God Is Unfair

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair!

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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

I know I’m going to regret referencing something like this this early—and I beg your forgiveness now—but growing up, one of my all-time favorite movies was Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. Back then, I didn’t care that it was *gasp* a Christmas movie. I loved it.

Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, a young kid who is accidentally left home alone when his extended family rushes out the door to go on a Paris vacation. Kevin goes on a number of adventures, including fighting off two criminals who want to rob Kevin’s house and wrongly assume that it will be easy pickings. There’s one scene in the movie that is particularly touching. During Kevin’s wild adventures alone, he decides to stop in a church when he hears singing coming from it. It’s a children’s choir practicing for later that night, and he sits down in a pew to listen for a while.

While he’s listening, his neighbor, Old Man Marley, whom Kevin is afraid of because his older brother told him urban legends about Marley being a murderer, enters the church and asks to sit down. Though Kevin is afraid, he agrees, and Old Man Marley sits, explaining that he’s there to listen to his granddaughter sing. But he has to come and listen to her now, because he won’t be welcome when she sings later that night.

Kevin finds out that years prior, before Kevin’s family moved to the neighborhood, Old Man Marley had a heated argument with his son. It got so bad that he told his son that he never wanted to see him again, and his son said the same. And so it’s been; neither Marley nor his son have spoken to each other since that day, and Marley has been cut out of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. That’s why he’s not welcome later that night. Marley regrets the argument, and what’s happened because of it.

Kevin asks Marley a question: why don’t you call your son? And Marley answers that he doesn’t think his son would want to talk to him; it’s been too long, and he’s afraid that if he calls, he’ll be rejected. There’s too much bad blood between them. Still, Kevin tells Old Man Marley that he needs to call his son.

At the end of the movie—spoiler alert—Kevin looks out his window toward Marley’s house. And outside, he sees Old Man Marley, his granddaughter in his arms, and his son and daughter-in-law with him. He made the call. And his son was indeed willing to talk to him; and not just talk to him, to see him again. Marley waves to Kevin, tears in his eyes, and the four of them go into the house to celebrate Christmas.

How long is too long for reconciliation to happen? Is there a point of no return, beyond which it is simply impossible to mend a relationship that’s been broken?

It was a question on the minds of the Israelites while they lived in exile in Babylon, away from their homeland and everything they knew. Had they finally reached the tipping point? Had their ancestors built up so much ill-will with God that God finally had enough and was punishing them for the sins of history? This is what they meant when they said, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They were paying for the mistakes of their ancestors, and there was nothing they could do about it.

In response this parable, God uses the prophet Ezekiel to set the record straight. The Israelites are accusing God of being unfair by punishing them for the sins of their parents, but it doesn’t work like that, God says. “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God asks. For according to God, only the wicked themselves will die, not the righteous. If those who used to be righteous turn wicked, then they shall pay for their wickedness; that sounds fair. And indeed, if the wicked regret their wickedness and turn back to God, then they will not die, for they have turned back to God and away from the wicked path.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we assume too much if we declare God fair because of this. “Is my way unfair?” asks God, and I think the answer may be, Yes, it is unfair.

It’s unfair because the wicked could live their whole lives wickedly, and at the end turn back to God, and it doesn’t matter how wicked they were before. How is that fair? How is that justice? It sounds like restorative justice, something I talked about last week and the week before, but are we convinced that restorative justice is fair? “Is my way unfair?” asks God?

Is it fair that the son who disrespects his father in Jesus’s parable gets to be the good guy just because he eventually goes and does what his father asks? Is it fair that the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, the elders of the people, who lived their entire lives devoted to the temple and to the teachings of Moses and the Law and serving God—is it fair that they are regarded so poorly by Jesus? Is it fair that Jesus puts tax collectors—people who make a living by cheating their own people out of money—and prostitutes—people who make a living by having sex with other people—are counted higher in Jesus’s eyes than good, hard-working, noble people?

What about this is fair? What about this is right? There should be a point past which reconciliation is simply not possible. Like when family members slam each other on Facebook so much that they get blocked. Like when family members walk out of our lives with no intention of returning. Like when politicians betray our trust. Like when people go to jail for assault and battery, manslaughter, murder, rape.

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair! Your way is too generous, too loving, too caring, too forgiving, too lenient, too reconciling! How can you call your way fair?!

And the short answer is, we can’t. We can’t call God’s way fair. Fairness dictates that at a certain point, there’s simply nothing one can do to repair the damage they’ve done. There’s no turning back. And yet, that point doesn’t seem to exist for God.

Because as God tells the Israelites, “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die…. For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD.”

And again, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” Those ugly, no good, filthy people of society, believed. They had faith.

It is human nature to believe that relationships can be broken so badly that they can’t be fixed. And maybe, when it comes to our own relationships, there is. I don’t know. I like to think, and hope, that even our flawed human relationships are never so badly broken that they cannot ever be salvaged. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I just hope for some fun-loving family members back.

But of this I am certain; when it comes to God, there is no such thing as a hopeless relationship. There is no such thing as a point of no return. There is no such thing as too much wickedness and sin for the relationship between humanity, creation, and God to be restored. The power of God to mend that which is broken and heal that which is hurt goes far and above what we ourselves could possible imagine. It is so very unfair. And thanks be to God.

And just maybe, as I said a few weeks ago, just maybe, that’s all the power we need to mend a few of our own relationships too.

Featured Image: “forgiveness” by scem.info is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

You Are Worth It

We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Mr. Hinton was at his mother’s house on an otherwise normal day in 1985, helping her around the house as children often do for their mothers.

Except on this day, two police officers came to the yard and arrested Mr. Hinton. They asked if he had a gun, and when he said he didn’t, they asked if his mother did. She did, and they went in the house to retrieve that gun. It was the only piece of evidence used to try Mr. Hinton of murdering two restaurant managers in Birmingham, AL. The expert witness admitted he couldn’t see through the microscope very well because of poor eyesight. Mr. Hinton passed a lie detector test, had a solid, verifiable alibi, and the only incriminating evidence was supplied by the aforementioned deficient expert.

Mr. Hinton was found guilty of the double murder and sentenced to death row.

Years later, Mr. Hinton met a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who agreed to take on his case. Mr. Stevenson found three highly credible and well-known experts that testified that there was no way the bullets that killed the restaurant managers came from Mr. Hinton’s mother’s gun. The prosecution actually agreed. Mr. Hinton was innocent! Yet he still spent another sixteen years on death row as appeal after appeal was rejected.

His case eventually reached the Supreme Court which, in an almost unheard of unanimous decision, ordered a retrial. The case against Mr. Hinton quickly crumbled, and thirty years after his arrest, after spending three decades on death row, Mr. Hinton was released a free man.

Mr. Hinton’s life was forever changed by his stay on death row. He still wakes up every morning at 3 am, because that’s when he had to get up in jail. He bought a California King-sized bed to sleep in, but sleeps curled up tight on one corner, because that’s how he slept on death row. But spending three decades on death row couldn’t rip his joy away from him, he says. He still has so much joy.

To this day, Anthony Ray Hinton doesn’t speak ill of the people who falsely put him on death row for thirty years. “I do not hold any hatred for the people who put me there,” he says, “I have seen what hatred can do. What would it profit me to hate? … I forgive them. I forgive them without them asking… I forgive them so they can sleep good at night… I forgive them so that I can sleep good at night.”

Shane Claiborne tells Mr. Hinton’s story in his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. In it, he says that Anthony Ray Hinton “is one of the most incredible faces of grace I have ever met,” even though he endured a thirty year nightmare and has every right to hate the people who falsely accused him of murder because he was black and “looked evil” and the jury that sentenced him to death with no evidence.

Instead, Mr. Hinton forgave those who wronged him.

Mr. Hinton’s story has parallels in the Joseph saga recorded in the book of Genesis. Refresher: Joseph is one of Jacob’s at least thirteen children (twelve sons and at least one daughter), and is Jacob’s favorite. After Jacob gives Joseph an expensive, rich coat, Joseph’s brothers plan to kill him out of jealousy. Instead, they sell him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph is falsely accused of trying to put moves on his owner’s wife and thrown in jail. There, he earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams, which comes in handy when the Pharaoh starts having worrisome dreams.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that a big famine is coming, and Pharaoh is so impressed he puts Joseph in charge of administrating the entire country’s supply of food. When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers who live outside Egypt come to Egypt to buy food because of the famine. They don’t recognize Joseph, who puts them through a few tests to see if they’ve changed, and when he sees that they have, he breaks down in tears because he’s so happy to see them again. He brings his father’s entire family to live with him in Egypt, where they can live comfortably.

Which leads to the part of the story we read this morning, where Joseph assures his brothers that, like Anthony Ray Hinton, he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward his brothers, the people who put him through hell. He’s forgiven them.

It’s a practice called “restorative justice”. When we think of the word “justice”, we’re usually thinking of retributive, or criminal justice: a crime is a violation of law. It creates guilt. Justice then is the meting out of punishment to fit the crime so that the offender gets what they deserve. It’s the kind of justice that the slave in Jesus’s parable expects, since he can’t pay his debt; and it’s the justice he gives out when another slave can’t pay his.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, treats crime as a break in relationship between people. It creates an obligation. Justice involves people coming together to make things right and focuses on the needs of the victim and the responsibility of the offender to meet those needs. It’s the kind of justice the king in Jesus’s parable gives out at first, when instead of worrying about the 10,000 talents owed him, he instead focuses on the slave’s life and family, and chooses to erase the debt to avoid hurting him and maintain the relationship.

As Claiborne explains it, criminal justice asks, “What laws have been broken? Who did it? What does the offender deserve?” Restorative justice asks, “Who has been hurt? What are the victim’s needs? Whose obligations are these?” And it involves a lot of forgiveness.

We’ve talked about forgiveness before; just last week, actually. And we talked about how hard it is to forgive. Forgiving once is tough enough. But more than once? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” It means, “If I trust you and get hurt, that’s your fault. But if I’m stupid enough to let myself trust you and get hurt again, well, then that’s my fault for being so stupid.”

Forgiveness is for the first time, right? Maybe the second? Which leads us directly into Peter’s question to Jesus: just how many times is he supposed to forgive someone who hurts him? Seven times, a rather generous number?

Sometimes, it’s hard enough to forgive just one time, let alone seven or 490! I know it is for me. Every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I lie—I don’t want God to forgive me the way I forgive others, because I’m terrible at forgiving others, and I don’t want God to be terrible at forgiving me!

Fortunately, this is something God excels at. And we need to be reminded of that.

Do you ever wonder why, almost every Sunday, we begin worship by confessing our sins? It’s so that, every week, we hear again these words:

When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. In the same way, you were dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God. By the mercy of God you are united with Jesus Christ, in whom you are forgiven. Live in the peace of Christ!

When was the last time, outside of Sunday morning, that you heard the words, “you are forgiven”? I don’t know when I last heard them. It’s not because I don’t need forgiveness—I screw up a lot. But I don’t hear them a lot. In the absence of those words, it’s easy to think that, maybe, I’m not worth forgiving. Or that I’m unforgivable.

But God forgives. God forgives more than Anthony Ray Hinton forgave our racist criminal justice system that sentenced him to death on no evidence because he was black. God forgives more than Joseph forgave his brothers for trying to kill him and selling him into slavery. God forgives more than the 490 times Jesus tells Peter he should forgive each person that hurts him.

God forgives because each and every one of us is worth forgiving. Because God values our relationship more than punishment. Because God loves. Because if God was able to boldly proclaim forgiveness to the people around Jesus Christ as they literally drove nails into his arms and hoisted him up on an instrument of torture and execute him, then what do you think can possibly stand in the way of God forgiving you?

We begin our worship the way we do not because it’s the way we’ve always done it. We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope. And maybe, in the process, we’ll be able to recognize that those around us who have hurt us too are also in need of and worth forgiveness. Which is the really hard part. Because it means we have to be vulnerable, both victims and offenders, valuing our relationship over our need to be right. Which is, of course, ultimately better for all of us.

Near the end of his book, Shane Claiborne talks about forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness does not undermine or subvert justice. It creates the possibility for real justice to happen. It casts out the toxic residue of resentment and the desire for revenge. It frees from the inside out.”

Forgiveness heals both the victim and the perpetrator. It restores relationships. And even when we can’t forgive others–or worse, we can’t forgive ourselves–God forgives, more times than we can count, and with a patience that never runs out. Because we’re worth it. We are worth it to God.

You are worth it to God.

Featured Image: “Forgive” by Paul Sableman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Betrayal

It’s almost like Jesus is giving Peter reconciliation; no, actually, that’s exactly what it is. Jesus is bringing Peter back home.

Third Sunday of Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

We can learn a lot by reading authors like C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is considered one of the foremost Christian thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and A Grief Observed all explore Christian theology and life in both plain, simple ways and in humorous, fantastical ways.

It’s his Chronicles of Narnia series that earned him the most acclaim, though. The first book written in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been adapted into a number of television specials and blockbuster movies. I grew up on the 1979 animated version and loved the 2005 re-imagining.

The story follows the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy as they stumble upon the magical world of Narnia entered through a wardrobe. There, they find Narnia in the clutches of never-ending winter brought on by the evil White Witch. They hear whispers of prophecies and a great lion named Aslan who will come and banish the White Witch and bring spring to Narnia again.

Not all of the Pevensies like this idea. Edmund, angry at his siblings and having been lured by the queen’s promises, sneaks away to the White Witch and tells them of their plans and of Aslan’s return. She repays him by making him her prisoner, and he has to be rescued by the Narnians.

Edmund is brought before Aslan, and the White Witch makes it abundantly clear that he is a traitor, which he is. His life belongs to her, and she intends to take it as is her right. The penalty for betrayal is death.

I can’t think of anything worse we can do to each other except betrayal. Few people go throughout life without feeling its ugly, painful sting. For some, the pain is so great that it permanently severs the connection and the relationship between people. It’s almost unbearable to have someone you so trusted and cared about suddenly, without warning, turn around and stab you in the back.

The stories that precede the resurrection of Christ are full of betrayal. Jesus is betrayed by his own leaders and handed over to Pontius Pilate for trial. He’s betrayed by the crowd that once hailed him as king and now calls for his execution at the hand of the Romans. But his worst betrayals come from his own close friends, and those are always the hardest to bear.

The first comes from his friend Judas Iscariot. No one’s exactly quite sure of his motivation, but all four Gospel accounts agree that Judas met with the religious leaders of the temple and agreed to hand Jesus over to them. In some accounts he’s paid for the deed, and in some he points out Jesus to the arresting officers by giving Jesus a kiss.

Judas’s actions are worthy of study not just because of his betrayal but about his own reaction to them. The kiss he gives Jesus is no mere peck on the cheek but a firm, intense, even passionate one, which says to me that in that moment the gravity of what he was doing finally hit him. He knew he was sending his friend to death.

We also have a few stories about what happens to Judas after he commits this act. The writer of Luke and Acts says that he buys a field with his blood money, trips and falls in it and his organs all burst out. But the writer of Matthew says that he’s so disturbed by what he’s done that he repents, throws the money back at those who gave it to him, and then goes out and hangs himself in his grief. His betrayal not only cost Jesus his life, but also his own. His fate is still debated by scholars and theologians today.

Contrast that with the story of Peter. Peter also betrays Jesus, his close friend. He has the chance to speak up for Jesus or at least not pretend like he has nothing to do with him. But three times Peter denies even knowing Jesus, abandoning his friend in his time of need.

I can’t imagine the sort of guilt that Peter carried around with him. We don’t know, and he didn’t know, if he could’ve done something to save Jesus’s life. But we know, and he knew, that he had promised Jesus that even if Jesus were to die, Peter would still follow him. That promise was put to the test, and Peter failed. There was no getting around that. Peter screwed up big time and he knew it. He had betrayed Jesus.

And now Jesus is back. Or at least, they think he is. These post-resurrection stories about Jesus appearing to his disciples are very odd in the way they present things. You’d think that after last week’s story, what I called John’s “little Pentecost”, Peter and the other disciples would have felt something different, they would have acted differently. Jesus has now appeared to them twice, coming through a locked door to bring peace and the Holy Spirit to them. They have seen with their own eyes that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

But here they are, trying to figure out what they should do, and Peter decides that they’re going to go fishing. Nothing at all against fishing; it just seems like an odd choice. As if, presented with all of this new information about their Lord and their God, they just can’t think of anything else to do. They go on with life as if nothing at all has happened.

Is this in itself yet another betrayal, a betrayal of what Jesus told and commanded them? Maybe—I’m not so sure. I am sure, though, that at least the disciples still haven’t quite grasped what Jesus was all about.

The church often has the same problem. It is impossible to deny that the church has Peters, and Judases, and Edmunds in its midst. And before we go pointing fingers and say, “Aha, you Judas!”, remember that it’s rarely if ever easy to discern the Peters from the Judases from the beloved disciples, and more often than not the church as a whole has been Judas.

Yesterday was the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor during World War II who very strongly opposed the Nazi party and the war it waged. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer had a very tough road to walk.

In 1933, Hitler effectively took over the German Protestant church. Even though it resisted, the church eventually felt it had no choice but to accept Nazi rule, and it largely became an instrument of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and other pastors were abhorred by this betrayal, even a forced one, and in response formed the Confessing Church that specifically renounced the Nazi incursion into church politics and its platforms.

Bonhoeffer formed a secret underground seminary to train pastors in the Confessing Church, who often served illegally as pastors of churches who rejected the Nazi party. He was recruited by the Abwehr, the German military counter-intelligence unit which had been infiltrated by agents working to overthrow the Nazis. He participated in conspiracies to assassinate Hitler and struggled with his role as, essentially, a terrorist and a pastor.

In the end, Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators are eventually found out and arrested. Bonhoeffer himself was sent to a concentration camp, where he continued to write letters and papers that he sent to his friends and students to encourage them. And on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated, Bonhoeffer was executed for his crimes, his betrayal of the state. He is considered one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of all time.

It’s true that the betrayal of the German Protestant Church that Bonhoeffer fought against was a forced one. But at other times, the church has been complicit in other acts of betrayal: supporting the slave trade and racism, persecuting native peoples in colonialism, not speaking out against the mistreatment of the poor or others. The church, like Peter, is often given multiple chances to stand up for what is right and fails miserably.

Which makes Jesus’s encounter with Peter all the more striking. Ignore for now the fact that again, nobody seems to recognize Jesus at first. But here, Peter is again brought face to face with the man, the friend that he betrayed. Three times Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Is it surprising, then, that Jesus gives Peter three chances to reaffirm his love for him? It’s almost like Jesus is giving Peter reconciliation; no, actually, that’s exactly what it is. Jesus is bringing Peter back home.

And not only that, but he takes the newly reconciled Peter and sends him out, sets him on a mission. This man who once–no, three times–denied Christ is now made right again and sent out in Christ’s name. It’s as if his earlier betrayals no longer matter to Jesus. And maybe that’s exactly what it is.

We sometimes talk of sin as betraying God, and I think that’s a fairly good description of what sin is. Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that in the face of this sin, this betrayal, Christ’s reaction is love and not hate?

When Peter denies and betrays Jesus, he’s welcomed back and sent out on a mission in Jesus’s name.
When we as children of God betray the love and trust put in us, we are offered forgiveness and reconciliation here at the Lord’s Table.
When the church betrays its calling, people within stand up and call it back to faithfulness.

The most shocking parts of all of these stories–Peter, the Penvensies, the German Church, our own lives–is not that betrayals happen. Betrayals happen every day. The most shocking parts of these stories is that the betrayals don’t end the relationships they strain; rather, the relationships are mended entirely through the act of one party who simply refuses to give up.

This is the God we worship, and the God Peter met on the shore that day; a God who is constantly betrayed, and a God who meets each betrayer face to face and offers reconciliation. This is the whole point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, and why we spend fifty whole days celebrating Christ’s victory over the death we inflicted on him.

In the face of the worst betrayals committed by human beings and even the church, God’s response is love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness. Like Peter on the shore of the sea, we are called back to God’s care and sent right back out on our mission.

Christ’s message is clear: there is no one so lost or so broken that God cannot mend them. No one.

Featured Image: “Betrayal” by Karen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.