A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2019
Now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self… In renewal Christ is all, and in all! (Colossians 3:1-11)
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Today is the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost; a day when we continue to reflect on the mystery of our faith, and I would like to look specifically at the process of what it means to be a “Beloved-Community” in the Episcopal Church, here in contemporary North America. In the Epistle read this morning, and in the essence of our ecclesiastical core, we are a community of believers, seeking to be grounded with spiritual values of love and justice.
In order to Become a Beloved Community as it has been expressed by the Episcopal Church: two General Conventions passed back-to-back resolutions that established a vision for a long-term commitment to racial and social justice; consisting of healing, reconciliation, and practicing the way of love. Four goals were approved, and they were formulated as follows:
1) Telling the Truth about our churches
2) Repairing the Breach in Society and its cultural institutions
3) Proclaiming the Dream of a Beloved Community …and
4) Practicing the Way of Love – in the pattern and person of Jesus
To date I have already preached on the theme of Telling the Truth. And today I would like to address the goal regarding what it means to ‘Practice the Way of Love – in the pattern and person of Jesus”
Let me start with a true account from an older gentleman, who just happens to be a priest. It is an account which speaks volumes about what is actually going on in today’s world, and even more explicitly, what is occurring as the Episcopal Church seeks to Practice the Way of Love by means of telling the truth. Here is his report:
In early May this year, I celebrated my retirement from active ministry by taking what for me, was an extraordinarily rare week-long road trip through several south-western states, leisurely returning home through a more northern route. I made a point, in both rural and urban areas through which I passed, to find and stop at every Episcopal Church that I could locate. As it turned out, I actually found, charted, and stopped at many more places than I expected.
Almost invariably, THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES YOU sign was prominently displayed. A few of the signs were new, and that was heartening. But a number were so old and rusted that the service times were no longer readable. One was even attached to a chain-link fence with razor-wire crowning the top. Another, ironically, had a No Trespassing sign directly beside it.
But what really broke my heart as a priest was that every single “welcoming” Episcopal Church at which I stopped was locked as tightly as a jail. A few even had formidable locked prison bar-like gates preventing entry even to the grounds surrounding the church. THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES YOU, said the signs, but the locks and gates and rust clearly shouted, YOU’RE NOT WELCOME HERE. GO AWAY. Not surprisingly, most people do stay away.
The priest makes a telling point on both the statement and the mixed message the Episcopal Church is sending.
Likewise, a noted church ethicist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany described a peculiarly similar phenomenon in the German Lutheran Church. He said its life was being “hollowed out by fear,” in that the church had succumbed to the principalities and powers of the world, and seemed to be closing up shop while liquidating its sacred inventories. Sadly it appears, there are times when the church-universal, as well as the church-local, diminishes and declines due to a climate of fear, a reluctance to change, or a presumed sense of intimidation.
A more contemporary theologian, Peter Marty, put it this way:
It is not an overstatement to say there’s a fear epidemic in America these days. Whether talking at the water cooler, sending tweets on Twitter, using Facebook, or simply swapping stories of fright and high-anxiety, all that in aggregate has now become our national pastime. Ever since Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian political philosopher (who lived from 1469-1527) said that “it’s better to be greatly feared than widely loved;” it has always been true that if you want to kill an idea, kill a piece of legislation, or kill another person’s dignity, you simply get ordinary people “good-and-scared” of what that idea, that policy, or that person just might do. And then let imagination and technology run wild – or in today’s digital matrix – watch it “go viral.”
As an example, it seems that many people, including some of our highly placed institutional leaders across the social-economic-and-religious spheres, view Muslims as unworthy immigrants, and Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Mexicans as criminals. Furthermore, in a climate of fear, innocent and ordinary business executives get squeezed into unwelcomed trade wars and questionable business practices; no longer capable of participating in healthy competition or genuinely free enterprise. On the world stage, it seems, trust has broken down.
So it follows logically to ask: how do we specifically practice the way of love – in the pattern and person of Jesus? Well here’s a helpful guideline based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s formulations of “grace,” expressed in two different ways: cheap grace and costly grace. And the obvious follow-up question is: ‘how does that work?’ Bonhoeffer describes it like this:
Cheap grace requires absolutely nothing from us. This is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. In truth, we are not changed at all by cheap grace, and so it is not really from God. Costly grace, on the other hand, is the call of God-in-Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Jesus totally out of a spirit of trust.
Yet this requires fuller explanation. Costly grace is not just costly; it is also spiritually liberating, but it remains grace nonetheless, with a pretty high price-tag connected to it. It is called “costly” because it costs a man or a woman his or her life; and at the same time it is grace because it gives a man or a woman the only option of a true purpose to life…it offers a fulfilled life, a plentiful life, a significant life, and a meaningful life.
Along the way, however, things can get quickly twisted, distorted, and muddled. With the perspective of ‘costly-grace,’ our angle of vision can easily blur our perceptions, because there exists a much-too-simple false dichotomy between preserving our lives at all costs; and that of responding to the pressing needs of the world at all costs. Yet the two are not necessarily juxtaposed at all.
The radical message of the Gospel comes down to this: only (only) through costly, and yes, painful grace, can we understand what our true lives actually represent; and only then can we begin to interpret what it really means to have life, and have it abundantly. In stressful, even treacherous times like we’re living-in now; when powerful people who work in impersonal systems threaten and frighten us almost literally to death; we have to ask what God wants us to do, what God’s-will may be – and here’s the rub – we have to accept that ‘doing’ God’s-will may cost us something dearly; maybe not physical death, but something close to it.
In other words it comes down to this: is costly grace worth the risk? You have to decide for yourself. But keep this in mind.
Christians are not called to recklessness, rather they are called to action. Therefore, each time new information tells us, for example, that something’s happening that we know is just not right or just not fair – the question to ask becomes: “What response does God want from us in this moment?” When we learn to discern God’s-will for us, we begin to find that the greatest risk we can take is to choose not to risk anything at all… not-to-risk leads to disaster.
With the incarnation of Jesus, God chooses a costly path, a holy-risk. And in very mundane earthly terms, if Christ himself was willing to risk the worst that the world could do to him, then we who would follow him must be willing to take risks as well. In fact, the Crucifixion of Good Friday, the empty tomb of Easter morning, the Resurrection of Jesus, and the Ascension to Eternal Life teach us, that in holy-risk there can be great joy, not just in Pentecost, but throughout the rest of the church year as well. That is the core of our Christian faith.
And that is precisely the way we are called to practice love in the pattern and person of Jesus. The goals can be achieved when we follow the path of righteousness: tell the truth; repair the breach; proclaim the Dream; and then enter the realm of putting into practice what we believe. I urge you to do all these things with courage … and yes, with costly grace. Accept God’s salvation and receive God’s promise of eternal life…remembering that we affirm all this …
…in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.