October 29, 2017 Romans 6: 12-14; Galatians 5: 2-4; Mt. 22: 34-40
Dear God, Please go with us into the study of your Scripture. Illuminate it anew
for us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
The Gospel According to ‘Les Mis’
Vince and I have a friend whose wife always wanted him to go to the touring shows at the Peace Center. He hated them and came up with excuse after excuse to miss them.
Then she took him to Les Mis, and he was mesmerized. He absolutely loved the music, which Russ and David and our musicians sampled for us today. So he secretly bought the soundtrack and drove around town listening to it in his car.
He didn’t want his wife to find out and drag him to Hello, Dolly.
I’m sure many of you are fans of Les Miserables. It opens again Tuesday at the Peace Center, and it usually sells out.
But it’s such a grand, sprawling musical with children in Act I who become adults in Act II that it can be hard to follow. So I was delighted back in 2012 when the movie came out. I was finally able to figure out the plot.
The show is set in early 19th century France amidst multiple revolutions against the monarchy. It shows desperation and unrelenting poverty in a dark period of history.
It is also a devoutly Christian show.
When the musical opens, Jean Valjean is finishing a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and nephew. His nemesis, the policeman Javert warns him he is on parole and he will be watching him.
In a surprising simulation of what we find in modern-day America, Valjean cannot find work because of his prison record. Weary and starving, he finally stumbles into a church. The bishop gives him a hot meal and a bed for the night.
In return, Valjean steals the church’s silver.
When constables very quickly catch him red-handed, they return him to the church. But instead of having him arrested, the bishop tells police he gave Valjean the silver.
And then he does an even more amazing thing: He gives Valjean two silver candlesticks and tells him he left in such haste he forgot the most valuable gifts of all. When the constables leave, here’s what the bishop sings to Valjean:
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have saved your soul for God!
That scene strikes me for many reasons. No. 1, the church almost always gets a bad rap in literature – and in sermons, for that matter. And this is a picture of the purest grace. The church as it was absolutely meant to be.
A hospital for sinners. A second chance for those of us who have sinned, against God and against each other.
No. 2, the situation is nearly identical to ones we face at Triune. We don’t have silver to steal. But we have fed and clothed people for months or years, then had them steal space heaters, clothes, groceries, bus tickets, money. When we could prove it, we’ve put them out of the dining hall for awhile.
They were welcome to return after six months. But we have not exercised the level of grace we see in the bishop’s actions.
And that gives me pause. Could we be that forgiving? Should we be that forgiving? Or was Victor Hugo’s story just beautiful fiction, something to aspire to, but impossible to live out? I don’t know.
Like the loving, welcoming father in Luke’s story of the prodigal son, the bishop provides us a picture of a loving God who knows no boundaries, who doesn’t know the meaning of tough love.
As a result of the bishop’s boundless grace, Valjean becomes a force for good in this dark and degrading time. He becomes a kind businessman and mayor. He saves a worker from being crushed beneath a wagon. He rescues Fantine from prostitution. He adopts the orphan Cosette. He saves the life of the rebel Marius. He even saves the life of the treasonous Javert when the rebels want to kill him.
Valjean touches life after life after life because of the forgiveness that has been granted him.
Indeed, his soul has been saved for God.
Meanwhile, the policeman Javert, who insists upon the letter and punishment of the law, cannot live with the idea of forgiveness. He cannot abide the idea of grace, even when granted to him.
He kills himself rather than face a world in which the law is not the final word.
If this storyline sounds familiar, it is because Victor Hugo took his theme directly from the New Testament. Law vs. grace. Les Mis is a beautiful adaptation of the doctrine of grace. And if there is a concept that is difficult for us to accept in Scripture, it is this same one Javert struggles with: Law vs. grace.
A woman once wrote to me, saying that she had cried as a child over something she perceived as unfair. Why was God unfair? she asked her mother.
And her mother, a Holocaust survivor, told her she didn’t want “fair.” None of us want “fair.” None of us want what we deserve.
But what Scripture promises us is better than fairness. For grace is undeserved favor, unmerited favor. Grace is the gift of love from a holy God who created us in his image.
Grace is being given silver freely … after you’ve been caught stealing it.
We’re going to look this morning at three places in Scripture where this subject is broached. We’ll start with one of Paul’s many attempts to explain grace, which is pretty much the cornerstone of his theology.
If you’d like to read along, turn to Romans 6: 12-14.
Paul has been talkingabout living and dying in Christ, as a way to die to sin.
12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.
14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
We do not live under the law any longer. We live under grace.
I think Victor Hugo was dramatizing these verses from Paul when he wrote Les Mis. Javert and his law die. Valjean and his grace ascend to heaven.
The difficult part, of course, is living in grace in the midst of a fallen world – accepting grace in the face of our own guilt. Extending grace in the face of thievery and addiction, gossip and criticism.
The book that I wrote about my first few years at Triune opens with a scene early one morning when the police called to tell me that the side sanctuary door had been kicked in. I talk about coming in here with a police officer and finding cans of Pledge rolling around the floor of a back hallway.
We assumed the burglar was someone looking for something to huff, that he knew where things were because he had eaten in our soup kitchen, gotten clothes from our closet, received groceries from our food pantry, worshiped in here.
When the book came out, I received an email from a woman, asking about that incident. She wrote:
“From the background we come from, the only way we could picture ourselves stealing something would be in some disaster scenario in which a loaf of bread had to be taken off the shelf of a grocery store in order to feed our children.” (She must have just seen Les Mis, too.)
She concluded, “Stealing from a church that is feeding and helping you is beyond belief.”
No, what is beyond belief is the forgiveness of that stealing.
Grace is beyond belief. And grace is the foundation of our belief.
There’s a section in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he’s railing against the circumcision that the new Christians in Galatia have decided they need. Someone had come in after Paul established the church there, and preached that Christians had to be circumcised – or follow Jewish law – in order to be real Christians.
Paul saw it as nothing less than an attack on the gospel of grace. Reading from Galatians 5: 2-4:
2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.
4You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
“You have fallen away from grace.”
If you want to go back to the law, you have fallen away from grace.
As hard as it is to extend grace, as hard as it to accept grace, it is the cornerstone of our Scripture. And in a very entertaining fashion, it is the cornerstone of Les Mis.
You know, a lot of people complain that we have pushed God out of schools or public squares or shopping malls. I once said in a sermon that I didn’t think God could be pushed out of any of those places. We don’t have the power to push an almighty God anywhere.
Shortly afterward, I read a column in The Boston Globe by Jennifer Graham. She, too, was enraptured by Les Mis and talked about how its deeply Christian message was being broadcast from movie theaters and cultural centers and high school stages even when God’s name wasn’t welcome in those places.
The true Christian message is so deeply and innately powerful that it is going to get through to those with ears to hear. God is here -- whether we broadcast that he’s here, whether we say he’s here, whether we believe he’s here -- or not.
“It was a sneaky thing that Victor Hugo did, publishing this book 150 years ago,” Ms. Graham wrote in The Globe. “We can’t have Bibles in schools anymore, but still we have Les Miserables, which puts forth the essence of the Christian faith as well as John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke — and with a much better soundtrack, it must be noted.”
Even the French rebels at the barricades, fighting for political freedom, see their fight in terms of biblical imagery:
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the plough-share
They will put away the sword….
That’s right out of Isaiah.
And in the closing song when Valjean follows the resurrected Fantine into heaven, they sing:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation.
Take my love
For love is everlasting.
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
What is that but Jesus’s teaching in the gospel of Matthew: “Love your
neighbor as yourself”?
Our final Scripture passage today comes from this section of Matthew. The part of Javert (Ja Vare) will now be played by a Pharisee.
Read Matthew 22: 34-40.
34 When the Pharisees heard that (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’
37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Originally, the law given to Moses was intended to instruct people in the way of love – of God and of neighbor. But the religious authorities did what we religious authorities are bad to do: They made it a system of dos and don’ts, of laws to follow and laws to be twisted full of loopholes.
Like Javert’s beloved civil law, religious law could be bent and dodged and loopholed and subverted. That’s why Jesus came teaching a law of simplicity: Love God and love the neighbor.
That’s why Jesus came teaching grace. As did novelist Victor Hugo and the lyricists of Les Mis.
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
It is a fine thing to appreciate the gospel wherever we find it.
Even in sneaky places, like the Peace Center.