It is always a challenge to know what to preach on any given Sunday. Sometimes the scriptures are so
you don’t know which to choose. Other times they are so challenging it seems daunting. Lest you think I am alone in feeling this way, it is not unusual for my clergy friends to start asking each other: where are you going with the scriptures this week? Some hesitate to grapple with the more challenging scriptures and focus instead on the easier ones. I don’t think that is fair to the Gospel or their congregations. I am not comfortable when the Gospel is reduced to a Monty Python movie or worse, a Hallmark card. That would be cheap grace. God’s grace is far richer and deeper than that. It is rooted in God’s love for us, a love that is so great, he gave of himself in a powerful way. As if the act of creating our great blessed beautiful earth wasn’t enough, God recognized the humans he created were fragile creatures who kept creating divisions between them and all other living creatures, and God created a way to restore to wholeness these fissures. That reconciliation, that restoration, came in the form of Christ who was both human and divine. And it is that act of restoration and reconciliation that was the focus of the reading from Hebrews that we heard a bit ago. On the surface these few verses may seem harsh, almost violent. The word of God is depicted as a two edged sword, piercing as it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow. After hearing that I want to run and I suspect many of you do too. If that is what God’s grace is like, no thanks, I’ll pass. And yet, in the next few verses, we have Christ, the high priest who knows what all of this feels like, who knows what it feels like to be tested by life, by the betrayals of other human beings and by the challenges of being human. And yet because of Christ’s intervention on our behalf, because of God’s love for us in the person of Jesus, God lays claim to us and we can confidently approach what the reading calls the “the throne of grace”, not pleadingly but confidently, not with trepidation, but with the calm assurance that we will be forgiven. The very God who judges us is the same god who loves us and sympathizes with us in every respect. As Reverend John Burgess says in “Feasting on the Word,” God’s judgment is gracious and God’s grace is judging. Burgess also points out that Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that better than most. He issued a call to discipleship and faithfulness to all Christians living in Nazi Germany even as he taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He returned to Germany and was killed for his faithfulness. For Bonhoeffer, and for those who followed him, grace that is truly of God changes us and calls us into a new way of living. Burgess also noted that John Calvin said the Bible is like a pair of glasses for weak failing eyes. Without scripture we only see a violent world, driven by fear and ambition and greed. God’s plan for the world is almost invisible. If we “put on” scriptures and see the world through them we see God’s work in the world. We no longer see a world abandoned to its own devices but see instead God’s transforming love, which brings good out of evil and hope out of despair. I sometimes struggle with Calvin and yet that is profound. By “putting on” scriptures we see God’s transforming love, not a crazy violent world. We see the big picture, not the little one. We see the loving acts of God, acts that culminate in the witness of Jesus, the one who gave everything he had for the weak; the friend who would rather die on a cross than betray those who were honest about their weaknesses, about their need for healing. My goodness. My My goodness. John Burgess concludes his essay by saying: In Christ, the word of God becomes sacramental, drawing us into God’s transforming grace. Yet there is more. Reverend Susan Andrews, in the same volume suggests that Jesus’ death on the cross is a blessing whereby Jesus suffers WITH us and not just for us. Jesus meets us in places of temptation and weakness, experiencing all that separates us from God. Yet Jesus is able to endure those temptations and that suffering where we cannot. Jesus is able to endure the darkness until it is completely transformed by light. This endurance is not just in the midst of his own pain, but also in the midst of ours. He sticks with us, enduring our pain when we cannot bear it for one more minute. This bearing of our pain, this absolute loyalty and solidarity with us as we struggle, sets Jesus apart and brings us back to our best selves, “at-one-ment” with God. For Andrews and for Burgess, that ultimately is what atonement means. I, your pastor, was so relieved by reading these essays that I had to put them aside and just think about them. I breathed easier this week and it is my great hope that all of you can do the same after hearing these words. And it also my great hope that you will never settle for a cheap convenient grace. That you will approach the scriptures like they are your friends. When your friends say something that seems confusing or harsh what do you do? You ask them what they mean. So ask the scriptures what they mean. Friends always ask each other questions, they try to get to know each other, they try to close the gap between each other. I hope you do that with the Bible. Ask questions. Don’t settle for an easy grace. Don’t be lazy in your relationship with God. Push God and let God push you. It is football season and I know some of you follow it so I will close with a football analogy: Go deep. Occasionally settle for a quick shovel pass, but don’t make a habit of it. Go deep. Do the work and go deep. Your life will be so much richer for it.
May it be so. May it be so.