SERMON from 9-23-12: “Bumper Sticker Theology: Faith Is A Journey–Not A Guilt Trip”

Psalm 32.4-6

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Selah

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”

and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Selah

6 Therefore let all who are faithful

offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters

shall not reach them.

 

Bumper Sticker Theology: Faith Is A Journey, Not a Guilt Trip

 

There’s an old wood floor, covered with a black and white area rug–and I’m laying prostrate (flat out) on it. Let me tell you why I’m there.

 

The Mustard Gathering met on Wednesday nights. The Mustard Gathering was the name of the youth group I attended for a number of years during my adolescence. We met in a large, old storage room disconnected from the church itself. It had been remodeled to reflect the fact that the youth had taken it over. There were carpet tiles lining the floor–to make it easy to fix the inevitable soda and food stains that would accumulate under foot. The walls were painted with a pattern only acceptable for a part of the church that was salvaged for the youth. That pattern was only broken by cool posters carrying youth-friendly Bible verses–and they were everywhere.

 

After I had worked up a sweat in an epic ping-pong match against a high-schooler (I was in middle school, at the time), we were called together for our weekly lesson. While it was called a lesson, it felt more like sermon. As I sat in my favorite bean-bag chair–which clung to my shirt, which clung to my back from the sweat–our youth pastor would teach us.

 

On any given Wednesday night, the lesson would cover a challenge we faced as youth. When I say that, I mean that the assumption was always that youth were horribly sinful creatures who were in constant need of forgiveness.

 

As everyone quietly contemplated whatever their issue was, their eyes were also scanning the room for anyone who was looking particularly guilty. As I contemplated what I had done to run afoul of God’s laws, I awaited patiently the solution to my sin problem.

 

Any discomfort I was feeling at this situation was only amplified by the uncomfortable feeling of my damp shirt against cheap vinyl.

 

Then, I heard it. God will forgive me, if I only ask for that forgiveness–because that’s how much God loves you. “That’s good,” I thought to myself.

 

If I didn’t–and I were to die in my sins that night–God would have no problem sending me to the fiery pit of hell. “That’s not,” I thought again.

 

As I was saying, in my bedroom there’s an old wood floor, covered with a black and white area rug. Before I can even think of climbing into my bed, I lie on the floor and confess everything I have or think I have done wrong.

 

“I didn’t read my Bible this morning.”

 

“I didn’t even pray.”

 

“I said quite a few four-letter words while talking with my friends.”

 

“I didn’t try to witness to anyone.”

 

“I didn’t listen to my mom.”

 

The list went on and on…and on. I continued until I thought I had confessed everything. With a guiltless conscience, I could finally consider raising myself off that hard floor and climb into bed–and cross my fingers and hope that would be enough.

 

You’ve heard of “Jewish guilt.” “Catholic guilt.” Call this “Protestant guilt,” but it’s a whole other animal.

 

Last week, we talked a little bit about the sins–be they ones we associate with being a Christian or not–that we let keep us from experiencing or doing things. We, for some reason, let the guilt we experience paralyze us into inaction. This week is the logical extension of last weeks lesson.

 

“Faith is a journey; not a guilt trip.” That’s a bumper sticker that we might very well see, then not see. That is, it’s one that forces us to think a little bit more than usual. When we see the the one that says “coexist”–with all the different religious symbols acting as letters in the word–we know the message that driver is trying to convey. It’s not pithy, it requires us to think a bit more.

 

After my years in the Church of God–that’s where the Mustard Gathering took place–I noticed something about what we commonly refer to as “the conversion experience.” That is the moment when one realizes that their actions constitute sins against God–and give their lives to Jesus.

 

God is angered by sin. He would be well-within the bounds of reason to ensure we spend an eternity in hell for offending his holiness. However, Jesus died on a cross so that you don’t have to go to hell. Whoever is giving that message puts that message home as fervently and plainly as they can. By that time, your guilt meter should be off the charts, and you should be sufficiently motivated to head down to the altar and pray a sorrowful prayer.

 

In my experience, this isn’t the end. No, it’s the beginning of a cycle of guilt, repentance, prayer, guilt, etc.

 

Anyone notice a problem with this?

 

Essentially, the Christian life–lived in this fashion–is a relationship built upon fear and mistrust. What relationship have you ever known that has worked under those circumstances?

 

“Faith is a journey; not a guilt trip.”

 

The journey begins where the psalmist does. As I have said before–and hopefully you have heard on numerous occasions–it begins with our realization that we have sinned. The psalmist acknowledges sin, doesn’t hide iniquity and prays forgiveness for transgressions.

 

Notice what the psalmist says next. “You forgave the guilt of my sin.” (repeat) I want you to notice a couple of things here. First, the guilt–as if we are unworthy of even thinking God might forgive us–should be gone. We are released from our guilt. If you are forgiven, you are forgiven. End of story.

 

Second, the psalmist infers that we are forgiven of the guilt, but we may still sin. You and I know this; there isn’t a little switch that turns on in our hearts once we pray the sinner’s prayer. We don’t automatically become saints who shall go forth and be blameless no more.

 

Our faith–whenever it is you consider the time you converted–begins a relationship. Relationships take time, energy and hard work. Every once in a while, you slip up. Does that end the relationship? Does that mean that you keep incurring some sort of debt every time you screw up? Does that mean that you aren’t ever going to be a worthy partner in the relationship? It means that you messed up–for Christians, it means we sin again. That sin doesn’t mean that we have to start back at one. It is a point–a bump, if you will–along the road down which you are traveling with God. Our faith is a journey, and we travel that road with God.

 

I hope everyone knows who I am talking about when I say the name John Wesley. The way a few of my seminary classes are going, I don’t think they are going to let me graduate seminary unless every single one of you knows that name and why he’s important.

 

John Wesley struggled with this guilt. He framed it as a lack of assurance of his salvation. When I say struggled, I mean it was an 18th century struggle with the assurance of his salvation. He didn’t have TV and iPhone’s to distract himself with. He was worried.

 

Maybe you have been traveling around the state or country and seen a United Methodist Church called “Aldersgate.” If not, believe me on this one. What does it mean? During a particularly inspired time in his life, Wesley was struggling with the issue of assurance. After talking with other theologians, pastors and believers, he had an epiphany. Church historians called it Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience”–in reference to the place in which he said his final assurance happened.

 

Today, Wesley’s experience of assurance is passed down to us through the Wesleyan understanding of grace. He believed there were 3 types of God’s grace.

 

First, there was God’s justifying grace. This is the grace we see bore out on the cross. God’s saving grace, if you will.

 

Second–and this one was really significant for me–there was God’s prevenient grace. This is the grace that trumps all else, because it is the grace that goes with us all. Wesley believed that even before the “conversion” happened, God’s grace was present in our lives. Why not? He created us because he loved us, why wouldn’t he stay present in our lives–even if we were unwilling or unable to notice. It’s the grace we believe is present in the baptism of an infant. There is still some work that child must do in his or her life, but God is still present with this child.

 

Lastly, is sanctifying grace. This is the grace that told John Wesley he didn’t have to waste so much of his life worrying whether or not he was saved. God’s justifying grace already saved you. This sanctifying grace is the one that goes with you. Accompanies you on the journey, so to speak.

 

This is why I was so grateful to have been able to pull myself off that old wood floor. If we go along carrying so much guilt, we are going to miss the journey. With this understanding of grace, we can see God calling us to live the journey, right. He was with us before we knew it. He saved us by his grace, and he remains with us to teach us how to live in his grace. Step-by-step, we understand God’s grace. Step-by-step, we accept it. Step-by-step, we go along this journey.

 

By his grace, leaving our guilt behind.

 

And thanks be to him for that.

 

AMEN

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