Sunday, November 27, 2016

It's about God's Goodness (Not so much about ours.)

10.23.16  Rev. Kirsten Sermon

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22

These passages today seem to be about sinners and their relationship to God.  In the passage from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear:

We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.

In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Jesus lifts up the tax collector as the one who repents his sins and humbles himself before God—he is favored and the Pharisee who pretends that he has done everything according to the law will not be exalted.  It seems that these passages are primarily about our sin and our repentence.  The letter to Timothy talks about the Lord’s righteous judgement,  These passages suggest a sermon on repentence and what it means to humble ourselves before God. 

But a few years ago at a preaching conference, I heard a brilliant lecture about preaching from the Rt. Rev. Rob Wright who is now the Bishop of Atlanta.  One thing from that lecture has stuck with me—he said, people come to church to think about God, to be with God, to know God working in their lives.  He reminded us that there is too much preaching about what we feel, what we do, what we suffer.  He highlighted bad preaching about psychology, or philosophy, or morality.  He encouraged us to talk about God, to focus on Jesus Christ and listen for a message about God working in our lives. And so, with Rev. Rob’s voice in my ear, I ask what these passages might say to us about God. 

All three of these pericopes seem to point our attention both back at human failings and forward to God’s hope.  Consider first the pseudo-Pauline letter to Timothy. The letter considers Paul’s persecutors and remarkably hopes that God will not judge them too harshly.  Instead of looking at human failings—our own or those of others, the author now focuses on the hope of righteousness.  The letter shifts us from thinking about the human behavior to thinking about God’s behavior.  The author is looking forward to God’s righteousness, the promise of new life. 

“[A]ll deserted me. May it not be counted against them!”. . .
 “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
 “The Lord will rescue me  . . . and save me for his heavenly kingdom.” 

Our passage from Luke begins with the reason that Jesus tells this parable:  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  Jesus is dealing with the human tendency to think about God in relation to our own goodness.

The shift in our perspective must be towards God’s goodness—not a God who will favor our goodness.  Righteousness is not about our behavior, it’s about God’s behavior.   Judgment is also not about ranking our fellow humans, it is about God’s work of bringing us all into God’s realm.  When the letter to Timothy gives the hearers the hope of “crown of righteousness”—it is not a reward for good behavior, it is a promise that God is bringing God’s people into righteousness.

If we really focus on what God is doing, then our motivations may change.  Instead of struggling to choose good behavior over bad, motivated by a fear of judgment we shift to thinking about the promise of crown of righteousness and our work to build up God’s Kingdom here.

Let’s get really concrete about what this shift might mean in our lives.  I have been having conversations with friends and listening to the media conversation about the crisis of our prison population.  Why is it that so many people are in prison?  Our popular culture suggests that they have been fairly judged by our American justice system.  They deserved to be in prison.  Those of us on the outside have been good.  Those on the inside have been bad.  We’re now running out of room in our prisons and our governor is thinking about how to reward “good behavior” in prison and release some with lower level offenses if the system deems that they have repented and improved themselves while they are in jail.  The discussion about prison reform is still all about good people and bad people.  Some need to be punished—and prison is the punishment.  What would happen if instead of focusing on human judgment, we focused on God’s righteousness.

Maybe our discussion about the needed prison reform would focus on education that all children and young adults need.  If everyone was getting a top notch education, the recidivism and crime would decrease.  The people who today end up judged as “criminals” would have been encouraged in their work to build up the community.  We have so many examples of this work.

A few weeks ago we heard an interview with an actor who was formerly incarcerated.  He was playing Othello and talked eloquently about how his study of Shakespeare and his acting allowed him to communicate and lift up others who might face the same hardship that he had faced in his life.   We read the foreward to the Prison Cookbook and saw that the people were cooking with ingredients from the commissary or the vending machines.  These are terrible recipes, but they capture this sense of shared humanity,  a gift that one inmate can give to another, an expression of God’s righteousness working in that community.

As we shift our focus from human judgment to God’s righteousness, we may find ourselves experiencing new compassion for God’s people.  Think of the friends, neighbors or members of our community whom we judge—“She always makes bad choices.”  “He’s been given so many chances and failed.”  “They surround themselves with bad friends.”  What if instead of judging them, we looked to see the ways that they were working with God.  Maybe they are the caregiver in their circle?  Maybe they are following a path that is unconventional but truly God’s work in a difficult place.  Instead of labeling them bad, what if we look with God’s eyes and see the righteousness that is theirs?

Our Gospel message today helps us consider the humility of the tax collector.  His humility is not in the way that he acknowledges his sin.  Instead his humility is in the recognition that God’s righteousness is paramount.  Instead of doing a human evaluation and weighing sins against good deeds, the humble tax collector looks instead to God’s righteousness. 

Like the tax collector, we are called to participate in that righteousness.  Like the author of the letter to Timothy, we can know that the “crown of righteousness” is ready for us, this is God’s work—building us up and working with us to bring new life, forever.


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