Sermon: The Moral Crisis of a Conversionless Christianity

[Preached on Sunday, December 10, 2017 (Advent II, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)

Beneath the themes of hope, joy, peace, and love lies the fundamental theme for the Season of Advent – preparation. These weeks that precede the celebration of the birth of Christ are meant to serve as a time to prepare to receive again the mystery of the Incarnation – that radical moment in which God entered the human condition so that we might be renewed from the inside out.

Our wider culture seems to suggest an altogether different idea. It can be so easy to ignore or miss the spirituality of Advent and to be given over to the full fury of the season. It is intoxicating. It is electrifying. But I wonder what we might be missing in doing so.

While the Incarnation was a historical event, it is also true that God is continually coming to us. With God, grace is never in short supply. Over and over, God meets our poverty with abundance and our deepest need with the greatest gift.

Advent, dear friends in Christ, is a time to prepare to receive that gift: grace-born-anew.

How are you preparing to receive this gift?

Where are you smoothing out the rough edges and leveling the elevations in your own heart?

Grace is a gift. Grace is THE gift. Grace is always God-initiated. There are many who would have us to believe that we must be perfect in order to receive God’s grace. They would have us to believe that we have to work to earn the love of God. I grew up in a church that preached this. Grace and salvation were reserved for those deemed worthy. It wasn’t until I matured that I came to understand that nothing could be further from the truth. God’s grace is a free gift given to all. Paul tells that church in Rome that “God shows [God’s] love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”[1] Over and over again, God takes steps towards us to bring us back home.

God’s grace is not transactional. We can do nothing to earn it, but there is work we must do to prepare to receive it. We often hear words like “spiritual journey,” but we don’t often hear words like conversion – the lifelong process of letting go of our false selves in order to reclaim the original image of God that is within each of us. The Christian life is one of serial conversions and the path forward is often one fraught with challenge. Hearing a message of sin and grace taps into a very real need to engage with a faith that makes a difference in our lives.

In truth, any conversation about grace that does not also engage the subject of sin is a one-sided conversation. It is to go on a journey and to be told of the glorious ultimate destination, but to be left with no way of getting there. To only speak of grace is to engage a sugary faith that might be pleasing, but fails to truly nourish. To never speak of the areas in our lives where we stand in need of a savior is to forfeit the depth of grace promised to us in the Gospels.

Too often though, we find churches unsafe or unfamiliar places to speak of the magnitude of grace that we all stand in need of. If we speak of sin at all, it is always in the third person and often in hushed tones. In the words of Martin Smith and Julia Gatta, sin “seems to be the sort of infuriating fault of which other people are guilty.”[2] It is strangely convenient that is always the people most different from us who stand the most in need of a savior. Meanwhile, while we outsource sin to others, we also outsource grace. It is only by locating the sin that stubbornly abides in each of our own hearts that we can hope to feel the magnitude of God’s grace.

While there is nothing we can do to earn the grace of God, there is work that we must do to prepare to receive it. Like a farmer, we must break up the hard soil, till the ground, and remove the weeds if we expect to bear the nourishing fruit of grace – a compassionate and generous heart and a life overflowing with love. This is the hard work of preparing to receive grace-born-anew. It is that hard work of truth. It is the hard work of honesty. It is the hard work of vulnerability. It is the hard work of laying our wounds bare in order that the healing balm of the love of God might make them whole.

Years ago, after I had begun attending a new church, I found myself still carrying around the scars from the old one. I struggled with self-worth. I wouldn’t go anywhere near language like “sin” and “repentance” without feeling triggered. That is until my priest and I had a conversation that changed me. “Marcus,” he said, “at some point in your life you are going to have to let go of that wounded self and allow yourself to be loved by others, including God. At some point you are going to have to trust that what God desires for you is better than what you are clinging onto for yourself.”

When John the Baptist set up his revivals in the Judean countryside, he was calling everyone to repentance (μετανοια, lit. “a change of mind”). To prepare to receive grace-born-anew, John calls his disciples to the searching work of understanding why it was that they needed a savior in the first place. Sure, the world around them had its faults – colonialism, poverty, militarism – many of the things we see around us today. Yes, it is true that Christ came into the world in order to bring the Kingdom of God to bear in a global sense. But Christ also came into the world to “call sinners to repentance.”[3] In fact, this might be the genius behind the mystery of the Incarnation – it might help us to understand how it is the God comes to save us for the inside out.

Because while the power of Rome was exhibited chiefly in a top-down, hierarchical, dictatorial, dominating, abusive form power, Jesus, born of Mary, born in humility, inverts the systems of power we see all around. Jesus emphasizes quiet truth over loud falsehoods, compassion over domination, and community of division. In addition to being the Son of God, Jesus was a genius, grassroots community organizer, focusing on the importance of individual relationships and mobilizing those relationships – transformed be the grace of God – to change the world.

Beloved in Christ, the change we seek in the world must begin in our hearts. If we desire peace around us, we must cultivate peace within. If we desire love in others, we must nurture love in ourselves. The new world we seek is comprised of the new worlds that a born within each of us and the path to those new worlds leads through the gates of repentance – of changing our minds, our hearts, and our lives.

We all struggle with sin, even if we’d rather rush through the Confession than sit in the tension of the silence contemplating our sins.

Maybe because we believe that God only loves us generally. “But bland generalized assurances of divine love are not good news… The deliverance proclaimed in the gospel is deliverance from something – and that something is summarized… as the twin evils of sin and death.”[4] In short: because we all struggle with sin, we can all become recipients of grace that brings the love of God to bear in our lives specifically.

The good news for each of us is this – tailormade grace is God’s specialty. It is found in God’s willingness to give us new eyes, to see a new vision, that gives us a new mind, that produces a new heart, that creates a new world.

But we must hand over our broken hearts and allow ourselves to be loved by others, especially God.


[1] Romans 5:8 (CEB)

[2] Julia Gatta, Martin Smith. Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012), p. 8.

[3] Luke 5:32, 1 Timothy 1:15

[4] Gatta, Smith. Go in Peace, p. 11

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