Law and Gospel in Our World

traditional sermon pentecost 19

I can be a bit judgmental.  Some of you here will not believe that because you think I am nice.  Some here (who will remain nameless) … who know better … some who work with me … they know better.  They have heard me judge everyone and everything from the people driving on the road in front of me, to religious leaders that spew theological nonsense, to movie stars that should stick to reading scripts.  Quite simply said … sometimes I am not a nice person.  Take me at my word … I may be judgmental but I am not a liar.

I had one these judgmental moments a couple of weeks ago while driving.  (What a surprise that I am judgmental in the car, right?)  Part 1 of the “moment”.  I pulled up behind a car with a bumper-sticker than looked like this.

Now I get it … it’s a good message.  I happen to believe that three of the symbols in the “coexist” message should easily co-exist.  Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share at least part of the Old Testament, as we call it, and have a significant number of shared core religious values.  I know a little bit about Taoism, and the ying-yang symbol is not so far away from the Lutheran concept of the dialectic nature of life – the teaching that good and evil are both at work in the world struggling to control our lives.  In general, I’m a believer that far more unites us in life than separates us.  But every time I see this bumper stick I think of Rodney King in the early 90’s and his “can’t we all just get along” comment.  It was a lovely thought … but a simplistic comment that isn’t achievable in the world as we currently know it, just by wishing it to be true.  And so I found myself judging this poor woman in the Volkswagen Beetle in front of me as a spiritual Rodney King, who had no idea of how much work her Coexist bumper sticker was going to take to even approach some level of success.

That was Part 1 … here is Part 2 of my “Moment.”  The next day while going to the hospital, I saw this bumper sticker on the back hood of what looked like a pretty beat up old Honda Accord.

While I don’t know as much about the Contradict Movement, I am aware this it is an outgrowth of the evangelical-fundamentalist arm of the Christian Church, and seeks to establish Christianity as the only valid world religion on the planet.  It is overly and unashamedly judgmental in its message about the using historical-forensic methods to determine the factual truth of Christianity over every other world religion.  So this time, I found myself judging the judgmentalism of this guy and his judgmental faith.

It’s an all-you can eat buffet in the Judgment Cafe these days – there is plenty of food going around to feed your appetite for judgment, if that is your cup of tea.  You could say that judgmentalism comes easily these days because of Bible stories like today’s Gospel Lesson, and in honesty, the Gospel Lessons from our last couple of Sundays.  Some scholars call this section of parables in Matthew’s Gospel, “the judgment parables of Jesus.”  Cause they each have a bit of a hard edge, right?  The Vineyard Owner last week, the Two Sons the week before that and even the Vineyard Workers the last week of September.  Today’s is no exception – we have this king who hosts a wedding feast for his son and then completely over-reacts when those invited don’t come … unless you think burning down their town is a sensible response.  Then on top of that, the king invites people off the street to join him for the feast, but randomly tosses one poor soul out into the streets because he wasn’t wearing a proper wedding garment – to a wedding he had not been invited to until that moment.  Scholars remind us that Matthew the evangelist has tweaked these parables of Jesus to serve his message of judgment against the Jewish people.  But apart from that, these are harsh stories – and we are people of grace, right?

The answer of course is yes … we are people of grace.  But maybe that is not a complete answer.  In two weeks we will formally observe the 500th anniversary of the Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses for debate and discussion in the Church of his day.  And when Luther described the life of faith in a fallen world, onew way he did so using the phrase “Law and Gospel.”  The purpose of the Law was to judge sin, and the purpose of Grace was to forgive sin.  It was his way of reminding us that life in this world is defined by a rhythm between good and bad, faith and disobedience, light and darkness.  Pray as we might, Luther knew we would never eradicate evil from the world in which we live … it is sewn into the fabric of creation since the dawn of humanity.  Sometimes the darkness is the product of our sin … and is seen when we betray our loved ones … or when we hoard our resources when others struggle to live … or when someone indiscriminately shoots up a town like Las Vegas and kills dozens and wounds hundreds more.  Sometimes the darkness is the product of this created world gone bad … and is seen when a storm cripples a continent, submerging islands and flooding mainlands … or when a baby dies in utero … or when a young father develops cancer in the middle of a life filled with sound, healthy choices.  And so Luther’s belief was that God’s law does call out the sin in the world, whether it is seen as the world mis-firing or humanity mis-behaving.

But of equal importance in Luther’s theology … is the claim that God also speaks a word of grace in the world, offering forgiveness where there is disobedience and hope where there is despair.  We see the balance this morning in our 10:45 liturgy.  We baptize two children with these words … By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ.  What can be more innocent that two babies coming to this font of living water?  Yet we name the sin in our lives … and their lives … we name it for what it is, knowing that only the Word of God which carries the grace we so desperately need, can free us and save us from ourselves.  To date, I suspect, you have heard no good answers to the tragedy in Las Vegas, because there are no good answers … or for Charlotesville, or for our recent storms, earthquakes and fires..  We live in a world that is broken … a world that will never be perfect or fair … a world that will probably always have gunmen and suicide bombers and predators walking around side by side with you and me.  But we also live in a world where God does not allow evil to have the last word … but brings judgment to boundary that evil where possible, and grace to fuel forgiveness where possible.  Maybe that is the message from the parable we read earlier from Matthew.  That the world is messy … and chaotic … and sometimes unfair.  But that God is present with us in the chaos and mess, calling us to good choices, and forgiving us when we cannot make them.

This past Thursday, Pr. Sarah and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Theresa Latini speak about her new role as the president of our new United Lutheran Seminary – a joining of the Gettysburg and Philadelphia seminary campuses into one unified school.    She offered a number of good and provocative thoughts for the ministry she begins among us.  But two struck me as profound.  The first was in response to a question about how a Lutheran seminary can thrive in a culture of many religious voices.  And her response suggested that the answer was not boiling down our connectedness to a series of least common denominators for the sake of a shallow unity, but instead to engage in the hard and diligent work of wrestling with our differences and finding ways to connect through them and in ways that do honor to them.  It was a statement of law that seeks to hold us accountable to the heritage that has formed our faith.  She also responded with these words, in response to the question everyone asks about how a seminary can offer an answer to the senseless violence in our world.  I’ll quote her here:  We are to be about healing and reconciliation in the world, whatever the circumstance.  A word of grace, if ever I have heard one.  Law and Gospel, sin and grace, spoken potently and clearly in a world that needs it.  This is the kind of soil in which Christians can experience the growth of hope and peace in our lives.  Amen.

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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.

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