Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It’s Me, O Lord

Jer. 4:22; Ps 14;1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10[1]

I find it interesting that people, whoever they are, wherever they are, seem always to identify with the “Good Guys.” It doesn’t really matter who the “Bad Guys” are; most of us just automatically view ourselves as different from them. Of course, that makes it convenient for us. If we’re the Good Guys, then we can’t be wrong, can we? If we’re the Good Guys, what we do has to be right, doesn’t it. Yes, it’s very convenient when we can look at the human family and divide out the Bad Guys from the Good Guys, since whoever does the dividing tend to put themselves on the good side. That means that the “others,” those who are different, those who are less than, those who are simply on another “side,” are by definition “bad.”

We have all kinds of names for the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Whether we divide humanity along the lines of color, or class, or creed (as is so very common), we find all kinds of ways to label ourselves in such a way that we look “good” and others in such a way that they look “bad.” Religions are not exempt from this tendency to identify “us”—whoever “us” may be—as the Good Guys and “them” as Bad Guys—or at least not as “good” as we are. In the Christian faith, we are the “People of God,” whereas others are “Non-believers.” But how do we know that there is not something or someone in which or in whom they believe? The reality is that once “we” start identifying anyone who is “other” as an “unbeliever” or a “heretic” or an “infidel,” the door is wide open for “us” to assume that we’re on God’s side. In everything and in every way.

Take, for example, our Psalm for today. The Psalmist clearly speaks of the “others” when he rails against the “fools” who “say there is no God.” Even when he says, “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” (Ps. 14:2-3), he clearly has these “fools,” the “others,” in mind. He makes a clear distinction between the “fools” against whom he directs his rebuke and “God’s people” who are “the righteous” (Ps. 14:4-5).

If we stopped there, we could very easily feel quite satisfied with ourselves. If we’re the “We” in the “Us versus Them,” then we’re “God’s people,” the “righteous” who can look forward to God’s salvation. But if we compare the lesson from Jeremiah for today, “We” are in for a shock. There, the prophet rails not (only) against the “others” but also against “God’s people.” Listen for the word of the Lord: “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” (Jer. 4:22). Wait a minute. If they are “God’s people,” they have to be the Good Guys. They have to be on the right side, doing the right things. But the prophet in the name of the Lord strips away the pretense of self-righteousness by pointing directly at “God’s people” as the one who are in the wrong. And so crumbles the whole façade that the “Good Guys” are “God’s people” and the “Bad Guys,” are the “sinners.”[2] The inescapable truth is that it is we who have gone astray.

If we want further evidence that our neat division of people into categories falls apart in God’s realm, we should look at the Apostle Paul. Now, in this day and time, Paul is not just an ordinary human being. He is “Saint Paul.” He is “the Apostle Paul.” So our very language about Paul prejudices us from the outset. But listen to what he had to say about himself at the end of his life: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:13). Paul—the Apostle who had served the church for some 20 years at the time of writing this letter, says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief,” and that he was the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). And yet, this very same Paul, a self-confessed blasphemer (!), a self-confessed oppressor of God’s people (cf. Ps. 14:4!), and a self-confessed man of violence, says that in and through Jesus the Christ he received mercy. Now, so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking this is some kind of one-time exception, Paul says in fact that this is the whole point of all that God was doing in and through Jesus Christ: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)!

In fact, this very notion is the focus of Jesus’ debate with the Jewish leaders. They saw themselves as “God’s people,” as “the righteous,” as the “Good Guys.” And yet, here was Jesus hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners!” Believe me, in the eyes of Jesus’ opponents, the tax collectors were the ultimate “Bad Guys!” But Jesus insisted that God’s plan is to seek out those who are lost—those who need forgiveness for something horrible they may have done; those who need acceptance by someone in this world; those who just want a fresh start in life—and then to generously give it to them![3] Like any shepherd who leaves the sheep who are safe to look for the one that went astray, God looks for us—all of us—as long as it takes to find us. Like a widow turning her house upside down looking for ten percent of all stood between her and being destitute, God is that diligent and that passionate about seeking out those who have gone astray and transforming their lives with grace and mercy and faith and hope and love. And what happens when one person returns to the fold? All heaven rejoices (Lk. 15:7, 10)!

Even so, it may be hard for us to admit that we might not be as “good” as we’d like to think we are.[4] It is incredibly difficult to admit that we are the ones who have gone astray, that we are the ones who do wrong, that we are the ones who do not truly seek God. What happens when we take the risk of admitting that we have gone astray? We might think it would be humiliation and shame. But in fact, when we admit this—at least to ourselves—we find it liberating, not humiliating. We’re taking the first step toward a fresh start. The amazing irony is that when we admit that it is we who have gone astray, we find God’s mercy overflowing to give us new life.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/12/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-116.

[3] Cf. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 105: “God makes the first move, loving before people ask for love or even acknowledge their need for it. Long before we seek and turn to God, God seeks us out and turns to us.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:278, where he speaks of “the miracle of the almighty love of God” in that “the love of God always throws a bridge over the crevasse.”

[4] Cf. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, III: 208, where he quotes Martin Luther’s sermon on Peter’s denial: “No article of faith is harder to believe than the article which states, ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins’.”

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