July 3, 2011 – 3 Pentecost, Proper 9A
Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be downloaded here.
Grace might be free, but it doesn’t come cheap.
This week’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine features a letter from the C.F.O. of a financial-services company. She has written to the columnist because she still feels unsettled about a former bookkeeper in her firm who used a company credit card to rack up $47,000 in personal expenses. Although the bookkeeper was fired and paid the money back, the C.F.O. wants vengeance. Since no criminal charges were filed, the shameful deceit has escaped public notice, and the C.F.O. is asking whether it would be ethical to call the bookkeeper’s husband in order to humiliate her in front of her family. The columnist, of course, says no, but she concludes her piece with a gut-checking question: “How could her husband not yet know?”
In fact, there are lots of things that we keep hidden from our spouses. In a way, that’s funny because our husband or our wife is the one person on earth who has promised to have and to hold us…to love and to cherish us “for better [or] for worse.” Yet so often the person we love the most is the last person whom we want to see just how wretched a human being we really are.
There are two kinds of married people who come into my office in a moment of crisis—those whose spouses have already found out and those who are terrified that their spouses will learn the truth. The former are often surprised to have discovered that their husband or wife still loves them despite their darkest secret. But until that happens—until the solidity of my marital vow is truly put to the test—it’s hard to trust that someone could still love me despite what I have done—despite who I really am.
Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know—but only a few of us ever have to bring to light the darkest corners of our soul. I’m not talking about those embarrassing secrets that only a few people know. I mean those most shameful truths that we hide even from ourselves—the kind that only a long relationship with a therapist might bring out. Even though they’re in there, most of us, I think, die without ever bringing them out.
In several ways, the marital relationship is analogous to our relationship with God. That’s the reason marriage is reckoned as a sacrament—because the selfless, forgiving love of husband and wife is an image of God’s love for the world. But, unlike a spouse, who may never learn the fullness of our depravity, God is the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Likewise, God’s forgiveness, unlike that of a human partner, is guaranteed—his promise is never broken. But, even though God knows the fullness of our sin and even though God’s forgiveness is assured, we still hide things from our heavenly father—things we won’t even ask forgiveness for. Although it seems silly to think about it, we keep things from God. And I think that’s because, until the solidity of his loving promise is truly put to the test, it’s hard to trust that even God could love me despite who I really am.
Grace might be free, but it doesn’t come cheap.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul puts on paper this internal struggle which we have with our darkest selves. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Sin, if it were a choice, would be easy. With enough practice and effort, I might tame those things that challenge me. But Paul’s insight is to show us that the true power of sin is its ability to assume control of our ability to choose. As he writes, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Deep down, the sins we struggle with the most are the ones that reflect a flaw not in our judgment but in our character. I expect my wife to forgive me when I make a mistake. But way down in the darkest part of me is a compulsion that, no matter how much I might want to shake it, still presses me to do things that feel unforgivable. How can I be forgiven for who I am? A one-time transgression can be overlooked, but how do you accept and forgive someone who is hardwired for evil?
Our faith declares that there is no limit to God’s love. There is no flaw he will not forgive. There is no compulsion he cannot redeem. We might know that in our minds, but do we trust it in our hearts?
God’s grace is given to us as a free gift. We don’t need to do anything to receive it. But the costlessness of grace has masked its true costliness. I believe that, because God’s love is given so unreservedly, humanity’s response is to doubt its limitlessness. When God says, “I love you no matter what and it doesn’t cost you a thing,” I think our instinct is to try to hold back the fullness of our sin. That’s because nothing could be worse than God’s abandonment, so we try our best to hide the magnitude of our brokenness, doubting that God’s free gift could really be that free—that even our very worst could be forgiven.
In fact, the costlessness of grace is what makes it so costly. God’s free gift requires us to bear the cost of being loved so freely. In order for God’s love and forgiveness to be real in our lives, we must, therefore, bring even the darkest shadows of our souls to him and trust that he will love us anyway. Otherwise, when we hold something back from God, we deny the true power of his love.
I think that’s why so many people who are in recovery from an addiction understand grace better than the rest of us. They know the liberating power of a searching and fearless moral inventory. They know what happens when we admits to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Although explicitly non-religious, the Twelve Steps are an implicit restatement of the gospel.
Paul, it seems, understood how an addiction to sin really works. No matter how much we might desire to do what is right, sin is a compulsion beyond our control. It’s not a question of desire; it’s a brokenness of character. True forgiveness, therefore, has less to do with absolving a sinful act and more to do with redeeming a flawed nature. The true power of God’s grace is his willingness to love even our most unlovable aspects. But that means that the true cost of grace is our willingness to search fearlessly within ourselves, to be honest with God about the extent of our brokenness, and to trust that God will love us anyway.
Grace is free, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. Many of us would prefer to accept God’s promise of forgiveness without ever confronting the depth of our sin. But to cheapen grace is to rob it of its power. We are, by nature, afraid of coming up against the limit of God’s love—afraid that we might be too sinful, too broken, or too wretched for God to forgive us. But the only limits to God’s love are the limits we impose upon it.
Decide today to allow God to forgive even the darkest corners of your soul. Fall helplessly into the waiting arms of your heavenly father. And trust that there is no limit to his love. Amen.