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Proper 10/ Pentecost VIII                                       The Rev. Christy Laborda HarrisAmos 7:7-17 & Luke 10:25-37                                        July 14th, 2013

In our first reading today, from the book of the prophet Amos, the prophet sees a vision of the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line (drop plum line from pulpit). Okay, maybe not this type of plumb line. But weighted lines like this are used as a vertical reference line to test the construction of a wall, to see if the wall is straight and, therefore, sturdy. What do you think? Is the pulpit okay?

Amos sees the Lord holding up a plumb line to God’s people. Israel is in the midst of a time of peace and prosperity.  Yet they are not caring for the poor and those in need. They are condemned for buying, “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (8:6).

The priest Amaziah is ingratiated with the royal court. He does not want to hear the prophet Amos’ critique of the way they are ruling. He would rather please them and look past their injustice, than anger them and speak God’s words of judgment.

We can understand why Amaziah wants to avoid God’s judgment. The words Amos speaks for God are not easy words to hear:

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

God is refusing to ignore the injustices of Israel any longer. This structure, Israel, is found to be crooked when held up to the plumb line of God’s law.  The community has come out of “true” with itself. It is a fatal flaw. Faulty construction must be torn down. Israel cannot stand as it is, it “shall be laid waste.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known well for declaring, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing spring.” These are Amos’ words in chapter 5. As Dr. King called forth a beloved community, he judged and condemned the current community of injustice. The political community of America and the faith community of the church had to die to be born again.

Many of us wrestle with the concept of divine judgment. We are perhaps more comfortable with the judgments of our legal system than we are with the judgments of our righteous God. We live in an age that where inclusiveness and diversity are held up. And thank God they are! But in being inclusive, in accepting everyone where they are, we begin to believe that there should be no judgment anywhere ever. Many of us want to be left alone to live our lives they way we’ve decided we want to live them!

We are challenged with the concept of judgment both in the Bible, in stories such as this one where God is portrayed as destroying Israel, and we are challenged by illusions to it in our liturgy. Perhaps our weekly confession of sin is hard for you? In it we ask for mercy. Asking for mercy is asking for God not to judge us as we deserve for our acts.

This week, as we alternate between the Rite I and Rite II liturgies at our joint 9am service, we are using the more traditional language of the Rite I service. This language is familiar to those who worshiped with the 1928 Prayer Book, before our current 1979 Prayer Book with more modern Rite II language was released.

For those of us who are not accustomed to this traditional language, we may find beauty in the old English so rarely heard these days, but we also might find the older use of certain words to be oppressive, outdated and not to resonate with our experience. These words might point to a version of God with which we are not comfortable.

After the consecration of the Eucharist, we will pray the prayer of humble access. This is not part of the Rite II service. It begins, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” Such drastic, belly crawling language might cause us to shut down and not hear the rest.

The “crumbs under thy table” references Jesus’ conversation with the Caananite woman who wishes her daughter to be healed by Jesus. Initially Jesus sends her away as he understands himself as being sent to the Jews.  He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she replies,  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And he declares her faith great and heals her daughter. This story is a story of inclusion. It’s a story of God’s grace reaching out and knowing no bounds.

In acknowledging that we are worthy in the prayer of humble access, we are acknowledging God’s boundless grace. In the next breath of this prayer, we declare: But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” God’s property, God’s identity is one of having mercy, of not judging us as we deserve.

For many of us, for me, it is easier to speak of God’s mercy and love than of God’s judgment. Many of us have had to get over a judging God in order to discover a loving, gracious God. In order to deal with this side of the Biblical God, we sometimes attempt to separate the Old and New Testament gods, declaring God in the Old Testament to be a God of laws and judgment and God in the New Testament to be a God of love and grace. Not only is this a grossly unfair characterization of the Hebrew Scriptures, but in making this argument, we fail to understand judgment.

In our culture at this time, we tend to think of judgment in an exclusively negative way. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon argues that, “In the Bible, the judgments of God are part of the graciousness of God.  A biblical judge is someone who not only makes judgments about the rectitude of behavior but also actively seeks to work justice, to set things right.”

Judgment is not an end in itself. The goal is not to say, you naughty, naughty person! Bad! The goal is justice. The goal is to set things right. The God who seeks us out as a shepherd seeks his sheep also comes to us as a loving judge to set things right between us and God.

In our personal lives and personal relationships, each of us knows the importance of speaking truth and working through differences that separate us. If I really care about a relationship in my life, if I value it and want to see it continue, I work through the hard stuff. I call up the friend and tell her that what she said hurt my feelings. I call up the family member and apologize. Dealing with what went wrong, dealing with that which separates us, shows that we value that relationship, that we want to mend what is broken and get back into right relationship.

Reformed theologian Emil Brunner speaks of God’s judgments upon us as God’s “resistance” against the pressure of sin.  God applies counter pressure. God pushes back against that which causes our pain, that which causes our brokenness, that which separates us from God and from each other.

Shouldn’t God? Isn’t that the loving thing for God to do? I don’t want to be left wallowing in the crap that surrounds me! God pulls us out, wipes us off, and points out the crap we are covered in.  This is redemption. This is love. God loves us enough not to leave us to our own devices, to our own brokenness. God makes us face the facts, the truth… this is judgment.

Yet, we fear judgment. We fear being told that what we did was wrong. We fear facing our imperfection. Perhaps we are prideful, hoping our errors will be swept under the carpet and ignored. But this is not grace—this does not lead to healing, to wholeness, to health.  Sweeping the disharmony under the carpet does not make the relationship better, instead it slowly creates a festering wound.

In our fear of judgment, in our misunderstanding of judgment, we try to avoid it the only way we know how… we try to justify ourselves, to cross our T’s and dot our I’s and prepare to make the argument that we did as we thought God wanted, that we followed all the rules.

This is what is happening in today’s Gospel. A lawyer, an expert in the interpretation of Mosaic Law, comes to Jesus, perhaps to test him, perhaps to justify himself and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws the question back and asks what is written in the law. The man replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus answers, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Then the text says, “but wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer is looking for some fine print. This whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing is too broad for him. He wants to limit his responsibility and define who deserves his love. He is trying to break down this gospel message of loving God and loving our neighbor into subsets of laws and rules that will make his compliance with the gospel more quantifiable and will allow him to defend himself when he does not do as the gospel indicates he should. He treats the gospel as law.

We do this too. We turn the gospel into law. Presbyterian minister Cynthia Jarvis writes, “To caricature us all, the many for whom the law is the gospel seek refuge in rules, glorify boundaries, enumerate norms and codify discipleship.”

Well of course we do! How on earth am I supposed to know if I am living the right way if I don’t make a checklist and so that I can check each item off or explain why perhaps I completed a certain item in a way other than might have been intended!?  Life is safer with clear boundaries, with clearly articulated norms and expectations. We can stop thinking and feeling and just do as we’re told.  When we get to the judgment part of things we can clutch onto our list and explain how we interpreted law 3a section IV of “love your neighbor.”

So Jesus tells the lawyer, and us, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man lies beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest, a Jewish priest, someone of his own people, sees him and passes by on the other side of the road.  A Levite, another Jew, also sees him and passes by on the other side of the road. A Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, sees him and is moved with pity and cares for him. I mean really cares for him. Jesus finishes the story asking the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Jesus flips the lawyer’s question. Jesus is not concerned with who is the lawyer’s neighbor but instead with who behaved as a neighbor. While the lawyer seeks to limit his responsibility, to define who he must love, to turn the gospel into law, Jesus’ parable suggests that love seeks out neighbors… even when established boundaries and prejudices conspire against it. Jesus’ story does not enumerate who our neighbors are, and are not, but instead shows what it looks like to live as a neighbor. It casts us not at actors but as those acted upon by a love whose limitless grace we cannot fathom (Cynthia Jarvis).

Part of embracing this grace filled love is accepting judgment. Accepting our imperfection. Acknowledging that, even though we were created in God’s image and God saw that God’s creation was very good, we do find ourselves mired in the mud and crud of brokenness and sin.

Instead of running around the house like the child who has soiled his diaper but doesn’t want it changed, if we stop and thank God for wiping us clean, thank God for God’s judgment, God’s judgment which is so full of mercy… then, then we are brought back into relationship with God, then we are made whole, then we are able to better love God and to better love our neighbors as ourselves.

We need not seek ways to justify ourselves because we need not fear judgment. We need not fear judgment because God is gracious.  We need not attempt to justify ourselves because we are forgiven. This is the gospel. Instead of spinning our wheels in attempted justification and perfection, in attempting to earn God’s love and our salvation… God would like us to live the Gospel. To love God. To love our neighbor as ourselves.

Amen.