The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

Can We Be Blameless?

  • February 28, 2021
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 28 February 2021 (Lent 2 B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Genesis 17.1-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Mark 9.31-38

Title:               Can We Be Blameless?

In the Name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. Amen.

“The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai – God Almighty! Walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17.1).

What does it mean to walk blamelessly before God? How can we be blameless before the Creator of all things? And perhaps more importantly, is it even possible to be blameless before God?

This is a high threshold to cross. God is calling Abraham to be something different than others, to stand out from the rest of humanity. Not too unlike the challenge that Jesus lays down before the crowd in Mark’s Gospel:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 9.35).

How do we make sense of these challenges that come from the mouth of God?

In the original Hebrew text of Genesis, the key Hebrew word here is tamim. God says to Abraham, Walk before me and be tamim. But how do we translate that word?

It is used often in the Hebrew Bible. Tamim is used to describe completed years, healthy animal sacrifices, nourishing vines, truthful speech, finished building projects. Most famously, in Deuteronomy (18.13) it is written, “You must remain tamimcompletely loyal – to the LORD your God.”

Whole and complete may be the best way to translate tamim, just as when the Lord Jesus taught us to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect”. The perfection pointed to here is completeness, wholeness, like a circle that has no beginning or end.

Another way to think of tamim is whole-heartedness or single-mindedness. The Bible declares that God is One, a number representing completeness and singularity. THIS is what God calls us to be as well – singular, whole, complete, integrated.

But is this really possible? I mean, really? Can we humans ever be singular in our thoughts, whole and complete, finished and blameless?

I don’t know. I must confess to all of you that I am feeling quite skeptical about this possibility at the moment. Some of my heroes have recently fallen off their pedestals, and it has made me question what we humans can actually accomplish.

Jean Vanier is one about whom I have spoken a number of times over the years, as an example while teaching and preaching. You may remember that he was the founder of L’Arche, a movement that cares for adults with different learning abilities in a beautiful form of shared Christian community.

Vanier began this in France, and now there are 154 L’Arche communities around the world in 38 countries. A lifelong Roman Catholic, Jean Vanier died in 2019, but early in 2020 it was discovered that over the course of 35 years he sexually abused at least 6 different women, some of whom were nuns.

While the L’Arche movement continues to do amazing and beautiful work, never again will his life be used as an example when I speak.

Ravi Zacharias was a Christian teacher who had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens and twenties. He was an Indian evangelical apologist – one who advocated for the truth of the Bible and the claims about Christ, often debating publicly with skeptics and agnostics all around the world.

And although I moved away from much of that evangelical world in which Ravi Zacharias held sway, I never lost my respect for this man. For he always spoke with a kind and rational voice that respected people of other faiths, or no faith at all, even while challenging them to consider the truth of Christ. One of my favorite quotes from him is that “there is never any reason to be unkind.”

Ravi Zacharias died in May of 2020. His organization subsequently launched an investigation which has uncovered a previously hidden history of sexually abusive relationships, along with hundreds of explicit photos left on his cellphone. The Church that ordained him has since revoked his ordination, the first and only time this has been done posthumously.

Harry Thomas was the pastor of a church attended by my parents when I was in college. He was a larger than life personality who started his own church, after first launching a hugely successful series of summertime outdoor Christian music events, called Creation Festivals. Pastor Harry’s independent church grew quite large and he retired comfortably about 10 years ago. However, today Harry Thomas is serving an 18 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to committing crimes against five young girls, two of whom are his own grand-daughters.

Bill Hybels is the co-founder of one of the largest megachurches in America, Willow Creek Community Church, not far from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Their “worship center” cost $73 million to build and it holds over 7,000 people at a time. Can you imagine that?

I have never appreciated that modern style of church, but I did come to appreciate Bill Hybels’ passion for leadership and his insightful teaching over the years. Unfortunately, in 2018 credible allegations arose about inappropriate behavior by him, and he retired early to escape the heat. Since his retirement, even more abusive actions by Bill Hybels have come to light, and Willow Creek has cut all ties with him.

What is wrong with people?

We all know the correct answer: SIN is what is wrong with people. But these were leaders in the Church who gave their lives to walk before God and to lead others in following Christ.

So how does this happen?

The obvious thing in common between these cases is that they are all men of a certain age and generation. Perhaps the world would be much better with women in leadership. This may be true, but these are simply a few recent examples from situations of which I am informed.

Another common thread is the lack of accountability. Most of these men were in charge of their organizations and, therefore, were in unassailable positions. Others were independent agents with no organization around them. This independence allowed them to operate freely, without checking in with others who may have noticed unhealthy patterns.

But we have seen the same kind of behavior in Christian groups that have strong accountability systems. Just think of the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church!

Sadly enough, we have to admit that this is humanity. It’s all of us – men and women! Even someone like Mahatma Ghandi had some very questionable connections with teenage girls. The same is true of Dr. King here in the US. No one is immune to temptation.

So I ask you once more: is it even possible to be blameless before God? As for me, to be perfectly honest, I just do not know.

Do we humans ever really change? Do we ever overcome the passions that tempt us and distract us?

If you heard all of these stories I just shared and you categorized them as being about someone else, I am here to tell you that you are wrong.

If you heard the Collect for this Second Sunday in Lent – “O God, be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways” – and you thought to yourself, “well, thank God this does not apply to me!” – I am here to tell you that you are wrong.

This is about you. This is about me. This is about each human who has ever walked this earth.

So what is the hope for us? Surely you know. Our only hope is in Christ.

The Messiah is tamim, the blameless one, the whole, complete and finished one. When we abide in Christ, when we live in Christ, our identity becomes forever wrapped in HIS identity.

Our hope is in our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is Christ who is blameless, not we ourselves.

Does this identity in Christ absolve us of our responsibility to strive for excellence in all that we say and do? Absolutely not!

But it does absolve us of the need to have this life all figured out at any point before we die. It does absolve us of the need to pretend, the need to wear the mask and act as if we have it all together.

Because we don’t. None of us.

I don’t know how you maintain your hope in this world, but as for me, I cannot do it outside of Christ. We humans never seem to learn, and our collective growth is a fragile and uncertain thing. When I look for wholeness and completeness among humans, always am I disappointed in what I find.

But when I look to God, my hope is restored. This world is not our project. It is God’s project and we are small, tiny bit players in it.

Friends, will you join me in being honest, brutally honest about our real lives? Let’s not pretend that we are more than we are. Let ‘s not let down our guards and think that we might ever be beyond the reach of temptation and sin.

Will you join me in relying completely on the mercy of God? And finding our hope in God’s goodness and love? May it always be so among us. Amen.

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43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366