23rd Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016
Luke 18: 9-14 You can click on this link to read the story in Oremus Bible Browser
We discovered a new word in Confirmation last week: Wroth. God’s wroth is what happens to God when God’s people don’t keep God’s commandments and live in the way that they have promised to live. It’s dangerous. God can just ‘ka-ploo-ee’ you in God’s wroth. Fortunately for us, as Jürgen Moltmann, the famous 20th Century German theologian writes, “God’s powerful wroth is only overshadowed by God’s powerful love and forgiveness.”
In proper law and gospel tradition, you can’t have God’s forgiveness without talking about God’s judgement. Our Confirmation lesson was about the people of Israel in the desert – or as Daniel Erlander calls it, the Wilderness School. It was in the desert that Israel became God’s Covenant people; God promised to walk with them always and bless them, and they promised to follow God’s rules. Primary among those rules are what have come to be called the Ten Commandments: love God first and foremost, honor God’s name, participate in God’s Sabbath rest, respect your elders, respect your marriage and other’s marriages, honor people’s bodies and don’t hurt them, respect people’s property and their reputation, don’t lie, don’t covet others stuff. “So will you go to hell if you don’t keep the rules?” It’s a natural question.
It’s one of those times when the pastor asks, “What do you think?” One of the things we recognized in that discussion is that there is no inching out of the rules. If you lie, even a little, you’ve broken the rules. If you take something that belongs to someone else, you’ve stolen it. It is what it is. The rules are not really meant to send us to hell. They are there to keep us mindful of others. They are there to train us, to wake us up, and to make relationships thrive. When we can keep things in their proper order, life is sweet. People get along, people take care of each other, and generation after generation grows and thrives. When we cannot keep things in their proper order, families and communities fall apart. It takes generations for a family to recover from dysfunction and abuse.
I have loved Luke’s stories in the last several weeks, the ones that tell us that what feels like only a smidgen of faith is enough to do what God wants to happen in the world. And the one that tells us that God wants us to ask for everything we need, so that God can give it to us. And then there was the story of the Samaritan leper, who couldn’t contain his gratitude for an unexpected healing. These stories have been just what I needed to hear and what I was grateful to be able to share as a message about what it means to be a Christian.
This morning’s story is kind of the dark side of being a Christian. Also something that I need to hear and to share. Especially for us American Christians, life can be so easy, we can enjoy such privilege that we easily forget that we stand under God’s wroth for all the infractions of God’s rules that we regularly commit. I don’t want the Pharisee in the story to be me. But I am afraid that it is easy for me to trust in myself and feel that I am righteous. It is easy for me to look at others and see how much they fall short. It is easy for me to come to God, trusting in all the things I do right – pray regularly, tithe, volunteer and contribute to make my community healthier and more successful. I am not an adulterer, or a cheat, nor do I take advantage of others. I am a good person and I work hard at being a good person. It is so easy for me to see myself as my successes at keeping God’s rules, and to forget about my failures.
But the scoundrel in the story is the one Jesus lifts up as the one who goes home forgiven. He knew he had no claim on God’s forgiveness, and instead threw himself on God’s mercy. C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”
So we spent some time in Confirmation talking about God’s love and forgiveness. God’s mercy trumps God’s wroth in the Hebrew Bible. Over and over God relents when God could just blow everyone up. But it is in Jesus that we really see the extent of God’s love and care for a world that regularly treats God as an afterthought. God came in person to walk our world with us. Jesus grew up just like all of us, taught again about God’s love and mercy as well as redefined God’s rules that make life sweet for people. Jesus showed us how mercy looks in the healing and raising and blessing of the people around him, especially those who were the people everyone rejected. In Jesus, God risked everything to show us how love works. It is steadfast and unflinching as it confronts the corruption and power games of the day. It is so powerful that even death cannot overcome it. And it is God’s gift to us. No matter what we do we cannot earn God’s love, it is grace. And no matter what we do, we cannot lose God’s love. It is always grace, always a gift.
All we can do is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, trusting that God sees us through eyes of love. And then we can turn to look at the world through eyes transformed by that love. May God grant us that grace. Amen.