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.

Living in Community

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

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

Ezekiel 33:1-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Seventeen years ago, during my freshman year at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, IL, I was one of nine tuba players in the Marian Catholic High School Marching Band.

It was a bit of a rough start.

I wasn’t like the other kids in the tuba section. We did not have the same interests. We did not have the same approach to music. We did not have the same way of thinking about high school. And it led to friction.

Marching band is a delicate thing. It is the definition of a team sport. You can have 99 people lined up in a perfectly straight line, but if 1 person is a half-step out of line, it doesn’t matter what the other 99 are doing—it’s not a straight line, and you lose points.

The whole band can be playing the same part in unison, all together. But if one person comes in a half-beat too early, the whole part is ruined, and you lose points.

The entire band must work together, and it must work together well if the band is going to succeed. You have to rely on each other to do your parts, and to do them well. You have to trust that the person in front of you or to the side of you will hit their mark, and they are trusting that you are going to hit yours as well.

This is such an important and difficult task that to this day, even within the last month, I have had nightmares about being back in marching band, on the field and ready to start a show, and I suddenly realize I don’t know my part at all. I don’t know a note of the music or a single step. It is the scariest nightmare I’ve ever had.

In order for all of this marching band stuff to work, there needs to be a certain level of trust. And in the tuba section, we didn’t have that trust. We fought with each other, we got mad at each other, and we found it very difficult to work with each other.

One day after school, when the tuba section showed up for our sectional (our weekly rehearsal just for our instrument), the assistant band director, Marc Whitlock, called all nine of us over and led us into the big storage room at the back of the band room. He then, in a tone of voice that allowed no argument, told us that we’d better not dare come out until we’d worked through our crap. And then he slammed the door and walked away, leaving us by ourselves.

The next two hours were… well, let’s just say that they were heated. I don’t remember much of that afternoon. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of blaming. There were a lot of arguments and frustrations aired out in the open. There was a lot of brutal honesty, feelings expressed that we’d kept bottled up for weeks. It was an incredibly awkward, painful experience for a shy, introverted freshman.

I wish I could say that after those two hours, when we emerged from the storage room, all of our problems were solved. That’s not the case. Some of the upper classmen were still the same egotistical jerks they always were. I was still going to be the annoying Little Princess in their eyes. However, we did emerge with a better understanding of one another. We knew each other better. We knew what to expect. And we knew that no matter what happened, we were the tuba section. We were going to work together to make the best show we possibly could. We weren’t going to let our personal disagreements get in the way of our mission.

I will say that by the end of the year, we were closer. Not perfect, closer. Maybe we even respected each other just a little bit. But the work that began in that storage room was never quite finished. Most of us never became friends, and the friendships I did manage to cultivate in my section didn’t last beyond graduation.

Living intentionally in community with people is really, really hard. Personalities clash. People get upset. People get angry. Sometimes relationships are broken to the point that they can’t be salvaged anymore. Sometimes people leave. Keeping a community together, especially a voluntary community like, say, a church, is really, really hard.

And this is not a sermon on how we all need to come together, put aside our differences, and all get along. I wish it were that simple. But we know it’s not. We know that our community has suffered. We know that some relationships have been broken that we may never mend not matter how hard we try. I know that I’m the reason for some of them. It would be rather insincere of me to then come up here and say “We all just need to come together.” It doesn’t work in our country, and it doesn’t work in the church.

Nor is this a sermon about following the “rules” of Matthew 18 when it comes to resolving disputes, as if Jesus is providing a ready-made blueprint for approaching conflicts. I’m not sure that’s the right approach. Even though our own church constitution uses Matthew 18:15-20 as a model for conflict resolution, I’ve never been in a congregation that used it effectively. Because living in a community, where people will come into conflict, is really, really hard.

Instead, this sermon is about God.

Take a look at Matthew 18 as a whole. Remember, chapter divisions in the Bible are completely arbitrary because the original authors didn’t divide their writings up that way, but look at the rest of Matthew 18. It begins with a story of the disciples wanting to know how to be truly GREAT, and instead of telling them what they or we might expect makes one great, Jesus instead picks up a child, those unruly humans who get scoffed at in church, and tells the disciples that if they want to be great, they need to be like children; and that protecting the children was more important than almost anything.

Next, he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, in which he explains that God would and does sacrifice anything and everything in order to find the one sheep, the one lost person, who has wandered away; that God would go to whatever lengths necessary to bring someone back into community.

And then we get today’s reading about how to handle conflict, in which extraordinary effort is made to repair a broken relationship.

That’s followed by Peter asking how many time’s he’s supposed to forgive someone, and Jesus gives him an absurd number that translates into, “As many times as it takes for you to fix your relationships, dummy.”

And that’s followed by a story that emphasizes that forgiveness is of paramount importance in how we relate to one another.

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another. And of course, that’s because… God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

Jesus Christ, God as a human being, lived in community with other human beings. He experienced disappointment from his parents. He had to flee for his life as a refugee when the leader of his country actively hunted him out to kill him. He was kicked out of his home town’s synagogue when he preached; in one story, the townspeople try to throw him off a cliff!

He ticked off the Roman authorities and he terrified the temple leaders. He was criticized for hanging out with all the wrong people and breaking some of the most cherished and strictest rules. His relationships with others deteriorated so much that they eventually arrested him, put him through a show trial in a kangaroo court, sentenced him to death, and murdered him.

God knows that living in community with each other is really, really hard.

It’s why God came as a human being in the first place—because living together as human beings with each other and as human beings with God is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work.

And the truly amazing thing is that God is willing to put in that work. God proved that when Jesus Christ was willing to endure torture and death, and then rise again, just so we would know that God was in this community business for the long haul, willing to do whatever it took to work out our differences.

That God was willing to be locked in a storage room with a bunch of people who didn’t get along, and work it out until their relationship improved.

That God was willing to come back again and again and again and again, slowly improving our relationship with God, banking on the fact that eventually, we and God will better understand each other and better live with each other in community, even though it’s really, really hard.

God is willing to endure really, really hard, just to be closer to us. That’s how important we are to God. That’s how important you are to God.

It’s why “when two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name, God is there too—not as a threat, but as a promise, because where two people are gathered you’ll have three different opinions and there’s going to be conflict, and God is there too to keep the community going despite the conflict.

Sometimes, we emulate this community-building devotion well. Today is “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday, a Sunday dedicated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to being our in the community and helping one another—this Sunday, a group of us are traveling to Weston, WI, to participate in a Feed My Starving Children Mobile Food Pack to help feed the hungry and strengthen our community.

We see it in the amazing work being done by ELCA’s Lutheran Disaster Response and other agencies in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and the preparations they are making to go into Florida and the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma hits.

We see it whenever two communities of any time, religious, political, ideological, put aside their differences, even temporarily, for something greater than themselves, because it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes, we aren’t so good at building or keeping communities and relationships together. It is really, really hard after all. Maybe we’ll make some progress along the way. Maybe we won’t.

But our relationship with God; that’s something that, no matter how difficult it gets, God will always keep working on. God will always keep forgiving. God will always keep working to make it new, to make it alive. God doesn’t give up on us.

And who knows? Maybe in the process of working out this relationship with God we may very well find that, together, we’ve come to understand ourselves and each other just a little bit better.

Featured Image: “community” by Jason Taellius is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.