Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Heaven by your Bootstraps?

by | Jan 21, 2024

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Meg Peery McLaughlin
Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Heaven by your Bootstraps?
January 21, 2024
Romans 3: 9-12; 5 -1-2, 8-10

Prayer of Illumination:

Prepare our hearts to accept your word.
Silence in us any voice but your own,
that, hearing, we may obey your will
and rest in your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Scripture:

We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who has understanding;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness;
there is not even one.”

But since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Much more surely, therefore, since we have now been justified by his blood,
will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon: 

At the risk of oversharing what happens in the marriage of your co-pastors,
I want to tell you about a phrase that is oft repeated by my beloved,
accompanied with a mischievous grin.

It’s a line from a poem,
which I’ll read you in a moment.

But this line is spoken,
when Jarrett has done something helpful around the house.
He’s unloaded the dishwasher.
He’s put the twins to bed.
He’s taken the compost to church.
I’ll say thanks.
And we won’t say you’re welcome, in response,
he will grin, and say, “he was sure as a boy could be.”

Billy Collins coined it,
in his poem which is not about marriage at all,
but a relationship between parent and child.

It goes like this:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.

 

We are a people, it seems to me,
who like to be even.
We don’t like to be indebted to others.
Maybe we don’t mind being needed—
because it means we have something to offer,
but heaven help us if we are seen as needy.

 

 

We are a people, a nation really, that builds its identity around being self-sufficient.
Hand outs are actually put downs.

Behind success is hard work.
Behind good grades is study.
Behind performance is practice.

We earn our stripes.
We’re in a University town, for goodness sakes, where there are tenure tracks.

We have been raised,
whether explicitly or because it’s just the soup we swim in,
we’ve been raised
on earning our own way,
and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Which is why,
when we come from out there, to in here,
and hear this Word,
and gather around that font,
and find ourselves seated that table,
we are often dumbfounded,
or at least flustered,
or perhaps resistant and grumpy about what we encounter: the grace of God.

Here,
this word says:
no one gets it all right, not even the most hardworking among us,
we’re saved by grace not by our own efforts;

and this font proclaims:
that even babies who can’t hold their heads up
and who may never even grow up to have faith of their own
are claimed by a love that will never let them go

and this table is set for people of all kinds, including the needy
and the ones who can’t even find their bootstraps,
much less pull themselves up by them.

It’s all grace.
And grace has nothing to do with being even.

And if this makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
You’d have a friend in a famous church heretic,
a British Monk named Pelagius.
Pelagius proclaimed that you should and in fact could earn your way into heaven.

He thought all this talk about grace, led people to relax their Christian practice.

Pelagius was part of the church in the 400s,
not terribly long after Constantine made Christianity
the official church of the empire.
And the church, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people,
decided it was better to say,
“Come on in, and we’ll teach you the faith along the way,”
rather than say,
“You can’t come in until you know enough doctrine,
or demonstrate enough holiness in your daily living.”
Pelagius felt that was leading to a watering-down of the true faith.

He had high standards for himself and for everyone around him.

He believed that perfection was actually possible,
at least in terms of living up to every standard set forth by God.
If God asks it of us then it is possible for us to achieve it.
It would not be reasonable for God to ask it of us otherwise.
The 10 Commandments, for example,
were not just a set of ideals to strive towards —
they were all fully within human reach
if humans just tried hard enough,
with enough willpower and self-discipline.
God made us, Pelagius believed,
and would not have made us to fail,
so it must be possible for us to live a sinless life,
if we just do the right things and avoid the wrong things.
And doing everything right, according to Pelagius,
was how one found their way to salvation .

The church disagreed.

 

 

Of course it’s not always just as simple as that,
there were riled-up theologians and long-huge-church meetings involved,
and if you’re into church history,
you’d recognize the name St. Augustine and the Councils of Carthage,
but ultimately Pelagianism was named a heresy,
and the church came down on the side of grace.

Yes, our behavior as Christians matters,
and yes, we are called to pursue righteous living,
but what the church has come to believe is that
none of us are perfect, not even one,
and as the Apostle Paul says—
we are justified (made right) by faith alone.
We stand in grace,
not by dint of our efforts,
but because of the love poured into our hearts through our Lord Jesus Christ.

For those of us who work hard at being good
and chafe at the thought of being in debt,
this is a hard truth to swallow.

For some, however, claiming this truth is a necessity…a matter of survival.

Because of your generosity to UPC’s pastor’s discretionary fund,
Jarrett is able to take phone calls every Tuesday afternoon,
from Chapel Hill neighbors who are in need of financial assistance.
Last week, he spoke to a young man named Josh.
When Josh was young, he struggled with body image and self esteem.
That feeling of unworthiness persisted
and he started using substances to try to hide his feelings.
It just kept spiraling.
His addiction took hold of his life and wrung almost everything out of it.

He told Jarrett:
If I got what I deserved I would either be dead
or still in Cell F in the Alamance County Prison.

But instead, Josh is alive, 18 months clean,
able to see his son every Saturday, living with the help of the Oxford House.
After their conversation, and after UPC helped him with a bill,
Josh sent Jarrett a clip of him giving his testimony at church.

He ended it saying:
“There is nothing that you or I can do to earn the Father’s love –
because it just is. You just have to receive it .”

But perhaps for others of us,
the “you just have to receive it” is easier said than done.

This week Berry was breaking bread with our outgoing elder for campus ministry, Scott Singleton. Without any knowledge that I was preaching on grace,
Berry was sharing his shock at how his PCM students found grace so foreign.

I wasn’t there so don’t know all the reasons he cited:
perhaps it’s because they feel they don’t deserve grace,
or don’t need it as much as Josh did.
Perhaps they believe God can’t possibly have that deep a reservoir of love,
or they’ve been told they have to
act a certain a way to access that love,
or fit in a certain mold to receive it,
or have a GPA or a relationship or a body that “fits” such grace.

At which point, Scott Singleton said
“Berry, it took me until at least my thirties to even glimpse
the profundity of grace,
and I still need reminders of it every week.

And indeed, look, church, here we all are for our reminder–
once again gathering around this word, this font and table.

Because we know, do we not,
that no matter how many lanyards we make in response,
no matter what good works we attempt,
dishwashers we unload,
compost we take to church
we are as sure as a boy – or girl – can be
that we will never be even.

Instead,  we’ll be recipients of an amazing, amazing grace.