Louis C.K. and God’s Non-Reciprocal Grace

For my money, comedian Louis C.K. is the second greatest public theologian of this generation (Singer/Songwriter John Prine is the greatest). His comedic insights into the human condition on his TV shows and in his stand-up comedy unmasks much of the posing we do. He can be harsh in that unmasking, but he can also be vulnerable and remarkably insightful. In 2006-2007, he had a short-lived (unfortunately), 13-episode show called Lucky Louie. The conceit of the show was how he and his wife, Kim (played wonderfully by Pamela Adlon), navigated (or didn’t) their working-class jobs, their marriage, and parenting their young daughter. In an episode called Flowers for Kim, Louie and Kim arrange for their daughter to stay with friends for the weekend so they can rekindle their lost romance. With their daughter away, Louie comes home and bursts into the kitchen ready for romance. He tells Kim he has a present for her. She beams and then he unveils a bunch of red roses. Her face falls and the viewer can see her heart drop. She calmly reminds him that she’s never liked red roses, as she’s told him so many times before. And yet, he persists in getting her red roses. His mood now changes and he says: “Well, you can still thank me for giving you the roses. Why won’t you even thank me?” Her reply is “why should I thank you for giving me a gift you know I don’t like?” He feels he should be rewarded for having been gracious in giving her a gift. She contends he doesn’t listen to her or care about her feelings, what she likes and doesn’t like. Surely, all married persons can relate to this scene, painfully so.

The Rule of Reciprocity is a social norm we share. It basically says that when someone does something nice for us, we feel a social obligation to return the favor. Business marketers understand this social norm. They use it to convince potential customers to make purchases by offering them gifts or incentives to entice such purchases. We feel this norm on birthdays. If someone gives us a birthday gift, then we feel obligated to give them a gift on their birthday. But this Rule of Reciprocity causes havoc when we feel the other isn’t responding reciprocally. When we’re “tracking” on one another, we stay balanced emotionally in reciprocity. But when that goes awry and we “switch-track,” where we switch down a new track (“I expect to be thanked for giving you the red roses”) and the other person switches to an even newer and different track (“You don’t care about my feelings, what I like or don’t like”), then we experience a profound relationship disequilibrium. There’s a lack of reciprocity on a deep, subconscious level and a powerful, in-grained social norm is violated inside of us.

Our humanity is complex, isn’t it? The possibilities for misunderstanding, as the Bible might say, are “legion,” as we “switch-track” in our relationships leading to hurt feelings and, possibly, estrangement. Our expectation for reciprocity is so deep inside of us and when it doesn’t occur, we feel crossed and violated. That may be why we have such a hard time accepting the gift of God’s grace. Grace is the ultimate violation of the Rule of Reciprocity. With Grace, God gives us the gift of forgiveness and mercy for which we can never possibly reciprocate. God has acted non-reciprocally, and on some level, we may even be angry with God and outraged for this gift of pre-emptive Grace. This isn’t how we believe it should be. But, thank God, it’s how it is with God.

+Scott

 

Like me, you may be curious about what motivates us to do good for others. We’d all like to think we do so out of the goodness of our hearts, solely for the other. Christians, in particular, would like to think that our motives for helping others are driven primarily by our faith in God’s work through Jesus’ redemption of the world on the cross. I’d like to think that Christians are more generous in doing good for others than people who don’t have such faith convictions. Except, it’s not true. There’s no reliable data supporting such a claim. There’s only our desire to believe it to be true.

In their book, The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life, behavioral economists Uri Gneezy and John List delve deeply into what incentivizes our behavior. Through exhaustive field testing and research, they allow the data of human behavior to speak for itself rather than make assumptions about what should be. What they discovered makes me uncomfortable. I’d like to think that because Jesus has shown me undeserved mercy, I’d be more generous in showing mercy than others who don’t have such faith. This should also be true of my financial generosity, without having to experience some reciprocal good for myself. But it’s not true.

The subtitle of their chapter on why people give to “good causes” tells it all: “Don’t Appeal to People’s Hearts: Appeal to Their Vanity.” While they don’t reference this in their book (but it’s consistent with their findings), I noticed this spring when Georgia Public Radio (GPB) was doing its semi-annual fund drive that the recurring tag line their on-air presenters were using was “Be a Public Radio Hero!” We’d all like to think ourselves heroic. “I could be a hero if I support GPB! I want to be a hero!” GPB was just appealing to my vanity. It worked. I upped my donation this year. “I’m a hero!”

Gneezy and List consistently show that the Church or other organizations that depend on people’s generosity to support their mission need to incentivize giving. Historically, the Church must’ve known this intuitively. After all, for centuries the Church financed much of its mission through indulgences, better known as “Get Out of Hell for a Price” cards. For a sizable gift, donors could ensure that they (and their loved ones) were prayed for, thus assuring that their souls were never (for the right price) in eternal peril. Now, that’s an incentive to give! But, thank God, we don’t offer indulgences any more. So, what motivates people to support the mission of the Church today? Do we really have to appeal to vanity and self-interest? I’d like to think that we don’t, but the data, as well as my own look in the mirror, tells me there’s truth there.

What hope then is there for us? Are we all just vain and selfish creatures? Well, yes, we all are, but that’s not all we are. We’re loved, forgiven, and redeemed vain and selfish creatures. God will use even the worst about us to work his grace in the world. Isn’t that what God did on the cross, use our shameful human proclivity for scapegoating and punishing to redeem us? God isn’t stumped by our vanity or our selfishness. Even when our motives to be generous aren’t pure, God will somehow still be glorified. Meditate on all that as we look forward to our stewardship campaigns this fall.

+Scott

 

Hearts Reconstructed (339)

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies
– attributed to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Oh boy, can our minds justify what our will chooses so we can get our heart’s desire! If that’s not self-evident by observing your own life and the lives of those around you, then I humbly suggest you’re not paying attention. Sin is the only tenet of the Christian faith that’s provable through basic human observation. It’s also being increasingly verified through social science. Social Scientists, however, don’t call it sin. They’ll often refer to it as a bias we humans have. And they can’t say for sure whether such bias is innate or culturally-conditioned. Either way, such biases are present in all of us.

Take, for example, something called Social Desirability Bias. In his book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz uses aggregated data from Google searches to get past this bias. You see, in research done through surveys, even anonymous ones, we’ll lie when we answer questions. We’ll over-report that we engage in behavior our culture deems good and we’ll under-report our behavior that we think society frowns upon. But Google searches show what we really search for, revealing our true behavior and heart’s desire. Anglican moral theology just calls this concupiscence.

Then there’s Choice Supportive Bias, which I suffer from in the extreme. I’m loathe to admit I was wrong after I choose something. This bias is the tendency to justify a choice we make even after it’s patently obvious (maybe except to ourselves) that it was a poor choice. So, that shirt I bought turns out to not fit well at all and is ugly as can be. But I’m still going to wear it, downplaying its poor fit and ugliness, because I don’t want to admit I chose poorly. Over time, I’ll actually convince myself the shirt fits like a dream and is stylistically impeccable. Social Scientists call this a type of cognitive bias. The Christian tradition just calls it the sin of pride.

And then there’s Confirmation Bias where we only interpret, favor, or recall information that supports our already held conviction. Contrary to what we may think, such a bias isn’t a recent phenomenon caused by social media. We humans have suffered from this since our creation. Social Scientists have just now documented it as a universal bias we have. Our prejudices are like rats and our minds are like traps. Once they get in there, it’s hard to get them out. That’s why racism is such a powerful force. Once it becomes a mental construct, it’s continually reinforced in our racist mind. That’s why it’s rightly called “America’s Original Sin.”

Our biases simply betray the truth about ourselves. We might think our minds direct our wills, but they don’t. Our minds are captive to what our will wants, and our will itself is then held captive by what our heart desires. The spiritual medicine for this are hearts reconstructed by God’s grace where our hearts, marinated in such grace, learn to will virtues like love, compassion, and mercy. Only then do our minds begin to change.

+Scott

 

‘Mind the Gap” (338)

In London, when traveling on the Tube, a polite, recorded voice reminds people exiting to “mind the gap.” The “gap” to which the voice refers is the gap between the train and the platform. Riders are reminded to pay attention as they exit the train. These days between our Lord’s Ascension, but before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we’re in a similar place spiritually. Jesus has “already” risen and ascended, but a profound event, the coming of the Holy Spirit, is still “yet” to happen. This “already, but not yet” time” is good spiritual preparation for facing the world as it currently is. It seems the entire world is trying to “mind the gap” between what has been and what will be. We’re going through a transition from the “modern” to the “post-modern” world. That alone should indicate why so many people are afraid, anxious, or confused. We don’t even have a name for the time we’re in. It’s not “modern.” It’s “post-modern.” That defines what it no longer is, but it tells us nothing about what the future will be. The modern world has passed away, but what’ll replace it has not yet come.

There are different ways people “mind the gap” in response to living today. Some, reacting out of their fear and anxiety, hunker down and refuse to accept that the world has changed. In religion, these are the fundamentalist groups in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They refuse to live graciously and open-heartedly “in the gap.” Their refusal shows itself in their misplaced anger born out of their fear and anxiety. Still others, reacting to a constant need for novelty, embrace every new thing that comes their way. But they have no depth in anything. They get lost “in the gap,” steering a course with multiple navigational tools, so they unwittingly find themselves traveling in circles concluding facilely that there’s absolute truth at all. Their morality and world-view proceeds from a spirituality based on whatever feels right at the time to them.

There’s a better way and we have it in the Church. As disciples of Jesus, we’re a people equipped to live “in the gap” between the “already” and the “not yet.” We have faith that God is sovereign, steadfast, and immovable. As St. Peter says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” As we “mind the gap” waiting for what will be, we trust in God’s never-failing grace. We can say with Dame Julian of Norwich that “all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” only because of the merciful love of God in Jesus. Thus, we’re prepared to face the future and its uncertainty. We worship a Lord who says, “Behold, I make all things new.” St. Paul tells us: If we’re in Christ, we’re “new creations,” therefore “the old has passed away and the new has come.” We can welcome the new thing God’s doing. We’re a gap people living in a world experiencing a major shift from what’s been to what will be.

But how will we know what’s “of God” what’s not “of God” as we “mind the gap” during this time? That’ll require us to pay close attention to what God is up to. If it looks like Jesus’ mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and grace, then it’s probably “of God.” If it looks cruel, cold-hearted, unforgiving, or vengeful, then it’s almost certainly not “of God,” at least not the God who’s revealed to us in Scripture as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, if it looks like Jesus, then it’s almost certainly “of God.”

+Scott

 

Amos & Ephahs (338)

I first read Robert Merry’s work in his wonderful 2005 book: Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition. In that book, he made a compelling case for why our foreign wars end up thwarting the very values and outcomes we desire as a nation. Merry now writes for The American Conservative, an online publication I read regularly. He wrote a recent column that turns his astute observations about American foreign policy to the domestic crisis at home between our two rival political cultures. The election of Donald Trump isn’t the problem, Merry argues. He just exploited the pain many people were experiencing. Although Merry sees Mr. Trump as “supremely unfit for his White House job,” he contends that the election was but a symptom of far deeper crisis in the soul of America.

Merry believes the crisis is caused by how out of touch the prevailing elites of our rival political cultures are with the lives of most people in this country. Merry quotes economic consultant David M. Smick, author of The Great Equalizer, who described what happened after the Great Recession at the end of the last decade. Smick says it was “the greatest transfer of middle-class and elderly wealth to elite financial interests in the history of mankind.” This further exposed and accelerated the growing income disparities between these elites and the rest of the country. Merry says this has “contributed significantly to the hollowing out of the American working class—once the central foundation of the country’s economic muscle and political stability.” The recent proposals for tax and health care policy changes, if adopted, will further the accelerate the disparity and serve to create even more instability in our country. For much of the country, modern democratic capitalism is simply not working for them anymore. This isn’t capitalism’s fault, per se. It’s the fault of those who manipulate the system (without any consequences) for their benefit at the expense of others.

The prophet Amos spoke eloquently about people enduring persistent economic injustice. Amos, prophesying in 8th Century B.C. Israel, condemned the elites who manipulated the poor through debt and financial deceit. Amos writes: Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds (Amos 8:4-7).

The ephah was a measuring unit for grain. By making it small, the elites were deceptively selling less grain than they promised. Likewise, in making the shekel great, they were overcharging their customers while underdelivering what they promised. Making the ephah small and the shekel great, in other words, was the way the elites in Amos’ time increased the financial disparity between them and the rest of the people. No culture can endure such disparity forever. It creates social and political instability and eventually more pain and suffering for more people.

+Scott

 

The Vacation We All Need to Take (337)

“The key isn’t to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
— Stephen Covey

When I first read that quote from Mr. Covey, I said to myself: “Oh great, now that’s one more thing I’m doing wrong in my life. I need to start scheduling my priorities. But my schedule isn’t my own. I have commitments to keep and others counting on me.” Makes me kind of sound self-important, doesn’t it? And that’s what I want others to think. But maybe you and I have far more control over our schedules than we care to admit? Maybe we use our busyness to avoid facing certain truths about ourselves? Our schedules become nothing other than a distracting drug narcotizing us from ourselves.

Recent labor data show that, in the aggregate, we work longer hours than we used to. We also work those longer hours with increased productivity, but we do so for less pay than in the past. And we don’t take all the vacation time we’re allowed. Such busyness in our work lives must then be a surrogate for something else. Maybe it’s our way of proving our self-worth to ourselves and others? Bragging about how busy we are has become a new status symbol. And that must make us important, right? It proves we’re indispensable. Yet, it might be just another way we engage in self-justification.

Earlier this year, Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, reported on some ironic practices by experts whose jobs are to help us find appropriate work-life balance. Kathy Simons, the Director of the Work-Life Center at MIT, has advocated for years for more humane workplace policies and family-friendly benefits. Her research indicates that people who don’t take vacations are 30%-50% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who take vacations. And yet for five years, Simons herself hasn’t taken a vacation. Talk about “physician heal thyself!”

And Phyllis Stewart Pires traveled the world helping people who worked for her global tech company to improve their work-life balance. One day she found herself in an ambulance racing to hospital. She later said: “I was missing family events. My friends were calling me out on being AWOL. My husband was calling me out on not doing my share. It was almost like I was obsessed with this idea that people were counting on me to really make a difference in their workplace. I couldn’t let them down.” So, she let her friends and family down instead. We all have this need to justify ourselves, don’t we?

”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10). As my Daddy would say: Jesus has her number, doesn’t he? Martha was using her busyness as a distraction; as a way for her to avoid facing her anxiety about her life and relationship with God, which is the “one thing” needed. And Jesus has our number, too. But rather than exploiting that, he simply says:” Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11). Jesus offers us an eternal vacation from what seems to be our life project at justifying ourselves. That’s a vacation we all need to take.

+Scott

 

Hubris Syndrome: It’s Officially a Thing (336)

“It’s good to be the king”
Mel Brooks in The History of the World, Part 1

There’s a group called The Daedalus Trust. It’s named for the character, who in Greek mythology created wax wings with which his son could fly, but warned him not to fly too close to the sun because it would melt his wings and he would fall. His son, Icarus, however, didn’t heed his father’s admonition. He was too captivated by his flying prowess. He thought himself incapable of crashing. Icarus’s hubris led to his downfall. As a leader of the Daedalus Trust contends: “There is a growing body of opinion that the exercise of power can distort thinking and create personality changes in leaders that affect their decision making. The Daedalus Trust’s mission is to raise awareness of such changes and understand them better.”

This, of course, isn’t new in the human family. It’s as least as old as the story of King David in the Bible, who desired Bathsheba as his own, and so had her soldier-husband killed in battle. He could do that because he was the king. The above quote from Mel Brooks satirizes King Louis of France whose exercise of power bent his conscience and led him to despicable abuse of the poor. There’s historical evidence in every generation of people in power behaving like Icarus (It appeared in Greek mythology for a reason. The writers of such myths probably saw such distorted thinking among their leaders).

In more recent times, we’ve experienced the hubris of leaders that led us into the Iraq war. We’ve seen how some leaders of our financial institutions created the conditions for a world-wide financial crisis in the last decade. We all watched in horror as hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico because everyone connected with Deepwater Horizon, from BP to Transocean to Halliburton, were convinced that nothing would go wrong because they were who they were. The U.S. District Judge who later presided over the legal case described their behavior as “reckless.” And “reckless” is one of the important words used by the Daedalus Trust to define what they refer to as the Hubris Syndrome. When people in power get in the grip of this syndrome they engage in high risk behaviors and make reckless decisions. For example, think of Bill Clinton recklessly deciding to have sex with an intern in the Oval Office. Who would ever think that was a good idea? But yet he did it. These behaviors and decisions also escalate over time until the perpetrator is stopped by a disastrous event, which always happens, and often to the detriment or death of the people around the one with Hubris Syndrome.

The Daedalus Trust claims that Hubris Syndrome is a legitimate psychological disorder. They want to assist governments and businesses with how to recognize the signs of this in their leadership, thus encouraging them to engage in prophylactic efforts to prevent such behavior in the organization’s culture before disaster happens. I wish them luck in their efforts. I’m afraid, however, the human condition will continue to churn out many a modern-day Icarus. That’s why we don’t need Jesus to affirm us as we are. We need him to forgive us for what we do to ourselves and others. He most graciously does.

+Scott

 

What We Can’t Control, Thank God (335)

The Broadway musical, Hamilton, is the story of the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. The musical ends with a mournful, chilling song that asks this question “Who gets to tell your story?” with these lyrics:
But when you’re gone,
Who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?

St. Benedict wrote in the Rule of Life for his monks: “Keep your own death before your eyes each day.” In writing this, St. Benedict wasn’t being morbid. He had no unhealthy fascination with death. For St. Benedict, keeping one’s death before one’s eyes was all about humility because death levels everything for us. It comes to all of us and as the old saying goes: you can’t take anything with you when you’re gone. This reality humbles us (or at least it should). It can help us in our learning to depend radically on God’s grace alone. By keeping our deaths before us, we’re nudged into a more spiritually healthy place where we must recognize (eventually) that we’re not in control of everything around us; that as our Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer says:
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

I try to remind myself (at least) weekly that I’m the 10th Bishop of Georgia. There was a 9th and there’ll be an 11th. I’m just the steward of this holy office for the time being. In other words, bishops come and bishops go. Some part of God’s Kingdom will come a little bit closer because of my ministry as bishop. Some will remain distant. I’ll at times succeed in being the bishop God has called me to be, but often I’ll also fail miserably to live into that calling. If there’s a story of my life or of anyone’s life who trusts in Jesus and his Cross, then it’s a story that’s but a footnote to that one, great, and true story.

Rather than hamstringing us or leading us toward spiritual apathy, this practice of keeping our deaths before us is, actually, liberating. It frees us from being held captive by the future, which we can’t control. It helps us release the stranglehold we so often keep on our lives thinking we can control every future outcome (which we must know we can’t). Thus, it opens us up to the possibility of the present, whatever is before us today, so that we may experience the action of God’s grace right in front of us.

We should look to the future, plan for tomorrow, save for retirement (contribute to your IRA!), etc., but we also should learn to be content with the day God has given us. When such contentment comes, our anxieties will take a back seat. That’s when there’s room daily for God’s grace to convert us.

+Scott

We’re Not the Phone Company (334)

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times on April 17th is an insightful reflection on people and the institutions that shape them. He describes two kinds of institutions: “thick” and “thin.” He writes: A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. In “thin” institutions, on the contrary, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. Stanley Hauerwas has posed the difference in another way. He says people will die for their faith. They’ll die for someone in their family or community. But they won’t willingly die for the phone company.

Brooks contrasts the two types of institutions, writing: Thin organizations look to take advantage of people’s strengths and treat people as resources to be marshaled. Thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice. They take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings. In other words, thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

Brooks is describing what the church is called by Christ to be. We’re in the identity forming business as we lead people in Gospel practices that define our purpose in the world. Church, when we get it right, connects people’s heads, hands, hearts, and souls as we come together for Eucharist, for the Church’s Daily Office, and for regular reflection on our life’s purpose. We call people transcendentally to the vertical axis while much of the rest of their lives are lived out horizontally in quid pro quo transactions. Only as we get that reordered, are we equipped “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” As Evelyn Underhill wrote: One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service…Unless your life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which your life produces won’t be much good.

We’re about grounding people in the “thickness” of our faith and its practices, otherwise we’re just the phone company with some nice music, colorful windows, and elegant haberdashery. Church leaders have the primary task of shaping parishes into such “thick” cultures. Yet, too often, we spend more energy trying to be CEOs, community organizers, psychotherapists, political activists, or social directors because those roles are, if we think about it, easier to inhabit. When we lead in such a disordered way, we often then complain our people aren’t committed enough to the church. If we shape a “thin” parish culture, then we shouldn’t be surprised if people have a “thin” commitment to it. It won’t matter much to them at all. It’s just another group vying for their limited time and resources. They’ll pay their monthly “bill” to the church without much thought or passion, just like they pay their phone bill when it comes due each month.

But we’re not the phone company. We’re the Church, for Christ’s sake.

+Scott

 

The Bishop’s Easter Sermon 2017

Then the disciples returned to their homes. (John 20:10)

It was his face that first caught my attention. It was filled with a combination of fear and awe. The face in question was on a painting of the crucifixion I saw years ago. But that face wasn’t the face of Jesus. It was the face of the Roman soldier nailing Jesus’ to the cross. That face was haunting. I wondered how the artist came up with that face. He had no idea what this Roman soldier should look like. So, how did he come up with that haunting face? After reading the background on the painting, I discovered an amazing thing. The artist had used his own face for the Roman soldier, the one who drove the nails into Jesus.

55 years ago, instead of painting himself as a Roman soldier crucifying Christ, Andy Warhol painted his self-portrait alongside stylized versions of Campbell soup cans. Today, our culture has taken Warhol a step further by adopting the selfie as our modern-day icon for self-promotion and self-flattery. Some profound changes have occurred in our culture, and they should give us pause. We now see ourselves at the center of the portrait rather than off to the side driving nails into the Savior’s hands.

Placing our self at the center of the portrait is both flattering and attractive, helping us to believe that the world really should be about the self. Such self-deception profoundly removes us from the witness we have in Scripture. The selfie, like the painting I saw, are examples for us. They represent competing narratives about what it means to be human. The painting’s story tells us that human meaning is found in the forgiving love of God for sinners like us on the cross. While the selfie’s story tells us that human meaning is found in our ability to promote and flatter ourselves.

That shouldn’t make us against the culture. There’s much good in our culture, especially as we learn and grow in our respect for all people, especially for those different from us, and deepen our compassion for those who are lost or left out. So, there’s a lot of good out there in the culture. But we should not be fooled by the pervasive promotion of the self in our culture. If we’re not attentive, we can lose touch with our identity and purpose in Christ, which calls us to be truthful about human nature, which means thus rightfully placing ourselves in a portrait of the crucifixion with hammer in hand.

That portrait paints a story that tells us the truth. The Good News of Jesus is a story that comes to us first as bad news. Before we can truly know it as “good” news, we must first recognize the “bad” news about ourselves.

Frederick Buechner makes this point in his book: Telling the Truth. He writes: The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that we are sinners; that we are evil in the imagination of our hearts; that when I look in the mirror what I see is at least partly a chicken, a phony, and a slob. But the Gospel is also the news that we are loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.

The Good News doesn’t make any sense until we accept “the news that we’re sinners.” If, however, we go home today and look in the mirror and not see that truth, then what that artist painted and what I’m preaching will seem nonsensical.

I’m afraid the Church hasn’t always told people that amazing and outrageous truth in such a way that people have really heard it. Well, my job is to tell you the truth, so I’m going to do my best to change that this morning. The truth is God forgives us and loves us and there’s nothing we can do about. You heard me right. There’s not a thing we can do about it. It’s called grace and it’s outrageous. The cross of Jesus tells us that God forgives us and the resurrection of Jesus tells us that God loves us, and not just for a little while, but eternally. And again, so it sinks in: There’s nothing we can do about it. Our sin, no matter how awful it is, will not stop God from forgiving and loving us, because Jesus on the cross has taken away the sin of the world.

But some people think there must be a catch. There’s got to be some fine print at the bottom of the contract. Sorry. You’re welcome to create your own fine print, your own conditions and exceptions, but just don’t count on the Gospel to back you up. OK. I admit there is one condition and it’s a simple one. We must die. We must die to self. We must take our stinking old sins and pile them on the back of Jesus so he can hang with them on the cross. We must be dead to our sins and trust Jesus, that in his death, our sins die with him.

I began this Easter sermon with what might seem as a rather odd verse to quote from St. John’s story of the resurrection. With all the rich imagery of the first nine verses, you might have wondered why I quoted verse 10, which reads: “Then the disciples returned to their homes (John 20:10).” After receiving the Good News of the resur­rection, the Disciples still had to go home. That means they still had to sleep, and eat, and live each day even though they had begun to realize that the entire world had just been turned upside down.

Just like the disciples, after our celebration of the resurrection today, we will go home and live our lives. The question is: Will we go home believing that we’re alive in Christ only because our sin has already died with him? When we leave for home, will we leave the burden of our sin on the strong back of Jesus? When we’re back home and we look in the mirror, will we see a selfie or the cross of Jesus next to our hearts?