George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1872, is one of the great novels of our time. Virginia Woolf called it “a magnificent book which for all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” I think Eliot’s rapier insight into human nature is close to Shakespeare’s or Faulkner’s.
The central characters of Middlemarch all wrangle with religion, specifically the various expressions of Anglican Christianity prevalent in the mid 19th century. Eliot was raised in a strict religious home, but she gradually moved away from her faith as she became a grown-up person. Yet, her treatment of Christianity is both sympathetic and profound.
For example, Dorothea, the book’s protagonist, is bound by a more legalistic expression of Christianity when we first meet her. She refuses to wear the jewelry that she and her sister have inherited from their deceased mother, and she judges her sister who does wear it. Yet, later in the book, after she has suffered through an unhappy marriage and the eventual death of her cold and calculating husband, Dorothea broadens her views. Suffering can make a person more compassionate.
She says, “I have always been thinking of the different ways which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest…. It is surely better to pardon too much than to condemn too much.”
It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much. Perhaps Eliot was thinking about what Jesus taught and what St. Paul taught in the readings for this 4th Sunday in Lent. Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And St. Paul’s pithy summary of Christianity’s wider blessing is “by grace you have been saved.”
Pardoning others too much isn’t the natural inclination of the human heart – at least not my heart. After writing the above paragraph of this sermon, I took my daughter to school and was cut off by a truck in traffic. All my fingers remained on the steering wheel, but I did lay on the horn pretty loudly.
The driver looked like a workman of some sort. Who knows? Maybe he was late to work because of some family issue, or because he had stopped by to visit his sick mother in the hospital, or he would lose his job because of an exacting boss if he showed up 30 seconds late. He really didn’t represent any kind of traffic hazard to me; he just shot into a gap that was a little too tight. And yet, there I am, a clergyman working on a sermon about grace, needlessly blowing a horn at him. I did not represent any kind of wider blessing.
By grace you have been saved. What is grace, exactly? One way grace is understood is through the via negativa – or the experience of the absence of grace. What I experienced in my condemnation of the workman in my heart is the absence of grace in the form of condemnation. You all have plenty of examples of this via negativa in your own hearts and lives, a few of which you have likely experienced even on your way to church this morning.
Philip Yancey, the author of What’s So Amazing About Grace, was asked if he could define grace. He said, “I don’t even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?”
The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one-hour grace period.” So I asked, “Oh really, what is grace?” And she said, “I don’t know. [They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.] I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.” That’s a good start to a definition.”
Paul’s description of grace goes further than not paying what we owe, although that is surely a good start, as Yancey says. Paul says that we are dead when God comes to us to save us with His grace. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins.” That’s as dramatic a description as there is. We are not just unworthy, although that is true. We are not just unwilling, although that is true. We are not just unwise, although that is true too. What we are, Paul says, is dead in our sin.
His description eliminates the possibility that we somehow cooperate with God in our salvation. Dead people cannot cooperate. God does the acting despite us. Given what we know about human nature, the fact that God acts on our behalf is the widest blessing of Christianity, and one I cling to as the truest.
By grace you have been saved. His love is not too narrow for you. The surest way to get in touch with the grace of God is to remember a time when you have been loved despite yourself. During a recent premarital counseling meeting, I asked the bride to be what she expected in her husband. She said, “I don’t want to be judged. I want for him to love me when I’m at my worst.” I think her response represents a universal longing. If you can connect with an experience when you’ve been loved at your worst, then you are on the way to knowing that you have been saved by grace.
This past week I got a call from Bruce Watson, my old high school soccer coach at Douglas Freeman in Richmond. He played an important role in my life. I hadn’t heard from him in 25 years, but his call reminded me of when he loved me at my worst. I’ll try to tell the story delicately.
I had been invited to our school’s homecoming dance by the homecoming queen – a Sadie Hawkins type situation in which the girl invites the boy. She was a year older, so I was surprised and a little nervous. My mother taught history at my high school and I believe had had my date as a student in her class.
We got together with her friends and their dates for dinner beforehand. Adult beverages were involved and I was over-served, as we euphemistically say. We arrived at the school and walked up the front stairs of Freeman. Coach Watson was there, taking tickets and greeting people. Nervous, intoxicated and with the homecoming queen on my arm, I proceeded to – what’s the right euphemism here? – lose my dinner all over the main hall of Douglas Freeman High School. Splat – strawberry daiquiri everywhere.
Talk about being dead in your trespasses, or at least wanting to die right there and then. Of course all eyes were on me and my poor date, with the evidence of my trespass all over the floor. Coach Watson immediately took my arm, called for a clean up crew, apologized to my date, and led me to the bathroom to clean me up. His first question was an attempt to protect me: “What are we going to tell your mother?”
To be honest, I don’t remember what we told my mother, or much about anything else that night. What I do remember to this day is Coach Watson, who had every right to lecture me and kick me off the soccer team coming to my aid to help and defend me.
By grace you have been saved. That is the widest blessing there is. The old hymn says, “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.” It tells us about the plenteous redemption in the blood that has been shed by Jesus Christ. We hear about the one who died for us to save us when we were dead in our trespasses. He is want we want – someone who has loved us at our worst. At our worst He has told our Heavenly Father that we are at our best. He paid what we could not pay. He pardons and does not condemn.
The hymn was written in England during the Middlemarch era and ends with a question that is a fitting conclusion for us this morning.
“Was there ever a kinder shepherd / Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us / Come and gather at His feet?”
By grace you have been saved. Amen.