Sermon Proper 22a 10-4-2020
October 4, 2020, 12:00 PM

Sermon for Proper 22a

 

Our Gospel today is grisly and gory.  Violent through and through: beatings, stonings, murders, and finally executions.  You might ask where is the good news in that.  But if we listen carefully with all our hearts, we begin to hear a message that will gladden our hearts.  First we have to look at the Gospel of Matthew from the beginning to the end.  We can't just take a few lines out of context.   In the powerful Sermon on the Mount,   Matthew speaks of an all inclusive, generous and loving God and he calls us to be like this compassionate, merciful and forgiving God:

I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of you Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

 

This is a stark contrast with our parable today in which God executes those who offend.   “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.”  Two different perspectives, you might even say two different Gods.  Which is the God who is with us?  Is one of these Gods false?  Or can these two very different Gods exist.  Or is God changeable so that sometimes he is harsh and sometimes he is forgiving?  You might think that is a pretty abstract question that has no impact on our daily lives.  But it isn't.  Let me tell you a story that happened to me.

I was working in a hospital in Olympia, Washington.  I was a chaplain and once I was with a sick and dying woman and her daughter.  The mother passed and I held the hand of her daughter as she wept and grieved over the passing of her beloved mother.  She told me about her mother, how good and kind she was, how she would do anything for anyone and frequently did, how she lived at church.  Everyone loved her mother.  Then she became silent.  “It is so sad,” she said, “that my mother will burn in hell.”  I was in shock, but I asked her what she meant.  She explained that her mother had never accepted Jesus as her personal savior, and so it was a sad fact that her mother would suffer the fires of hell for all eternity.  I replied that we had spent these last moments with her mother, who passed peacefully and happily and I believed into the arms of God who loved and cherished her.  She did not hear me.  And she had a double grief.  Not only did she grieve the death of her mother, but she also grieved her eternal damnation.  Such deep sadness.  Clearly the daughter believed in a different God than the God I believe in.

You see there are two Gods that we humans accept.  One is vindictive, maybe just; but cruelly just, a Lord High Executioner who metes out the death penalty to those who are unworthy of eternal life.  The other forgives 70 times 7 times and makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and definitely cherishes and loves all God's children,

If God extends love and compassion to all indiscriminately, then ought we to do the same.  But if the Godly way of establishing righteousness is to punish the evil doers, shouldn't we be doing the same also.  If you are right now saying to yourself, Father, before you make me choose one or the other,  what about Hell?  Doesn't the prayer book itself define hell on page 862?  Doesn't this make Hell an article of faith?  The answer is yes hell is therefore an article of faith.  There is a hell. But not so fast.  We believe there is a hell, but nowhere are we told that there is anyone in Hell.  So despite Dante's inferno where the population of hell is vast and as interesting as, well, hell, it is not an article of our faith that there is anyone in hell.

I choose to believe Matthew when he depicts an ever gracious God of boundless forgiveness, love, and patience, whose intent is to be ever with us in ever-widening circles of mercy. I know this can be hard to accept. Our sense of fairness makes it easier to relate to a God who exacts payment for sin and whose love must be earned.  An eye for an eye, right? If not, we risk giving free reign to the evildoers.

I watched the CNN documentary called John Lewis, Good trouble.  And I admired how Lewis dealt with those who beat him and jailed him for the lunch counter boycotts in Nashville.  I admired him for his courage as a freedom rider that got him beaten and arrested and sent to a work camp.  But always John Lewis believed in nonviolence.  He never waivered in his belief.  And he put his life and his body on the line, because he believed that no one was purely evil.  He believed that those who beat him and clubbed him would see the hurt and pain they inflicted and their hearts would be changed, that they would realize that they were already brothers and sisters,  John wanted to gain civil rights but more than that he wanted to gain his opponent as a coworker toward that end.  John Lewis teaches us so much about the love of God.

And isn't this why Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek: to give the one who slaps the opportunity to have compassion for the one who does not fight back‚Äč  And God who forgives us 70 times 7 times always gives us a second chance, a third chance and as many chances as we need to turn back to Grace, to know that we are already friends of God.   And even this violent parable that Jesus tells in today's Gospel is our Lord teaching us how urgent it is for us to know and love the God of love who made us for love and only love.  I feel God's mercy every day,  I feel God welcoming me home each time I go my prodigal way.  I feel God's  forgiveness for each and every sin I commit and there are so many.  That is why I believe in the God who loves us unconditionally, freely, inclusively, indiscriminately and eternally.  In Christ God teaches us we are already God's friends.   Amen.

 

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