The Two G’s of a Faithful Life (9/26/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I titled today’s sermon “The Two G’s of a Faithful Life.” According to all the great teachers of rhetoric and homiletics, I should not tell you what those two G’s are—not yet, anyway. I should string together about 15 minutes of hints, keeping your minds busy, and finally, right toward the very end of the sermon, reveal the two G’s. And if I craft my sermon in a masterful way, you will have all figured out what the two G’s are just before I tell you.
I would make a terrible trial lawyer. The whole idea of making a really good argument is to lay out the facts one by one, and allow others to reach a conclusion—the conclusion you want them to reach! You don’t necessarily start off by saying, “Vinny the Blade is innocent of all those murders, and here’s why.” It is more effective, at least according to classic rhetoric, to prove that Vinny was at church that morning, and that he was at his grandmother’s house, cooking dinner for her, that afternoon. Then, the jury suddenly does the math and thinks, “Hey, Vinny couldn’t be the murderer! He was driving to granny’s house when the murders occurred!” If they figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it, or so the reasoning goes.
In preaching, it all goes back to a book by Fred Craddock, written in 1971, called As One without Authority. Craddock says that if the sermon is any good, it will reflect some insight the preacher had in his or her study. There should have been some aha moment when everything became clear to the preacher. And the most effective sermons are the ones where the congregation has that same aha experience. At some point, the person listening to the sermon arrives at the same conclusion as the preacher. And not because the preacher has made a great deductive argument, but rather because the facts lead to the same conclusion.
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So how long do I string you along this morning? You know this isn’t in my nature, this dropping subtle hints. I’m about as subtle as a kick in the teeth, and have no problem letting people know my thoughts on just about any matter. People are welcome to disagree with me, and I prefer it if they do so bluntly.
And that’s why I am going to tell you the two G’s of a faithful life: geography and gibberish. No? Okay, maybe not, but let’s give them a fair hearing. There are many people who believe that geography has a lot to do with the life of faith. Where a person is born has everything to do with their standing before God. If a person is born in one of the fifty United States, they have a special standing with our Creator, who cares for them much more than, say, a child born in sub-Saharan Africa. After all, if God wanted to love that starving girl in Ethiopia, she would have been born in Montana, or West Virginia, or Kansas.
Look at the Middle East. For thousands of years human beings have drawn lines in the sand—literally—to decide who is in and who is out with regard to God’s favor. And this very day there are children being born on this planet, separated by only miles, who will be raised to hate one another, and consider the other an enemy of God, because they were born in Israel…or Palestine. So geography is very important as far as human beings are concerned.
Consider fundamentalists—both Christian and Muslim. In both religions there are people who believe their particular religion is the only religion acceptable in the eyes of God. But I would love to ask Pat Robertson, “Do you mean that if you had been born in Saudi Arabia, you would be Christian? You would turn against the accepted religious authorities of your society and embrace a different religion?” The same question could be asked of any Islamic fundamentalist. And the fact is, the personality that makes a person become a Christian fundamentalist is the exact same personality that makes a person become an Islamic fundamentalist. If Pat Robertson had been born in an Arab nation, he would still be a fundamentalist, still sure he was right and the rest of the world was wrong, still speaking out against all the hell-bound heathens who did not accept his religion—Islam—the religion that dominated the geographical area where he was born.
Okay, geography may be one of the two G’s of a faithful life, but it probably shouldn’t be! Which leads us to gibberish—geography’s cousin in the faith. The notion that certain people are favored by God because of their birthplace is gibberish—nonsense! And there is plenty of gibberish cluttering up the Christian faith. And the best place to find that gibberish is on the device invented to propagate gibberish throughout the world: the television.
What is it about the TV? In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas questions why Jesus—supposedly the Messiah—was born before television was invented. As Judas sings in exasperation, “Israel in 4 BC has no mass communication!”
It’s a good question! And I think Jesus may be the one person who could have a television program and not be corrupted by the power of that. I don’t think most televangelists start out by thinking, “I’m going to ride this religion thing all the way to the bank!” Surely they begin with the best of intentions. But it almost never fails. There they are, a few years later, faking healings, crying on cue, and selling replicas of the original swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus for only forty-nine dollars and ninety five cents… and they accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
Lots of gibberish. But that’s not the way its supposed to be, so let’s leave geography and gibberish behind, accept that God acted wisely when Jesus was born long before mass communication, and get to the real two G’s of a faithful life: guilt and gloom. No? No. Guilt and gloom are not the two G’s of the faithful life, but you wouldn’t know it without digging somewhat deeply into the Christian faith.
Guilt. Guilt is an important theological idea. I don’t want to pretend there is no place for guilt in our faith. People who never feel guilty are one of two things. They are either perfect, or they are sociopaths. Because unless we have actually achieved a state of perfection, we all do things now and then that should make us feel guilty.
But there are certain parts of the church that have built the entire religion on guilt! More than one modern theologian thinks Christianity took a terrible wrong turn about 1500 years ago when St. Augustine came up with the idea of original sin. It’s good that he recognized there is something in us that makes us fall short of the perfection of God, but did we have to build our whole religion around sin and guilt?! The first chapter of the Bible tells us that God looked at all of creation and said, “It is good.” We human beings—we’re part of that creation. God didn’t say, “It is perfect.” God said, “It is good.” There are lots of us who take guilt seriously but who think Christians spend too much time beating up on themselves. We’re created in the image of God. Hey, we’re not perfect, but let’s not spend our lives with our heads held down. Because if we do that, our guilt turns into gloom.
Gloom. Let me just say a quick word about gloom. The unmistakable sign of a Christian is joy. The very essence of the Christian message is that God has acted to overcome all our wrongs. However you want to interpret it, that is what the cross is all about. It is God’s way of saying, “Yes, you’ve messed up, but don’t worry about it. You mistakes are covered.”
Again, many theologians think Christianity went off the tracks long ago, when in the Middle Ages, the church started making communion something sad and somber. As people ate the bread and drank the wine, it was as if the church was saying, “Look at what Jesus had to do for you! You should feel terrible about yourselves!” That’s not the way it is meant to be. We celebrate communion. Communion is a serious thing—but not a gloomy thing. When we remember Jesus by sharing the bread and drinking the wine, our innermost feeling should be joy. If we approach communion in a state of agony, we miss the point.
The two G’s of the faithful life. Not geography and gibberish. Not guilt and gloom. Hmmm. I don’t know about this style of sermon—this method of rhetoric. How long do I keep you hanging? Hey, I’ve got an unabridged dictionary. There are thousands of G-words in there. This could be the sermon that never ends—and don’t tell me it already seems that way!
No, I guess it’s time to get to the point. But first, let’s talk about my doctoral program. Most of you know by now that my thesis is about relationship with God. When I tell people I don’t believe it is the role of a preacher to save souls, people often say, “Then why preach?” And my answer is that the purpose of preaching is to help people develop a relationship with God. My thesis attempts to identify a process one goes through while developing that relationship.
In the thesis, I concentrate on our side of that relationship—the human side. But if we were to pan back and take a look at the big picture, relationship with God, like any other relationship, is a two-way street. God relates to us in a particular way, and we relate to God in a particular way. And I hope it doesn’t surprise anybody to learn that those two ways of relating are the two G’s of the faithful life. The two G’s, and this time I really mean it, are grace and gratitude.
Grace is the way God relates to us. Gratitude is the way we relate to God. First, let’s consider grace. What is grace? That word actually comes from a Latin word meaning “favor.” To be in God’s grace means to be in God’s favor. Theologians argue over who is and who is not in God’s grace, and how one gets there. But at the heart of the Protestant faith is the belief that we cannot pull God’s strings. There are no works we can do, no words we can say, no good deeds we can perform, that will suddenly change God’s attitude toward us. God’s grace is God’s free and undeserved gift to anybody who is willing to accept it. God is always attempting to hold us in a state of grace, and God’s love is so powerful we cannot ultimately refuse God’s grace. But we can turn away from it for a while. We can live our lives as if God’s grace were not being offered.
And it is fairly easy to see if a person has opened himself or herself to God’s grace, because the response to grace is gratitude. Serious theologians would no doubt remind us that Christian theology claims the response to God’s grace is faith—faith that God really does love us in spite of our shortcoming, and really does offer us unconditional and unmerited love. But faith is an inward matter and is difficult to see, except for the way it is revealed to the world. And as the cliché goes, we reveal our faith with an attitude of gratitude.
Gratitude. There are basically two ways to wake up in the morning. Now, we all go through spells of waking up both ways, but generally speaking, we fall into one camp or the other. One way of waking up and facing the day is to think, “Oh no. Is it morning already? I wish I could just sleep forever.” The day that faces us is not something to be savored. It is something to be dreaded. And of course we all have days like that. But hopefully those days are the exception to the rule.
The other way to wake up is to open our eyes, and realize that the day will come when our eyes will not open. We do not have the power to open our eyes each morning. We do not have the power to draw breath into our lungs through the night. And for all our knowledge and for all our wisdom, we cannot make our hearts beat indefinitely.
If we are awake—truly awake to the world around us and to the sheer impossibility of what is happening here—being creatures, made of the dust of the earth, with eyes to see and ears to hear, with the ability to communicate with one another, with the ability to bring love into this world with our hands and our hearts—we should be radically amazed. That is the sign of somebody who is truly awake. Radical amazement! This can’t be happening! Why isn’t the universe just one big mass of inert matter? And if life was bound to develop, why here, on this little spec of dust revolving around that garden variety star we call the sun? And why did life evolve to the point that human beings could look out at the world around us and ask, “Why are we here?”
It is amazing. Radically amazing. And it is all a gift. Every bit of it. From the air we breathe to the food we eat, from our morning coffee to the people we love, it is all a gift. And the One who creates all of it—the One who created the universe in the first place and who holds it in being moment to moment—the One who draws the breath in and out of our lungs and keeps our hearts beating and our bodies working—the One who causes us to rise from the dust and look out upon the world in wonder—when we understand that the One responsible for it all loves us through every mistake, and wants nothing other than for us to live in a state of grace, with lives filled with love and joy and abundance—when we realize this, we respond. We respond with gratitude.
Oh how difficult it would be to follow the advice of the Apostle Paul, who says in 1st Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Give thanks in all circumstances? I’m not there. Thanks for the flat tire? Thanks for the frightening diagnosis from the doctor? Thanks for taking my loved one from me? No, not many of us get to that point of faith. Although, we should probably remember that it is not God who gives us the flat tire, it is the nail we ran over. It’s not God who makes us ill, it is disease. And it is not God who brings tragedy into our lives, it is the freedom God has built into the universe that causes all manner of things to happen.
But we can, and should, give thanks to God that God is with us always, even when we run over the nail, or fall ill, or suffer tragedy. And yes, that allows us to respond with gratitude, even in the worst of times… even in the worst of times. Because God’s grace abounds. Always. Always.