Sermon for 8/11/2010
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35; Isaiah 1:10-20
My wife Cheryl and I have a conversation that occurs about once a year. It happens whenever I open one of those thank you cards from the K-LOVE Christian radio network for a donation that I didn’t know about. “Honey,I thought I decided last year that we weren’t going to give any more money to those people. The lyrics are shallow, the theology is wrong, every song has the same three chords, and all the male vocalists are still trying to sound like the lead singer from Pearl Jam.” She lets me finish, thanks me for sharing my opinion, and waits about a year before giving another donation.
In the past, Isaiah 1 whenever I felt like going off on the Christian music world Isaiah 1 was my go-to passage. Because Icould say that God’s “had enough of their burnt-offerings” of positive and encouraging pop songs. Their family-friendly Jesus industry “has become aburden to Him.” He “can no longer bear” the weekly pyrotechnic displays and the dazzling HD graphics on the Jumbotrons of their wildly successful mega-churches. God’s with the “justice” people – i.e. the people who go to the slowly dying churches where every car in the parking lot has a “Save the planet” bumper-sticker but each week there’s one less car.
That’s what I used to see in this passage. I used to spend a lot of time marching through DC for all kinds of causes, making all kinds of cynical judgments about other people. I thoughtI knew everything; now I realize I don’t know all that much. I used to see theChristian world as being divided between people who got all weepy praising God and people who didn’t have time to get weepy because they were fighting for God’s justice. But the more time I spend with Christians from different backgrounds, the more I see the foolishness of my stereotypes. And the more Ilisten to Christian radio, the more I realize they do play some songs with goodtheology and even unpredictable chords!
So when Isaiah 1 came up in the lectionary, it stopped me in my tracks. I used to get fired up about it, but now I’m not sure where it fits because it’s so harsh and when you’re a pastor, you try to look for the best in people. But there’s a deeper truth inside Isaiah 1 when we get past using it as a stick to bash other people with. We find that God’s justice is acompletely different thing than our justice. Look carefully at what God saysand what He doesn’t say.
He says the Israelites have blood on their hands. But he doesn’t accuse them of killing anybody or even violating any of the Ten Commandments. Israel’s sin is never named; it is implied in how God tells themto correct their behavior: “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Their sin is the neglect of the orphans and widows, the two words used by Old Testament writers to represent the poor in a world where a man’s untimely death put his family out in the streets. Here is where the huge gap emerges between God’s notion of justice and our human understanding of it.
Human justice is founded upon the idea that people should get what they deserve. If someone violates the boundaries set by a society’s laws, that person pays a corresponding debt to society. As long as people stay within their boundaries and out of each other’s way, they’re behaving justly inhuman terms. Under human justice, God’s accusation against Israel makes no sense. Nobody owes anything to the widows and the orphans; it may be cruel towatch them starve, but it’s not unjust.
Under God’s justice, the question is not whether people get what they deserve. God doesn’t just want for bad people to get punished and good people to get rewarded. God wants for everyone on this planet to realize how much He loves us and to discover the unique role for which He created each of us. It is unacceptable to God for anyone to be thrown away, no matter what they have done, because He wants each of us to become who He made us to be. Neglecting the widows and the orphans of our world is unjust to God because it disrespects the purpose that He has for their lives. This is why Isaiah was so angry with his fellow Israelites. How could they sing about how pretty God was while ignoring the ugliness that hurt God’s heart?
Seeking God’s justice rather than human justice requires a major paradigm shift. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant that we read earlier illustrates how this paradigm shift can fail to occur in Christianity. We often assume that Jesus died for our sins because God wants or needs to give people the hell that they deserve. But God is not the one who needs for unsaved sinners to fry so that human justice may prevail.
We ourselves are the merciless tyrants who demand that people get what they deserve. Jesus didn’t die to appease an angry God; the cross was God’s self-sacrifice through Jesus to appease an angry crowd of humans. It is our own prison of self-righteousness that keeps us out of communion with God. We make our own hell to spend eternity in and God spends our whole lives trying to rescue us from it.
Jesus paid for our sins in order to invite us into a new world of God’s mercy which leaves behind the world of human justice where people get what they deserve. The cross fulfills the requirements of our human justice in order that we may cast this way of thinking aside forever. We have received a mercy that we do not deserve so that we will stop checking to make sure others get what they deserve and instead start asking how we might share God’s mercy with them. The cross is the key to unlock the handcuffs of ourself-righteousness so we can throw them away.
The unmerciful servant is the Christian who receives God’s mercy through Christ but wants to keep on living as though everything else is supposed to follow the logic of people getting what they deserve. Christians who lack mercy insist upon walking around in handcuffs they’ve been given the key to open. To truly accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior means letting go of our right to judge others, but we often want to have it both ways, particularly in this toxic age when everyone loves to mouth off on the Internet. If our understanding of justice really were shaped by God’s mercy, which was the whole point of Jesus’ act of mercy on the cross, how different would our world be?
Do not misunderstand me. Choosing God’s justice over human justice does not mean that our society should stop locking up people that hurt other people. It does mean that correctional facilities should serve the purpose of correction and rehabilitation rather than satisfying our need for criminals to suffer. One way we can submit ourselves more deeply to God’s mercy is to follow Jesus’ command to visit people in prison.
How many of y’all have been in a jailhouse Bible study before? Well when I led a jailhouse Bible study in cell block 4B at Durham County, I found that I had more to learn about God’s mercy than I had to teach. There’s a huge difference between saying you’re a sinner because it’s theologically correct to say so, and knowing you’re a sinner because you’ve got steel handcuffs holding your hands together. But when you’ve been put in steel handcuffs, God has a much easier time taking off the invisible handcuffs of eternal imprisonment to your self-righteousness.
When we live under God’s mercy rather than human justice,it changes how we talk about issues that have polarized our society, one example being our immigration crisis. Some of you know that I just came up herefrom being a pastor to a bunch of Hispanic youth whose parents were mostly illegal immigrants. I love my youth and I love their parents; I also understand that there are legitimate economic and security reasons why we need to haveborders and laws that regulate how many people come across. We can be frustrated with our government for not enforcing its laws without judging people who break a law we never had to break to gain a way of life that we don’t deserve more than they do.
Here’s where Isaiah 1 should challenge us. God has not accused us of being responsible for the corruption in other country’s governments, the unemployment created by NAFTA, or the viciousness of the drug cartels. But God doesn’t want us singing praise songs to Him if we look at any of our neighbors and say, “Those people don’t deserve my love because they broke the law.” If we’re grateful to God for having privileges we don’t deserve, then all the anger disappears from the conversation. We are called to defend the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and anybody else in need, not because we owe them anything or even because they deserve it, but simply because God loves them and wants them to be made whole.
When we’re preoccupied with what other people deserve, we look for flaws in our neighbors to justify not loving them. But once God’s mercy frees us from our handcuffs of self-righteousness, all we care about doing is sharing that mercy with the world, and when we get mad, we’re mad atourselves for not doing more. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor; this command is open-ended and impossible to fulfill. We will always fall short, because we can always do more to love our neighbor.
The way we’re never satisfied with ourselves and makeother peoples’ problems our own looks ridiculous to people who follow the rules in order to earn the right to be left alone. But instead of weighing us down with guilt, the knowledge that we could be more merciful liberates us precisely in the process of wounding us. It’s kind of like that old Janis Joplin song: each time God cuts another piece of stone from my heart, He replaces it with the heart of Christ.
The closer we get to God, the more that we want God’s mercy to reign and the more we repent of our inadequate response to evils that many reasonable people would refuse to own as their problem. Something changes in us when we claim the ugliness of the world as our problem that we need to dosomething about, when we stop asking whether others are getting what they deserve and ask instead how we can share the mercy God shows us with as many people as we find. Then when we throw our hands up in the air and close oureyes while we’re singing to God, we’re no longer doing it to convince God thatwe’re good at worshipping Him.
Worship is what your heart does every waking moment when it’s flooded with God’s mercy. If I give myself to the mercy of God’s justice and worship God in spirit and truth through all that I do to share God’s mercy,then God will hear my prayer and each day God will take another piece of my heart and make it His!