Sermons That Work

One of the Hallmarks…, Proper 5 (A) – 1996

June 02, 1996

One of the hallmarks of modern society is a yearning after justice. Or at least we like to hope–or perhaps pretend–that it is. Justice is an ideal that stands over our political systems and it is the standard against which those systems are judged. We pray for justice: “I ask your prayers for peace; for goodwill among nations; and for the well-being of all people. Pray for justice and peace. Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, n the ways of justice and peace…” We pray “for the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.” And in the streets we chant the refrain, “No justice, no peace!”

We see economic oppression, violence and war as signs of injustice. We criticize as unjust a social order which institutionalizes discrimination. We identify and attempt to change laws and attitudes which fall short of the standard of justice.

For justice is about fairness. It is about treating people equally. One way of defining justice is that it is about getting what you deserve, no more, no less. It is a simple equation. Therefore, in a just democratic society, everyone is equal. In a just capitalist society, you get what you work for and earn. Conversely, in a just socialist society you get what you need. However you postulate the terms of justice, the definition still holds: each person gets what she or he deserves, nothing more, nothing less.

This manner of thinking is so deeply ingrained in our political consciousness that it spills over into our moral categories. It is justice that a lawbreaker be punished. It is justice that someone who does not have a job goes hungry. It is justice that the good person prospers. In a just society, then, whatever happens to the individual must be the result of that person’s behavior.

Now, I am the first to admit that our society is not a paragon of justice. People lose jobs not because of their actions, but because of economic forces and fiscal decisions beyond their control. People are trapped by discrimination in poverty-filled ghettoes and not provided with the education and opportunities to compete that justice would require. There are unjust laws and greedy people get rich.

While the standard of justice has value for evaluating our social and political lives, I think that it has its limits. In particular, I think it has its limits for those of us who profess to follow Jesus. It has its limits for us because justice–giving people what they deserve–ultimately is not our standard. To be sure, Christian ethicists through the ages have attempted to articulate what a just society would look like in Christian eyes. But for Christians, justice is secondary and the outgrowth of another standard. That other standard is faithfulness.

Two of today’s lessons comment on this standard which overrides justice as the ultimate arbiter of human relations.

Hosea is talking about faithfulness in today’s lesson. To be more precise he is talking about the lack of faithfulness. It is true that he doesn’t use the word “faithfulness”, but he uses a Hebrew term which encompasses much more. The word is “hesed” (pronounced with two short e’s). Hesed is a key word in our vocabulary of faith. The usual English translations are “steadfast love” or “love” both used in today’s lesson. This steadfast love is the defining characteristic of the covenant between God and God’s people. In the covenant both parties–God and the people–display hesed to each other. Displaying hesed means being steadfast, being truthful, being loyal; it means loving, it means keeping one’s promise, it means being faithful. Hosea is pointing out to the people of Israel that they have not displayed hesed. He says “your love (hesed) is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” Their hesed is a fleeting thing, wispy like the morning mist or fragile like the morning dew both of which are driven away by the heat of the sun.

But God’s hesed remains constant. It is steadfast love. And because God’s love remains steadfast, even in the face of those who do not display faithfulness, it also contains within itself the understanding of mercy. Only a merciful, forgiving partner could continue to keep faith with an unfaithful partner. For Hosea, then, God is in fact merciful, steadfast love.

And Hosea says, this is what God wants from us. “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Moreover, the merciful, steadfast love which God desires from us is to define not only our relationship towards God, but also our relationships towards each other.

That this is so is made explicit in the Gospel reading from Matthew. There Jesus is doing a scandalous thing. He, a good and righteous man, is eating with tax collectors and sinners. Sitting at table and sharing a meal is an act of intimacy. As a rule we shun eating with people we don’t approve of. It was no different in Jesus’ day. And the Pharisees, who were also good and righteous, took Jesus’ disciples to task for his behavior. Jesus does not deny that his table companions are sinners. In fact, he asserts that it is the sick who need a physician, not the healthy. He then tells them to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinner.” Matthew here has Jesus quoting the Greek version of Hosea which translates “hesed“, “steadfast love” as “mercy”. Jesus’ standard, then, for us is to display mercy and steadfast love even to those who do not deserve it. In other words we are not to be just, we are not merely to give people what they deserve, but we are to be merciful and steadfast in our love for others.

Why? Well, in the first instance we are to use that as our standard of living because that is the standard Jesus displayed in his relationships with others. And because Jesus displayed merciful, steadfast love that shows us what God is like.

God is merciful, steadfast love. That is how God relates to you and to me. For in God’s relationship with us, God chooses not to be just, rather God always chooses to love us with a steadfast mercy that we can not deserve nor, for that matter, can we get away from.

Yes, God chooses not to use justice as a standard. God chooses not to be just but to be a steadfast, merciful lover, for to be just only means that you give to every person what that person has coming on the basis of her or his behavior. And justice for us would mean condemnation pure and simple, no questions asked, no excuses accepted, a cut-and-dried case, because again and again we fall short of steadfast love of God and our neighbor, because again and again we fail to show mercy.

God chooses instead to use mercy and steadfast love as the standard. But what does God’s mercy and steadfast love look like for you and for me?

When we show mercy, it is something akin to pity. We are kind, we provide relief, but nothing really changes. The poor we feed are still poor, the sick we comfort are still sick, and most especially, we remember what we have done.

God’s mercy is not like that. It is total and complete, and everything changes as a result. And, moreover, God chooses not to remember what things were like before God gifted us with the grace of mercy.

And what does that mercy look like? Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet on PBS and the Faith and Values channel and also a Methodist minister, tells this story. He was driving one day in rural Washington state and stopped to allow a herd of sheep to cross the road. As he watched, the phrase “Lamb of God” drifted through his mind. Unable to contain himself, he jumped from the car and asked the shepherd, “What does ‘Lamb of God’ mean to you?”

Although probably startled to be greeted by such a query from a complete stranger, the shepherd answered without missing a beat.

“I know exactly what ‘Lamb of God’ means,” he said. “Each year at lambing time, there are lambs and ewes who do not make it. Inevitably, on one side of the field is a ewe whose lamb has died. The ewe is filled with milk but will not nourish any lamb she does not recognize as her own. Just as inevitably, on the other side of the field is a lamb whose mother has died. That lamb will starve because no ewe will accept and feed it. Working quickly, the shepherd takes the dead lamb and skins it and places the still warm and bloody fleece of the dead lamb over the living lamb. Recognizing the scent of her own lamb now covering the stranger, the ewe will nurse and save the orphaned lamb. She adopts it as her own as if it had always been her own. Through the gift of the lamb who has died, the living lamb is recognized and restored to the fold, nourished, and saved. That is the ‘Lamb of God’.”

So it is with us.

John Calvin, one of the great theologians of the Reformation, tells the same story in this way to illustrate God’s mercy and steadfast love. When we stand before the throne of judgment, the mercy seat, the stench of our sins, of our unfaithfulness, of our lack of love, rises like a foul odor. It is as if we are offensive to the nostrils of God. But God reaches out his loving arm and covers us with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who envelops us in himself as in a cloak, so that we are entirely covered by his loving embrace like lost lambs covered in the fleece of Jesus. And, Calvin says, the sweet smell of Jesus rises like fragrant incense to God’s nostrils and when God looks on us God does not see who we were. Now God only sees Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God.

God welcomes us into God’s loving arms as the ewe welcomed her lamb who was dead but is now alive. Our former selves are no more; we are new creations in Christ, children of the living God.

And knowing that faithful, merciful, steadfast, undeserved, eternal and everlasting love of God, changes us. Justice ceases to be our standard, rather we stretch out our hands in love and mercy to all the world in order to show forth in our lives the love and mercy that God always and forever shows to us.

And yes, that includes those who don’t deserve it–just like you and me.

Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

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Christopher Sikkema


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