The Polarity of Grace and Works

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 22, 2017


By David Herndon

22 October 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

My sermon this morning contains the word “polarity.”  In their book Managing Polarities in Congregations, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson define polarity in this way:  “A polarity is a pair of truths that are interdependent.  Neither truth stands alone.The complement each other.”

In Step Two of our “Path to Connection, Commitment, and Membership” here at First Unitarian Church, those attending take part in an activity called “Where Do You Stand.”  Here is how it works.  We designate one end of the room as the Yes or True or I Agree end of the room, and we designate the other end of the room as the No or False or I Disagree end of the room.  I put forward a series of statements, and each participant stands in a spot corresponding to their agreement or disagreement with each statement.  Let’s try this right here this morning.  Could I please have ten volunteers who will come to the center aisle?  Thank you.  Toward the chancel is the Yes or True or I Agree end of the space, and toward the window at the back of the Sanctuary is the No or False or I Disagree end of the space.  As I read each statement, please place yourself according to whether you agree or disagree.  Here is the first statement:

I enjoy ritual and ceremony in church on Sunday mornings.

OK, thank you for arranging yourselves on this continuum.  If we had more time, we could ask each of you to explain why you are standing where you are standing.  Let’s try another.  Here is the second statement:

God, or a Higher Power, or the Spirit of Life, or some guiding force in the universe, is part of my personal theological understanding.

OK, thank you once again for arranging yourselves on this continuum.  Let’s try another.  This one is a little different.  There will be two statements, and you have to choose which one is the correct statement for you  .I will read both statements, and then you can choose.  Here is the first statement:

The purpose of a religious community is to provide inspiration, reassurance, a sense of community, and spiritual renewal.

And here is the second statement:

The purpose of a religious community is to challenge and encourage people to put their faith into action in the larger community.

If you agree with the first statement, please come up toward the chancel.  But on the other hand, if you agree with the second statement, please move down toward the window at the back of the Sanctuary.  Please choose one statement or the other.

This is a little frustrating, isn’t it?  When you have to choose, your answer becomes distorted.  You want to say:  Why can’t I choose both statements?  I agree with both statements.  For me, both of these statements are true.

These two statements are a polarity.  They are opposite but interdependent truths.  They do not negate each other.  One part of the purpose of a church is to provide inspiration, reassurance, a sense of community, and spiritual renewal.  At the same time, another part of the purpose of a church is to challenge and encourage people to put their faith into action in the larger community.  Some would say that these two truths actually strengthen one another.

In church life, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson have identified eight polarities.  They are:

Tradition AND Innovation

Spiritual Health AND Institutional Health

Management AND Leadership

Strong Clergy Leadership AND Strong Lay Leadership

Inreach AND Outreach

Nurture AND Transformation

Making Disciples:  Easy Process AND Challenging Process

Call AND Duty

This morning, I would like to explore two affirmations that have resonated within the Christian tradition for many centuries.  Often these two affirmations are nicknamed grace and works.  The tension between these two affirmations came into special prominence at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  According to tradition, the Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517 – exactly five hundred years ago – when the German Catholic monk Martin Luther posted a set of propositions he wanted to debate.  These propositions called for reform within the Roman Catholic Church.  When Luther posted these propositions on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, he was following a custom that was common among the monks, namely, suggesting statements for public debate, which was a form of entertainment in those days.  What was revolutionary about Martin Luther’s action was that the propositions he posted questioned church doctrines that challenged the very foundations of the Church.

Martin Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, struggled deeply with what it means to live a morally acceptable life.  In 1505, Martin Luther became a monk.  He diligently followed the routine of the monastery, dutifully rising early in the morning, scrupulously attending to study and prayer and other expectations throughout the day, and then sleeping in a cold room with stone walls at night.  His aim in living this holy life, and living this holy life as perfectly as possible, was to accumulate as much favor as he could with God in hopes of avoiding eternal damnation.  Martin Luther later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”  You could say, in the words of the Led Zeppelin song, that in this part of his life, Martin Luther was earnestly trying to buy a stairway to heaven.

Of course, buying stairways to heaven was common in the late Middle Ages when Martin Luther lived.  According to the Catholic Church, you would be punished for your sins even after you had received forgiveness for them.  But if you performed certain actions, such as offering prayers, going on a pilgrimage, or serving in a Crusaders army, your punishment could be reduced.  Financial donations to the Church, called indulgences, were another way of reducing your punishment:  you could sponsor a mass, or you could cover the cost of a painting or sculpture, or you could finance the construction of a new church building, or you could offer a donation for many other purposes.  The system became complex, and you could be told exactly how many days your punishment would be reduced for a given sum of money.  You could also donate on behalf of your deceased relatives to reduce the days of their punishment.

Martin Luther was deeply critical of the Church for its practice of selling forgiveness.  He called for a different understanding of forgiveness, an understanding that was more directly based on Scripture such as the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that appears at the top of your order of service:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Not the result of works, said the Scripture.  Not the result of works, Luther insisted.  This became a cornerstone teaching of the Lutheran Church.

This theological understanding holds great emotional appeal.

“Just as I am, without one plea,” begins the familiar hymn.  Don’t we all appreciate being loved and accepted just as we are, despite our faults and failings?

“You are a human being, not a human doing.”  This familiar sentence from popular culture reflects our sense that at our core, we are not our accomplishments, we are not our activities, we are not our successes and we are not our failures.

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”  This sentiment from the oft-quoted Desiderata by Max Ehrmann also conveys a message of grace, offer reassurance that our essence does not have to be earned or justified or apologized for.

From the Universalist side of our own tradition comes this poem by Ken Patton that has long been a favorite of mine:

As a child, be glad for the freshness of the world and the newness of questions and answers.

Gather into yourself all of the world.

Lie on the earth, and feast on the sky.

Record upon your inner ear the sounds of water and wind, leaves and birds, voices and songs of people.

Gather the stars into your mind, and the knowledge of huge spaces, and the length of time.

And be rich with friends and companions.

You, who are nature, be all of nature:

For nothing can be strange to you,

And never in the heavens and earth can you be homeless.

The final line – never in the heavens and earth can you be homeless – expresses the quiet confidence of our Universalist tradition that everyone is loved by God, that all of us are acceptable and worthy, that all of us can feel permanently and comfortably at home in the universe.

You could create a very attractive religious tradition using just this message – the message that you are worthy of love just as you are, despite your faults and failings.

But in the Biblical text known as the Book of James, we hear this message, which appears at the top of your order of service:“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

This theological understanding also holds great emotional appeal.

“What does the Lord require of you,” says the familiar text from Micah, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Don’t we resonate spiritually with these simple requirements?  Don’t we intuitively understand that the spiritual life is more than the experience of knowing that we are loved despite our faults and failings?

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” asked Mr. Rogers.  In other words, won’t you be in right relationship with me?  In other words, won’t you covenant with me that we will treat one another with respect?

“It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read,” said the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.  In other words, to quote contemporary culture, walk your talk.

“Service [to others] is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth,” said Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress.

You can probably see by now how this works.  On the one hand, we appreciate being loved and accepted just as we are, despite our faults and failings.  On the other hand, we understand that we are called to bring respect and love and justice and service into our relationships with other people.  On the one hand, we appreciate grace.  On the other hand, we appreciate works.

Which is the right view?  For Martin Luther, the right view was that salvation comes by grace through faith.  For Martin Luther, salvation is the unearned and unmerited gift of God.  The stairway to heaven is not something you can buy.  It is graciously extended to you as a gift.

For others, the right view is that we do have obligations of justice, respect, and compassion toward one another.  Certainly the women who have stepped forward with the #MeToo campaign would say that our conduct matters.

I would like to suggest that these two views are a polarity.  They are opposite but interdependent truths.  They are complementary truths.  Each truth has tremendous emotional appeal.  Each truth may appear to be the whole story.  But in fact, each truth is one part of the whole story.

“Just as I am, without one plea.”  “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  Two truths.  One polarity.  Never mind trying to determine which is the one correct view.  Both are correct.  Both have value.

However, if you really want to step out of this polarity into an entirely different way of looking at things, you might consider the young man whom we saw in the video.  He has challenged two assumptions about salvation that have long been at the core of Western thinking about salvation.  One assumption is that salvation is individual.  The other assumption is that salvation has to do with immortality, that is, eternal life after death.  By contrast, the young man in the video is finding that salvation is communal.  It is through his relationships with others that he has found peace and happiness in his life.  He recognizes that his life is not separate from the lives of those around him.  He thrives because they thrive.  Moreover, the young man in the video is finding that salvation is here and now.  It is what happens to him in the moment.  It is what happens to him in the moment here and now when he acts with compassion toward others.  What he receives are emotions.  He witnesses happiness.  He reaches a deeper understanding.  He feels the love.  He receives what money cannot buy:  a world made more beautiful.

You may appreciate the Protestant affirmation of salvation by grace through faith.  You may appreciate the opposite but interdependent truth that our actions matter.  You may appreciate the classic Universalist affirmation of universal salvation.  You may appreciate the classic Unitarian affirmation of salvation by character.  You may appreciate the all-too-common contemporary practice of salvation by bibliography.  You may appreciate the view that salvation comes in the moment for the moment when we act on our recognition that our lives are not separate from the lives of others.  Or you may have some entirely different understanding.  May we understand that religious insight is not a multiple choice test where one answer is right and all other answers are wrong.  May we understand that religious insight is more like a forest where many different trees grow, each with its own life; or a library with many different books, each with its own story; or an art museum with many different paintings, each with its own beauty.  There are many ways to get it right.

© 2017 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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