There is a lot going on today: The Festival of New Beginnings. We want to start the program year off right, in a tropical paradise – with joy and celebration and a good meal!
There is a lot going on in your life: School, new jobs, new prognoses. You come today with much on your minds and much on your hearts, seeking a word to live by, a faith to stand firm on, a spirit to be empowered with and a community to belong to. Our mission is to help you discover your firm foundation in Christ- so that your life is shaped by joy and hope and generosity and peace and wonder!
There is a lot going on in our world: The 9th anniversary of 9/11. Pastor Jones. Frank Russo. The economy.
With all this going on, how do we stay grounded and keep our eyes focused and our minds clear? On the 12th day of September 2010, what do our scripture lessons say? They all are about judgment. It seems as if God’s vision for the creation is not being lived into.
From Jeremiah: “A hot wind is blowing…Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.”
In verse 22: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
And he goes on, “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.”
Those who believe that we, as a nation, have lost our moral compass read passages like this one – and see the judgment coming.
Psalm 14: “The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
These kinds of diatribes play – they always have and always will. In these latter days of political partisanship – as we throw political punches and we batter each other with biblical blows. And whether you are a fan of Sarah and Glenn or a fan of Keith and Rachel – we really get nasty, thinking we know; that it is self-evident. Jeremiah and the Psalmist, the Bible, Paul and Jesus would be on our side, are on my side.
To Pastor Jones, the judgment is very clear, but I cannot help but wondering – who and what is really being judged here? I think the response of another church in Florida – where there are hosting a dinner and inviting Muslims to table fellowship has more of the ring of the kingdom, no?
One has to be careful about judging. It has a way of coming around. Like the preacher who three times noticed a man asleep during his sermon and so he whispered: “All those who want to go to heaven, please stand up.” And of course everyone stood up except for the sleeping man. Then the preacher shouted: “and those who are going to hell, stand up.” And the sleeper awoke and stood up. The preacher standing in his pulpit said, “Brother do you know why you are standing?” And the man said, “No, but it looks like you and I are in the minority!”
Or when we see political or religious leaders railing against this or that, making very clear judgments and then we find that they have participated in the “this or the that,” and our trust takes another hit.
We love to judge. We do not like to be judged, however. When I feel judged it makes me want to find some wilderness spot to brood! It is part of our being to judge those who do not agree with our point of view and take some pleasure in so doing – whole television networks are built upon this flimsy foundation.
It is easy to cast aspersions upon those with whom we disagree, believing that their opinions are shaped by some nefarious intent. It is easy to say what is wrong, and be critical and point out faults and see the very worst in persons or in whole groups.
BUT, there is something profoundly agitating, when you read these passages carefully. The word of judgment is clear but the target is not what we expect. It is not Democrat or Republican, gay or immigrant, Muslim or whomever. Jeremiah’s diatribe is not about purity of living, or keeping the 10 commandments, or putting prayer back in schools. Rather, the judgment is upon those who neglect the poor, the wretched; those with no status or power, the expendables – in short the THOSE, the THEY. The whole of Psalm 14 if read carefully, dare say literally hinges on verse 6; “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.”
Jeremiah, true to his prophetic calling that he shares with Isaiah, Amos and Micah, declares God judges not so much on one’s religious perspective on this or that – but how the “marginalized” are treated. Jesus later said in Matthew 25, the mark of a blessed nation is how the “least of these my brothers and sisters” are taken care of. Being a Christian nation may mean something far broader then many of us might assume.
Throughout scripture from Genesis to Revelation care for the poor, inclusion of the outcast and living the “high life” of the Kingdom simply cannot be separated.
I always find this profoundly challenging – that the goal of Christ’s mission is to serve, to wash feet, to bring in the outcast, to turn over all possession and distribute to those who have less. To see with new eyes and think with a new mind who the Lord accepts and we reject. Sometimes I think we Christians worry too much about changing others so they are more like us instead of serving others so that our hearts grow large with compassion.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not ashamed of the cross of Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives. But remember Jesus’ first sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the POOR. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus proclaims the Jubilee, the seven year “itch” (so to speak) when debt was forgiven, and land was returned to its rightful owners.
I was moved by how Jim Wallis, one of my contemporary Christian heroes, responded to Glenn Beck. Wallis, an evangelical Christian wrote:
“You spoke about charity at your rally on Saturday. “Through the Old Testament it is clear that God requires compassion and charity from individuals, but God also requires justice from society….His prophets regularly challenged the priorities, policies, and behaviors of kings, rulers, employees, judges, and any leader (including religions ones) who practiced injustice and robbed the poor of their dignity and rights.
The leaders of his day were so upset with Jesus’ challenge to their status quo that they killed him. Would they have been so threatened if Jesus was just asking people to be better persons and volunteer more often? Jesus announced the kingdom of God, which would change everything – personally, spiritually, socially, economically, and even politically – not with a new government or program, but with a new way of living that included both love and justice.”
Preach it Jim!
And it brings me, to the Gospel today: The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus just has a way of confounding us all. Jesus was attracting the wrong crowd again; those tax collectors and sinners. He is always holding up in judgment AND compassion the “human” way of perceiving reality and the “Kingdom” way.
It is in our nature to try to identify who is in and who is out. It is our way to write clear policy so that there are few if any exceptions. We want to know what to do so we don’t make mistakes and get in trouble. The Pharisees and scribes know their scripture. They are good people – just like you and me. They are just trying to be careful. They knew and we know who the “they” are. My list of those I don’t want to eat with may be a wee bit different than yours – but we all have our lists. AND, at one time or another we have black listed, judged – I have been both the Pharisee and the outcast, and so have you.
And here comes Jesus indicating, I think, that salvation is more than just making someone fit for heaven. Salvation means having your identity restored. Salvation comes when no one is left outside, no sheep uncounted, no coin lost. We are not a whole community worthy of calling ourselves Godly unless we are all here. In the kingdom, no one is indispensable.
And here comes Jesus inviting folks to eat, to come to table. And certainly there are times when Jesus demands a change in behavior – woman caught in adultery, the rich young ruler, Nicodemus – but really consistently Jesus cares less about behavior and more about imagination. He wants to move us beyond narrow thinking, and prescription following – beyond fear into wonder, awe, and joy. Jesus wants everybody at the table and he is willing to lay down his life in order to extend the invitation.
Even with a so-called liberal in the White House, I find it interesting that there is always talk about the middle class and practically nothing about the poor; The real outcasts. Jesus says that if 1 sheep goes missing out of 100 then we go after that lost sheep. That is 1%. Here we live in a nation where well over 10% are out of work and in the inner cities it is much higher than that.
But here is another thing I love about Jesus, really this is one of the main reason that I have given my heart to him and want to walk his walk. In his judgment he is so un-judgmental. He tells the Pharisee and scribes NOT – you are out of the kingdom with your narrow thinking. It is more like – “LIGHTEN UP AND JOIN THE PARTY.” You are already righteous, you are already inside – don’t be stingy! Don’t worry so much, don’t let fear overwhelm love, don’t let suspicion overtake surprise, or law deny grace (which it simply cannot do!). BUT God is like a woman who goes nuts over a lost coin and then when finding it “wastes” it to throw a party. God is the shepherd leaving 99 at risk in order to go after the one who probably is going to always wanders off.
That is the kind of God we serve! The angels are jumping for joy.
It is about being found, people – you, found – loved, cherished, empowered, called. You people – beloved sinner, imperfect slob, broken, lost – it is for you that Jesus came – not to hand down a formula for salvation but to say, “Come and eat!” “Rejoice with me!”
As we head into the new program year – our mission is clear – welcome the outcast, serve the neediest, be generous, agitate for the poor, eat together often, and just have fun together; ride a rocket car and wear grass skirts – just be in the presence of the Lord and each other rejoicing, giving thanks, living the kingdom – the year of Jubilee starts now!
The judgment is coming. The judgment is here. So let’s get this party started!