Sunday Sermon

THEY DON’T KNOW ME

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

     The passage from the Prophet Jeremiah begins with the statement, “They don’t know me”.  All the trouble in heaven and on earth flows from this simple observation.  I hear it this way, “My own children don’t know me.”  I am very blessed that my children know and respect me, but it has not always been the case.  I took Janice under my wing when she was 10.  Her own mother was murdered a few years later.  By the time Lea was growing up I was preparing myself with graduate study and seminary, risking becoming a stranger to her.  A good relationship takes time and care.  I took a lot of chances with my nearest and dearest.  That it has all worked out is a gift to me.  I also took a good look at what I wanted in the last part of my life and went after it with the same attention I give to my work.

     What I find interesting about this passage from Jeremiah is that God doesn’t just point to the sinfulness of his children as evidence against them.  God points to the signs in the earth of abuse and neglect.  He considers creation as a unit and when part of that unit malfunctions there are worldwide effects.  This is such a contemporary way of thinking that I find it rather startling.  It is one reason that we may not neglect the hurt of those around us.  Karma—what goes around comes around is not biblical.  We don’t have to live long to see crimes going unpunished all around us.  Karma is about the disease that spreads around evil doings, the miasma that brings grief and sadness.  The Bible focuses instead on the concept of justice.  We must heal what it is in our power to heal because we share this world with one another.  That is the focus I have chosen for stewardship this year and it is also our best reason for outreach in this neighborhood.  God inevitably will require justice of us.  The evidence of our faithfulness is not just found in our own good behavior.  It is found in healing acts that reach into the world around us.

     It has probably occurred to you, as it has certainly occurred to me, that God expects a great deal of his Children.  Not only must we keep our own noses clean, but we must enter the same struggle with our neighbors that God faces every single day.  The world does not know God, and yet God calls it to life and loves it powerfully.  I would say to you that there is not a single day that God does not take up that challenge to love in a world that does not know God.  Jesus was a powerful attempt to reach us, and the Holy Spirit now regularly continues that work.  I like it that the Bible shows us God lamenting over our problems.  I think it is a biblical answer to that age-old problem, “How can a good God allow evil to have so much power in the world?” Is there another way to raise up responsible Children than to make and hold them responsible for what they do?   

     God’s lament is the cry of every parent whose child is misbehaving.  The Bible tells us time and again that God loves us and creation, that we will be held accountable for what we do in this world. I believe it, and the first reason that I believe it is that I am living in this mess down here.  I understand the commandments well enough to get it that our problems would at least be halved if we kept them—for our own sakes.  I don’t get cleaned up and come in here 50 Sundays a year looking my personal best for your sake.  I do it because I respect myself.  It’s the same reason we go to the barber and the beautician.  I keep the commandments to respect myself.  If it gives glory to God that is a good thing because I would like to do that too.  

     I don’t know where or when we started looking down on people who are struggling.  I have been a pastor long enough to have experienced the universality of personal struggle. The instruction to “walk a mile in his shoes” before we judge applies to everyone in this room, both the judgers and the judged.  One of the longest lasting problems of the judged is that they don’t feel worthy of love or success in a fundamental way.  The judgers have little concept of mercy.  When they are launched into their own struggles, they have no muscle for failure and recovery from it.  Both the judgers and the judged are leveled by change they can’t control. Jesus is as much a challenge to one group as the other—as the gospels faithfully demonstrate.  The judgers are out in force in today’s gospel.  Jesus powerfully defends the judged.  Even though his arguments will never satisfy the judgers, Jesus presents God’s point of view as ably as he can.  

     Jeremiah the prophet has been hammering the point for weeks now that God had a plan for creation that has run aground.  God is dealing with failure every day, so how God deals with this quandary should be instructive.  The judgers always expect us to bootstrap ourselves; God does not.  God is perfectly willing to help the worst sinners among us.  That is the point of these stories of lost sheep and coins.  The lessons show God calling and calling us to live by our operating instructions.  The heartbreak of God as generations ignore God’s pleas is revealed in Scripture.  I am a parent.  When my kids are in trouble, I’m in trouble.  That is exactly what Jesus sees and understands.

     I find it extraordinary that both judgers and judged have related control issues.  I had to learn as an adult what was mine to control and what was not.  Very simply, the only one I can control is myself.  Everything else is up for grabs.  I think a lot about God’s failures as a parent.  A judger would assert that God can’t possibly fail at anything.  This despite the fact several books of Scripture express that failure and God’s heartbreak over it vividly.  The judged do not believe that God cares, despite those very same passages.  Imagine Jesus in the middle of the over-achievers and the unbelievers, trying to represent the point of view the prophets have beaten to death long before his time.  This had to be frustrating.  Yet he makes his point so sweetly and simply.  There will be more rejoicing over the one who was lost and now is found than over the 99 who never strayed.

      Those of us who have a few valuables know very well what happens when we misplace them.  When was the last time you lost your debit card?  Hmmm?  Another simple example.  The relief we feel when we recover it—monumental.  God feels that loss for drug addicts and prostitutes.  God loves all of us and calls us to live well.

       Mention the word stewardship.  A nervous hush falls in every meeting in which I ask people to think and talk about it.  We run this Church to support a community of people in their religious life.  Living as God calls us to do is not easy. Taking the message of the gospel out into the neighborhood is harder still.  In fact, historically Christians have made a real mess of both, making God’s lament over his children quite understandable in our time.  Imagine the Prophet Jeremiah addressing the drug crisis. Those of us who deal regularly with addicts understand anger and futility are a regular part of the relationship.  My Mom absolutely could not allow my baby brother to fail, to fall flat on his face, and she was the worst boot-strapping judger I have ever met.  He had no chance to step out of the role of the judged. No opportunity to fail and learn about recovery, forgiveness, hope.  I understand the men criticizing Jesus today a little too well.

     Failure has a purpose.  Mom grew up in a time in which failure meant death.  She endured some very grim reality.  The rest of us are not usually faced with such dire circumstances.  Failure takes us down a peg in our own estimation if we allow ourselves to experience it.  Blame is something we do to turn away failure when we are not ready to take responsibility for what we do.  Blame is a pretty good sign of failure all around.  Failure to face loss and failure to take responsibility.  As an adult I supposed that much of Mom’s severity came from her fear for us growing up in this culture that she never really understood.  She was afraid we would be weak, afraid we would not learn to have faith and be loyal to family and faith, afraid our values would be too close to the pagan culture of America as she perceived it. A Nazi would see our freedom here that way, as something too loose, too permissive and ungoverned.  I have always seen it differently as the freedom to find my own way, exercise the talents God gave me.  Because of her upbringing I know of the struggle between permissiveness and freedom.  

     To forgive those who are sorry and humbly repent is not permissive, it is merciful.  Mom had to fortify that line between sin and grace and defend it. She carried grudges ably and long.  God does not.  What we do with this great gift is up to us.  If we take it up and believe in it, it we can be well and healthy in times of great turmoil. If we do not, we remain unchanged.  To be unchanged by God’s forgiveness is a loss to all of us.  St Paul tells us in the Letter to Timothy that he received mercy for his crimes because he acted ignorantly in unbelief.  God’s kindness observed his condition and offered mercy.  It is not mercy offered without judgment.  It is judgment tempered by kindness.  

      The judgers will never get this until they desperately need that mercy themselves.  Having observed the problem lifelong, I know that the judgers do their best to prevent the necessity.  Mom knew she was right with a certainty that most will not allow themselves. That certainty can give us permission to go too far.  Permission to strike out and to hit. Jesus named the judgers “whitened sepulchers.” Nicely painted outside, dead within.  

      I grew up with a judger who was a bully. I have always needed God’s mercy for both of us. When you love someone, someone who is wrecking lives with their need to control, the need for mercy is loud and clear to everyone around that person.  I believe it led me to take up my own spiritual journey. I have had a life-long need for mercy.  St. Paul believed that God understood his condition, and that understanding tempered God’s judgment of him.  In Scripture God’s responses are meant as guides for our own.  God’s lament over his children mirrors my lament over my Mother.  I have read everything I could find about her experience of the war. She was a storyteller as well.  Once I was old enough to understand more of what happened to her, I was able to be more merciful.  Mom never changed by a hair’s breadth her treatment of us.  We learned how to love her, refusing to let her beat us up.  As children we were helpless.  

     I want to go back to that image of Jesus struggling with both the judgers and the judged.  Both sinners, they may perceive themselves as sinners when things go badly enough. Loss and failure have the power to move us off the square and go looking for mercy.  It happened to me.  I would emphasize that I always wanted mercy for both of us, Mom and me, because I knew deep distress that our love for one another did not have the power to heal our relationship.

     All of us will experience that terrible mystery.  The love that is supposed to have the power to heal anything, can be rendered powerless by our issues.  With Mom it was always about controlling me.  She did not recognize boundaries to her power over us that might cause her to hesitate before letting loose her anger. The commandments are all about boundaries, setting good ones that give us warning when we are about to go off the reservation.  Jesus tells us that if we love him, we will keep the commandments.  I believe he was aware that sin can block the power of love.  If we want to let that power loose with full effectiveness, we must keep the commandments.  When we do that our own sin is less likely to get in the way of love.  With long practice I have learned to give mercy for the same reason I get up and dress nicely for church.  I respect myself.  God has been merciful to me.  I will not live as a dog in the manger. 

     God has that power in the Holy Spirit to turn bitter water into sweet.  By God’s treatment of me I learned about responding in love.  Scripture shows us God’s responses as a guide to our own, giving us guidelines for judgment.  There is little that God does not experience in the Bible.  God even learns and changes his approach for dealing with us.  Jesus is part of a fresh approach.  He came to show us the depth of the mercy of God.  We can look at the surface of the ocean, know it is deep but have no idea how deep it might be.  Jesus showed us the depth of God’s mercy.  

Sermon for 14 Pentecost 2019 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin