Longing for God’s Judgment

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday After Pentecost + July 23, 2017

Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In February of 1986 Paul House received his judgment: he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

Paul was new to Luttrell, a small town northeast of Knoxville, when the investigation began. He had just moved there from Utah — with his criminal record in tow. This out-of-towner with a record was one of the first people authorities brought in for questioning. Witnesses said they’d seen him wiping his hands near the scene of the crime. The police found jeans with what looked like bloodstains in Paul’s hamper, and later an expert testified that blood on the jeans matched the victim’s. The jury took four hours to deliberate, then judged that Paul had committed the crime and sentenced him to death.

That was 1986. Ten years later, in 1996, a new defender was brought to the case to help with Paul’s appeal. He found two new witnesses, who said they’d heard someone else confess to the crime. In 1998 DNA testing pointed to that same confessor. In 1999 a medical examiner deemed that the blood found on Paul’s jeans had gotten there long after the crime had been committed; and because a significant amount of the blood taken from the scene of the crime as evidence was missing from the vials after being transported to the lab with the other evidence (back in the 1980s), his theory was that the blood spilled while evidence was being transported, and that’s how it ended up on Paul’s jeans. In 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that, had the original jury known about the new DNA evidence, they would never have found Paul guilty, and the court ordered a new trial. It was not until three years later, in 2008, that Paul was released on bond, and it took almost another year — and further DNA evidence — for the prosecution to drop the case. Paul spent 22 1/2 years in prison, and at one point he had been just five days away from execution.

Paul House was the 132nd person to have his judgment reversed and be freed from death row in the U.S. since 1973. Now the number is higher than 150.


Aaron Douglas, “Judgment Day” (1939).    Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition


“The slaves said to [the master], ‘Then do you want us to go and gather [the weeds and pull them from the wheat field]?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

The first half of Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds points to our human inability to judge perfectly. Paul House’s story and the many others like it remind us that even in carefully-crafted systems, full of trained experts and scientific study and juries and checks and balances…even then our judgment is imperfect. We make mistakes, or we lack evidence, or biases that we may not even be aware of affect our judgment unfairly.

We know this personally, too, this pattern of judging wrongly or unfairly. Sometimes the judgment is quick and has no effect except in our own minds: That guy looks so grumpy; he must be a jerk. That lady cut me off; does she even know how to drive? At other times we act on our judgments, and then later we regret the way they hurt someone else or changed a relationship. Many people carry the burden of being judged unfairly over and over, because of their skin color or their age or their gender or the size of their bank account or their accent. We judge people after one quick expression of their political or religious views, and then it’s hard to see the person over our judgment. We are missing pieces of a story, or we are lied to, and then we accuse a friend who is innocent. We misjudge people and situations all the time.

The parable seems to say we shouldn’t be making the judgments because of that very danger: you’ll pull out the wheat along with the weeds! You’ll outcast good people along with the bad!

But remember: parables always simplify. Aesop’s parable of the ant and the grasshopper teaches us that when we work hard, we will have what we need to survive. A good lesson. But in real life there are complications: some people work and work, and still barely make it by; and if all we do is work, we’ll probably burn out eventually. Jesus’s parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) teaches us that we “should pray always and not give up” and seems to imply that if we just pray enough, we’ll get what we’re asking for; but we know that in real life the answers to our prayers are much more complicated than that.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds seems to tell us that we shouldn’t judge, because we’ll just mess it up. But we know that we need to make judgments. We need to protect ourselves and those around us from danger. We need to decide whom we trust, and with how much of our selves. We need to call out the sin we see in the hopes that we can stop it. We need to be judged ourselves, sometimes, so that we can make better choices.We need to weed out the misinformation and the lies and the spin from the facts. We want the good to win and the evil to lose. And so we judge — even imperfectly — because we have to. We try our best.

We long for perfect judgment as part of our longing for justice and a perfect world. That’s why the stories of a messiah are almost always the story of a judge, the Great Judge, coming to right the wrongs of the world. To, as pregnant Mary sang, “scatter the proud,” “[bring] down the powerful and [lift] up the lowly,” to “[fill] the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:46-55). The hope for the messiah has always been the hope for the one who comes to judge the greedy rulers and the wrongdoers for the sake of the oppressed and the victims, the one who will make those judgments in perfect righteousness.

So this parable sounds frightening at first: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But maybe we can find some good news or even comfort in those words when we remember what they mean: the perfect judge is coming, and his judgments will satisfy our longing for justice and peace and an end to wrongdoing. We won’t have to rely on our own flawed judgments anymore; instead our world will be judged by the God who has all the information, who understands every complicating factor, and who always judges rightly.

And we need to remember what I’ve said already in this sermon: parables always simplify. It sounds so black-and-white to say, “God will separate the sinners and the righteous, and throw out all the sinners.” And that’s a scary thought: Am I a sinner, or am I righteous?

But we know from our own efforts at judgment that separating the sinner from the saint is much more complicated than that. The criminal is usually also a victim. A person who commits one sin might have ten other righteous habits. And even Mother Teresa gets criticized sometimes for the ways she did her saintly work.

As Lutherans we hold the complicated — but I think very accurate — belief that we are all both 100% sinner and 100% saint. We are sinners for the many reasons we all know well, and we are saints because the Holy Spirit is at work in us, directing our hearts and minds toward God, helping us to choose the good, and, most importantly, washing and re-washing us in grace.

So maybe it’s like this field of wheat and weeds is something inside each of us: that God is at work in each of us to separate our wheat from our weeds, and on the Last Day that task will finally be complete.

But however we interpret this parable, it’s most important that we remember that we believe that God does not judge for the sake of judging. The judging is just one part of the movement of grace.

Lutheran teaching says that the Law — the parts of God’s Word that make us feel judged — is ultimately for our own benefit. The Law helps to curb wrongdoing. The Law guides us to live in ways that please God and bless ourselves and others. And when the Law condemns our actions, it reminds us to turn to God’s mercy and grace.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds might at first seem out of place with our usual image of Jesus as the one who came to show love and mercy. But when we remember that we do long for righteous judgment, and when we trust that God is not only righteous and fair, but most of all full of grace and compassion, then we can trust that even God’s judgment will be an act of grace that will bless us and our world.

Let us pray.

O God, we thank you for the promise to one day perfect our world through your perfect judgment and for the ways that you already work in us and through us to build your kingdom here. Guide us as we make judgments, that we would be wise, and that even our judgments would be part of your work of grace, until that great day when your grace is made complete. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Law & Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday after Epiphany + February 12, 2017

Readings: Deut. 30:15-20; Matt. 5:21-37

The Bible passages we just heard are the kind that tend to make people squirm.

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today…”

 “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”

 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”

We got a good dose of law and judgement — which, from what I’ve heard in so many Bible studies, are not the parts of the Bible that Lutherans usually like to focus on. We are all about grace and forgiveness. Judgement? That’s for those other Christians. We’ve seen the light. We’ve gotten beyond the judgement hang-up.

But today’s readings offer the opportunity to remind ourselves that the Lutheran way of reading scripture is to listen for God’s Word in the law as well as in the gospel. The convicting words of the law that make us squirm are as much a part of God’s work of salvation as are the comforting words of the gospel.

The official Lutheran way of explaining it is known as the Three Uses of the Law:

  1. The law acts like a curb that keeps both Christians and non-Christians from doing wrong.
  2. The law acts like a mirror, reflecting what God created life to be like so that we can see how we don’t measure up, and repent.
  3. The law acts as a guide: those of us who know we are forgiven seek to thank God for this great gift and to embrace God’s work in our hearts to make us new creations, and the law helps us understand how to live as thankful children of God.

Contrary to a lot of misunderstanding of Luther’s teachings, we don’t say, “God forgives us! We’re free!” and throw away the law. We just know that its judgement on us is not the final word and should not make us panic, but rather the law should help us — even when it convicts us first.

I’ve also come to understand the connection between the convicting work of the law and the redeeming work of the gospel in another way. What most helps me to see the God who gave all those laws in the Old Testament as the same God doing the same gospel work as the God who came to us in Christ —- What helps me to understand how the Jesus who said “this is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” could also say something like, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” — is to think about how the law and the gospel are so inseparable, connected like two sides of the same coin. Let me begin to explain what I mean with a story.

This story comes from the life of a pastor who served a tiny rural congregation in southern Illinois in the early 1970s. Early in his very first call a member of his congregation, Rose, asked to speak with him. The pastor knew that her husband, Seth, had a reputation for drinking too much. But Rose told him that the problem was much, much worse than that: Seth beat her and the children, and he knew how to do it in ways that would not leave bruises, so no one else would suspect anything. He was paranoid to the point of being delusional, he carried a gun, and once he stormed into the emergency room of a hospital, pulling a gun on a nurse and demanding that “she remove the electrodes from his head.”

The pastor begged Rose to do something, to call the police, to file a complaint with Social Services, but she refused. Finally one evening the pastor answered the phone to hear Rose say, “He punched me again. We’re scared.” The pastor called the sheriff, and they all met at Seth and Rose’s house. The pastor wrote about that night:

 The sheriff consulted with Rose, who complained that Seth was threatening the entire family. But Seth, who could pretend rationality for limited periods of time, dismissed her fears, reminding the lawmen, “Look, boys, I’m standing here on my own property. Nobody’s been hurt, I hahn’t done nothing wrong. You can’t arrest a man on his own front lawn for not doing nothing wrong, can you?”

 The sheriff was stumped. “I reckon he’s got us.” Then summoning his full authority, he declared to Rose and me, “I cannot arrest a law-abiding citizen on his own land.”

 I said, “This man has used his fists on his wife and son repeatedly. Sure, he’s standing on his own property. And when you leave, he’s going to walk in his own house and beat the hell out of her. Can’t you see that he is menacing her right now? Sheriff, I am going to hold you responsible for this. By the way, did I tell you he usually carries a gun?”

 At this last revelation, the sheriff’s eyebrow twitched. “Now, look, Reverend, you can climb down off’n your high horse. It ain’t my fault that this little lady has four kids and a crazy man for a husband, but it ain’t no law against being crazy. If’n I arrest him for nothing, like you want me to, you won’t bear the blunt of it. I will. Do you have a restraining order? Of course you don’t. The man ain’t trespassing on his own front yard.”

 “What if he were trespassing?” I asked.

 “Then I could cuff him,” he said with a chortle. “Let’s say he was at your house and you didn’t want him on the premises, then I could take him.”

 “Then let’s go to the church office,” I said, “and we’ll let him trespass there, and you, sir, can arrest him.”

 So Rose and the kids, the pastor, and the sheriff get into their cars and head to the church. “To my amazement,” the pastor wrote, “Seth hopped in his truck and followed the patrol car.”

At the church I hastily opened the sacristy and arranged the desk and chairs as if for a counseling session. Rose quickly led the children into the parish hall and then entered the sacristy. The sheriff and his deputy stood to the side of the entrance. With Rose seated nervously in front of the desk, Seth, who by this time was focused like a homing device on his wife, walked up the steps and barged into the sacristy.

 I said, “Seth, Rose and I are having a counseling session. It’s private. I’m asking you to leave.”

 Seth said, “This is my church, and this is my wife. I’m not leaving without her. What are you going to do about it?”

 I stepped to the door, motioned to the sheriff, and said, “He’s trespassing. Arrest him.”

 The law entered the church and took him without a struggle.[1]

What this pastor did is definitely a sketchy legal move; he even admitted it was entrapment. I’ll leave it to all the lawyers and law enforcement officials we’ve got around here to debate whether he did the right thing from that perspective. What I want to think about this morning is why he did what he did. And I imagine that one of the things running through his mind that night was, “What is the law for? Who is the law for?” Based on his actions, it seems he believed that the law’s number one purpose was to protect Rose and the kids. The law was there for the victims of violence and injustice. He was willing to do some manipulating, to make some questionable choices, in order to make sure the law was doing its job of protecting the people that most needed protecting in that moment.

For Seth the law was intrusive, it kept him from being free to live as he was living, it was demanding and threatening (even as it tried to work for him). But for Rose, that same law must have felt more like gospel.

I think the same can be said for the times we hear God’s law through scripture. We hear, “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery…” and maybe we start to worry about our own divorce, or our friends’ divorces, which were arranged on very different grounds. We hear the big scary law. But at the time, women hearing that may have breathed a sigh of relief that their husbands could not cast them away from home and their only source of economic security without cause…they may have heard gospel.

We hear, “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” (by the way that part about hellfire is probably a common turn of phrase, an exaggerated metaphor, not an actual rule of damnation). But even so, we hear that and think, “Well, that’s pretty harsh.” But if we’re the ones constantly being insulted or called names or verbally abused…we might hear gospel there.

Laws are for both perpetrator and victim…laws are not individualistic, they are for the whole community. And while they bring some people down, they lift up others — and they offer life to the community.

Like it says in our Deuteronomy reading: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

Today we continue the age-old journey of seeking to live according to God’s will in the midst of laws and interpretations, in the midst of biblical laws and secular laws. It can be difficult to know when to obey to the letter, and when to say, “I’ve heard it said, but Jesus said to us…” But if we “choose life,” if we seek the good of the community and of God’s creation, perhaps that will keep us a little closer to God’s path. And most of all we can be confident that we will always be surrounded by God’s grace, guiding us in the law and forgiving us in the gospel.

[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, (New York: Broadway Books, 2002) pp. 132-134.

United in Christ, Bound to the Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday After Epiphany + January 22, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23

I’m going to cut right to the point, to the topic I assume is at least near the top of everybody’s minds this weekend: Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America.

 Words spinning through the media include: conflict, polarized, worry, divided.

 Our congregation reflects that national reality, if not on the surface of our interactions here at church, then at least in the viewpoints we carry in to worship with us. Within our membership directory are some who supported Trump for President since the days of the campaign, because they thought he could bring the right changes to our nation, and there are some who took to the streets this weekend to lift up their rights and those of others which they believe will be ignored by the new administration. And of course there are some here who turned off the TV and said, “I don’t want to hear any more about all of this.”

 All of that floated to the top of my mind this week as I read Paul’s words to the early church in Corinth: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

 Apparently the Corinthian church was divided over a whole lot of things. Paul spent all of 1 Corinthians — one of the longest letters in the New Testament — trying to settle dispute after dispute and to remind the Corinthians of the importance of their unity in Christ.

 In the section we read together this morning, Paul addressed one of the ways the Corinthian church had divided itself: by who baptized them or by whose Christian teachings they followed. Paul wrote that he’d heard rumors that the Corinthians were saying things like “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Peter”…

 …which definitely feels like what’s happening in the U.S. right now. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of people are dividing the conversation in terms like, “I belong to Trump!” or “I belong to Clinton!”? Or “I belong to the Democrats!” / “I belong to the Republicans!”? Even if it’s not said so explicitly, those allegiances seem to underlie the way we talk to one another and the way we post on Facebook and the news sources we read and the way we understand what’s going on.

 So maybe this is a particularly good time for Christians in the U.S. to reflect on Paul’s response to a similar situation from long, long ago: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul [or Clinton or the GOP] crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul [or of left-wing or right-wing politics]?” … “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” From thousands of years ago Paul calls us to focus on our unity in Christ and the message of the gospel.

 This is the point where it’s tempting to go with an easy interpretation of what Paul said there. Something like, “What really matters is that we’re all Christians and we need to get along, so let’s only talk about churchy things in church and sing kumbaya a lot.”

 But that’s not exactly what Paul was encouraging, nor is it what we see that Paul himself did. (And it’s definitely not what Jesus did – that’s why he got in so much trouble.) Yes, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to remember that they were one in Christ; yes, Paul wrote those beautiful words: “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Cor. 13:4). Paul encouraged compromise and setting aside our pride and all that good stuff. But Paul also set boundaries on what Christians could compromise, boundaries on what we could be patient about, boundaries where love had to “get tough” and stand its ground. And those boundaries were the truths and the demands of the gospel.

 For example: later in 1 Corinthians Paul gets tough about how the Corinthians are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Back in that time the Lord’s Supper was still more like a meal than the simple ritual we have today. And Paul said, look you’re eating this meal and calling it the Lord’s Supper. But “when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20-21). In other words, some Christians — probably the wealthier members of the community — had more time to sit at the table and more food to eat and more wine to drink. They would already be full and drunk by the time poorer members of the community arrived.

 That’s not what the Lord’s Supper is about. The Lord’s Supper is a sign of God’s love for the whole world: rich and poor equally. The Lord’s Supper is like a foretaste of God’s Great Banquet, where each and every person will have enough to eat. Paul held the Corinthian Christians accountable to the gospel in how they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; the way they gathered to eat and drink in Jesus’s name needed to show who Jesus was and the message Jesus brought: that God desires to “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).

 Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper are a small example of the truth he communicated throughout 1 Corinthians: we need to be united in Christ, and our unity needs to proclaim the message of the gospel — in the way we live right now. It’s not just about getting along; it’s about holding one another accountable to the gospel. It’s about continuing the work of Christ in our time and place.

 And the problem, of course, is that the gospel is not only about what we might call “churchy things.” There’s a pretty strong pattern in history of diluting the gospel to “the good news about how to get into heaven.” But when we read scripture and study the life of Christ and the community of early Christians, it’s like being hit over the head with the fact that the gospel is about what’s going on here and now, too. The gospel — God’s good news to us — doesn’t just kick in after we die. The gospel is also about now: about spirits and bodies and neighborhoods and nations right here and right now.

 The gospel is about loving God and our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40).

 The gospel is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving healing to those who need it, and setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19) — here and now.

 The gospel is about caring for the foreigners and refugees in our midst (Lev. 19:33-34, 24:22; Mark 7:24-30).

 The gospel is about showing through what we do and say that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” (John 3:16).

The gospel is about mercy within justice, hope and faith in times of fear, forgiveness in times of wrongdoing, love in times of hatred.

 These are the boundaries at which we must take our stand. And together, Christians help one another figure out what these things mean for our day to day lives: how we speak, how we act, what we care about.

 As Christians united in Christ here at St. Andrew, we must help one another and our community as a whole to proclaim the gospel in word and in deed. And the political diversity of our congregation, which can seem like something that threatens to divide us, can be a great help to us in this. We come with our differing understandings and differing viewpoints, and we gather together around what we share: a deep need for the love of God and deep commitment to the gospel of Christ. With our differences, we can help open one another’s eyes to better ways to live out the gospel, to opportunities to do Christ’s work: to spread the message of God’s love, to serve others, to humble the proud and lift up the lowly.

 Let us join together as disciples called by Jesus, united in Christ’s love and bound to the gospel. Amen.

But for the Grace of God, There go I

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Third Sunday in Lent + February 28, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9


“There but for the grace of God go I.” That’s one of those phrases most of us have picked up somewhere or other along the way, and we’ve long forgotten who said it first.

The oldest story about that phrase gives credit to John Bradford, a Protestant reformer in England during the violent religious upheavals of the 1500s. He served as chaplain to King Edward VI — the Protestant son of Henry VIII — and then he was burned at the stake during the Catholic backlash of Queen Mary’s reign. But even before his martyrdom he was known as “Holy Bradford” — not mockingly, but because of his reputation as a remarkably unselfish and humble man.

The story goes that whenever Holy Bradford saw criminals being led to their execution, he would exclaim, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” In other words: that could so easily have been my fate; I’m standing here not because I’m a better person by nature than they are, but because of God’s grace — because of forces beyond my sin or morality.[1]

This is close to the message Jesus communicated to the crowds in today’s gospel reading. Some of the people brought him news: Pilate ordered the death of some Galileans who were in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus responded, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” In other words: But by the grace of God, there go you.

His response seems harsh, but it makes a little more sense in context. Before these people brought him the news, Jesus had been teaching and telling stories with a common theme: Be ready. Expect the Kingdom of God. Live and work like the Kingdom is about to knock down your door.

He told one parable about a servant who is left in charge of the property while his master is away. The servant thinks, “Well, I’ve got some time before the master comes back,” and he starts acting like the king of the place. The tyrannical king. This guy beats the other servants, gorges himself on the food, gets drunk on the wine. But then the master comes back sooner than he’d been expected — and the servant is in big trouble (Lk. 12:41-48). At the end of the parable, Jesus spoke another of our now-common phrases: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

Then Jesus gets on the crowd listening to him: Why is it that you can look at a cloudy sky and figure out that it’s going to rain, but you can’t figure out what’s going on in this time? And why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right, instead of waiting for a judge to punish you (Lk. 12:54-59)?

The author of this Gospel linked these teachings directly to the scene in our gospel reading for today. He wrote, “At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans” who’d been killed by Pilate.

Why did they pick that moment to tell Jesus about the tragedy? Based on Jesus’s reaction to them, it seems like they were saying that the Galileans got what was coming to them. Were the messengers trying to prove that they were on the same page as Jesus? “Oh, we can see what’s going on in this time. God’s judgement is here; just look at those sinners who got punished in Jerusalem!” Were they thinking, “Oh, I see what you mean, Jesus. Those Galileans got punished, just like that bad servant in your story”?

But they didn’t get it. Jesus’s point had been that we must each be ready, we must each live like the kingdom is here. But these guys deflected the message: they weren’t taking in Jesus’s words and thinking about how they could live differently; they were saying, “Hey Jesus, those are the guys you’re talking about, right?”

But Jesus defended the victims of the tragedy. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” You’re not that different than those Galileans cut down by Pilate’s viciousness; you’re not that different than the 18 people who died when that tower fell in Jerusalem. But by the grace of God, there go you, too.

When we see tragedy befall others, we often tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us; we’re different. It’s a way of protecting ourselves. Even if the tragedy is so horribly random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time: underneath a tower that collapses; on a street corner in Kalamazoo when someone drives by with a gun. We’ll do mental gymnastics to try and make up a reason why this would happen to that person, but not to us. It helps us feel safe.

I always remember the time I took a group of college students to New Orleans for a mission trip. We were staying in the Lower Ninth Ward, freaking out a little about the size of the bugs in our sleeping area. One young woman said, “I reminded myself that God wouldn’t let a bug hurt me.” I was unnerved by that statement, since we sat in a building that had once held water up to its ceiling, in a neighborhood where houses were still spray-painted with the number of bodies that had been found inside. Did we have a special status in God’s eyes compared with the people living there when the levy broke? No: but by the grace of God, there go I.

When the tragedy is more obviously human-made, we even more frequently tell ourselves it couldn’t happen to us. When a pattern of racism or sexism emerges, the majority of people find ways to explain that each individual in that pattern somehow deserves it. When there is a report of a rape, there is always a contingent of people explaining how the victim did something to encourage it, or to let it happen. In the U.S. there is a common attitude that if a person is poor it has to be because they’re lazy.

Even when a person did do something to cause their fate, can we really think of ourselves as so very different? The guys I meet in jail definitely did something to land themselves there. But when I hear their stories, I can’t help but wonder: “If I had grown up in a neighborhood where I had to watch my back for shootings; if all the people around me were addicted or dealing; if my own father had pushed me in front of a moving car…if I’d been born into your life, would I have been so different?” I know some heroic people are able to climb out of such horrible situations with more righteousness; I’m just not so sure I would be one of them. But by the grace of God, there go I.

If each individual is totally to blame for their suffering, than that means we have enough control over our lives to protect ourselves. But today’s gospel reading reminds us of what we all already know: life is much more chaotic and fragile than that. Bad news can come at any time. Accidents happen. Sickness happens. Housing markets crash. People hate one another and hurt one another for stupid reasons. And we all struggle with sin. But by the grace of God there go all of us.

But Jesus said more to the bearers of bad news than, “Be thankful; that could have been you.” He says, “Repent.” He says, “Change your ways.”

One of the problems with thinking that “they got what they deserve” and “It didn’t happen to me, because I’m different,” is: that response doesn’t demand anything of me. In that way of thinking, the world is as it should be. Nothing needs to change. Certainly I don’t need to change.

But one of the fundamental messages of Christianity is that the world is not as it should be. The world is broken and tangled up in its own sin. And each of us is part of that tangled mess.

The “good news” side of that message is this: There is some suffering we can work against; some sin we can turn away from, some goodness we can build up.

One of Jesus’ main messages to the crowd that had gathered around him was: don’t wait till you hear death’s knock on your door. Don’t wait till you see the Son of Man coming on the clouds to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. Start untangling yourself from that mess of sin now. Start living in God’s Kingdom now.

Our gospel reading ends with a parable: the landowner wants to cut down a fruitless tree; the gardener wants to work at it for one more year. I don’t think Jesus is saying: “God wants to you down for your lack of good works, but I’m trying to buy you some time.” That doesn’t fit with what Jesus said, just a little while before: Do not worry; God cares for you. “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:22-32).

I think what that parable is getting at is: if we take the hard, nihilistic but not unreasonable view of life: we’re all waiting for the ax to fall, one way or another. But now, we have time. Now, we have a gardener caring for us. We are being fertilized with the good news of the gospel, with God’s love and mercy, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with all the material blessings we receive. Now is the time to repent; now is the time to bear fruit. Now is the time to live like God’s kingdom is already here.


[1] “John Bradford,” Wikipedia. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bradford. Accessed 2.29.2016. The earliest extant mention of Bradford’s use of the phrase is in Edward Bickersteth’s A Treatise on Prayer (1822).

Judgement as “Good News”?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday in Advent + December 13, 2015

Readings: Zephaniah 3:12-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

I read the gospel passage out loud to myself a few times as I was preparing this sermon, and every time I got to the very last line, I felt like my tongue tripped over the words: “So, with this and many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

I couldn’t say it with a straight face. John proclaimed the “good news”? What good news? He’s calling the crowds that came out to see him a brood of vipers; he almost seems upset that they’re coming to be baptized: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It’s like he’s grabbing them by the shirt collar and shaking them until they really do fear God’s judgement. No more relying on God’s promises to Abraham’s descendants, no more relying on being part of God’s “chosen people.” God is pulling back the ax to swing, and if you’re not bearing the kind of fruit God wants, you’re going down.

It seems strange that when the people hear all this, they wonder: could John be the messiah? The one we’ve been hoping for? Even stranger-sounding is John’s reply: No, I’m not the messiah. But he is on the way, and he’s bringing the real fire. I stand in judgement of you, but I am not worthy to touch his feet. The messiah is the true judge, and he will bring God’s judgement on us all.

It sounds strange to us, because we believe that Jesus is the messiah. And at St. Andrew we don’t usually associate Jesus with winnowing forks and fire and judgement. That’s not really the Lutheran way. Especially as we look forward to Christmas, we associate Jesus with words like “meek” and “mild,” with love and kindness and forgiveness  — y’know with grace. Not judgement.

But maybe we’re making a mistake by thinking of “grace” and “judgement” as two opposing forces. Maybe God’s judgement comes from God’s grace.

I bet we can all agree that judgements can be a force for good. Parents correct their children when they misbehave; we let our friends know when we think they are making a poor choice; work evaluations generally help a staff to improve. The trouble comes with how we imagine God’s judgement.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered an animated film from 2000 called The Road to El Dorado. Apparently it was not very successful, but my parents bought it for my brother and me one Christmas, and I loved it. (I still love it.) The movie takes place in the 1500s, the time of Columbus and Cortes, when Europeans first began to explore and conquer the Americas. It tells the (fictional) story two Spanish men — and their horse — who accidentally end up in South America and find their way to the legendary city of gold, El Dorado.

The people of El Dorado see these Spanish men for the first time: their skin is oddly pale; their clothes are of a totally unfamiliar style; they are riding an animal no one has ever seen before. The people think: these must be gods; the gods have finally come to us!


Theatrical poster for The Road to El Dorado, Copyright 2000 by  Dreamworks Pictures. Image from Wikipedia.

The high priest of El Dorado, Tzekel-Kan, might be the most excited of all the people — but in a disturbing way. He believes the gods have come to usher in the “Age of the Jaguar.” They have come to show their power, to judge and punish the people, to demand slaves and sacrifices and death. He is thrilled about the total destruction that is to come. He’s relishing the idea of watching his city and his people burn. It seems like he’s following the “gods” around the city, offering to sacrifice every other person they encounter.

A lot of the time when we hear the phrase “God’s judgement” or hear those stories of winnowing forks and threshing floors, we imagine something like Tzekel-Kan’s Age of the Jaguar. Maybe it’s because of the centuries of emphasizing that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the Fall in the garden of Eden, original sin, and how all humans are totally depraved. We imagine that if God let God’s judgement run free, we’d all be done for. And that doesn’t square with the message of the gospel: that God loves the whole world so much that God would live and die among us, that God wishes for all of us to have abundant life. The “Age of the Jaguar”-type judgement is so opposed to God’s love and grace.

And so we hear the messages of judgement from the Old Testament prophets and then dismiss them as messages from a different, wrathful God. We hear that the crowds who gathered around John the Baptist expected a messiah who would bring judgement; we hear that John expected a messiah who would judge even more harshly; and we dismiss them as people who had not yet been proven wrong by Jesus Christ.

But here’s the thing: one of the main goals of every gospel writer was to prove that Jesus Christ was the very messiah dreamed of in the Old Testament, that Jesus Christ fit into the pattern of the God we hear about in the Old Testament. And that means that Jesus Christ was and is, among other things, the divine judge of the world. That’s why I think that God’s judgement is not the enemy just barely held at bay by God’s grace; rather, I think God’s judgement is an extension of God’s grace.

Because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t all hugs and kisses and forgiveness. He did proclaim judgement. He scolded religious leaders in the public square (ex. Lk. 20:45-47). He foretold the destruction coming upon Jerusalem (ex. Lk. 19:41-44). He even scolded his disciples from time to time (ex. Matt. 16:23). And he prescribed a very strict way of living: “You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder,’ but I say, don’t be angry at your brother and sister, don’t insult them” (Matt. 5:21-22). “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek…If a soldier forces you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it two miles” (Matt. 5:39, 41).

But we can see that his judgement always came from a place of compassion. He judges because he wants a better world for his people. He scolded the religious leaders because their abuses of power hurt God’s mission and God’s people.  And his judgements often seem tinged with mourning: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you are not willing” (Luke 13:34) Jesus’s judgements are one of the ways we see Jesus deeply caring for people, one of the ways we see God deeply caring for people.

A professor of mine (Dr. Bruce Morrill, S.J.) said, “a God who doesn’t judge, doesn’t care.” What would God be like if God just sat back and said, “Do whatever you want, it’ll be ok.” We want a God who judges. A God who stands against violence and abuse and oppression — we need that God, because that God cares, and that God helps create a world where more people can flourish. Even on a personal level, we want a God who corrects us when we’re on the wrong path, we need a God who convicts us when we’re wrong and who sets us straight — because that God cares for us enough to help us change for the better.

That’s the kind of divine judgement we see in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, that’s the kind of divine judgement we see threaded throughout the Bible. God doesn’t judge in order to punish every sin we’ve committed. As it says in the book of Psalms: “If you should mark our sins, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you” (Ps. 130:3-4a). God judges in order that there may be justice, in order that lives may be made better. That doesn’t mean it feels good to be judged, that doesn’t mean that God’s judgements are light; that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. Correction and change are hard to bear.

It does mean that God’s judgement should be a source of hope. John the Baptist and the crowds there at the riverbank hoped for a messiah, they hoped for judgement — because they wanted the world to change. The news of the coming messiah is the news that God is changing our world — and that is good news indeed.

God’s Love Changes Everything

Written for the Church of Another Chance, Davidson Co. Male Correctional Development Center, Nashville, TN + August 21, 2015

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Before I start in on the preaching, I want to do a little activity. Everyone close your eyes for a moment. I’m going to say a word, and I want you to grab hold of the very first image that comes to your mind. The word is: Jesus.

What did you see?

Today I’m going to start off by telling a bit of the story of Martin Luther. Not Martin Luther King, Jr. – though his dad did get their name from Martin Luther. And as some of you might now, I’m a Lutheran, and this guy is where we get our name from, too. But anyway, I want to start telling Martin Luther’s story by talking about the image of Jesus that would have popped into his head when I asked him that question I just asked you.

I’m pretty sure this is the image that Luther would have seen, because this image was all over the place in Europe 500 years ago, which is when Luther lived. And it was right there in the yard of his church. It was a picture of Jesus sitting on a rainbow – which is almost too sweet and happy, like something you’d seen on a kid’s TV show. In one hand he holds a lily, which represents the resurrection and eternal life – still sounds pretty good. But in the other hand he’s got a sword, and that represents judgement and eternal suffering. So despite the rainbow and the flower, it wasn’t really a happy image: it was the image of the Christ the Judge. Its message was loud and clear: watch out, ‘cause he’s watching you. It terrified Luther, and he refused to look at it. But he could still see it inside his head.

Example from 15th c. France; the Beaune Altarpiece or “The Last Judgement” by Rogier van der Weyden

This was a time when most Christians were terrified about their eternal fate all the time. First of all, plague was wiping out lots of the population, pretty much without warning, so death felt even closer and more sudden than usual. And then the church’s message of salvation was focused on how people had to make up for their sins: by doing good works, by fasting, by giving money, all sorts of things. Salvation was like math, like accounting: you had to make sure your total number of good works was at least as high as your total number of mistakes or sins. If you were trying to figure out whether or not God accepted you, the common answer was, “Well, just try your best.”[1]

So Luther did. He was a monk who followed some really strict practices: praying all the time, forcing himself to stay up all night, or sleeping in the cold without a blanket, fasting so much he almost starved himself to death, even hurting himself. He spent hours – I’m talking, like, 6 hours at a time – confessing his sins to another monk, over and over. And this was a guy who spent all his time with other monks, or alone praying – so you have to wonder what sin was eating at him so badly. But no matter what he did, he never felt like was safe from that image of Christ the Judge.[2]

The man he was confessing to all the time finally told Luther to become a teacher at the local university, hoping that teaching would get his mind off of his own sin. And while Luther was studying the Bible so he could teach it to others, he discovered something: he kept finding parts of the Bible that said things like, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:15). Over and over again he read — right there in God’s Word — that humans aren’t saved by what they do; they’re saved by what God has already done. Luther realized that if he wanted to feel safe and accepted by God, he didn’t need to be constantly counting up how many good things he’d done and making sure that number was bigger than the number of sins he’d committed. He needed to have faith that God loved him and accepted him just as he was.

I wanted to tell this story today, because I thought we could all relate. Almost every time I’ve been to worship here, someone has stood up during the Joys and Concerns and shared that he was struggling to forgive himself. He was struggling to believe that God really does love him and forgive them and accept him, even with his past, and even with his struggles and his weaknesses. And always, when someone is brave enough to share that burden, a lot of people in the room nod like they know exactly what he’s talking about. Like that’s exactly what they’re going through. And most of the time, I’m one of those people struggling to believe that God loves me even though I’ve sinned and just keep on sinning.

And this struggle, this doubt that we have in common with one another and with Luther and with so, so many people – this struggle can get even more difficult when we hear Bible passages like the ones we heard a few minutes ago.

We’re struggling to hold on to the faith that we are loved by God, that we are saved by God, even though we do wrong; that what matters is faith, is trusting in what God has done, not what we do or don’t do. And then we hear that first reading, from the letter of James, and he is talking all about actions, about what we do. “Be doers of the word,” he says. If our religion is true and right before God, he says, our religion is to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.” He defines good Christian faith by what we do. In fact in the next chapter he asks, “What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” And he answers his own question: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14, 17).

So what do we do with that, when we believe that God loves us and accepts us regardless of how many mistakes we make, of how many outright-bad things we do, and even regardless of how many good things we do?

I’ll tell you what our friend Martin Luther did with that. He said, “Well, that book really shouldn’t be in the Bible. It’s got the wrong message.”

But I’ve got to disagree with him. And that’s because Jesus himself thinks that what we do is important.

Remember the passage from the book of Mark we heard a few minutes ago? Some really religious people come up to him and say, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion!” And Jesus tells them, “It’s not what you take in that defiles you, that makes you unclean or unworthy; it’s what comes out of you.” And it’s tempting to say this is another case of Jesus saying, “Stop worrying so much about laws and actions and being perfectly obedient; spend all that energy thinking about what’s going on in your heart.” It’s tempting for us to end the story there, and say that Jesus wants us to stop thinking about works.  But Jesus is saying more than that. He’s saying that what comes out of us, that things we do, the words we say, the thoughts we think – all that matters. A lot.

But he says the people who were yelling at him for letting his disciples eat without washing their hands have got it backwards. We can’t do good things and obey traditions and quote the Bible and wash our hands and pray the perfect words and give money to charity and hope that all these actions will win God’s love and acceptance. That’s backwards.

We do good things because we know that God already loves us and accepts us. We resist evil because we know that God already loves and accepts us. Jesus says, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” And I think that means that it’s from the heart that good intentions come, too. The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God condemn me?” The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God accept me?” The question is: “If you know God already loves you – unconditionally loves you – what does it do to your heart?”

And this got me thinking about where sin comes from. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can offer my own testimony. I know that when I sin, or when I fall off the path, it’s not because I’m willingly disobeying God. My sin comes from my own brokenness. I do what my friends are doing, even if I know it’s wrong, because I want to be part of the group, I want to feel accepted and loved, and I have a hard time believing that I already have love and acceptance from God. Even when I fall into sin when I’m alone, it’s usually me trying to escape that voice in my head that’s telling me over and over: You’re not good enough. Nobody loves you. You’re worthless. But God’s love can heal that brokenness and break those patterns of sin.

God’s love can overpower all the times people have told you you’re not good enough to be loved and all things people have done to you that make you feel like you’re not good enough to be loved. God’s love can overpower that broken record in your head that says, “No one cares about me. I’m alone in this world, taking care of myself.” God’s love can overpower our past and the hold it has on us. God’s love can overpower all our defenses and our doubt and our anger and our fear, and God’s love can break in to our hearts. And when God’s love gets into our hearts, when that faith that God loves even me grabs hold of us – everything changes. God helps us to stop acting based on all those old feelings, and God helps us to start acting based on this love. Not only God’s love for us, for me, but God’s love for everyone. We’re not doing good things because we’re trying to please God or because we’re trying to show everyone how Christian we are – we’re doing good things because that’s what love does, that what God’s love makes us do.

I think that’s what James meant when he said, “Faith without works is dead.” James said if you hear the word, the message of God’s love, and don’t then become doers of God’s love, it’s like you didn’t actually hear the word. He says it’s like looking in a mirror, seeing that you made a mess while you were brushing your teeth and got this bright-green toothpaste all over your mouth, and then saying, “Lookin’ good!” and walking away. You got the message, but you didn’t get the message. It didn’t get inside you, it didn’t inspire you to change.

But if we get the message of God’s love and the saving power of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to change. But we don’t have to do it alone; God works with us and in us. Through our faith the Holy Spirit is always transforming us, making us new, and so our actions will always be changing. We’ll always be getting better and better at acting out of that love, of pouring that love we have back into the world through how we treat other people. And we’re probably still gonna sin sometimes. And we’re probably gonna fall off the right path a few times. But God will never give up on us, God’s never going to stop loving us, and God’s never going to stop transforming our hearts.

[1] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed., (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 56-58.

[2] Lindberg, 62.

“Third Slave” Christianity: Burying Grace

“Parable of talents” by Unknown – A Woodcut from Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae

Shared on November 16, 2014 at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30 (A Proper 28)

Well, as we can see through these big, beautiful windows, autumn is here in full force. The leaves are losing their lively green color and falling from their trees. My back yard is completely covered in dead leaves, and my dog distributes them all over the house, too. These dark, crunchy, crumbly leaves I see everywhere are reminders that the season of growth is ending. Winter is coming, with its cold hands and bare trees and empty fields. These dying seasons remind us that there will always be change, and that the way things are will someday end.

The church season mirrors what we see outside these windows. Starting last week and going on through the end of the church year (next Sunday), the Bible readings focus in on death and “the end times,” “the last day,” “kingdom come.” And so these can be very uncomfortable texts to read. A lot of the images are really violent, like the Zephaniah text we just read. We heard the screams of warriors and the sound of blood being poured out like dust. A lot of these readings are threatening, even terrifying, including today’s gospel reading. Yes, in this season our “good news” ends with a scared slave being judged worthless and thrown into some kind of terrible darkness – by the guy we’re pretty sure is the God figure in the story, no less.

But I don’t think it’s the violence or the harshness of these Bible passages that makes us squirm in our seats when we read them, not exactly. I think what really gets to us is the way these readings stare directly into the eyes of our deepest fears: How fleeting are our lives? What does God want from us in our time here? Are we good enough? What happens if we aren’t? What’s going to happen when we meet God? These are questions central to figuring out how we’re spending our time on earth, and we just can’t seem to get concrete answers to them. And so, frequently, we fear. And, frequently, we act out of that fear.

This reminds me of the third slave in our gospel reading. While his coworkers took risks with their master’s money, this servant was too fearful for risk-taking. He was so afraid of his master’s reputation; so afraid of what this harsh, profit-chasing master would do to him if he lost the money; so afraid that he didn’t even hold on to the money, but buried it in the ground. And his extreme caution totally backfired.

There is a type of Christianity that is much like this third slave. While we’ve all been given the incredibly valuable gift of grace, sometimes we are so overwhelmed by our fears of death and judgement that we end up burying grace under all that fear. And when we bury grace, we are left with those fearful questions: Am I good enough for God? Are you good enough for God? Is she good enough for God? And in fear we spend our energy trying to be perfect and trying to bury anything potentially dangerous deep in the ground like the third slave. And if we find someone who isn’t so afraid? Well, we point out all that there is to be afraid of: a powerful and wrathful God who is willing to send us to eternal hell for sins big and small.

I think that all of us can fall into this fearful kind of faith from time to time, when we start to think “Could God really forgive me for THAT?” or even “Could God really love ME?” But, hopefully, we hear the gospel in a new way, and God’s grace pops up out of the grave we buried it in, reminding us that God chose us.

But there are many struggling to live faithfully with grace buried underground, many struggling to share the gospel from a place of fear. There are so many, in fact, that this fearful Christianity is what many, many non-Christians – and many Christians too – think of as true Christianity. It’s why when many people envision preachers, they think of the stereotypical southern preacher sweating and crying out “FIRE! AND BRIMSTONE!” It’s why 87% of 16-29 year-old non-Christians described the church as judgmental, and 91% thought that Christians “show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” When people think of the church, they think of a people who say “No!” and “Don’t.” They think of a people who are anti- things. They think of a people who bury away everything potentially tempting or dangerous, a people who would bury their bodies in the ground if they could, just to avoid doing something wrong.

Martin Luther started out like this, like that third slave. You know the story: he was a young monk whose faith was choked by his fear of God’s judgement. He wrote and said things like, “Love God? Sometimes I hate him.” and “Sometimes Christ seems to me nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in his hand.” Doesn’t that sound just like the third slave? “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man…so I was afraid.”

So how did Luther change from being such an intense, “third-slave,” fearful Christian into the man who said to “sin boldly”? God changed him by reminding him who God is: “I am the God who sent Christ into the world. I am the God who died for my people. I am the resurrected one, and the one who resurrects. And I have chosen you, because I love you.” And grace sprung up from underground, and chased out Luther’s fears with the great rush of Christian freedom. Luther realized that spending all his time trying to be good enough, trying not to move or touch anything for fear of sin and judgement, was wasting God’s grace.

Because when God gives us grace, God gives us freedom. Freedom to risk taking action in our world. Freedom to risk using our talents and our dollars. Freedom to risk even sinning, as we all do. And if the parable of the talents teaches us one thing, its that God’s wrath comes when we are not risking, not being free enough. God’s wrath comes when God’s blessings are hoarded rather than shared, when we turn the gift of freedom into chains of fear.

Brothers and sisters, we have been given a gift worth even more than the talents given to the servants in the parable. Let us multiply it. Let us multiply God’s grace by using it. By risking love, by risking speaking truth, by risking walking alongside the brokenhearted, the poor, and the outcast. Let us risk, in thanks that God risks everything on us.