Hi everyone, welcome to church: Let’s all feel guilty together!
As a matter of fact, let’s wallow it. Sure, we’ll get to grace later, but first I’ve got to make sure you’re thoroughly disgusted with yourself. *sigh* I’m starting to suspect that, as a minister, all I have do is just show up and people start feeling guilty. Even if there’s nothing to feel guilty about in the moment, when God or Jesus comes into the conversation many of us Protestants are really good at scrambling to find something to dwell on that proves our moral inadequacy.
“I should be doing more to be a good person.” “I should be serving the community more.” “I’m not doing enough for the church.” “Look at so-and-so, look how much they do. I could be doing that, but I’m not and that’s my fault.” “Look at those folks running headlong into war-zones saving lives.” “How many of the least of these have I passed-by?” “I haven’t sold all my riches and given it to the poor and dedicated every waking effort to taking up my cross and following Jesus.” “I don’t pray enough.” “If I’m honest with myself, I’ve got my doubts about all this stuff I’m supposed to believe. The Bible is kind of weird. Am I terrible for thinking that?”
Yes. Yes, you are. And so am I. Your fears are true: you’re not the humanitarian-hero-saint-pious-true-believer that you should be. You blew it. You could have, you should have, won that Nobel Prize by now. Or at least have become an astronaut or raised a kid who did. Instead, you’ve turned kinda so-so. At best average.
Average and extraordinary. Beautiful and broken. My friends, we’re all limited human vessels for the limitless divine spirit, making a way as best we can through this troubled and wondrous world … But at least you’re feeling guilty about it. *sigh* So, people talk about Protestant guilt and Catholic guilt and Evangelical guilt, and there are probably all kinds of other flavors of guilt … Jewish guilt, that’s a thing.
I can only speak firsthand about Protestant guilt. Specifically, Lutheran guilt. Lutheran guilt is: “You’re saved! By the Grace of God manifest in Christ Jesus: You. Are. Saved … But you sure don’t deserve it. And look, you keep proving it over and over, you don’t deserve the good things that God has given you.”
Now, I can’t speak first-hand about Catholic guilt or Evangelical guilt or Adventist guilt or all the rich variations in our Christian family tree. Those of you who are recovering Catholics or recovering Evangelicals, I’d be very interested to hear about the special flavor of guilt that you savor. From what I can see, there seems to be two related but different species of guilt in the Christian ecosystem. One is: “You are saved but you’re depraved and don’t deserve it.” The other amounts to, “You probably aren’t saved, you definitely don’t deserve it, so you ought to be very worried about the eternal hellfire awaiting your dirty depraved soul.” And the flip side of that last one especially is the self-righteousness of “You are saved because you do deserve it, and those losers over there aren’t saved and it’s their fault.” One way or another we worry that we’re not devoted enough or we aren’t helping enough people or loving enough or we aren’t pure hearted or pure minded enough, we don’t believe strongly enough, we have too many doubts, part of our heart we’ve held out on Jesus, we haven’t given it all over, our psyche is just crawling with boobytraps set by the devil … I’ve heard of people getting baptized over and over because they feel like it didn’t quite take the first time, they’re still all-too-human.
Feeling guilty is just not helpful. It doesn’t really help us to be better or to do the right thing. As a matter of fact, guilt as a feeling actually doesn’t come up in the Bible. The Bible does not talk about anyone who is wracked with guilt. I looked it up in a concordance of every word used in the Bible. Guilt as a feeling doesn’t come up. “Sin” comes up a lot. And you should know “Sin” in the Bible is as often a collective problem as an individual one (“Forgive us our debts”). “Repentance” comes up a lot, turning away from sin and returning to God. “Forgiveness” – tons of mentions. “Healing”, “Grace” – countless passages about healing and about grace. But “Guilt,” not so much, nor “Wallowing.” All the words that are actually in the Bible are active words – something that needs to be done, something we go and do: an act of atonement, sincere repentance, an act of healing healing, and act of commitment, the proving grounds of conviction.
Healing is the most accurate and helpful way of thinking about Grace. Guilt, and feeling guilty, just misses the point of Grace. And feeling guilt is often just paralyzing.
The Gospel story today is about Jesus healing a man who is paralyzed (Luke 5:17-25). Jesus heals him by forgiving him.
Now, at the time, physical ailments were seen as punishment for some sin a person had committed. And that’s not such a foreign idea. In our culture if someone is ill or injured or has any kind of diagnosis, there’s often judgment and guilt. Whether God comes into the picture or not. Whether or not the person is actually responsible for their condition because of a moral failing. We don’t seem to accept that humans are just imperfect, flawed creatures and that’s usually nothing to be faulted for.
So, this man, you could say, was paralyzed because of his guilt. That probably was not fair to him. That probably was manufactured guilt. And, yes, I know, I just got through saying that the feeling of guilt doesn’t come up in the Bible, but our job is to hear how these stories speak to us, and the fact is that this dear child of God is under judgement and is stuck, frozen, disjointed from his very body. In his place we would be feeling guilty about it.
But he knew he needs healing. He yearns to be made whole. And the people who care about him yearn for that too. And from that need they act. From the yearning, that need for healing, they come to Jesus. And Jesus shows this man forgiveness. He releases this man from guilt. The reality of God’s Grace dawns upon him. His soul is whole again, at home once more. It is well with his soul. And he is free to stand and walk. He has been freed to be in the reality of Grace, the reality of God’s eternal spirit, in which we all live and move and have our being. It’s always there, this reality of Grace. By what authority could Jesus forgive? He was, is, one with God. And as such he knew that God’s Grace is always an open invitation. If someone seeks it they will find it. It’s always there and we can always just say “Yes” and come home.
Whether we deserve God’s Grace, is just not the right question. We can’t deserve it, yet we can’t not deserve it. Sin is real. This can’t just be a nice sermon, we do have to talk about sin. The First Letter of John (1:8): “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, the Holy One who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and wash away our injustice.” Human beings are inclined to be petty and bitter and when we get together in groups and throw out the hard-won wisdom of our ancestors, we have an inclination to cause atrocities. Being unspeakably cruel to innocent children and feeling justified in it, I’m sorry to say, is not new in history and it’s not new in American history.
Alexandr Solzehenitsyn said: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That’s from someone who survived the Soviet gulags. He knew how collective insanity can take over. We always must guard against our inclination to inhumanity, especially when a herd mentality takes over. We need a Holy Source beyond human powers to feed the seeds of the good in our hearts, and to weed out the seeds of evil. This is why we need the spiritual disciple of returning always to God’s Grace, to saying “Yes” to the eternal invitation to come home and be well.
Sin is real. Yet God forgives, because the truth also is that God’s image is set in the depth of our souls. The truth is that human beings are always inclined to tremendous acts of love and beauty and courage. God Created our souls as such and loves us and is committed to our redemption.
Humans can’t become so depraved, try as we might, that God won’t always have the invitation open, always calling to the little glimmer of the Image of God within the human soul. The Christian testimony is that humans can even try to kill God in the flesh and God still insists on forgiving and loving and inviting in. That’s why for Christians Christ is this open door to Grace. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ reveals the power of God’s love over-and-above the power of human sin, which wishes to put God to death and put human power at the center of the universe. When we try to make ourselves gods in our own right we create hell for ourselves and hell for each other.
Human power is pathetic. It’s just pathetic, when it comes down to it, when it comes up against the power of the Creator of the Universe. We don’t stand a chance.
So, we might as well just surrender to God’s Love. It’ll save ourselves a lot of trouble and definitely save a lot of trouble for those who get trampled underfoot. The truth is we need God. And our need is deep, it’s a hunger at the heart of our existence, it’s a thirst deeper than the bones. We need God to be whole. We need God for healing.
So let’s come home, as always. And keep coming home.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered June 24, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg).
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