The Idolatry of Hard Work

Ephesians 2:1-10                                                                Fourth Sunday of Lent

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          15 March 2015


Last week, a serious, multi-million dollar sociological survey was released.  Since 2012, the U.S. has about 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion.   (This information came to me from the PC(USA) news service.)

1. More Americans prefer “no religion.”

When asked their religious preference, nearly 1 in 4 Americans now says “none.” Up until the 1990s, the percentage who were in this group known as “nones” hovered in the single digits.  The 2014 GSS showed that nones are 23 percent of the population, up 3 points from 2012.   Every percentage point represents 2.5 million people.

How large is this group? There are nearly as many Americans who claim no religion as there are Catholics (24 percent). If this growth continues, in a few years the largest “religion” in the U.S. will be no religion at all.

2. Americans aren’t going to church like they used to.

The number of Americans who never darken a church door is also at a new high. Over a third of Americans (35 percent) never attend a worship service (other than weddings and other ceremonies). This is a 5-point increase from just a few years earlier.   (12 million people)

3. More Americans say they never pray.

Is this just a departure from organized religion? Even with people no longer identifying with religion or attending worship services, they still pray. But the percentage who never pray is also up, from 14 percent to 17 percent.

No longer can we assume that people will be interested in church, if they just can find out where a good one is.   We have to be the church by showing love if anyone is ever going to be interested.  Our witness must be so genuine and so engaging that people see without our telling.   We cannot wait for them to come to us.   We have to take our message out into a world that doesn’t know it or thinks it doesn’t want it.   And we have a great message of grace for all people.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Even when we were dead in our trespasses, not just a little misguided but as good as dead, God made us alive together with Christ.   So here’s the good news.    No matter how awful this world is, no matter how secular we are becoming, no matter how full of rage people are, no matter how disrespectful and mean, no matter how broken are our homes and hearts, no matter how crazy busy and distracted by many things we are, no matter how far gone we are, the truth still stands.   God is rich in mercy, full of love, determined to save us by grace – as a gift.

God who is rich in mercy, out of great love for us, has saved us by grace in Christ Jesus– not because of anything we have done.   Not because we were decent people.   Not because we have lived a pretty good life.   Not because we worked hard and tried hard and did our best.   Not because we came from good families, because most of our families are a real mix of good and bad.    Not because we said the right words in a moment of altar call when the preacher said, “Raise your hand if you put your faith in Christ.”   

Rebecca (our liturgist today) and I were talking the other day about how some churches invite that public commitment every week in worship by having folks raise a hand or come forward.  Making a new commitment to Christ can be a great thing, especially when it leads to greater involvement.  But what concerns me is that sometimes even the public profession of faith can be seen as the way to secure God’s grace.   And that’s not right because God’s grace was there, long before you raised your hand to say, “Yes, Lord, I believe”  So even when we have one significant moment of saying “yes” to God,  that yes only means something if we keep saying “yes” instead of “no” 

Don’t you see that every Sunday when you come, you are saying “yes” to Christ.   Every time you sing and pray, listen to the scriptures and come to this table seeking Christ, you are saying “yes.”  You are not getting God to love you more, but you are drawing nearer to the One whose love is unstoppable.  It is God’s nature to be merciful and gracious, to love us even when we are unlovable.    Nothing can earn God’s love.   Not one thing.   You could walk up to me after this service and say, “Here’s a million dollars to build a sanctuary.”   And that would not earn God’s favor (though it would definite earn some appreciation from me) God would be pleased with your decision to give sacrificially, I am sure, but God would love you no more than God already does. 

Now on to the sin part of the passage.  We don’t really like to hear that we were dead in our trespasses through sin.   Most of us want to deny that.   We don’t want to be called children of wrath.   Because we don’t see the full extent of our complicity in the problems of the world.   Just a little participation in injustice (not my fault really), just a little bad attitude (don’t you have a right to be negative?), just a little gossip here and there.  Just a little laziness.   A few years ago I put in just a little Boston fern in my yard.   I did not know it was an invasive plant in Florida.   It was attractive but it’s taking over our yard.    That’s the way it is with the little bit of sin in our lives.   It takes over like Kudzu.  (slide) But it starts out as good and beautiful, most times.  Delicious food and relaxing beverage – how many of us have trouble managing just a little?  

Consumerism – how much that creeps into our lives such that we think we need things, when really we just want them.   And we have an economy now based on the rich buying stuff we do not need, while the poor struggle for basic needs like housing and healthy food.  Bad attitudes – look at the way 24 cable news has taken us from healthy curiosity about what’s happening in the world to the embattled debates that incite polarization and rudeness.  

It is helpful to be discerning about people – to recognize when another person is hurting you, so that you can have healthy boundaries.  But we turn that boundary making into criticism, anger, and bitterness and it becomes a full-time job.  When people gleefully tell you how horrible their ex-spouse was and throw a party to celebrate a divorce…when they rejoice in the downfall of a hated boss or family member, when they see only one side of a complicated story, then they/we have lost respect for humanity.  

There are so many good and needed things that when taken too far, given too much power, become problematic, even sinful.   It is great to be able to communicate so easily but social media is gobbling up all our time.   Athletics – wonderful to exercise and enjoy a little competition, but look at the way we are obsessed with it, paying athletes ungodly sums of money.   Sex – one of the great joys of life, but our culture has turned it into a self-oriented recreational activity instead of a deeper expression of committed love between two persons who hold each other in sacred trust.

We want to say we are pretty good people, but the truth is, we take a good thing and run so far out of control with it, that it begins to lose its goodness.   So we as a people, as much as we as individuals, become trapped in the passions of our flesh – and in desperate need of a spiritual re-orientation.   So that’s where God intercedes for us.   God who is rich in mercy.   God who loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever trusts in him (as opposed to trusting in all these overgrown passions/beautiful things that are consuming us) might have eternal life.   Christ Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved.   

We are condemning ourselves already when we are lost in the invasive sin that has overgrown our lives.   But when we are lifted up by God’s grace, we are able to see clearly and have power to be transformed over time by the Spirit of Christ.  Read with me again the last three verses:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

I might be able to pull out all the Boston fern just by sheer determination.   But it is idolatry to think that I can save myself from the invasiveness of sin just by trying hard to be a good person.   It is nothing we can or will do.   It is pure gift.   I cannot even take the first step toward God without God giving me the will to do it.   That’s faith – knowing that it is all God and not me.   So I cannot even boast of putting my faith in Christ – no.   But don’t miss this other side of the coin – though we cannot earn grace, we do cooperate with God in this grace because God cannot force goodness upon us.   We are created in Christ Jesus to be like him, to live according to his ways.   Good works will never buy us a ticket to grace.   But as we embrace grace and live accordingly with gratitude in our hearts, we discover our real purpose.       

So with St Patrick of the 5th Century, who proclaimed the Gospel to Ireland, returning to a place where he had been enslaved and mistreated, we too pray for Christ to dwell in us.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.