Harrowing Of Hell
November 16, 2014

The Crack in Our Character

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

My thesis today is this: without a crack in our character, there would be no place for Grace in our lives.

We were studying the Bible at the Vestry the other night. We always study the Bible at Vestry. The text was the one we heard from the Book of Hebrews today. I asked if there was anything from our study anyone wanted me to mention to the congregation. One person replied spontaneously and in jest, “Tell them to keep on suffering.” Another chimed in, “No, tell them to give until they are suffering.” I was so proud of them, or at least the one who remembered that today is In Gathering Sunday.

It is interesting what floats around in people’s minds, and what pops out! Actually, it is probably scary what floats around in people’s minds. Imagine if we had a cord that connected our thoughts to a big screen right here in church. Imagine what we would see? Unnerving, huh, at least for me. Why is it that we have thoughts we don’t want to have? Why is it we have actions we can’t curb? What is it about the human condition that makes it so sketchy? Now I’m not asking about putting your thoughts on a screen to provoke shame. This is a shame-free zone after all. And I’m not asking about these inner images to guilt you into increasing your pledge.

I bring them up because I’m wondering about that space, that gap, that crack, that seems to run between what I want to do and what I do; between what I want to think and what I think; between who I want to be and who I am. I am provoked by the prophet Zephaniah to wonder these things. He is the angry guy who wrote the Old Testament reading we hear today. Zephaniah is fed up. The people of Israel are doing the same old thing over and over again, like there is something broken in their brains, like there is a crack in their character. It is as if they know the correct answer on the test, and yet keep filling in the wrong bubble. Zephaniah imagines that God is getting pretty sick of this, and God is going to show up pretty soon to set things right. And God does show up, but not filled with anger, as Zephaniah predicts, but rather full of Grace.

Here is something interesting. When things were going best for the people of Israel was when the crack in their character became most apparent. I think if we look at the life of this congregation, and set it in the context of the seven billion people who walk this earth, things are going pretty well for most of us. Yet, I frequently hear something like this, “I know I have a good life, and yet I can’t understand why I do what I don’t want to do. Or why I think what I don’t want to think, and why I am who I don’t want to be. Things should be going perfectly and yet they are not going perfectly. My life is not as great as it should be given what my life is.” That is something I hear. The people of Israel were saying the same thing to Zephaniah. Here is why. The human condition becomes most apparent when all of the other basic conditions of life are met. The human condition is this: there is a crack in our character.

Today I want to talk about this crack. I want to do so in two ways. First, by reminding us how much God loves us, individually and particularly. And second, by redefining our place in the hierarchy of creation. To do this I’d like to invite you to imagine that you have come into my office and say, “I know I have a good life, yet I do what I don’t want to do. I think what I don’t want to think, and I am who I don’t want to be.” Then I say to you, “It is because you are a sinner! You are a sinner from your mother’s womb! You are bumming God out with your life, and that is a bad thing!” Let’s say I pull a Zephaniah. To which you reply, “Wait a minute Preach… I’m not that bad! I haven’t killed anyone. I pay my taxes. I am nice to most people, most of the time. Sure, I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’m not Stalin, or everyone’s favorite villain, Adolf Hitler.” That is probably true, you are no Adolf Hitler. Congratulations!

But here is the deal, this isn’t math class, and God doesn’t grade on a curve. There is no bell curve that has Hitler way over here and Mother Teresa way over there, and you in the middle as some sort of moral C+. We like to think of God as a professor and us as better than most. Not quite as good as some, but certainly better than Hitler. But God doesn’t grade on a curve. God has God’s own unique grading scale just for you, and it is different than Adolf Hitler’s. It is not that Hitler has a bigger crack in his character than we have. It is that we all have a crack in our character and there is a good reason for this, a God given reason, so God can give us a G+. Last week Holly talked about M word. This week I’m talking about the G word. It is the grade God gives us, a G+, and the G stands for GRACE.

Now here is the crazy thing, while we all get a G+, God still personalizes the grading scale because we are specific, particular and unique. Look around, every person you’ll ever meet is tailor made by God. No two are alike. You are particular, and God particularly loves you. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you are God’s favorite! Think about that! Feel that for a second. You are God’s favorite! You are God’s favorite-YOU! That is the good thing about God not grading on a curve. God uniquely and particularly holds you up as God’s favorite-YOU- and the grade you get for being you is the same grade I get for being me… a G+. And that G stands for Grace.

Now I want to move our discussion and talk about what it means to be a G student. It has to do with our place in the hierarchy of creation. I am going to title this subsection of the sermon the top dog syndrome. I do so because each one of us has experienced life as the top dog. It may be at home, work, church, on the soccer field, or when we are in the back seat of a taxi cab. We all have had experiences of being top dog. When we have that top dog experience, we love it. It feels good. It feels like we are the masters of the universe, and yet even then we know it will end, because we know that riding in the back seat of a limousine never fills the crack in our character. We know this because we know that even when we are the top dog, we have an itch that can’t be scratched. Still we try, we try to scratch it with food or booze or pornography or over working. We try under eating, over eating, manic exercising, or compulsive spending. We try to scratch it by habitual travel. We hover over our children, have an affair, fight with our spouse, or fret over our retirement account. We have an itch that we can’t be scratched. The reason is we aren’t top dog, because we are not a dog at all.

You remember the story of the ugly duckling? Life was good, but not quite right because the duck thought she was a duck when really she was a swan. Same with us. Life isn’t quite right when we think we are top dog, because really we are something else. Really we are middle beings in the hierarchy of creation; made by God to stand in the space between the material and the ethereal, between the temporal and the eternal, and between earth and heaven. We are hybrid beings made bilingual to speak as mortals and as gods, to be translators between animals and angels. We are made for the middle, to stand in the space between the human and the divine.

So there we have it. Let me summarize where we have been:

  • We have a crack in our character… which seems to be the human condition.
  • Even still God loves us uniquely and particularly, as G students.
  • And made us as middle beings to stand in the space between animals and angels.

Which brings me to the Book of Hebrews. It is a book that lets us know that when we clean out the crack in our character Jesus fills it with Grace. This Grace empowers us to stand in that middle space between the temporal and the eternal.

Grace completes us. This doesn’t mean the gap goes away. This doesn’t mean suffering won’t wander into our lives. This doesn’t mean we won’t wrestle with issues or have problems. Grace simply completes us. Grace is the caulk that fills the crack with light and lightness and hope. Grace gives our divine nature a shine that reveals who we really are in the hierarchy of creation, middle beings standing between animals and angels. Grace scratches the itch we can’t reach under the illusion of being top dog.

How does this Grace appear? The anthem today (at 10:30) gives us a clue. It was written by Benjamin Brittan for a parish church in England much like Epiphany. He wrote it for their In-Gathering Sunday, or at least we can pretend he did. Here are his words:

“That day the pangs of lust will cease,
Man’s questing heart shall be at peace;
Then shall the Great no more contend
and worldly fame be at an end.
King of kings and of lords most high.”

The words that strike me are these: “That day the pangs of lust will cease, Man’s questing heart shall be at peace.” That is Grace. That is what life looks like when Grace fills the crack in our character.

If we were to plug a cord into our mind to fill the screen with images of our character Grace would be brighter than our darkest secrets. Grace is the current we are hooked into here at Epiphany. Grace completes us, specifically and uniquely, as middle beings, standing in the gap between the temporal and the eternal, and yet with a crack, a crack in our character, opened wide, so there is a place for the Grace of Christ to reside.