What will you do….?

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

You’re probably not going to want to do this. And I understand. Honestly. After all, what I’m going to ask you may seem goofy, hokey, even a tad sacrilegious. So I’ll understand if you decline the invitation. But I’m going to ask you anyway, because this sermon…on this passage…could change someone’s life.

Okay, so here’s the passage. Actually, not a whole passage, but just one sentence. One little sentence that the Apostle Paul pens in a letter to some people in Rome. People who were, apparently, a lot like us. That is, they were trying to make sense of their lives. Trying to understand why and how things in their lives and culture were moving so quickly, changing so fast. Trying to find their place in the incredibly fast-paced and increasingly pluralistic world they were living in. And trying — really trying — to figure out what their faith had to do with all of this.

In the midst of all this, they get this letter from Paul that sums up his take on the Christian faith — how we are all confused about God’s will, often unable to fulfill it, and so fall short. About how God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves by sending us Jesus that we might be made right — justified — not by what we do or don’t do but by faith in Jesus; that is, by trusting that in Jesus we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world. It’s not that we don’t still sin — though we try not to — and it’s not like we don’t still feel guilty about sin — though we hate that feeling. In fact, as Paul writes, the Christian life often feels like being stuck between knowing what to do and yet not being able to do it. It’s not a good feeling, but, hey, no one said it would be easy.

And then comes Paul’s sentence, maybe the only thing you really need to hear from the whole letter: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Did you hear that? No condemnation. None. Nada. When? In some distant future. No, now. Right now. This very moment. Why, because God loves us enough to forgive us, to restore us, to welcome us into God’s loving embrace like a loving parent welcomes back an errant child.

According to Paul, in fact, that’s why Jesus came — not to suffer in our stead. Not to show us how to live so that we merit God’s love. Not to satisfy some weird sense of justice that makes it possible for God to love us only if blood is shed. And definitely not to have the crap kicked out of him for sin so that we can feel eternally and simultaneously guilty and grateful. No. Jesus came to show us through his cross just how much God already loves us. And to show us through his resurrection that his love is more powerful than anything — than death, our sin, our confusion, and even our sense of being condemned.

And that last one may be the toughest. Because no matter how many times we’ve heard that we’re forgiven, and no matter how brave a show most of us put up, I’d still wager that Thoreau was right about the mass of us leading lives of quiet desperation. Maybe it’s some missed opportunity or long-held disappointment. Maybe it’s regret over a past wrong we did to another, or a difficult time getting over a wrong done to us. Maybe it’s a pervasive sadness about our relationships with our friends or family. Who knows? I just know that if you talk with anyone long enough sooner or later you get back to this pervasive sense of not being worthy, a persistent conviction that when it all shakes out they’re going to come up short.

Which is why we need to hear this sermon so much, Working Preacher. To hear Paul’s amazing pronouncement and promise that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus!” To hear, that is, that no matter what we’ve done or has been done to us, no matter what we may have previously heard or presently believe, God is not angry with us. To hear that God loves us, forgives us, accepts us as we are, and sets us free to live lives of meaning, purpose, grace, and gratitude.

So here’s the crazy invitation. Drag a garbage can into the sanctuary. Put it somewhere visible — up front near the altar, where people can’t miss it as they come to communion; or maybe by the baptismal font; or maybe right at the spot people enter the sanctuary. And then, after talking a bit about both our human condition of insecurity and inadequacy and God’s divine response of mercy, grace, and love, give people some paper and have them write down the one thing they feel worst about. The one regret or misdeed or misfortune that they wear like a snail does its shell. The one part of their lives that forever threatens condemnation. Have them write that down and then get up, walk over to the trash can, and throw it away, saying as they do so: There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

Okay, so like I said, I know this may seem odd, a little hokey and the rest. But I also think it has the power to be transformative, as we give our people a chance to live into Paul’s eschatological, present-tense reality that is shaped not by guilt but by mercy, not by disappointment but by promise, not by what we’ve done wrong but by what God has done right.

And then, if you’re up for it, ask them to write one more time. This time ask them to write what they are now free to do since they don’t have the threat of inadequacy and condemnation overshadowing them. What deed might they dare, what challenge will they accept, what act of courage or generosity might they attempt knowing that they are beloved by God and so whether they succeed or fail they have already been pronounced worthy. Invite them to fold that piece of paper and take it with them into the week ahead, a living remembrance of God’s promise not only to be with them but to use them for the sake of the people and world God loves so much.

Hanging beside the front door of a house in my neighborhood is a large mosaic that says, “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” I love that saying, and each time I pass by that door I get a shiver of anticipation about all this life holds and just what God might do through me.  So let’s give our people that same thrill by asking them this simple but potent question: “What will you do with your wild and precious life now that there is no condemnation?” “What will you do now that you know you are free?” “What will you do with all the love and grace God can give you?” “What will you do….” It’s a powerful question, one that may just set them free to live lives not only absent of condemnation but also filled with potential and promise.

I know this is an odd invitation, Working Preacher, but I dare you to accept it. Take the risk, try it out…and then let us know in the comments or by email how it went. There is power in this promise, and I am so grateful for your diligence in setting it afire!

Blessings on your work, your life, and your ministry, this Sunday and always.

Yours in Christ,

PS: For those who are curious, I’ve seen the Thoreau quote listed two ways. I suspect the former is better documented but kind of prefer the second.
1) The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
2) Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

Also, the line on the mosaic, one Working Preacher just informed me, is from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day. Thanks!