Wednesday, April 27, 2016
“Encountering the Living Word” preaching course
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)
Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. God did this to show God’s righteousness, because in divine forbearance God had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that God themself is righteous and that God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
I have to be honest: When I was assigned to preach a sermon for Reformation Sunday, I groaned a little on the inside. It’s not that I’m not proud of my Lutheran heritage or anything. I see the value in celebrating the dramatic ways in which God has renewed the church and more fully revealed to us God’s grace. And of course, it’s important to honor saints like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and others who have gone before us to be agents of renewal in the church.
But I can’t help but wonder whether, in commemorating the Reformation, we are acting as though God’s most important acts of renewing the church all happened in the past. By focusing on an act of reformation that happened nearly five hundred years ago, I wonder whether we are ignoring the ways in which God is still making the world new today. I worry that focusing on the transformative change that happened so long ago may be a means for protecting ourselves from the transformative change that God would wreak on us today.
So I’ve been wrestling a little bit – wrestling with the day, and wrestling with this text. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the dialectic of law and grace that Paul writes about here in his letter to the Romans. What does this dialectic say to people living in our postmodern world? Does it make sense to talk about law with people for whom religious obligation itself is optional? Does it make sense to talk about gospel or grace with people who may or may not even care all that much about their relationship with God?
As I’ve been wrestling with these questions, I’ve also been dealing with some struggles in my own personal life. And these struggles came together unexpectedly earlier this week in an experience of law and grace that took me totally by surprise.
For about the past six months, I have been working with my doctor to try to lose weight. For fat women in this society, there is this sort of unspoken law for being allowed to exist: and that is that you must always be in some stage of trying to lose weight. Even when this law masquerades as concern for one’s health, the message is the same: something about you is fundamentally wrong and you need to change; you need to make yourself smaller in order to be more acceptable.
At first, my weight loss efforts went pretty well. But after I lost about ten pounds in a month, my weight plateaued and then even went up a pound or two. I began reading article after article on clinical weight loss studies, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. As it turns out, contrary to popular wisdom, there actually isn’t any effective treatment for long-term weight loss. Dieting may cause weight loss in the short term, but tends actually to lead to weight gain over the long term, while the body itself actively fights back against what it perceives as famine. Only about 2% of people who lose weight manage to keep it off for longer than a year. One researcher even went so far as to call obesity a “one way street.”
I was devastated by this news, and sank into depression. It had become abundantly clear to me that I would most likely never be able to live up to this law of what an “acceptable” body looks like. Despite the abundance of miracle weight loss pills, self-help books, and even my own doctor’s advice, none of the methods that promised to “fix” me could deliver.
So instead, this past weekend, I decided that a change was in order. I took the advice of a friend of mine who’s very active in the body positivity movement and just decided to stop trying to lose weight. It was a shockingly liberating decision. The idea that I could just live my life without counting every calorie, without questioning every food choice, without constantly trying to find clothing that would hide my body, was a revelation. I realized that I could love my body right now, in its entirety, without waiting for the day when I managed to drop to a socially acceptable weight – a day that would never actually come.
It was a word of grace that my friend spoke to me. I had felt beaten down and defeated by my inability to live up to the demands of this social law, but that word of grace was able to set me free.
And far from being motivated by this revelation to throw all concern for my health to the wind and subsist only on a diet of Taco Bell and pizza, my liberation from this law of weight loss has actually reinvigorated my desire to be a healthy person. Now that I have been freed from hating my body under the law, I feel joyously moved to see what this body, this gift from God, can do! I want to walk it and dance it and love its every curve and honor it by feeding it with whole, healthy foods.
This is what it feels like to be justified by grace. I have recognized that I am not able to live up to the law of social expectation; but rather than being burdened forever by the shame of having fallen short, I have been freed to life my life, to love myself as I am, and to be a whole, healthy, happy person. Paul writes that the law of faith excludes boasting, and by the same token, it also excludes shame. If all have fallen short of the law, and all have been redeemed by grace, then no one has any reason to boast or to feel shame.
This is a profoundly counter-cultural message in our world. In our world, you “pay your dues” and you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and you run the constant rat race toward “success” in order to earn the privilege of being validated as a human being. If you happen to fall outside the narrow box of social acceptability, your life becomes an apology for the ways in which you fall short. And you’d better believe that our sense of shame and our sense of pride make for very lucrative business. Whether you be overweight, aging, a woman, a person of color, a person with disabilities, a trans person, a queer person, or whatever, somewhere, a million- or even billion-dollar industry exists to cater to your insecurities. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance it invented your insecurities. And this benevolent industry will provide you with the fix you need to make yourself a better human being – for just six easy payments of $99.99.
And beyond the oppression of the corporate profit-motive behind keeping our pride and shame high, our entire social and economic systems are built on competition. We measure ourselves by other people’s successes and increase our sense of self-worth by their failings — whether it be numbers on a scale or numbers on a bank account; it’s all the same bs. We are constantly trying to get ahead, to prove ourselves, to “keep up with the Joneses.” It’s an exhausting way to live. It’s no wonder that, like me, many people are left feeling depressed and stressed out and hopeless at the end of the day. This way of living leaves very little room for grace, because grace takes us out of the competition altogether.
To all those living in this world, the ancient message of law and grace speaks a countercultural and life-giving word. This good news frees people from the cycles of pride and shame that keep them working at the impossible task of earning their own justification. It liberates them from the tyranny of their own failings and reassures them of their own value – not because of their own earned merit, but because of God’s merit. And that is a value that no one can take away from us. As Paul writes, “God [does] this to show God’s righteousness… to prove… that God is righteous” and that God is the one who makes us righteous, too. Whereas the powers of this world prosecute and condemn us for transgressing their law, and forgive us only when we have paid the pentalty, God forgives us, redeems us, and restores us. God makes us new, as a free gift.
The systems of this world define us by the clothes we wear and the media we consume and the stuff we buy. But God claims us and gives us a new identity as God’s own beloved children. No earthly measure of worth can lessen the great value that God has given us. We are God’s precious creation, worthy of dignity, respect, honor, and love – not just because of who we are, but because of whose we are. What then becomes of boasting? It is excluded. What then becomes of shame? It is also excluded. We have been freed from these things to live in joy and gratitude to God, to live into the reality of God’s kingdom that is already-and-not-yet. We have been justified by grace, through faith, apart from works, for the sake of Christ.
And that powerful and liberating message is one the world still needs to hear. It needs to hear this challenge to the many voices that seek to dictate our worth and to cheapen our identity. The world needs this dialectical language of law and grace to understand the liberation that comes only from God.
My dear siblings in Christ, we have a powerful message to share. And it’s clearly a message that we the church need to keep preaching for another five hundred years, at least.