By Rev Kate Braestrup
When preaching for my local United Church of Christ congregation, I generally “preach from the lectionary,” meaning that I read and meditate upon the Bible verses assigned for that week by the denomination and offer the sermon thereby sparked.
It is an opportunity to work within boundaries that are different from those operating at a Unitarian Universalist church, boundaries that are refreshingly explicit as well as challenging.
Sunday before last, the congregation heard the story of John the Baptist, anticipating the coming of Christ as told in Matthew 3:1-12.
John the Baptist does not describe the Messiah — his cousin Jesus — as a mellow, non-judgemental sort of guy.
Quite the opposite. Dunking the repentant in the Jordan River, clad in hairy camel-skins, bits of locust stuck between his teeth, John threatens the self-satisfied and complacent with what you might call some serious personal climate change.
The story — repent! — is strangely juxtaposed to the seasonal happenings in the church. Over in the Sunday-school classroom, the children are practicing their Nativity pageant… the decor committee has been congratulated for the lovely evergreen garland looped about the choir loft…Repent! This, too, is part of the charm of preaching from the lectionary: In two weeks, Baby Jesus will emerge from the womb, and maybe just for the morning we’re to picture him with a teeny-weeny winnowing fork clutched in one chubby fist and a pack of sinner-burning matches in the other.
But wait! Isn’t the angel going to say unto us — well, or at least unto the shepherds — “Fear Not?”
So which is it? Is Jesus coming to save mankind, or is he coming to cast us, like last year’s dried-out compost, into the unquenchable fire?
Which would you prefer?
I ask, because not too long ago I had an experience that cast light on our human resistance to unearned and unmerited salvation, our resistance to hope and grace.
I’d come across a news article about an invention… which, because I’m not an engineer, I’ll just describe as a machine, capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This thing is actually in development and, as I recall, it is even expected to be operational within the next few years. Its makers don’t think it’s going to be particularly difficult to deploy or expensive to use.
After thinking it over, I decided that this was a fairly interesting and hopeful bit of news, so I brought it with me as a sort of hostess gift to the next holiday get-together.
“Guess what?” I said, to my hostess, an elegant and environmentally conscious woman. “I bring you tidings of great joy! Y’know how we’ve been belching out too many greenhouse gases? And because of that, the earth is heating up, the ice caps are melting, ecosystems are on the verge of collapse, and we’re all doomed? Well, it seems there are engineers who can fix that.” And I explained about the carbon dioxide removal machine.
There was a long silence.
“Well, That’s just great,” my hostess snorted. She did not sound joyful.
“You’re saying that Americans can just go right on living like we have been, using fossil fuels, driving gas guzzlers, overheating our houses, flying all over the planet…our capitalist consumerism, colonialist and patriarchal systems of oppression, all of it will just keep rolling along, consequence-free.”
“Well,” I said. “If it makes you feel any better, the Communist system of oppression will be able to keep rolling along consequence-free too? China can go right on being the world’s top CO2 contributor, burning dirty coal to its heart’s content. The machine will clean up after them. The coal-guzzling Germans and Danes too! And poor little Greta Thunberg can stop fretting and striking and giving spooky little speeches to the UN…she can have her dreams and her childhood back. She can get off that freaking sailboat and go back to school! Won’t that be wonderful?”
My hostess did not seem nearly as pleased as I thought she would be.
She seemed, instead, really irritated, despite the fact that she had just told me about planting a tree in her yard to make up for all the flights to Europe and the Caribbean she and her husband had been taking lately.
I’ve since had nearly-identical conversations with a number of people, who exhibited the same, reflexive disappointment.
“Fear not! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…” the angels sang out, “…for unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a savior which is Christ the King.”
And I wonder if there were, among the shepherds abiding in the fields watching over the flocks by night, one or two who huffed: “Well that’s just PEACHY. So all the sinners who’ve been properly afflicted with leprosy and blindness for their sins are just going to be cured, everybody’s going to heaven, no need to be ashamed, or rue the day, repent or dismantle …Just poof!~ Jesus fixed it!”
Unmerited grace can be surprisingly difficult to accept. After all, if an invention un-ravages the ravages of climate change, it is everyone who is going to be saved — the blithe, science-denying oil-company executive who has been commuting from the suburbs in her SUV will receive exactly as much salvation as the guy who has been conscientiously riding his bike. Come on! Is that fair?
The phenomenon of reflexive, soteriological stinginess would not come as a surprise to our Universalist Christian ancestors.
If what you really want is for a person to cease and desist in behaviors you consider sinful, let alone if you want an entire global system to be transformed, you’re not going to be happy if your primary argument for that transformation — change or die! — is taken away from you. Deny the reality of hell, and how do you keep your kid from growing up to be a liar, a cheat, an adulterer? Cure lung cancer and emphysema, and smokers don’t have to stop smoking… put Lipitor in the drinking water and we don’t have to stop snarfing french fries. I’ve had folks tell me that Narcan is undermining the best argument against drug abuse…which boils down to: Change or die!
If we aren’t going to die, if the earth isn’t going to be destroyed, if we aren’t headed for the unquenchable fire…we don’t have to change. Right?
Grace — unmerited, unearned — wasn’t received with much enthusiasm by Pharisees and Sadducees and their ilk, who imagined themselves blameless. In their case, it was by pedigree (“we are the children of Abraham”) but in our case, it’s our self-assurance that even if (yes, yes) we’re all sinners when it comes to climate change, you and I aren’t the real, worst sinners. Yes, we might fly out to California to visit the in-laws, fly down to Mexico for a destination Christmas, but we make big donations to the Environmental Defense Fund ! We offset!
So human beings are resistant to grace because we don’t want to think we need it.
Or, sometimes, because the wrong person is offering it to us — for instance, that rude guy in the camel hair coat.
But sometimes it’s because God’s love and grace extends to everyone and — let’s face it — our neighbors clearly don’t deserve it. I mean, look at them!
And yet it is grace we are given, today and every day, with miracles landing in our undeserving laps and the not-at-all unreasonable hope of more — of miracles we can’t imagine and already know we aren’t entitled to.
Let me offer you just a few, underreported yet very spiffy miracles from 2019:
- NASA satellites have been watching as the world grows greener and lusher — more trees, more plants — over the last 20 years, especially in China and India, the countries with the largest human populations.
- If all these green plants and that CO2 remover machine need more help to clean up the atmosphere, Israeli scientists have also genetically engineered an E. Coli bacteria that eats carbon dioxide.
- Bald eagles, once very high up on the endangered species list, are now so plentiful that the San Bernardino National Forest officials aren’t bothering to keep track of them anymore, (go, eagles!) while a study unveiled in November says that humpback whales in the western South Atlantic region now number 24,900, give or take a pod — which is nearly 93 percent of their population size back before they were hunted almost to extinction (go, humpback whales!).
- In 2018, Cambodia reported zero malaria-related deaths for the first time in the country’s history, and India reported a huge reduction as well — 2.6 million fewer in 2018 than in 2017.
- There’s a new blood test on the way from one group of scientists that could detect breast cancer five years before other clinical signs manifest themselves, while a whole other group of scientists is developing a new treatment for early-stage breast cancer that could wipe out a growth in just one treatment.
- Researchers at UC San Francisco have managed to transform human stem cells — derived from human fat, so no supply problems — into mature insulin-producing cells, a major breakthrough in the effort to cure Type 1 Diabetes.
- And, in July, researchers for the first time successfully eliminated HIV from the DNA of infected mice, bringing them a giant step closer to curing the virus in humans.
All of that is pretty fine, isn’t it? More humpback whales and bald eagles, less breast cancer, malaria, a cure for AIDS… wouldn’t it be lovely if these became illnesses our grandchildren never even hear of?
But here and now, today, we fear these illnesses, don’t we? Some of us have gone through them ourselves, or remember people we’ve loved who suffered and were lost. They didn’t deserve their deaths. They died anyway. How can we possibly have earned the right to be spared?
There is so much in life that we don’t earn and can’t.
Deserving or not, ready or not, like it or not, here it comes: Salvation.
Sinners we may be, and yet the savior is born and miracles are happening: miracles so marvelous that any Bible-reader might be forgiven for glancing round, half-expecting to see a wolf dwelling at peace with the lamb, a lion and a yearling frolicking together. Why not? Stranger things are already happening.
In this, the advent season, the season of blessings, gratitude and peace, may we be generous with our hope, unstinting in our forgiveness and lavish with our love.
Copyright 2019 © Kate Braestrup
Someone on Facebook posted this “homily” about unmerited grace from SNl:
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That is the message of The Prodigal Son. Most of us identify with the Older Brother until we are the younger Brother. My life changed when I understood that message deeply.
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The parables are fascinating stories, aren’t they? Like koans that only seem simple and straightforward. This is what is so much fun about the Bible. So many things have changed in human life, and yet human beings are still human, and so the Bible (like other scriptures and for that matter like the Aeneid, or Plato’s Republic) remains informative and relevant.
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Years ago my oldest son (now a music teacher) put his $500 cello bow across a chair. My youngest son not seeing it, sat on the chair, breaking the bow. My partner in life was so angry, she got in the car and drove to my office where I was writing a sermon, and told me how upset she was with the two boys. She finally ran out of breath.
“It is insured,” I said.
She looked at me for a moment. “That is impossible. No insurance company would insure a cello bow.”
“When they find out how it was broken, they will never pay for it.”
“I don’t believe you.”
I was hoping for a thank you, but it did not come that afternoon. Apparently self righteous anger can be hard to let go of. But give it time. (They did send us a check.)
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My husband does just that sort of thing for (to?) me all the time. “That’s no big deal.” “I can fix that.”
I am learning—it only took 50 years or so—to be grateful.