June 14, 2020 /2nd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Exodus 19:2-8a/ 2nd Reading Romans 5:1-8 / Gospel Matthew 9:35-10:8
Standing in Grace
You may know someone who has given up on God. It happens. People can reach a point of profound skepticism or deep despair. The cause might be the tragic loss of a friend or relative, or a cruel injustice, or a prolonged illness. People give up on God – stop believing, stop following, stop hoping. We know how church membership and worship attendance have been declining in many places. People get distracted and caught up in worldly pursuits and preoccupations. Some come to see God as an underachiever, or even as unjust. They can’t comprehend how an all-powerful and loving God can permit so much pain and suffering in this world. Many Christians do experience moments of doubt or uncertainty, yet continue to trust in God. People of faith then wonder – I wonder – why do people give up on God?
But perhaps a better question is: Why doesn’t God give up on us? Let’s face it, this world is a mess! Humanity keeps demonstrating over and over again our capacity for INHUMANITY – for injustice, cruelty and exploitation or just everyday selfishness. Why doesn’t God just pull the plug and start all over again? God did so once before, by means of a great flood . . .
The Ten Commandments are abused and disobeyed on a regular basis – or ignored altogether. People covet what they don’t have. We lie, cheat and steal. We’ve seen stealing and murder right before our eyes on TV. Marriage vows are broken, families drift apart, not much honor is shown to parents, to the Sabbath – not even to God. Jesus tried to keep it simple for us – he boiled all the commandments down to just two:
Love God with all your heart.
Love your neighbors as yourself.
And we confess every Sunday that we fail on both counts. You have to wonder why God didn’t give up after we crucified his only begotten Son. God sent the Lord of Life to show us the truth about God – and we killed him. We tried to snuff out the Light of the World.
+ + + +
So then, why doesn’t God give up on us? We could start by asking the Israelites why God didn’t give up on them. Today we heard their bold affirmation, made at the foot of Mount Sinai: “Everything that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” That promise lasted a few weeks until they got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain – and decided to worship a golden calf. The Old Testament chronicles all the ways the Israelites repeatedly turned away and disobeyed God. Yet God stayed faithful.
And why hasn’t God given up on a Christian Church that has taken so many wrong turns? Our history as God’s people includes: Inquisitions, crusades, witch trials, religious wars, supporting slavery, devaluing women, abusing children, commercializing the faith. Why does God not give up, throw in the towel? Many prophets of God asked this question.
Hosea pronounces the indictment against God’s people:
You have plowed wickedness,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your power
and in the multitude of your warriors, (Hosea 10:13)
Things haven’t changed much in 3,000 years, have they? Yet speaking through Hosea, God speaks not condemnation but compassion:
1When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:1-4)
God’s love for us is like a doting parent – a love that is deep and without limits. And the prophet Isaiah likens God’s compassion for his people to that of a devoted husband:
5For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
6For the LORD has called you
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like the wife of a man's youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
7For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
8In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the LORD, your Redeemer.
9This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
10For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:5-10)
The reason God does not give up on us is that God is not like us. At times God does not like us all that much – God certainly doesn’t like the way we mistreat one another, how we pollute and exploit his creation. Yet God does not act or react like one of us. Instead, God took the huge risk of coming among us as one of us to show us how to be truly and fully human. Jesus is the one human person who lived a sinless, selfless, God-pleasing life. And our response was to nail him to a cross. How did God respond? God raised Jesus up – and God sent Jesus back to the people who had disappointed, denied and disowned him. Jesus came to them – and his first words were not: “Thanks for nothing!” “ How could you?” “Vengeance is mine.” No – his first words were: “Peace.” “Peace be with you.”
God doesn’t give up on us because that’s not God’s nature. His thoughts are not like our thoughts. God doesn’t operate on a cost/benefit basis. God doesn’t believe in cutting his losses. God doesn’t give up because God keeps his promises. And way back in Genesis, chapter 9, God promised Noah and his descendants that never again would he destroy the earth and those who live in it. The rainbow is the sign of God’s guarantee.
+ + + +
God didn’t give up on a guy named Saul. Saul was bright and capable and energetic and devout. Saul’s religious fervor moved him to persecute a new sect of believers who were straying from the teachings and traditions of the faith that Saul cherished. These were the first followers of Jesus. Saul felt those Christians were heretics – a threat to true religion that had to be removed. God had an opportunity to deal directly with Saul. When Saul was on the road to Damascus to arrest some more Christians, the Lord knocked him off his horse and blinded him. He could have eliminated Saul there and then. But God’s ways are higher than our ways. God’s foolishness is wiser than we are.
Each year we present our high school graduates with this book, Beyond Words, Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith, by Frederick Buechner. It is full of thoughtful and inspiring insights into Christian faith. They come in alphabetical order. This is what he offers on the term: Justification
Paul was on his way to Damascus to mop up some Christians, when he suddenly heard the voice of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection he had up till now considered only an ugly rumor. What he might have expected the Voice to say was, “Just you wait.” What in effect it did say was, “I want you on my side.” Paul never got over it. All the voice seemed to want Paul to do was believe that it meant what it said and do as it asked. Paul did both. God did business with you not because of who you were but because of who God was.
At a moment in his life when he had least reasons to expect it, Paul was staggered by the idea that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, God wants you on God’s side. There is nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory. God has justified you, lined you up. To feel this somehow in your bones is the first step on the way to being saved.
Saul became Paul – and wrote the words we heard today from his letter to the Romans: “Since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to this GRACE IN WHICH WE STAND.” When Paul discovered that God would not give up on him – he realized that God would never give up on anyone.
God sees that none of us is all right. So God chooses to put us right, to make us right, to JUSTIFY US by pure grace. This is the Good News! We can stop trying so hard to justify or explain or excuse ourselves.
First, because we can’t.
Because we don’t have to.
Because God justifies us through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Although it is far beyond all human explanations and inclinations, the truth is that God loves each one of us so dearly, so deeply, that God will never forsake us. Paul wrote to his friend Timothy: “. . . if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13) This is what Paul once called “the foolishness of the gospel.” It is not logical or practical – but it is quite marvelous: to be loved with a love that is free and unconditional, love that won’t let go. To know this, to trust this, to feel the fire of love in your bones – is to experience the peace that transformed Saul into Paul. It’s to find your place to stand in the grace of God.
May that peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord! AMEN