God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the world loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Hello dear friends of All Faith. Thank you for welcoming me this afternoon, and for changing your worship time so that I could be with you in person. I was visiting my son and his family at the birth of our granddaughter the weekend when I was scheduled to be with you. Special thanks to members of the vestry and the Rev. Debbie Kirk for being so understanding and to all of you. I had a wonderful meeting with your vestry two weeks ago. They spoke with such joy and gratitude for the Rev. Debbie’s presence and leadership, and with hope for the future.
This past week has been a time of reflection for many of us, because it was this time last year when, as a result of the COVID-19 and efforts to slow its spread, everything stopped. We were told to shelter in place. Schools, businesses, churches were forced to close. The magnitude of what we were facing was just beginning to sink in and we had no idea what lay ahead.
Global and personal tragedies like the ones we have and are experiencing invariably raise all sorts of questions for us about God and God’s presence–or seeming absence–in the midst of human suffering. Yet we have also learned, and continue to learn, how we are able to persevere in hardship. We have felt the sustaining power of tender mercies and small acts of kindness that can sustain us in times of trial. There is hope on the horizon as more of us become vaccinated and treatments for the sick improve. Yet fatigue is real, and we’d be made of stone if we didn’t feel a wide range of emotions in response to all that has happened. We’re all holding a lot right now, and we’re asking ourselves really important questions.
My sermon is about one of the biggest questions we ask ourselves, although, truth be told, we often avoid it until it forces itself upon us.
I begin with a story.
Years ago, when I was a parish priest in Minnesota, I went to visit an elderly member of the congregation I served who was in a care facility. It was near the end of her life, which she knew and so did I. Her name was Carolyn.
As a young woman, Carolyn had married into one of the founding families of the congregation and soon became one of its stalwart members. She taught Sunday School for over 40 years. She and her husband sang in the choir until they decided they were too old and then they provided childcare so that younger couples could sing. She led the Altar Guild and was part of the guild that provided meals for families in times of crisis and for repasts at funerals. For decades Carolyn was the congregation’s heart and soul.
Shortly before I arrived to serve that congregation, however, Carolyn had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. In the years I knew her she was homebound, unable to do all that she loved and defined her life. I would go to visit her and she would often cry as she spoke. “Tears of joy, Mariann,” she would say. “Tears of joy.” They weren’t really tears of joy, but I loved the fact that she remembered joy through her tears, and that she wanted me, as a young woman, to hold onto joy. I loved Carolyn, as so many had before me, and was honored by the love she extended to me in the last years of her life.
On the day of that visit near the end, she didn’t have much strength to talk, and so we sat quietly. I opened the Book of Common Prayer and read to her from the psalms. She seemed to doze off, and so I tried to leave as quietly as possible. But then she opened her eyes and said, “Mariann, I am scared. What if I haven’t been good enough?”
I didn’t say to her the first thing that came into my mind, which was, “Oh Carolyn, if you’re not good enough, we are all doomed.”
What I said is something I pray someone will say to me when I am near death, that everyone hears either spoken by another or in the quiet of their hearts when crossing over from this life to the next: “You don’t need to worry about being good enough, Carolyn. God loves you completely and unconditionally as you are. Jesus is waiting for you with open arms. Everything you regret has already been forgiven. It’s only love that awaits you.”
Now Carolyn was a woman of considerable faith and good works. Anyone who knew her would say she had surely earned God’s love and favor. And Carolyn knew her Bible well enough to be familiar with the famous line we heard read from the Letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Also from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe him will not perish but have eternal life.” She knew all that, and she had given her life to Jesus. Still she wondered–“am I good enough?”
Do you ever wonder if you’re good enough?
Here’s another story.
My father died about 10 years after Carolyn’s death. He was not a believer in God in any obvious way, and he made no effort to conform his life to the teachings of Jesus. He had been baptized and perhaps in his early life he had “accepted Jesus as his Savior or promised to obey him as Lord,” as we are asked to promise in our baptism services. But by the time I was born he had walked away from everything and everyone that had to do with Christianity.
My dad was a tough person to be around. He was opinionated, bombastic at times. For much of his life he drank and smoked too much. He wasn’t an especially good husband (he married 4 times) or father. He lived his life as he saw fit. Eventually I got over my anger at him for the ways he had hurt me. I did my best to forgive him and stay in touch as we both grew older.
The summer he died, my sister and I were at his bedside in the intensive care unit for nine days straight. Along with our stepmother we eventually made the decision to remove the ventilator that was keeping him alive. When the medical team took the breathing tube out of his throat, he was more alert than we had seen him for days. He couldn’t speak, but when we spoke to him, he seemed to understand. When we kissed his check, he kissed us back. When I asked him if he was afraid, he nodded his head. I said to him what I hope someone will say to me in my final hour: “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Dad. There’s only love waiting for you.”
My father was not a religious man, and he did not seek the comforts of the faith he had rejected at the end. But after we each had said our goodbyes, after he looked at each one of us with his deep probing eyes, he turned his face toward the ceiling as if drawn to a great light. His eyes grew wide and his breathing quickened. For what seemed like a long time, he stared up at what only he could see. He never looked at us again. After a time he became quiet and inwardly focused. An hour later he died.
Was my father good enough?
Some in the Christian faith who would say, sadly, but unequivocally, that my father was doomed to eternal damnation because he had not accepted Jesus as His Savior. I came to faith in Jesus when I was a teenager in a church that held such beliefs. In fact, the pastor warned me that my soul would be in danger when I told him, as I was leaving to live with my mother, that I planned to attend the Episcopal Church with her. From that church’s perspective, the narrow path of salvation did not include other Christians who did not hold the same exact beliefs. Now I loved my pastor and members of the church I was leaving. But I knew as sure as I knew anything that he was wrong.
Fortunately for me, the Episcopal priest of my mother’s church was a wise and kind man, and he gave me an amplified understanding of God’s love. He would say to me, “Mariann, if there is something you wouldn’t do because it isn’t loving (in this case condemn to eternal damnation someone who didn’t believe in Jesus the way I did), rest assured that God wouldn’t either. I hear echoes in his words in our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, who often says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
By grace we are saved. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world. We don’t earn our way into God’s favor. God’s love is unconditional. If we do not feel drawn to the presence of God as we live, God will embrace us as when we cross over from this life to the next. I saw my father enter the arms of God as he crossed over from this life to whatever awaits us after death. There was no question of his worthiness, or the correctness of his beliefs. He was loved–fully and unconditionally in the hour of his death as he had been, unbeknownst to him, all his life.
So, too, was Carolyn. There was no need for her to keep score of the good things she had done over the bad, her public virtues as a counterweight to her secret faults. God knew it all, and loved her fully and completely.
I felt moved to tell you the story of Carolyn and my father today in part because of my own struggle of late with questions of worthiness before God, and how in that struggle I need to be reminded that there is no scorecard in God’s love. To whatever degree that may be true for you, let me assure you what I also need to hear: that we needn’t worry now or at the hour when we breathe our last. There is no question about our being good enough for God. All that is waiting for us is love.
If Jesus came to this earth for anything at all, it was to embody a way of knowing and experiencing God that was not tied to our goodness or our worthiness. That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t want us to be kind, loving, forgiving, and generous people–he did, but not in order for us to win God’s favor or earn God’s love. And Jesus wanted people to know and love him, and yes, accept him as Lord and Savior. But friends, it isn’t love if we are punished with eternal banishment for not responding as God would want. That’s a contract, not love.
Jesus came in love, and to show us how to love, and inspire us to love, and by his grace make it possible for us to love far beyond our own capacities. He wants us to know how much we are loved, and to help others know something of that love, too. But not with the fear of punishment hanging over our heads. That isn’t love.
To be sure, the path of becoming a more loving person, patterning our life on Jesus, is hard. It asks a lot of us, and we will fail in our efforts to be like him. He knows that about us and simply asks that we keep trying, that we keep learning and growing in love. That learning and growth begins with opening ourselves every day to Jesus’ love for us, which, in turn, helps us to love others. “Love one another,” he said on the night before he died, “as I have loved you.”
In closing, I invite you to call to mind someone who inspires you with their capacity to love. It may be someone whose love for you is something you never have to question, or perhaps a person you’ve read about or seen on television. When we move into our Zoom coffee hour time, I’d love to hear from you about that person. Throughout the week, you might reflect more on what it is that inspires you about him or her.
You see, inspiration and example are what help us to grow in love, not fear. So I’ll leave you with one more story of a man whose love inspires me. He’s a Jesuit priest named Gregory Boyle who has dedicated his life to helping young men and women caught up in the violent drug and gang culture of Los Angeles to find their way out. There’s nothing easy about the path of recovery and restitution for these young people, but Father Greg walks with them every step of the way. Once he was asked if he ever felt taken advantage of by those who might abuse his love and trust. He said, “No one can steal from me what I choose to freely give. Whether or not they learn to walk this hard path is up to them. My choice is to love.”1
I want to unconditionally love the people God has placed in my life. I often struggle. I often fail. But people like Father Greg inspire me to love. Jesus assures me that there’s no test at the end of my life that I will pass or fail. There is no such test for you. He simply invites us all onto the path of generous, sacrificial, love for others, as he has loved us. Whether we choose to walk it is up to us.
Jesus didn’t come into the world to judge the world. God doesn’t judge others as harshly as we are tempted to judge them. And God doesn’t judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. For it wasn’t for judgment that Christ came. For God so loved the world. It was for love that Christ came and for love that we follow him.
Will you pray with me?
Lord Jesus, thank you for your love. Help us all to feel it, to know it deep in our bones, so that we don’t waste another minute wondering if we are good enough for you. Help us turn our gaze toward you, be inspired by you and others to walk your path of love. Help us to forgive. Help us to share what we have. Help us to go the extra mile, so that through us, sinners that we are, something of your love. Amen.
1 Gregory Boyle, Barking To the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).