Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Genesis 3:1-7)+Psalm 92:1-5+Ephesians 2:4-10+Matthew 7:15-20

Over a period of a couple of weeks this winter, I spent about 16 hours listening to the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” produced by the evangelical news outlet Christianity Today. I resisted getting involved in such a long series, especially when I already knew the general outlines and the outcomes, but so many of my clergy and other friends were chatting about it on social media as a microcosm of what is wrong with evangelicalism today, I finally caved and listened.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mars Hill, it was founded in Seattle in 1996 by a young, charismatic pastor named Mark Driscoll. Driscoll’s brash, unapologetically conservative theology coupled with a “cool pastor” vibe who sometimes cussed and talked about women’s sexual obligations to their husbands during sermons attracted a huge following. It eventually grew to 14,000 members in five states and fifteen locations until it crashed and burned late in 2014 amid accusations of abusive behavior by Mark Driscoll. It wasn’t just the original Mars Hill that shut down; it was all of them.

Driscoll had surrounded himself with all-male leadership, supposedly holding one another accountable for upholding their beliefs and safeguarding everything from finances to planting of new churches. The problem is that everyone knew how toxic Driscoll was, but because of the success of the churches, its phenomenal growth, and, yes, the huge sums of money pouring in, no one confronted him for years. When a couple did, they were removed from leadership and from the church, until it got so bad that it all came crashing down.

Beware of false prophets, who will come to you in sheep’s clothing but inside are rapacious wolves. By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:15).

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, we are nearing the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just taught the disciples the Golden Rule about doing unto others and about the narrow gate. He follows this bit about wolves in sheep’s clothing with a comment about how we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are the true believers. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21).

Humankind is very good at convincing ourselves of our ability to save ourselves. That we are on the right path. That we just need to use all the right words and believe all the right things. And the author of the letter to the Ephesians and Jesus are here to tell us otherwise.

“For by grace you have all been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Now this may seem contradictory to the bit about bearing good fruit, but God’s gifts are made known through how we live our lives. We did not take this on through our own skills and abilities. We cannot earn our salvation by trying hard. It is pure gift.

Since the time of Luther (and probably way before that), people have been wondering why they should even try. Why do good things if it doesn’t make God love me more or help me earn my golden halo? If it’s all grace, I can do all manner of awful things and still make the cut, right?

Well, I am not the decider here. But what I know to be true is that this free gift of grace compels us to respond in gratitude, and that gratitude is evident in the way we live. If we really want to show people how good God has been to us, we don’t do that by living only for ourselves, looking out for #1, hoarding our wealth and material goods, and treating people badly. That’s not bearing good fruit. It has nothing to do with trying to earn what is already ours for free. It is the only response to the great love that God has shown us.

A couple of years after leaving Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll planted another church in Scottsdale, Arizona, repurposing a building that seats 1,400. Accusations of abuse of leadership and position have followed him there. I don’t tell you any of this to dunk on evangelicalism or even to pass judgment on Mark Driscoll. But when Jesus teaches that we will be known by our fruits, the image of faith that Driscoll is modeling is not what Jesus was talking about. And it would be easy enough to just let that pass, but when we let that kind of behavior go without comment, we are saying it’s okay to be a hypocrite. Or that we agree that this is what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.

And I reject that. I don’t want anyone thinking that abusive behavior is okay with God. And I especially don’t want anyone to think that it’s okay in the church.

The Episcopal Church is not immune to these things. Nor is the Roman Catholic Church or any other tradition. And I hope we have learned the damage that can be done when clergy and church leaders abuse their power and privilege. The Church has not always born good fruit. Whether in our complicity in the enslavement of human beings or the sexual abuse of children, we have plenty to repent and repair. Just this week, the Episcopal Church released a study on “Jesus in America” that revealed that, while the majority of Americans believe Jesus to be an important spiritual figure, many believe that the behavior of people claiming to be Christian does not reflect the teachings of Jesus.

In a little while, our bishop will be here to visit with us. I, for one, am grateful to be part of a tradition that has this kind of structure. That does not leave pastors out in the world behaving badly without having some kind of accountability structure. Does it happen? Of course, it does; we are flawed humans, after all. But the Church, too, must bear good fruit, must admonish those who misrepresent the love of God by how they live.

As our presiding bishop says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

It’s important to be reminded that we represent Christ in this world. We are the body of Christ in this world. I pray that we will give no one cause to question whether or not the Church is something worth being a part of.

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas