March 10, 2024 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

"Against Merit”

Rev. Gary Percesepe

Ephesians 2:1-10

Last Sunday we explored a key Lenten theme, the cross and the power of God. We heard a widow’s story of liberation, a woman who threw down her broom with a clatter when she finally came to understand that Jesus paid it all, that she was no longer required to sweep the church every day in penance for an affair she’d had forty years earlier, a sin she’d punished herself for, trying to sweep it away in a futile attempt to earn God’s favor by performance of good deeds. Today we hear another key theme of Lent: the free grace of God. What, we might ask, is the connection between grace and the cross?

The other night we were at the Kula Lodge, enjoying a night out. The dining room was full. There was the usual clatter of dishes, tinkling glasses and dinner banter when above all the noise we heard the sweet strains of a solitary man playing his violin. The musician of the evening was playing Amazing Grace, but in an arrangement I had never heard. It was so gorgeous I had difficulty accepting the fact that anyone in the dining room could go on dining in the presence of this heavenly music.

Amazing Grace is one of the most requested and recognizable hymns at funerals, memorials, and hymn sings—who can forget Barack Obama spontaneously singing at the funeral at Mother Emmanuel-- but what’s amazing to me is how many Americans reject the idea of grace behind the tune. Grace is commonly defined as “unmerited favor,” and that idea sticks in our craw. We’d like to believe in merit. We’d like to believe that we’ve earned everything that has come our way. With Ralph Waldo Emerson, we hymn our self-reliance in America, our can do spirit, the spirit of pioneers who braved the wilderness, conquered the west, through true grit by dint of hard effort, and if someone suggests otherwise we’re likely to slug ‘em.

Something in us resists the idea of grace. We don’t want to be handed anything on a silver platter. The gospel with its free offer of salvation seems anti-meritocratic. We don’t like whosoever will may come to the cross—we’d prefer to means test people to see if they are eligible for God’s favor, like we are, because of our religious pedigree or our years logged as a church member. It’s why we instinctively get offended when Jesus says outrageous things in the gospel, like “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”—we figure, if we worked hard to come in first than we should get the medal, not some n’eer do well who didn’t apply himself and finished last! It’s why we work our moralistic selves into a pretzel when Jesus tells the religious leaders of his day that whores were going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of them! It’s why we squirm when Jesus, using peasant humor, tells an astonished crowd that it’s easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven!

Like the woman trying to sweep away her sins with her battered broom, we’d rather place ourselves on the cross than accept the fact that we are utterly helpless to save ourselves. Unmerited favor offends our sense of dignity and wounds our pride. If the grace of God is free, how much can it be worth, after all? If we don’t deserve it because of our effort, then we don’t want it. So we continue with our fruitless projects of self-improvement, toiling in a cold sweat, tallying our good deeds on the heavenly ledger, ever trying, ever failing, flailing away, trying to be good enough for God-- like Gatsby in that most American of novels, Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past—into the perdition of all of our good intentions.

We distort the gospel into a list of rules. Pray every day. Fast during Lent! Read your Bible more. Serve those in need. Work tirelessly for social justice. Join the resistance! Recycle! Register those voters who agree with you! Give to all the good causes! Save the ocean, the rain forests, the planet, it’s all up to you! Do more, try harder, run faster.

If you do all this and do it right, well then you’re among the godly, the righteous.

The problem with this self-help version of the gospel is that it has a tawdry underbelly: If your life is a mess, if you’ve lost your job, if your happy marriage is an illusion, if you get a divorce, if one of your kids is addicted, if you get a DUI and the church folk get wind of it, you’re plain out of luck.

Beloved, that’s law, not gospel. Worse, it makes church a sanitized museum for saints instead of what it should be: a hospital for sinners. This moralistic attitude is why our churches are emptying even as AA rooms are full.

“I did not come for the righteous but for sinners,” said Jesus. The gospel is a word of mercy and grace for the broken, the sinful. This is the message of umerited favor: “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly . . . God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

The primary message of the gospel is not about how we are to behave. That’s not grace, that’s moralism, and moralism is the deadly enemy of the church. Anne Lamott says, “perfection is the enemy of the people.” I mean, really, folks, even Marie Kondo, the queen of “decluttering,” has raised the white flag. Her own house is no longer perfect. All it took was having three kids. Clutter everywhere! What an amazing opportunity for her to experience grace and not law!

The gospel is not what we do to gain God’s approval, it’s what God has already done for us on the cross. It’s time we climbed down from the cross.

But what about those good works we are so proud of? Well, according to the scripture, those too were appointed of God. Note the order: we are saved by grace unto good works, we are not saved by our good works in order to experience grace. This is what I have come to refer to as “the Phil Hasluck Way.” Phil Hasluck was the chair of the search team that called me to my congregation in White Plains. One day we had a chance to talk story in my office. He told me he’d been a falling down drunk for over twenty years. At forty he was in danger of losing his family. One day his longsuffering wife, Ginny, put it to him this way: there’s a church down the street and I’m going to go to church this Sunday. Phil understood that this was marital code language for “I’m going to church and if you’re smart, pal, you’ll come with me.” So he went to church, heard the scripture, the songs, the prayers, the sermon. Nothing. Nothing changed. He clung to the idea that he could get sober on his own, that he’d get it right tomorrow night, that he could stop if he put some real effort into it. But he didn’t stop. Things got worse. One night he found himself in his usual position in the wee hours of the morning, hugging the toilet bowl, when he heard a song playing in his head. It was the hymn he’d heard at church that Sunday he’d attended with Ginny. The song was “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky,” better known as “Here I am, Lord.”

Here I am Lord/ Is it I, Lord?/ I have heard you calling in the night /
I will go Lord, if you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart
The next day he went to an AA meeting and encountered the first step, the step that stops all meritocrats in their tracks: “We admitted we were powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Phil never took another drink. Fifty years later he made safe passage to the Other Shore. At his memorial service our church couldn’t hold the crowd who attended, most of them people who’d been invited by Phil to a meeting, many of them people whose lives Phil had helped save. Yes, his good deeds followed him.

The old hymns are so simple they seem to insult our intelligence.

Love lifted me…when nothing else would do, love lifted me.

The gospel is one begger telling other beggers where they found bread. We are all just walking ourseves back home. Amen.

About Our Website Any opinions expressed in this website are those of the writer or writers involved. Unless otherwise noted, such opinions are not to be construed as the position taken by any of the boards, committees, or council of the church.