Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 29, 2007. Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text: Luke 11:1–13

 

Grace and peace be with you my sisters and brothers in the name of our God, who forgives all our sins, whose mercy endures forever. Amen.

Listen again to Abraham negotiating with God as they discuss the fate of the city of Sodom. Abraham asks, “will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” – that is the question framing all of the texts we have heard this morning, and the answer is not clear.

Abraham pleads with the Lord to spare Sodom for the sake of fifty righteous people, and when God agrees to those terms Abraham begins to bargain. If fifty, why not forty-five? If forty-five, why not forty? If forty, why not thirty? Why not twenty? Why not ten? So Abraham whittles down the terms of the agreement and secures a promise from God to spare Sodom if only ten righteous people can be found within the city.

Of course what isn’t discussed between God and Abraham is what makes a person righteous. Evidently they had a common understanding so common sense that it was assumed that it needed no discussion. But you know what they say about assumptions, and indeed, there has been quite a bit of controversy about the precise nature of the sin of Sodom – just as there is, generally speaking, a great deal of confusion about what makes a person good.

All of which reminds me of a short story by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, entitled “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In that story, which I was happily forced to read by my high school literature teacher, a character known only as “the grandmother” sets off with her son and his family for a family vacation. “The grandmother” is by all appearances a good and proper woman, yet O’Connor uses language to carefully paint a picture of a woman who is painfully unaware of how her own behavior lands her family in a deadly trap. One tragic blunder after another unfolds, each directly linked to the grandmother’s personality, and in the end her whole family pays a terrible price when they encounter the character known only as “the Misfit” – an escaped convict who discovers them in their hour of need on the side of the road and engages the grandmother in a surprisingly personal argument about the nature of crime and punishment:

“I found out,” says the Misfit, “that crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what is was you done and just be punished for it…Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”[1]

The Misfit in O’Connor’s story lives a life of violence and crime and identifies as his motive something that I think most of us consider at some point in our lives: is there justice in this world? Do the wicked get what they deserve? Are the just punished right along with the wicked? Does it really matter how you live your life?

Abraham seems to think that it does, which is why he pleads with God to spare Sodom on account of the few righteous people who surely live within its gates.

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just,” he asks.

But Paul, writing in his letter to the Colossians takes the image of the Judge and the courtroom of justice in an entirely different direction.

“when you were dead in trespasses,” Paul writes, “God made you alive together with Christ, when we were forgiven all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. God set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Like Abraham, Paul uses the image of God as judge and the relationship we each have to our God like that of the accused brought into the courtroom of justice. But, unlike Abraham, Paul does not seem to think that the judge of all the earth will do what is just. Instead, our record – with its legal demands – is set aside and gets nailed to the cross. In other words, as Paul sees it, if each of us – if any of us – were judged based on how we live our lives, how we enact hospitality to the stranger, how we care for the abandoned and the vulnerable, how we show love to those who hate us, we would be found wanting and the record of our own lives would convict us.

But we are not judged by our record. As Paul tells it, judgment is set aside on account of the cross, the place where God joins us in the painful unjust misery of life and death.

Abraham’s question, “shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” is answered by the cross, the symbol of God’s answer to injustice. God does not abandon the wicked, God joins them. God joins us. God does not keep clean by staying out of the conflicts of our lives. Instead, God suffers along with those who suffer, dies along with those who die, and promises that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from that love.

That strikes most of us as downright unfair. What is the purpose of living a good life, a commendable life, if God loves the wicked the same as the righteous? How often have we thought, or said, “that I cannot forgive,” “him I cannot forgive,” or some variation of the above. Our notion of justice demands that those who violate our sense of right and wrong must receive the punishment to match their crimes. Even the Misfit seems to think as much, and this is why he is so confounded by the revelation of God in Christ Jesus:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” he says, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if he didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”[2]

This is the brilliance of Flannery O’Connor. She recognizes that we are all Misfits, that we are each wretched in our own ways. That we all struggle with the fear that in the end we will be judged for our shortcomings and, if that’s the case, then we ought to do as the Misfit says, we may as well live our lives inflicting any sort of meanness required to make our few short years upon the earth as comfortable for ourselves as possible, because in the final reckoning we will be found inadequate. But the Misfit also recognizes the reality of things. If God does what we are told God did at the cross – if God has really nailed our record to the cross, as Paul says – then there’s nothing left for us to do but lay it all down and follow.

That is the spirit we are to have when we, like the disciples, come to Jesus asking how to pray. We don’t come like the scribe who tries to get Jesus to tell him the secret to eternal life. We don’t come like Martha, trying to do her job right. We come like one who knows what in her record, who knows what he could be convicted of. We come knowing that we need the grace of God, and then we are taught to pray:

Father, hallowed be your name : not “your honor,” “your majesty,” or “your holiness,” but instead “father” – or, if you prefer, abba or amma, or daddy, or momma, or whatever word makes it clear to you that God wants to relate to you not as your judge, but as your creator – as one who has known you intimately since before you were born.

And then later, And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us : we are taught to pray for our own forgiveness, which means to ackno
wledge that we are in need of forgiveness, and that the forgiveness which we receive comes to us not as our due, our payment for good living, in which case we would not have to ask for it at all, but as a gift. Which means, in turn, that we forgive those who owe us an apology, those who have angered and hurt us, those who do not deserve our forgiveness – because we recognize that all this and more has already been done for us.

And finally, And do not bring us to the time of trial : because we know our record, we know what we are guilty of, and we know what justice would demand if we were to be judged in light of our actions instead of by the light of God’s mercy. We ask to be delivered from the time of trial not as a way of begging God to save us from the trials of life, because we know that the trial of life are part of life itself, but as an acknowledgement that God has elected to set aside the trial, to deliver us from our own evils – the evils we do to ourselves and others.

“A good man is hard to find,” says one of Flannery O’Connor’s characters, and she means any of us. It’s not a question of whether or not God can pick out of our assembly fifty, or thirty, or ten… or even one of us! In the end the question to Abraham’s question, “shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just,” must be answered: no. At least not if what we mean is “shall not God give us what we deserve?” But if we can allow the question to mean what God would have it mean, if God’s justice is not ours, but God’s, then perhaps the answer is yes. God does not give us what we deserve, but what we need: our daily bread, the forgiveness of sins, a chance to be reborn again and again, children of God and family to one another.

Amen.


[1] p.131, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York (1971)

[2] p.132, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York (1971)

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