2 Samuel 11: 1-15
Romans 5: 18- 21
Soon after I was ordained, I was invited to guest preach at a church in .Mount Kisco, New York. After the church service, this woman and I became engaged in a fascinating conversation. She told me that she had been a nun for over 25 years, but after becoming deeply influenced by the writings of the Jesuit priest and scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, she realized that she must not only leave her convent but also her Roman Catholicism. As part of the departure process, her Order requested she speak to the bishop, and so she agreed. The Bishop was a learned and wise man, somewhat familiar with the thought of Teillard de Chardin, who had died in 1955. Rome had barred Teilhard from teaching and publishing, accusing him of heretical ideas, and although he continued to write, he was obedient to Rome’s dictates. It was only after his death, when the ban is automatically lifted, that his work gained public recognition.
Without going into details about his ideas, let it suffice to say that Chardin believed that the whole creation was moving toward complete fulfillment; salvation would encompass everything and everyone, and when the nun told her bishop that she believed this with her whole heart, he wistfully looked at her and said, “If I believed what you believe, I would be the happiest of men.”
Now consider for a moment what the bishop said: “If I believed what you believe, I would be the happiest of men.” What belief would have the capacity to make you the happiest of men or women? Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and someone tells you that you can choose one belief to be true. What would it be?
For me what Paul wrote in what is now the 20th verse in the 5th chapter of Romans would do it: but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. What if the tense is not simply past, but also present: where sin increases, grace abounds all the more! Can we really imagine something like that being true? Sin increasing, but grace abounding even more! Consider the sin that greets us everyday in the news---war, poverty, greed, violence. Consider the sin that reduces human life to rubble---addictions of all kinds, carrying in its wake deep misery and depression. Consider the sin of human betrayal: adulteries committed, friendships betrayed, children abandoned and abused. Consider the sin of King David, who not only took another man’s wife, but then had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. And yet, Paul claims that where sin increased, grace---that is the presence and working of God---- abounded all the more. Could this possibly be true?
We cannot directly see all this abounding of grace, and so believing it, believing in it, sometimes seems impossible. Oh we see glimmers; we do see good things happening in the midst of sin---- teens survive a shooting in their Florida high school, because a teacher protected them by throwing himself over their bodies. A teenager, who spent years in shelters and living in a car with her parents, returned to the apartment her family was living in to discover that the family had left her behind. And despite all these terrible disadvantages, she was a straight A student, who gained admission to Harvard, from which she graduated with honors. Sometimes glimmers of grace do happen, even while sin abounds. But grace overtaking sin? Grace abounding more than sin? That is a hard one to believe, isn’t it, because it seems to fly in the face of so much of our experience.
Where was the grace, when some years ago, in my former church in Middletown, I refused to give a gas voucher to a man, both my colleague and I had helped many times before to buy gas---until we learned that he was making drug runs to Harford, and so the next time he came in, I refused to help him. I can still remember how he begged me for that voucher. Look, he said, sometimes I do sell drugs. I don’t have a regular paycheck like you. But I do need the voucher so I can keep warm. But I can’t use the church’s money to help you sell drugs. Then don’t use the church’s money, he literally pleaded. Use your own. Please help me.” I did not, and four days later he was found frozen to death in his car, with a cache of cocaine in the front seat. Oh sin increased all right, his own and mine, but where, where in that situation was the abounding of grace?
In my former church in New Haven I remember well this young woman, who came to me devastated over the suicide of her 20 year old brother, who shot himself when his girlfriend dropped him. She came to me one afternoon with a whole set of pictures of her brother, lying in his coffin. She wanted to know where God was for her brother. Why would God allow such a terrible thing to happen? He could not see beyond the pain, she said. He acted impulsively, like a lot of 20 year olds do. He did not think of the consequences. Why wasn’t God there for him, she wanted to know? She came around pretty regularly for months, and then she told me she was pregnant. She could barely care for herself; I couldn’t imagine how she would care for a baby. But of course she insisted that she would be a good mother. And then a year after the baby was born I learned that both she and the father had struggles with depression and drugs. And two years after that, she took her own life. Where sin increased, grace, the presence and working of God, abounded all the more?
The stark truth is that the abounding of grace is not what our mortal eyes normally see. Recognizing grace is not a natural process that clearly presents itself to human vision. And yet, and yet again it is the call of Christian faith to believe, hope and proclaim such a thing, and that is why the church, that is why this community of the faltering faithful is needed. Where else but the church is grace openly declared? Where else but the church are we regularly reminded that in spite of all the world’s pain, God is yet working to make a new creation. This is what Teilhard de Chardin believed---that nothing and no one shall be lost to God, who can and will make all things well. The past and the present, said Teilhard, are not nearly so important as the future---the future of God in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of great personal turmoil and self-doubt, when Rome ordered Teillhard de Chardin not to publish, when he was forbidden to teach, whenhe was accused of heresy, he wrote these words to a friend:
Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day, say again the words: this is my Body. And over every death force which awaits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words: This is my blood. More and more I come to see the importance of speaking and believing these words. Personal success or satisfaction are not worth thinking about or worrying about---whether they come to us or evade us. The most important thing is action---faithful action in the world and in God. And the most important action belongs to God, who uses even our most meager and failing action to bring about the new creation.
Teilhard could have left the priesthood; he could have said good-bye to his beloved Jesuit Order, and he surely would have found many willing publishers for his writings, not to mention an appointment as a professor in a prestigious university. But that is not what he did. He said he was who he was, because of his Roman Catholic faith, and the Jesuits had nurtured him along the path of his becoming. Though loyal to his church, he believed that the most important loyalty was not his or ours, but God’s. God, he said, is loyal to the church and to us, even when the church and we are not always loyal to God. And that is indeed Good News.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!