Sermon October 11, 2009
The Reverend Lois Keen
Grace Episcopal Church
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
“There’s always plenty of work for love to do.”
(From Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel series)
“You’re always standing with the demonized, so that the demonization stops. You’re always with the people on the outer fringes of the circle of compassion, so the circle of compassion can expand. You’re always at the margins, so the margins once and for all disappear. And you’re always with the disposable, so the people stop being disposed of.” Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ
I know you’re dying to have me relieve you of the anxiety you might have felt when I read the words of Jesus just now to the rich man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Scholars much more learned than I have done just that, saying that Jesus meant for that particular rich man to sell everything, but that Jesus does not necessarily mean for you and me to do so. I’m not so sure they are right. After all, the early Christians did just that. Everything they had, everything they earned, went into a common fund, which then supported the orphans and widows and the poor, and then, also, the Christian community. So the early Christians took Jesus’s words seriously and literally.
But today I want to go back to Bp. Laura Ahrens’ sermon last week on forgiveness. Bp. Ahrens told us about the congregation at St. Paul’s, the church at Ground Zero in New York which was so instrumental in ministering to all comers during the aftermath of September 11th. She told us that this church is now working to build a garden of forgiveness, a project that is finding some resistance, but that they are going ahead with it and with building gardens of forgiveness all over the world.
The people of St. Paul’s have an understanding of forgiveness that includes letting go of revenge and not confusing revenge with justice. It is justice that I want to talk about today.
Earlier, in the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark, some people break through the roof of a house to bring Jesus a paralyzed man. Mark writes, When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them.
Now, the scribes’ argument is about justice. In their culture, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities are God’s judgment against the person, either for his own sins or those of his parents or his forefathers. If there were no sin, there would be no paralysis. Therefore, the paralysis is just. God’s justice has determined the punishment for the man’s sins and the judgment of justice is paralysis.
So who is Jesus to countermand God’s judgment? Only God can forgive sin. It is for men to accept God’s judgment as just. After all, if God had forgiven this man’s sin, then the man would be walking around.
Jesus knows what they are thinking and questioning among themselves, so hey presto, he tells the man to walk and the man gets up and walks away.
Now, going back to today’s gospel, it seems to me that when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and give it away to the poor, the rich man goes away sad because from his point of view, Jesus is being unjust. The man has kept the law all his life; he is justified; he is righteous before God; he has earned, by his righteousness, all that he has been given by God. But if he becomes poor, the man will be seen by his peers as a sinner. That’s not fair. That’s not just, since the man is decidedly not a sinner, having kept all the commandments from his youth.
And Jesus can’t do anything for the man, because the man is stuck in the injustice of his culture, a culture that equates wealth and health and good fortune as the definitive signs of a righteous person.
The rich man is not the only one trapped by this cultural injustice, however. The disciples are perplexed because they, too, believe that riches are proof of salvation. If a rich man, clearly righteous, will have trouble getting into the kingdom of God, what about them? What hope do they have?
Jesus says, “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”
Now lest you think this has nothing to do with you and me, because we are not like the people of Jesus’s day, please think again. For we in this the wealthiest country in the world have been formed by the Calvinists who colonized this land. We, like them, do still consider poverty a manifestation of God’s judgment, or at least of personal moral failure. Our idea of justice, when it comes to the poor, is to reward those who “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”, which is, of course, a physical impossibility without falling on one’s face, but still, it is one of our favorite expressions.
Fortunately for all people, including us, God’s justice is nothing at all like ours.
God’s justice looks like this: Humankind killed the only Son of God. In our idea of justice, God should have wiped out all humankind from the face of the earth, or at least the Romans and Jews. Instead, God raised Jesus from the dead, and through the risen Jesus God poured his love out on all people.
In God’s justice there are peace gardens everywhere.
In God’s justice, our failure to sell all we have and give it to the poor is met with forgiveness and an invitation to the banquet of the Lamb.
In God’s justice we engage more expansively in the work there is for love to do.
In God’s justice, people who experience poverty and homelessness are holy just as they are.
In God’s justice, we forgive all sins perpetrated upon us, just as God has forgiven us.
Impossible? Not with God. For God all things are possible.
It’s kinda funny. I prepared this sermon at the beginning of the week. Yesterday I was sent a reminder that today, October 11th, is National Coming Out Day, the day before the eleventh anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Matthew Shepherd was killed for the high crime of being gay, of being hardwired to be affectioned toward persons of the same sex as he was. National Coming Out Day is a day to celebrate those men and women who are naturally affectioned to their own sex and who have come out to friends, family and community as gay or lesbian. It is also a day to support those who have not yet come out but want to. And it is a day to support those who remain afraid to come out because this culture of ours is still hostile to homosexuality.
It is my hope that God’s expansive justice will come to bear upon those of us who have the unearned, unwarranted privilege that comes with being affectioned toward persons of the opposite sex from us. It is my hope that God’s expansive justice will move us to advocate for and uphold gay and lesbian persons, who in the final analysis are no different from anyone else – they live, they die, they work, the play, and they fall in love.
Unlike most of us, however, they are subject to verbal, emotional and physical attacks, and they die, for no reason other than that they are gay or lesbian, and since the ever growing movement of legalizing marriage for people of the same sex, those attacks and even murders are on the rise, fueled in part by the place of religion and scripture being brought to bear against them, and that is unjust.
The scribes who condemned Jesus’s ability and right to forgive sins did so on the basis of scripture and tradition. Everyone knew what sin looked like – it looked like paralyzed limbs and leprous skin, poverty and disease, widowhood and orphanhood. And only God could reverse that by making limbs whole, skin clean, and reversing poverty, disease, and the state of the widow and orphan. For the scribes, that is justice.
But God’s justice is not like the scribes’ justice or even our justice. And for that we should give thanks. Because the judgment we pass on others often comes around to fall on us as well, and but for the grace and mercy of God, we would not be able to stand against that judgment.
It is impossible for human beings; but for God, all things are possible.
Because there is plenty of work for love to do, this is what God’s justice looks like: With God, we can pass through the eye of the needle. We can forgive the sins of others against us. We can widen the circle of compassion; we can stand with those who are being demonized even now, this moment; we can give up our privileged position in the center and move instead to the margins so marginalization can at last disappear; we can make common cause with, and stand up for, and embrace those who are deemed to be disposable, so people stop being disposed of.
Impossible? For God, with God, all things are possible, in the Name of Jesus Christ, through the expansive power of the Holy Spirit.