This past week, myself and many of my peers were shocked by the news that rock legend Chester Bennington, singer for Linkin Park, ended his life by suicide at the age of 41. It's always so hard to see talented people in the prime of their lives take dramatic measures, but particularly given his long struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism there is an especially bitter edge. In my work, I frequently walk with young people dealing with the same issues. The day after I found out about Bennington's death, I was talking to a 19 year old young man and the way he described his addiction as a conflict between the love in his heart and his mind's desire for a high reminded me strongly of Paul's passage in Romans 7: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me." This passage is a classic description of what Martin Luther would describe as the bound will. Luther would say that the idea that our will is free is laughable, because if it were free, would we not, knowing better, choose to do the right thing all the time? But our will is clearly not free, because again and again we choose to do things that hurt ourselves and others? We choose the addiction. We choose to take advantage of others. We choose greed, selfish ambition, lust, and more. Like Bennington and this young man, in many of us this creates a painful sense of shame and self-loathing. Why do we do that which we hate? Why can we not do what we want? How can we receive God's love when we fail fail fail fail?
I have never personally struggled with addiction, but I have felt the weight of the law or some version of it my whole life. Because I so often failed to live up to society's measures of me as a woman, being too fat or too ugly or too girly or not girly enough too dumb or too smart or too opinionated or not opinionated enough or too prudish or not prudish enough that the idea that I could freely be a recipient of God's grace was hard to come by for me. It wasn't that I didn't understand it intellectually, but somehow in spite of hearing "God loves you" over and over, this message somehow failed to really sink into me. Even now when I know my salvation is assured, I frequently find myself needing the gospel declared to me. Most often I find this in the liturgy, when I confess my sins and the forgiveness of Christ is declared to me, and when I take holy communion and hear that it was given for me. Because the people that I work with are so often broken in many ways, I usually feel like what it means to hear the gospel is to have our worthiness declared. This is a very Lutheran thing, probably because Luther himself was kind of a neurotic who usually felt himself unworthy and his biblical study is what led him to understand this doctrine of salvation by grace.
On Sunday my husband and I went to check out a new church. There were many lovely things about it, and I can see it becoming my church home in the future, but my husband immediately pointed to the sermon as a central piece of importance for him. Ironically, I had found the sermon to be about the least useful thing to me in it, because it had been primarily about teaching. Lately, I have not been feeling very worthy. Left out in the cold by my denomination, struggling to feel loved and wanted and worthy as a person, I needed a declaration of belovedness, and I didn't get that there. I received it through the beautiful music, and the forgiveness of sins, and the eucharist, and the warm welcome of the people there. It was a fine sermon, it was just peas when I really needed potatoes. But after some discussion, I realized that it had not occurred to me that not everyone walked around feeling broken all the time like me and my patients. Part of me had always assumed that to be the case, or that if people were saying they weren't broken then they were probably lying about the places where they hurt.
But then I thought about the story of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). In the story, a young man demands his inheritance and after squandering it on partying and irresponsible living, crawls back to his father who then greets him with open arms and joyful tears. Meanwhile, his older brother who was with his father working hard the whole time gets mad at his father for throwing the irresponsible younger son a big party. Rather than telling the older son that he was right, that he should also get a big party for always being right and doing the right thing, he reminds him that the reward was being with him the whole time, and that a lost child's return should always be celebrated. I always imagine the look of shame on the older brother's face at the father's words. Who could really argue with a father's joyful relief? The older brother serves as the perfect illustration for the "unbroken" among us. Some people never left the father, or never questioned their birth right. For my husband, the gospel for him is often hearing a word that helps him to live his life better within the assurance of his salvation that he already has, a gospel like Jesus' teaching which directs feet and shapes lives, "Because you are made worthy, here is how to walk with me.." For me and those who struggle to believe that worthiness again and again, that word is simply: "You are loved."
So for me as a preacher, the question becomes how to declare it? That's hard for me, because I think the beginning and ending always needs to be 'blessed assurance.' But I know I often forget that the law serves a function too, to drive us to the cross and guide us to live in community together, and the as Bonhoeffer would say, resurrection without the cross is cheap and gospel without the law is incomplete. There is a saying about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and I think that's pretty apt here. The gospel is not a single thing which speaks a single word, but is a massive, transformative, changing, living thing which speaks many words at many times. We so often see the pharisees as the butt of the joke in the stories of Jesus, but what if the pharisees and sadducees are also recipients of a different kind of gospel? What if, like the rich young man who goes to Jesus and asks how to be perfect, the gospel sometimes means being told that we are too comfortable and in order to truly follow we need to get a little bit uncomfortable too? You are worthy, and also as a recipient of this worthiness how are you being transformed? Maybe the gospel looks like giving your time or money in a way that pinches you a little more than you might like? Maybe it means getting up close and personal with the reality of police brutality or poverty? Maybe it means giving something up that you want for the sake of your spouse and marriage? Maybe it means devoting more time to God and family and less time to pleasure and work? How is God afflicting you? Because despite the reality that many of us are broken, and many of us are surely broken, many of us are simultaneously infected with complacency and comfort and God also calls us to be the church, to usher in the kingdom, and to lose our lives. Not to addiction or depression as Chester Bennington did, but to lose our lives to that which keeps us from being servants to our husbands and wives, children and parents, friends and neighbors, and all the world. You are loved. And because you are worthy, and because you are important, you are also called to grow, to learn, and to follow.