note in the choral singing, we’ll have a moment of recognition. Ah, sin got me, too!

Sin is so pervasive to the human condition, that we cannot escape it. Sin will creep in to every relationship we have, whether it is with our liturgy or our law. Sin creeps in under the doors of our offices, inside our cars, gets between us and the people we love. Sin separates us from our own will, our own bodies, our own desires. Sin tries to ruin everything good in our lives. Sin tries to ruin us.

We are baptizing Jackson Rector today. His parents and godparents will renounce three things: Satan, evil, and sin. Now, renouncing Satan isn’t that challenging. I’m pretty sure not many of you have ever participated in a Satanic ritual. And if you are gathering at midnight in the cemetery to call upon the name of the dark lord, QUIT IT RIGHT NOW. Renouncing the evil powers of the world is a little trickier, after all you have to sort out what is evil and what isn’t! Are we allowed to wear clothes made my child labor? Should we drive a car if it is going to destroy the planet? Should we speak out about unethical practices at work if it means we’ll lose our job? And renouncing sin? Oh boy. We’ve just discussed how sin is everywhere and after us and how it is impossible to not sin! What is the point of renouncing something that is impossible to avoid?

There’s one little detail we haven’t mentioned yet. Christ has already won the battle with sin. It may not feel like it, since we still struggle with sin, but in theological terms, the battle is OVER. Christ’s death and resurrection means sin only has power over us in this world, and even in this world sin never affects our identity as saved, loved people. Once we die, or when the kingdom of God comes to pass, whichever comes first, the power of sin falls away like dust. So, when we renounce Satan, evil and sin, we are acknowledging Christ’s victory. We aren’t saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, he is never going to screw up!” We’re saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, nothing can stand between him and God.” We’ll get to more of that next week in Romans 8, but in the meantime, next time you feel sin creeping around the door, ready to come after you, you can look it in the eye and say, “Sorry buddy, I belong to Christ, you have no power here.” Thanks be to God.

Epiphany 6, Year A, 2014

In the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday and the next three Sundays Eric, Jordan and I are pleased to offer a sermon series entitled, “For the love of God.”

After hearing today’s Gospel you may be thinking to yourself, “Sarah must have drawn the short straw!”

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most painful we have.  This reading has been used to ostracize people from their communities, to shame abused people from leaving their spouses, and make people wonder if they were really loved by God if they continued to have angry thoughts and lustful feelings.  My grandmother was not allowed to take communion in the Catholic church the final forty years of her life because her marriage to my grandfather ended.  She became isolated from the church she had loved.

What is Jesus doing here?  Where is hanging-out-with-the-sinners Jesus?  Where is Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know-for-the-bible-tells-me-so Jesus?  We may be tempted to throw out these verses.  We may prefer to just live with a warm and fuzzy Jesus who does not ask too much of us.  But the truth is, Jesus does ask something of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which precedes this passage, Jesus has just said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Part of loving God and following Jesus means we should be hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Yes, we are forgiven of our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but even as we screw up and are forgiven over and over again, the arc of our lives should be an arc that moves toward righteousness.  And by righteousness, I mean living like Jesus wants us to live.

The first thing to note is that to Jesus, the assumption is that his followers live in community.  People at the time lived with extended family, with servants or in the homes of the people they were serving.  They didn’t live in isolated suburban or rural houses like we do.  People lived in community. So, for Jesus, living a righteous life, rooted in God’s love means learning how to live in community.

Love your neighbor as yourself could be the overarching theme of our passage today.

First, Jesus tackles anger.  The crowd following Jesus knows they aren’t supposed to murder anyone, but Jesus contextualizes Scripture for them to enlarge their responsibility.  Jesus wants to get underneath the law, to help his followers understand the heart and the meaning behind the law.  As human beings, Jesus wants us to be in respectful relationship with each other.  We are not to be angry with each other, or even insult one another.  Jesus is probably not very happy with the comments sections of the internet, political ads, or any episode of Real Housewives.  More seriously, this means Jesus does not condone any type of abuse—either physical or emotional.  Jesus longs for his people to be in relationship with each other, to face conflict with dignity and compassion.

You may not be aware of this, but every week our liturgy lives out a principle of reconciliation.  The exchange of the Peace is not just a chance to take a seventh inning stretch and check out what your neighbors are wearing.  The Peace happens after confession, but before the offering, so you can live out this verse in Matthew:  “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The function of the Peace is for you to reach out to people who have hurt you or people whom you have hurt, so you can present your offering to God with a clear conscience. The peace is intended to maintain a healthy community, where reconciliation is part of our weekly experience.

And while murder and adultery may seem only distantly related, the prohibition against each comes from this same preservation of community.  While a prohibition against holding onto anger can protect the harmony of a community, Jesus’ prohibition against lust and divorce protects the weaker members of the community.  Remember that Jesus was speaking to particular people in particular contexts.  In the time, only men could initiate divorce, and if they did, their former wives were often left in real trouble—without income, without a support system.  I don’t know what Jesus would say to us in our context—we can divorce each other without leaving each other penniless and powerless—but at the very least, Jesus would want us to treat each other with dignity and respect.  I am certain he would allow my grandmother to have received communion those last 40 years.  On the other hand, sexual harassment or abuse, adultery, abuse of power—these can really damage people and the Christian communities in which they live.  These violations can shatter not only the relationship within a family, but can destroy the bonds of trust within the entire community.

And if you weren’t already feeling overwhelmed, Jesus goes on to say that his followers shouldn’t swear or make an oath promising something.  We should just say yes or no and let our answers stand for ourselves.  Does that mean we are disobeying Jesus every time we swear in as a juror?  What about when we click on those terms of service agreements websites make you affirm?  Sheesh!  The culmination of things we are not supposed to do in this passage is enough to make us afraid to step outside our door for fear of disappointing God!

We live in tension as Christians, between law and Grace.  There are certain rules we are expected to follow, but in a modern era we have to think about them really carefully since some make sense in our context, but others make less sense as we learn more and more about the world.  And even if we sort out all the rules we should follow, our minds rebel.  Our neo-cortex may understand that being angry at someone is bad for our souls and our community, but our limbic system is ready to throw a punch!  In the same way, we know in our heads that it is a bad idea to look up that high school sweetheart on Facebook, but sometimes a little online flirting seems easier than facing the challenges in our marriage.  Growing into a Christian who can learn to let go of anger and lust takes time, discernment, and a lot of prayer.

We are all going to make mistakes.  We are all going to find ourselves attracted to someone we shouldn’t be, or unable to let go of an insult.  We may find it easier to be a bully than to admit vulnerability.  But God’s grace is still for us.

God came to earth in the form of Jesus, because he knew we were incapable of living perfect lives.  God’s grace still applies to us, even when, especially when, we are unable to live up to God’s commandments.  We are forgiven, over and over again.

However, we are also given the Holy Spirit.  And that Holy Spirit is what enables us to grow and mature over time. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to look at ourselves honestly and to keep trying our best, even when we make mistakes.  Christian maturity is not a sprint—we won’t live perfect lives until we are united with God after our deaths.

In a counterintuitive way, our mistakes can be avenues to deepen community and our relationship with God. When we start to understand that everyone around us is broken, and imperfect, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving.  When Ra leads weekly yoga on Mondays, she often says something along the lines of “Offer compassion to yourself and others.  Everyone is doing the best they can with what they know and where they’re from.”  We are in this struggle of life together.  That’s really Jesus’ point here.  He knows we need each other and he doesn’t want us to blow this amazing gift we have in each other.  He doesn’t want us to become fragmented and distant and untrusting.  He wants us to be real with each other and to take joy in each other and to help each other grow.  He wants us to practice forgiveness with each other.  He wants us to practice being friends with appropriate boundaries.  He wants us to practice protecting weaker members of the community.  He wants us to practice honesty and trustworthiness with each other. The Christian Community, the church, is one of the biggest gifts God gives us.  In an ideal world, the church is a place where people from all different walks of life, all interests and political views, can come together and form a new family.  And when you have such a diverse group of people trying to figure out how to love each other, we need boundaries.  We need rules, so we can all be on the same page.  And so, just as God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, Jesus gives us the gift of an expanded view of the law, a law that reaches all the way down deep into our hearts and reminds us that God is not interested in our obedience, so much as he is in our hearts.

This Valentine’s Day Weekend, the best gift you can give God is to do your best to love your community, knowing that you are surrounded by the grace and love of the God who made you.

Epiphany 6, Year A, 2011

Preached at the evening service of the Episcopal Church of Princeton University.

I am a rule bound person and have been ever since I was a kid.  My parents had very clear rules for my sister and me and I had very little problem following them.  We did our homework before we played.  We went to bed at 8:00 PM.  We had to eat at least one bite of everything on our plate.  No motorcycles, no tattoos, and strangely, no pierced ears.  Life was ordered and made sense.  I even liked imposing rules on others.  When I was eight and in the school play, before the play started, the only person you could hear from the audience was me hushing my fellow actors saying, “Shhhh.  Shhhh.  The play’s about to start.”

I became a Christian my last year of high school, through an evangelical group called Club Beyond.  I continued my life as a Christian in college through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  There, too, the rules were very clear.  Being a Christian meant going to large group meetings and bible studies, being kind to others, not drinking, smoking or having sex, and telling your friends about Jesus.  As a new Christian my brain really liked the clarity.  I was told what to do and what not to do and my rule-following mind was calm.

So, I have some sympathy for Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, who tells us in our Old Testament lesson today that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”   At first, this seems plausible.  The commandments are laid out throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is no mystery.  We don’t have to guess at what the commandments might be.  Hypothetically, it’s entirely possible to follow the commandments to the letter.

And Jesus seems to be reinforcing this message on the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has been doing all kinds of radical things and people are starting to wonder if he is going to tell them that the Hebrew Law is invalid.  Instead he tells his follower that they need to follow the Law even more diligently than the scribes and Pharisees!  And the scribes and Pharisees were serious, serious rule followers.  Not only that, but in our passage today, Jesus raises the stakes.  Jesus raises the stakes considerably.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you weren’t supposed to murder someone.  But now, you’re not even supposed to insult anyone.  Even idiots.

Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you were not supposed to cheat on your wife.  But now, you’re not even supposed to check out a hot girl’s boobs, even if she’s wearing a low cut top!

You’re not supposed to divorce, you’re not supposed to promise to do something you don’t intend to do.  The rules are getting stricter and stricter.

And our reading today is not even the end of the list.  You’ll be hearing more about the high stakes that Jesus wants from his followers next week.

Suddenly, Ben Sira’s words don’t seem that easy.  I can go through a day without murdering someone without much a problem. But, going through an entire day without insulting someone behind their back is much more challenging.  There are so many bad drivers and generally inconsiderate people in the universe that deserve my scorn!

And if a really handsome guy walks into the room, I might check him out before I even realize I’m doing it!

Jesus is getting at something really uncomfortable.  Jesus is telling us that living a holy life is not just about following rules.  Living a holy life is about the content of our hearts and minds.  We can follow rules to the letter and be hateful, mean spirited people. We can follow rules and completely miss the spirit of what the rules mean.

I ended up leaving the evangelical church for a variety of reasons, but partly it was because the rules started to not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  Now, I am not talking about the explicitly stated rules of the community, I am talking about the implied rules.  We were not supposed to be gay or have gay friends. We were not supposed to have normal dating lives: we were supposed to pretend like everyone we dated was going to be the person we would marry, and court them.  We were not supposed to be Democrats.  We were supposed to be really concerned about middle class values.  We were not supposed to have non-Christian friends unless we were actively trying to convert them.  We were not supposed to believe in Evolution.  If we were women, we could have leadership roles in the campus groups, but not in the churches we attended.  And we were supposed to be happy all the time, especially when worshiping.

These rules started to chafe at me a bit.  They did not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know.  The Jesus that seemed to really enjoy the company of outsiders.  The Jesus that seemed to flout convention.  The Jesus that seemed much more concerned with the content of people’s hearts than their outward behaviors.  The Jesus that loved and respected women.

A friend of mine invited me to the Episcopal church around this time and I fell in love.  Sermons were not just about conversion—they were about how to live in a complicated world while still following God.  The music expressed a whole range of emotions—light and dark.  One of our priests was a woman–a brilliant woman.  Another volunteer priest was a world-renowned geneticist, who saw the wonder of God in his work as a scientist.   The intellectual life of the community was rich and vibrant.

I knew I was in a whole new world one Wednesday night when I first went to a church supper before a catechesis class.  At the dinner, they served wine.  I about fell over.  There was wine. . .at church. And not just at communion.  What kind of rule breaking church was this?

At first I was giddy with the freedom the Episcopal Church offered me.  But soon, my interior rule follower started to get really nervous.  I realized, I did not know how to follow Jesus if I did not have a rule book to follow.  I did not know how to be faithful if the priests were not going to tell me what to do about dating or sex or drinking.  I was a little freaked out!

Finally, I realized that I needed to pray.  About everything.  If no one was going to tell me what to do, I needed to study Scripture and bring my life before God and use my own reason and instinct to make decisions about my own life.  Rather than follow a cookie cutter pattern of what it meant to be holy, I needed to be actively engaged in my own life and take responsibility for my choices.

I also needed to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be perfect.  There were parts of my personality—like my anxiety and my tendency to be swift to judge—that I was going to have to wrestle with my entire life.

As Episcopalians, we live in tension.  We know the dangers that come with strict rule following, but we also want to follow God.  We know that the Bible is not an instruction manual, but we still seek wisdom about our own lives in its pages.  We know that Jesus’s primary rule for us is to love God and love our neighbor, but we also recognize in ourselves a congenital inability to love consistently.

And thankfully, this is where grace enters the picture.

God did not choose to be incarnate so that he could come to earth and give us a list of rules in person.  There are more efficient ways to get that done, even before the days of email and facebook.  God chose to be incarnate so he could deepen his relationship with us and rip the veil that separates us into pieces.  He tried for generations to give us solutions to deal with our own sin. He gave us rules and leaders and prophets, but nothing seemed to make us any better.  We’re still not any better.  We still shoot up fraternities in Ohio and send  men with camels and whips into crowds of peaceful protesters.  We still betray our lovers and snap at our best friends.  We still use alcohol and drugs to dull our boredom and pain.  We’re still pretty rotten in a lot of ways.  Rules or no rules.  We even got so irritated with God-incarnate that we killed him.

But Jesus came back.  Even at our murderous worst, God decided he still loved us and wanted to be in relationship with us.  He resurrects his murdered Son.  He continues to pursue us and love us, even at our most rotten.  He defies the rules of logic and physics and biology for no other reason than to show us that he will pursue us and be in relationship with us no matter what it takes.

Being a Christian is not about being good.  Being a Christian is about being loved.  Being a Christian is about acknowledging that there is a God who created the Universe who, inexplicably, wants to be in relationship with us.  He wants us to pray, to ask questions, to challenge, to argue.  He wants to show us the parts of us he created and the parts of us that are broken.  He wants to heal us and use us for good in the world.  And when we’re done in this world, he wants to be with us forever in eternity.  Rules or no rules.

Grace can free us from our anxiety about following God’s rules perfectly, yet somehow free us to follow the ultimate commandment—Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  As we realize that God’s grace extends to all of our icky and broken parts, we begin to be gentler and less judgmental about other people’s icky and broken parts.  As we realize God wants to reconcile with us after we stray from him, we begin to seek reconciliation with others.  Grace offers us freedom to accept ourselves in all our glorious messiness, so we can begin to accept others.

Grace allows us to be in a free, loving relationship with God and with our neighbor, which is what the rules were supposed to do all along.

Thanks be to God.