Archives For Law and Gospel

Should’ve Stayed in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2018 — 2 Comments

Our guest preacher couldn’t make it this Sunday so I continued our fall sermon series by using Mark 10.17-32 and Jesus’ question to the rich young rule: “Why do you call me good?”

 

Stupid kid. I know all our teachers lied to us and told us that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but…I mean, really? “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”

Stupid kid.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich honor roll student from the suburbs comes up to him with a question. And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile millenial types. So Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.  

    ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus asks him: “Why do you call me good?” And then Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything last thing you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’

They watch the rich young man walk away.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s impossible even.’

Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.

And, this is only second place where the Gospels say Jesus loved someone, specifically.

He’s the only person Jesus loved, AND he’s the only person who refused to become a disciple.

Well-heeled people like most of us with our first-world problems always get hung up on the last part of this passage- Jesus’ bit about the 1-humped dromedary and the sewing needle.

But really, if we were paying close biblical attention then the only needle we should have heard was the needle scratching off the record when this stupid kid actually claims to have kept all 613 commandments. 

  613!  As in, 603 more than the ten commandments that I’m willing to bet $10 you can’t even remember and recite.

———————-

    It’s just not just the Top Ten:

Thou shall have no other gods but me. Thou shall not make for yourself any idol. Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God. Thou shall not commit murder. Thou shall not commit adultery.Thou shall not steal.

It’s not just the ones we like to etch in granite and hang in courthouses. Maybe we mishear Jesus’ exchange with this stupid rich kid and maybe we hang the commandments near jury boxes because we don’t understand what Jesus and the Apostle Paul both say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.

That’s not their purpose.

I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.

They’re not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. They’re not the means by which we transform the world. The commandments— they’re not a code of conduct. 

 The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it apparently failed to do that brown-nosing rich kid in Mark 10.

To accuse us.

Lex semper accusat, the Protestant Reformers said as a sort of shorthand. The Law always accuses. 

———————-

The mistake in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, the mistake in wanting to make Jesus’ own commands in the Sermon on the Mount instructions for us to follow is that, according to Jesus himself, the primary function of the Law is not civil or moral. 

The primary function of the Law is theological.

It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.

But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves as much as that sniveling brown-noser to whom Jesus prescribes a camel and needle.

And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street or because we gave that homeless guy a couple of bucks- we deceive ourselves.

And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Les Moonves at CBS did.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to another’s alleged vice, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what Jesus does to this rich young ruler. Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.

To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If   you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.” To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel,  then you’ve cheated on your wife.” He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.

And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it alot less great by trading out neighbor for enemy.  “You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”  

Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.

———————-  

Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions.

The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct. Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.

I don’t have any girl from high school accusing me of anything, I must be Kingdom material. 

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. That’s what the brown-nosing kid in Mark 10 doesn’t get: the righteousness required for you to acquire heaven— it’s more than keeping the commandments. It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you were before you were famous. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off.

It’s what’s in your head and in your heart. It’s your intentions not just your actions. That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom.That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says. And then, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:

You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”  

Preachers like me just love to wag our fingers at folks like you and exhort you from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but seldom do we quote from the climax of his sermon:

You must be perfect. 

As perfect as God himself. 

If you break even one of these commandments, the Kingdom of Heaven is closed to you. 

How’s that going for you?

———————-

“Good teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since my youth.”

Yeah. Right. 

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. “Why are you calling me good?” Jesus asks him, “No one is good but God.”

Christ’s point is that, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, we must measure ourselves according to God.

There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you. It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than him. It doesn’t matter that you never did what she did.

“Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because the Father and the Son both say that perfection is actually the obligation.  

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect.

You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life. Again—  How’s that going for you?

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what he does to this kid with a camel and a needle. Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.

Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you. Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Les Moonves and Paul Manafort and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake we make in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces. And it’s the mistake we make in mishearing this passage in Mark 10 as instructions to go and sell everything we own.

Even if we could sell everything we own and gave the money to the poor to follow Jesus—

we’d still fall far short of Jesus’ righteousness.

Even if we could do it, we’d still fall short.

———————-

The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.The commandments are not principles by which you live an upright life. The commandments are the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

By telling him to give away all his stuff and then come follow, Jesus is doing to this rich young brown-noser what Jesus does to all of us in his sermon on the mount. Giving us no other out, no other hope, but to throw ourselves on his mercy.

  

You might’ve seen the story in the news this week. After a year in exile, having been accused by the #metoo movement, comedian Louis CK did a surprise comedy set on a small stage last week. His first time before audience since his sin was exposed. 

In his statement to the NY Times, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:

“…I wielded my power irresponsibly. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”

Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.

Nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.

The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.

The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question: “How could God love someone like me?” 

I certainly don’t keep all 613 commandments, and I’d sure as hell never sell everything I possess, leave my wife and kids destitute, to follow after Jesus. How could God love someone like me?

When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.

———————-

The Protestant Reformation began 501 years ago next month, and one of the distinctives taught by the first Protestant Reformers was that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words: Law and Gospel.

And the Reformers taught the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel. Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes in scripture as “rightly dividing the word of truth.”  It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, the first Protestants said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.  

Distorting the Law and the Gospel— it muddles Christianity into a burdensome message (Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor) rather than a message that is a life-giving gift (God in Jesus Christ has given away everything for you). 

Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.

You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.

But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.

Focus on Law alone yields a God of exhausting exhortations and oppressive expectations.

The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose. So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental. And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians. It can only produce hypocrites. That’s why none of us should’ve been surprised to discover during election season last fall that the 10 Commandments Judge in Alabama was in fact a white-washed tomb.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.

Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality. “God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law. Christianity becames sentimental without the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.

———————-

Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.

Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting. Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.

Glawspel turns all of us into the rich young ruler in today’s passage, thinking we can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from Jesus.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you cannot achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will have no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.

The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.

The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.

The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.

The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.

For you.

The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or  exhaustion but recognition. 

The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel. And the Gospel is not Glawspel. The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached. The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.If sounds exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace. If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.  The Gospel simply repeats and celebrates the question: WDJD? What DID Jesus do?

———————-

He did what you cannot do for yourself.

Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it much less sell everything we got. Because behind closed doors, When we think the mic is off, In the backstage dressing room of our minds, And in the secret thoughts of our hearts- Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Les Moonves and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others. Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.

The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.

If Christ is just your teacher or example, as Martin Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because, let’s face it— his teachings aren’t all that unique and on their own (if he’s just a Teacher or an Example) his teachings just leave us in our sins. 

If Christ is just your teacher or example, Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He took that fear from you.

He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.

His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.

———————-

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

Here’s what you’re supposed to hear in this question Christ poses to us:

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

The stupid kid- the answer to his question is as obvious as it is elementary. What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Nothing. 

You don’t have to do anything. 

Just throw yourself on Christ’s mercy. 

Trust in his doing for you not your own doing for him.

“The Word of God is not rightly divided between Law and Gospel when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law.”

Any reader already knows the truth of it.

Adverbs are the tell of every found-out liar. I whole-heartedly apologize for any offense I might have caused…

Adverbs are the trademark of every dime-per-word pulp fiction story. Sam Spade braced the suspect’s shoulders menacingly. 

Notice, no children’s book worth the encroachment into bedtime employs the little modifiers that most often end in -ly, not because Timmy can’t handle sounding-out ‘swiftly’ but because adverbs aren’t needed for a good and true story.

In case you were sleeping boorishly in high school English class, Stephen King helpfully explains:

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

In On Writing Stephen King asserts that “Fear is at the root of most bad writing.” The fingerprints of the fearful writer are adverbs.

Thank Christ whoever crafted the wedding vows- Thomas Cranmer, I believe- had the cahones to avoid the adverbial.

Consider how the common, seemingly harmless little adverb transforms the marriage covenant from a clear and simple (if terrifying) promise into a Sisyphean endeavor I can never know if I’m upholding aright.

Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

vs.

Will you sincerely love her, whole-heartedly comfort her, genuinely honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, resolutely forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

The former is merely an enormous and outrageous promise.

The latter is psychological torture.

Implied by and requisite to the Gospel is that neither my will nor the rest of me is free.

Consequently, I am a stranger to myself.

Most especially am I in the dark as to the truth of my motivations.

Whereas Thomas Cranmer had a pair in Stephen King’s estimation, the authors of the United Methodist Church Book of Worship were not likewise endowed, for in our eucharistic liturgy what we give in the invitation to Christ’s table we take away with adverbs:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

King, in On Writing, says adverbs signal a timid writer because they betray the writer’s lack of trust in the telling of the story thus far. The timid writer must tell you X slammed the door menacingly because the timid writer doesn’t trust you can deduce the character’s menacing character from the preceding prose.

Similarly the authors of the UMC’s eucharistic liturgy betray a fear about a lack in the Gospel story that they seek to remedy with adverbs.

The Gospel’s all about grace but it can’t be cheap so we got to make sure they’re earnest about their repentance…

As the angel Gabriel all but says to Mary and the shepherds, fear is the opposite of the Gospel. So then, the adverb doesn’t just weaken the Gospel- and the sacrament of which it is a sign- it transforms it.

From Good News to Bad.

From an invitation to the Table of Christ who is the friend of sinners, full stop.

To an invitation to the Table of Christ who is dinner date of sinners who really, truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, resolutely repent of their sins.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is the Risen Christ’s invite to his Table, a Christ who initially provokes death threats precisely because he ate and drank (too much) with recalcitrant unrepentant sinners and prodigals who had not yet come to themselves.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is an invitation to his Table, where we feast on the bread and the wine which are the visible words of his full and final, once-for-all, forgiveness of your sin.

Where does a treasonous adverb like earnestly belong in such an invitation or on such a Table?

An adverb like earnestly makes your welcome to Christ’s Table conditioned not on the completeness of his cross for you (which happened objectively outside of you) but conditioned upon the sincerity of your interiority.

Of course, the bitter Gospel rub is that, apart from the Gospel and its edible form, you’re in absolutely no position to assess your interior state.

If Christ does not welcome me to his Table of visible, edible Gospel forgiveness until I am certain of my subjective earnestness about repentance of sin and neighbor love then, quite simply, the Eucharist is not a means of Grace but a work of the Law, in which case I’m relieved most United Methodist Churches ignore Wesley’s admonition about constant communion. Church-goers don’t deserve to be burdened with adverbs like earnestly on the daily basis Wesley would admonish we take communion.

Let me make it plain.

Here’s why we need to stop serving adverbs at the Table:

  1. The wine and bread are visible, tangible, edible signs of a promise that lies outside of us. Adverbs drive us to look within, the very opposite trajectory of the salvation to which the Table points. The truth of the Table is not determined by your disposition; therefore, the invitation to the Table cannot be premised upon the earnestness of your disposition. The strength of our faith; in other words, lies not in the strength of our faith but in the object of our faith, Jesus Christ and him crucified for un-earnest us.
  1. The New Testament witness is that we are prisoners to the Power of Sin (Romans 3) such that the good we wish (like coming to the Table in earnestness) is the good we cannot will (Romans 7). In bondage to the Power Sin, we’re in no position whatsoever to assess our ‘earnestness’ for repentance. As sinners we deceive no one else more so than ourselves. To staple a subjective inventory to the invitation is to insist upon something we cannot do and will only do in sin apart from the grace offered in the visible Gospel of bread and wine. The bitter irony of our adverbial invitation is that the very thing provided by the sacrament (sincerity of repentance given by God) is made a precondition to come to the sacrament.
  1. The adverb switches the agency. Earnestly. Sincerely. Whole-heartedly. The adverbs shift the focus from what God in Christ has done for us, once-for-all, to what we must do now for God. Adverbs make a hollow mannequin, says Chad Bird, that we nail to the cross in Christ’s place. We imply through the adverbial invitation that it’s the sincerity of our contrition that merits our seat at the Table. Because sinners like us can never know if we’re sincere enough, earnest enough, whole-hearted enough but the promise of the Gospel, made tangible in wine and bread is that Christ is the only enough. Adverbs are spiritual quicksand. Christ’s word of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness is solid rock that creates earnest repentance.

“The adverb is not your friend,” warns Stephen King.

Indeed perhaps no where is the adverb more your enemy than when the adverb comes between you and the banquet of heaven, duping you into believing that repentance is your work at all.

This is what the street preachers and most other preachers get wrong.

Repentance is God’s work.

As Chad Bird notes, God repents us is the better way to understand it.

Repentance is not a work we perform (or a decision we make or a disposition we determine). Repentance is a gift Christ gives. As with the Ninevites, as with the crowds at Jesus’ baptism, repentance is made possible by God’s encounter with us. Repentance is being encountered by God (in his word in the case of Jonah, in Christ in the Gospel of Mark and, for us, through word and sacrament).

The repentance insisted upon in our invitation is the same fare served up by the street preachers, and the reason the street preachers rub us the wrong way is that it’s bad news.

It throws all the work back on us and our ability to repent- that’s what leads to judgementalism; it’s works righteousness.

If my repentance is something I can accomplish then I’m liable to be judgemental about others who couldn’t or chose not to.

The good news is that none of us can repent on our own, we’re all lost sheep in the process of being found and the fact that God repents us regardless how earnest we feel about the matter is proof- in the eucharist, tangible edible proof- that God’s complete forgiveness is always prior to our repentance. The latter the product of the former.

Jesus Christ eats and drinks with sinners. This is his Table 

You’re welcome. 

No adverbs necessary.

Divine Amnesia

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

 I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.

Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.

And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.

Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.

I’m going to get emails about that.

My point is-

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.

It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.

     The Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis.

This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.

Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.

Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.

When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:

Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.

That’s Exodus 1.9

Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.

That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)

So what’s Pharaoh do?

He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.

He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.

Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.

Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.

And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.

A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.

I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.

And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.

The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.

In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.

God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.

You have a duty to be for them too.

You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.

You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”

It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.

And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.

Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.

Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.

It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.

It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.

God is for them.

You have a a duty to be for them too.

Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.

It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.

It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.

     It would be simple to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture, but I wonder- would it be the Gospel?

     Or would it-

     Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel

and turn it into a burden?

Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?

Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”

——————-

     In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.

Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.

We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.

After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.

With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.

Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.

The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.

He was wrong.

Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”

Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse.  It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”

In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”

McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”

And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”

What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.

It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.

Says McClay:

“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…

Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.

Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…

In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”

McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.

We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”

But…he says

As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.

If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.

———————

     The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-

It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.

It’s true-

God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.

And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?

For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.

St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.

Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:

The Law always accuses.

     That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.

The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.

“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”

The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.

———————

     The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.

God is not a Pharaoh.

The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.

You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s not news. That’s moralism.

     What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel-  is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not. 

    The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.

God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.

God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.

God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.

God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.

This never stops being true for you.

No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.

God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.

Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).

It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.

The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.

This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.

     It’s God’s grace.

     It’s the gift we call the Gospel.

     And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free (Robert Capon).

     It’s free.

———————-

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:

“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.

Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?

One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”

That’s a history professor, not a preacher.

Translation:

The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear.  The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.

Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.

The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.

By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.

Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not the Law.

The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.

Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.

The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.

The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”

This news-

This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.

You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).

This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.