A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on Proper 25, Year A
This is the first and great commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Any Episcopalian who attends a Rite 1 service, or who remembers the old 1928 Prayer Book, has heard this section of today’s Gospel over and over. It’s in the liturgy right before the Lord have mercy, because that’s how we are supposed to react when we hear it: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner; I can’t possibly do what you just told me to!” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. There’s no “sometimes” in there. No “on a good day.” No "two out of three." Love with all you’ve got, all you are, all the time. That is the vision.
It sounds wonderful, but has anybody other than Jesus ever done it? Does any of us love God authentically, with every fiber of our being, every minute of every day, bringing all our intellect and all our heart into that love? Does any of us meet the needs of our neighbor, every time, with every bit as much pleasure and foresight and care and thoroughness as we meet our own needs? Any of us? Ever? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.
It’s a standard nobody but Jesus has ever met, but that’s the whole point. He meets it, he lives the vision perfectly, and then we are (choose your metaphor:) grafted, or adopted, or included, or immersed into him. That’s Christianity in a nutshell: his obedience, his perfection, stands in for our unreliability and just plain averageness. ....
Throughout the Book of Common Prayer, not to mention the New Testament, we hear this kind of imagery over and over: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him.” “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you.” We even remind God as the priest elevates the bread and wine that we can only get away with celebrating the Eucharist “through your Son Jesus Christ, by him, and with him, and in him.”
We don’t and can’t offer anything perfectly or live our lives perfectly. But we can be included in Jesus’ perfection, included in his offering to God, in his living of human life in all its fulness, and start learning to rest in that rather than in our own efforts.
This is, I think, one of the most difficult messages in Christianity to really let unfurl in your life. It’s easy as long as you keep it bunched up and confined to discrete topics. If we say, “the fact that Jesus made this perfect offering for me is only relevant to getting to heaven, or only relevant to private feelings, or only relevant in religious settings.” If we limit what Christ came to give us in that way, it’s much easier, because the default setting of the human heart doesn’t get challenged.
In Christ God offers us a rock-solid source, the ultimate answer to our searches for significance, meaning, identity, fulfillment, motivation. But the default setting of the human heart, as I assume you all have noticed since you have one, is not to look to Christ for those things in any functional way. It’s to look to other preoccupations.
Now I don’t mean that those preoccupations are bad, necessarily; I just mean that they can’t do the job people expect them to do for us when we’re on our default setting. They may be good things, but where we get into trouble is trying to treat them as ultimate things, things that might be able to be our source of significance, meaning, identity, fulfillment, or motivation. Professional achievement is a good thing; it’s just not an ultimate thing. Family is a good thing; it’s just not an ultimate thing. Intellect. Looking the part. A particular relationship. Purchasing power. A title, a rank, a pedigree. The sense of being good, being nice, even being religious. The esteem of your parents or the success of your children. The A, the gold medal, the smile from you know who.
The list goes on, because there are so many preoccupations that functionally hold the cards in our lives. Preoccupations that make sure that we don’t actually start loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds, but hold back enough energy and time and love to satisfy them, too. To pay them off. We’re barely aware of it half the time, this default setting of the human heart, this push to try and do enough, have enough, be enough, to measure up to something, to satisfy someone, even if it’s just our own standards.
And that’s why it is so liberating even to begin to believe the truth that we actually don’t have to do it. What we’re looking for ultimately has already been given to us as a gift if we’ll just accept the gift and let it unfurl. Our deep worth and our true identity and our real meaning are not carrots at the end of a stick, but are an unassailable foundation that can never be taken away from us because it is Jesus, not us, that guarantees them. They come as a gift of grace that does not depend on us, a gift that is so immense you’ll spend your whole life and longer letting it unfurl and show you its beauty and its power.
I’m going to say that again. Our deep worth and our true identity and our real meaning are an unassailable foundation that can never be taken away from us because it is Jesus, not us, that guarantees them. They come as a gift of grace that does not depend on us.
Even to begin to believe this is liberating. We slip away from it constantly, because it’s not the default setting, it’s a setting only grace can give us. But every time that that truth gets some purchase in some area of our lives, we will feel the liberation.
I read an article this week by Tyler Ward, a writer, brand consultant, and life coach with two young kids, about a place where that truth got purchase in his life. The place it got purchase for him was this: when people asked how he was, he decided to stop answering “busy.” He came to see that maintaining a state of busyness and telling everyone about it had “made me feel like the world needed me, like somehow I was more valuable or valid. …I wore it like a badge.” He says he was addicted to the adrenaline buzz of busyness; without it, he thought he’d hardly “feel alive.”
But he began to be liberated. He turned away from the preoccupation with making himself feel valuable by busyness, which was functionally holding the cards, and he began actually acting out belief in the truth he said he held as a Christian, that “regardless of our performance in life, we are important, loved and valuable.” It is a liberating thing to act on that truth in how you use your time, even by doing something as small as saying “I’m just not going to use the word 'busy.' I answer to God.”
Another example. I told the story a couple weeks ago of how I began to tithe when I was right out of college. It was probably one of the first times I let the truth of my worth and status being guaranteed by Jesus have some purchase in my life. I barely understood that truth at the time, but I could sure tell how great beginning to let it unfurl felt. It’s going to feel great next week when I put my pledge card in the plate, too. It won't be the first-time shock of liberation I felt when I started, but it will still feel great because this is my annual chance to laugh in the face of the fear that tries to tell me I might not have enough. Jesus is enough. It is a liberating thing to act on that truth in how I use my money, even by doing something as small as saying “I’m just not going to keep any more than 90% for myself. I answer to God.”
There are hundreds of other examples, thousands, millions probably over the years, of what happens when people allow this truth to have purchase in areas of their lives where other preoccupations had been holding the cards. The places grace has intervened and the situations grace has healed are as diverse as you can imagine. There are, all over the world, people who are day by day discovering that grace actually works. People who are being released in one specific area of life or another from the default setting of the human heart, who are finding themselves free to step off the typical treadmill of trying to do, be and have enough on our own.
According to the Prayer Book and the Bible, once we’re in Jesus, he is enough. Once we’re in Jesus, we can step off the treadmill. Our deep worth and our true identity and our real meaning are not carrots at the end of a stick, but are an unassailable foundation that can never be taken away from us because it is Jesus, not us, that guarantees them. They come as a gift. I plan to keep letting that gift unfurl and show me its beauty and its power my whole life and longer, and I hope you will too. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
The article by Tyler Ward may be read at http://www.tylerwardis.com/busy-isnt-respectable-anymore/
The contrast between good things and ultimate things is borrowed from the work of Dr. Timothy Keller.