Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Enlighten our hearts, O God, through the hearing of your word and the meditations of our hearts, that we may be strengthened in faith and bear a bright witness to the world, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Amen.
I was camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It hadn’t been very long since we had moved back from Taiwan, and I really didn’t have the best gear on hand, but I pieced some things together. The only tent on hand belonged to my daughters… In fact, I had to use one of their sleeping bags, too. Neither one of the items were truly intended for actual camping— unless your idea of camping is to pitch a tent in the living room!
It wasn’t ideal— “But,” I thought, “it’s good enough.” I was only going for a couple of days.
On Day One I hiked to a stream to fly fish and got caught in a massive downpour. I sloshed my way back to camp to examine my tent.
Was it waterproof? Well, sort of. The top portion was absolutely NOT waterproof— it ran through like a wet paper towel. But the BOTTOM of the tent was apparently made of a different material— it held water GREAT! About 2 or 3 inches of it!!
I guess “good enough” wasn’t quite good enough after all.
It is sort of like the old saying that “close enough” is only true with horseshoes and hand grenades.
In our scripture passages for today we are reminded of two things. First, our ideas of “good enough” or “close enough” are in fact, NOT. We miss the mark every time— whether it is by an inch or by a mile doesn’t really matter; we have still missed the mark and come up short.
Second, regardless of whether we have fallen near or far, God’s grace will cross the gap. We cannot reach God— but thanks be to God, God does reach us.
In Martin Luther’s day, access to the Bible was restricted to clergy. Long before Luther was born, the church in Europe had determined that the Scriptures were too dangerous for uneducated laypeople. So, the priests and monks would read it and then tell the laity what they needed to know. As you might guess, this was a bad idea. Not only did it naturally filter the message of Scripture through human reason, but it also wasn’t long before the church started telling people what God wanted them to do, whether it came from the Scriptures or not. Who was going to know?
And so, Luther grew up in a world steeped in the belief that the Almighty was furious and disgusted by the imperfections of humanity.
It was a narrow reading of passages like our gospel reading for today that shaped this way of thinking.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands the scope of the law beyond mere actions to apply specially to motives of the heart. What he says is extreme—
“You have heard that it was said…. ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment…” On their own, these teachings would be terrifying.
And it wasn’t only Jesus who said scary things. Moses said to the people, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments…., by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live… But if your heart turns away and you do not hear… I declare to you today that you shall perish…”
These are terrifying stakes!
Reading through what Jesus says, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that few if any can meet the standard.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; ... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Let’s face it— if we start plucking and cutting at the parts of us that are broken, there’s not going to be anything left!
Luther was keenly aware of this, and it actually caused him to hate God— what sort of deity demands something that cannot be given?
Luther had actually been studying to become a lawyer (that is what his dad wanted). But one day as he was returning home, he was caught in a thunderstorm and was nearly struck by a bolt of lightning. In terror he cried out to Saint Anne (she was his family’s patron saint), “Save me and I will become a monk!”
Well, he lived— and since you don’t dare break a vow made to God, off to the monastery he went— not because he loved and wanted to serve God, but because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn’t. He was 21 years old.
In the monastery Luther threw himself fully into the effort to appease God through fasting, prayer and confession. He described the ordeal as dark and terrible.
A few years later, having been ordained as a friar, he went to the University of Wittenberg to teach theology.
Johann von Staupitz was professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg when Martin Luther arrived there. Staupitz, as the local head of the Augustinian order, was also Luther’s confessor. Poor Staupitz.
If sins cannot be forgiven unless one repents, it stands to reason that one must confess everything— and this was something Luther found to be impossible— but it wasn’t for a lack of trying! He struggled to remember everything he had ever done wrong, terrified of overlooking something. And that too, was sinful because it meant one cared so little about it as to forget! He wore Staupitz out. On at least one occasion, he confessed for six hours straight!
Staupitz tried to tell Martin to lighten up and not take it so seriously. If anyone had ever demonstrated an adequate desire for repentance, Luther was certainly it. But he was inconsolable. He later wrote, “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created.” Which, of course, he recognized as sinful— not wanting the gift of life that God gave.
The idea that we must make ourselves worthy of forgiveness persists even today.
And with passages like we heard in our first and gospel readings for today, how are we to believe anything else? How much is enough?
Martin Luther finally discovered the good news of God’s grace through the letters of St. Paul. Especially in Galatians and Romans, but we can hear the same themes of grace in his other writings, too.
The Good News in our Scripture texts for today actually comes to us on our second reading, Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth. That was a church that was a mess! But he calls them “Brothers and sisters,” and “infants in Christ.” There is still so much they do not understand. There is still so much that is wrong. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,” he writes, “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?”
Yes, they have problems, but they are already members of the Body of Christ. Forgiveness comes as a free gift; not because we have earned it.
And this is true for us, too. Through your baptism into Christ, you are made members of the Body of Christ— not because you earned it, but because God wants you to have it.
This is why we baptize infants. The baby has no idea what is going on. But before that child can even begin to have an inkling good and evil— before that child can ever cry out to God for help— God comes in a tangible way to touch this child and say, you are mine! And I promise that nothing will ever tear us apart. No matter how far you stray… no matter how badly you mess up…. no matter what you do— no matter what happens to you— I will always love you, I will never leave you, and I will always hold you safe.
Forgiveness and salvation are not a concern for us. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do!
Paul pictures the Christians in Corinth as a garden. Planted and nurtured, but still growing. They are infants in Christ but he longs for them to become adults— and it is something he longs for in himself, too. “Now we see dimly,” he once wrote, “but then we will see clearly.”
We call what he is talking about, “Sanctification.” Moses called it, “walking in God’s ways.” It is the process of growing into our new life in Christ. It is something that never ends on this earth— but by striving to live lives pleasing to God— by loving our neighbors— we discover in newer and wonderful ways, what it is to be fully alive as God intends. As Jesus put it, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
When we live with faith in God’s grace, then we are able to look at the words of Jesus today without terror in our hearts. Jesus is calling us to holy living so that we may begin experiencing heaven right now.
So how does that apply to you?
What bitter memory might you be holding onto?
What resentments or greed stands in the way of you being grateful for the life you have?
In what ways have you been afraid to help someone? To give generously?
In what ways do you measure the value of various groups of people?
What memories do you have that get in the way of loving yourself? What do you have trouble forgiving in yourself?
Today, God’s living Word speaks to you through Paul and Moses and Jesus: Do not be afraid.
You don’t need to worry about what is good enough or close enough. You don’t need to measure yourself against others— or even against the ideal that Jesus sets before us. Simply receive it as an invitation to live abundantly.
Live without fear.
Simply remember, trust and believe that “you are God’s field.” And God is bringing forth new life in you, even now.