Sermons

Standing in an Honest Hope; Rev. Dee Ledger, December 2, 2018

First, I want to share an image.  It’s an image of someone shuffling his feet, shoulders rounded, slumped even, and head down.  Life has beaten this one down.  Choices had to be made; choices were made and this one who stands before us doesn’t stand at his full height.  The weight of his life, the weight of the consequences of his decisions, the pain of his own regrets and that of others are heaped upon him.

We don’t know an age.  Perhaps this man is well past retirement and well past any time that he might believe that he could make some radical, amending change to his life.  Or perhaps this man is in mid-life—with college tuition payments and the care of his elderly parents on his mind.  He knows too well that he just doesn’t have the energy to stand as confidently as he once did in his marriage, before his kids, and before his boss.  He’s just too tired from the unchanged tedium that he faces daily.

Or maybe the image is of a child—usually youthful and hopeful, except on this day, when the child’s eyes well up with tears unbidden.  This sadness in the eyes occurs increasingly more frequent. He is wrestling with something, something about his parent’s pain and his belief that he could have done something differently, that he is somehow responsible for it, for them.  He remembers something he took from their bedroom.  He remembers how he yelled at his sister. He remembers not following through on his chores.  And now this calamity has developed.  Maybe it is because of him; maybe he is to blame.  He kicks the wall as he walks to school.

What might we give to see any of these individuals to stand tall?

What does it mean to be “blameless” as a person or as a community?

In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul prays that the good people of the Church at Thessalonica will be strengthened.  Specifically he prays that God will strengthen their hearts “in holiness” so that they may be blameless before God and before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  But what does it mean to stand blameless?

To be without blame is to be innocent before God, or so we may believe.  But that is not entirely the case.  Not one of us stands blameless in this way.  We do not leave this world without causing some pain at some time and in some place in our lives.  And many of us, like the image of the person weighted down with choices, burdens, and regrets, carry ourselves as if we have taken on far more than our fair share of blame for the world’s pain.  On the other hand, some of us resist spiritual notions of blame because it reminds us of siblings or parents who constantly faulted us or caused us to feel responsible for the pain in their own lives, like that little boy in our image.

For Paul and the Thessalonians, to be blameless before God on the day of judgement is to stand honestly in both our humanity and our holiness.  To be holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes: to be a people used in God’s service, rather than for purposes set contrary to God.  It is to stand before God knowing one’s truth, but also knowing that we are met with forgiveness as we come to terms with our culpability, our responsiveness to the Holy Spirit, and our willingness to ameliorate harm.

And so, being blameless is not about being purely innocent of wrongdoing; for none of us could meet that standard.  Being blameless is about being able to stand upright before God knowing that one has done the best that one can, and knowing also that God meets us where we are, in the messiness of life.  It is before God whom we stand not only at death, but also during life.  It is God before whom we stand, but also before our own selves, and it is God within us who helps us—grace upon grace—to stand seeing where we may have been amiss, or in error, and how we are connected to each other.

I’ve noticed, and perhaps you have too, that great harm is done when we fail to see ourselves as human beings connected to each other, connected to the larger world, and connected to the planet.  Our individual choices are not always individual in outcome and the measure of the harmful consequence is rarely, if at all, individual only.  To be blameless is to wrestle with this measuring of outcome on others, as well as oneself and to see one’s life as a gradual movement towards minimizing the more treacherous aspects of our humanity on others.

There is humility in this kind of standing.  It is not about what one has done, or not done, but having an innate sense of our smallness and yet our own unique power too.  Perhaps you have seen the photos of the Earth taken from Mars.  The perspective from Mars of Earth is astounding.  The Earth is but a speck in this great Universe of ours, in this great “I am” that is. And yet, without that Earth, without you, we are diminished.

Which is to say, it is a holy to have a sense of one’s magnitude as well as one’s smallness.

Even so, holiness is under-rated. Eugene Peterson once remarked, “[While] there is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for the long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”[1]

Perhaps holiness gets a bad rap because people equate it with some kind of moral or spiritual perfection or the kind of rigidity that Dana Carvey once espoused as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.   But maybe we have a fear of holiness, as if somehow becoming more holy will cause us to say or do things that we’d really rather not do.

Mark Rutland tells this story:

“A parishioner complained about the pastor’s constant harping on the theme of ‘drawing nigh unto God.’ She confessed that ‘I don’t want to get close to God. I just want to get over in a corner and sneak into heaven quietly. I don’t want to be a saint. I just don’t want to go to hell.’

‘I cannot believe what I’m hearing!’ Rutland exclaimed.

‘I can explain it easily,’ she said calmly. ‘When I started the ninth grade I set my heart on finishing high school with straight C’s. And I did. You see, if you fail you have to repeat, and I wanted out. But if you start making A’s people begin to expect things of you.’

‘It’s exactly like that with God,’ she continued. ‘If you’re too bad you’ll go to hell, and I don’t want that. But if you’re too good, he’ll send you to India, and I don’t want that either.’[2]

 

We may not entirely subscribe to a heaven vs hell dichotomy in the afterlife, but we may, in this life, fear pursuing holiness because we fear the cost to our lives if we were to begin desiring the ways of God over our own tendency to coast.  Still, I am not sure God wants to turn everyone into a Mother Theresa.  One of the things that made Jesus so radical was that he reinterpreted the scriptures to fit his landscape and his interactions with the people around him—Jew and non-Jew, those who were deemed “sinners” and those who were the powerful or pious.

On this first Sunday of Advent, Christians far and wide will wrestle with the Second Coming of Christ in daily devotions, in the scripture, and in sermons introducing the season of Advent.  We consider, today, not simply God coming to us as a child, but also our coming to God and choosing God as an accountability partner and mirror in which we may see ourselves and our communities in fullest measure.  You could say “judge,” but that conjures up notions of punishment and black robes.  What if standing tall and being “blameless” is about learning to desire God’s best for ourselves as well as others?  What if it is about standing before God and seeing clearly for the first time who we are capable of becoming?

Some might perceive that as a punishment.

Others might see that as a grace.

Still others might see it as the Second Coming of Christ.

Which is it for you?

[1] Source unknown.  I have this from a quote from Homileticsonline.com.

 

[2] Mark Rutland, “The Finger of God: Reuniting Power and Holiness in the Church
(Wilmore, Ky: Bristol Books, 1988), 16-17. Qtd. from https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=holiness&Search=7&imageField.x=0&imageField.y=0