This is the second sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find parts one and three here.
How do I find a loving God? That’s a question that people have asked themselves and the world for quite a while. One of the most prominent ones who asked that question was Martin Luther. He was a young man following in his father’s trade and he just really wanted to be good with God and the world and justice and all those things. We’re in the middle ages here in our little story and this little boy was afraid of going to hell. That’s what they did back in the day because the church told him, if you’re not a good boy you’re going to hell. He thought of God as punishing, judging and putting the bad guys into hell and the good guys into heaven as if God were a machine that judges like, this is right, this is wrong, you’re going here, you’re going there. Of hell, he had this vision of a place of fire and burning and torture, like they did with the witches because you hurt bad people. That was the plan so God must hurt bad people too because that’s what we want. That’s our sense of justice. Then, heaven was just a place of fluffiness and love and happiness and light. And the good place is what you wish for your nice grandma.
Luther was really afraid of hell and really wanted to go to heaven and he really wanted God to be just in the middle of all of that. He was afraid and then came a very pivotal moment for him when he was working in the fields and a thunder storm came up. You may have heard that scene or seen it in a movie. A lightning bolt hit the ground right next to him and he’s super afraid. It’s starts raining and it’s dark, lightning and thunder all over the place and he drops on his knees and prays to God and says, “Please God, if I make it through this, I’m going the monastery, I’m becoming a monk, I’m devoting my life to you and we should be good then.” Eventually, of course, he makes it through and becomes a monk.
That in itself didn’t save him, but it certainly got the world into trouble because as that young boy was looking for a loving God, he then became that monk. Eventually, he learned to read and study scripture and guess what he found? He found that loving God! And in the Bible he learned that there’s such a thing as free grace. Free grace means that you’re not going to hell. God loves you. God gives you grace for free. That changed his world, that changed everybody’s world because all of a sudden this middle age concept that the bad guys are going to hell, the good guys are going to heaven was out of the window. All of a sudden, God was not a judge, but a loving father.
A few centuries later, we also learned that, that is not an easy concept to grasp because if God is really all that all loving, that means that in heaven we are going to see people that we don’t want there. The ultimate struggle that people usually quote is, “do you really want to see Hitler in heaven?” You can put any name there you want. That’s just a very famous one for being one of the bad guys, but the answer of free grace is: Yeah, that’s just how it works. God is that loving. God is that forgiving. Grace is really free.
What if our relationship with God were all good? What if God wouldn’t hate us? What if God weren’t to judge us anymore because that was already done at the cross? Oh wait, that’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what happened. Our relationship with God is good. Nobody goes to hell. Free grace! That’s what Martin Luther discovered! That means that you are okay. You’ll be good. That also means that all your loved ones that already passed will be good. Everybody’s going to be alright. And again, that also applies to the ones where that is hard to believe. That drunkard of a brother that you have. He’s going to be alright. God’s love and forgiveness are bigger than our failures.
What Martin Luther did here is really turning our sense of justice upside down. He picked up a more ancient theme that was discovered long before him, and that is the concept of passive justice. Justice is not something that is given, passed out, but received. We receive justice from God. God declares us just, we are declared just by God. God says we are just, whether we do it or believe it or not. Justice is not something that we can do, we’re pronounced to be just. You cannot work your way to heaven, you cannot work your way to hell either. God calls us just no matter what. God puts justice in our hearts and our minds and declares us just. We are okay. This whole justice thing is not only about the hereafter, it’s not only about heaven or hell or whatever happens after here, but justice is also what happens right here, right now already.
Justice is uncomfortable. Justice calls out injustice because when we have the love of God in our hearts the way our scripture told us today, then we also know exactly what’s wrong. We can call out injustice and we’ve got to do that just like prophets always have. Prophets of the Old Testament clashed with the kings all the time over the causes of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens. When you think about it, those categories, we’ve always struggled with those.
Luther struggled with that, we struggle with them today. Widows, orphans and aliens. Prophets called out their kings like nobody else. In our election cycles speak this year, maybe it’s about women rights, funding for social services, and immigration. Maybe that’s our 21st century speak for widows, orphans, and aliens. You know what’s so remarkable about the widow, the orphan, and the alien? They’re the ones that don’t have a voice. They can’t speak for themselves.
When God puts justice in us, we need to use it. We need to use it to give a voice to those who don’t have one for themselves because the widow, the orphan, and the alien in ancient Israel, they were hardly people. A woman was only a full person if she was attached to a man and once that man died, she was a widow. A lost one that was eventually married by a brother if she was lucky, if not she was on her own without any family support. An outcast. Same for the orphans. If you didn’t have a family to belong to, you were on the streets. Eat whatever you find in the dirt. If you were an alien, you were not part of God’s people. You may not even have been a slave that was at least fed by his owner, but just like a dog in the streets. They couldn’t speak for themselves back in ancient Israel and they have a hard time still.
A woman doesn’t even need to be a widow to feel disadvantaged. For some reason or another, we still tell girls that they’re to dress pretty. As if that matters. We don’t tell boys that. We tell them they throw like a girl and by that we teach them how to do that. They don’t think about that themselves. We tell them what jobs we wish for them which just happen to be usually inferior to those we suggest to our boys.
When we went through church history in our confirmation class this week, I had three girls there and they rallied around one image, well it’s actually just a name on the wall, but that is Antoinette Brown. She was the first woman ordained into Christian ministry in the 1800’s. They rallied around that picture because it showcased for them that “yeah, women can really do great things and break through barriers and I want to be like that.” You can do anything you set your mind to as a widow, as a woman, as one who doesn’t have a voice.
Then in the guild this week, we learned about not the orphans per se, but about foster children. How they’re taken out of abusive families, they’re being put in the system and even then with all our progress and support they have, they’re still somewhat on their own. They still need advocates to speak up for them in court, they still need parents to pick them up out of that situation. They need advocates and resources that stand by them and speak for them, that are their voice because in the system they don’t have a voice for themselves. Still, to this very day, ancient problems are very alive.
When we look at the alien, I know that story all that well. I only finished being an alien a couple of years ago. Even getting resident alien status, a green card, that process took us three years and $9,000. Not everybody can do that. Not everybody has that kind of money and time just for a piece of paper that allows you to live the way you need to live. My immigrant story may have been hard and long, but for me it was just an investment. I was okay, but if you don’t have that kind of money and you’re just stuck and can never get your feet on the ground, always in the shadows, you got to hide in order to stay alive, that’s not how immigration is supposed to work.
Our response to the justice that God puts in our hearts by declaring us just, the passive justice that Luther learned, our response needs to be that active justice, that giving out justice, not the one that God has. God has passive justice, declaring us just, giving us justice in our hearts. The active justice that we dish out, where we judge, where we decide, where we do, we’re not supposed to use that to send people to heaven or hell with our morals, but to actually live up to the standards that God puts in our hearts. Our job is to live up to the justice that we were given.
Remember, God declared us just without any merit. Now our job is to respond by actively pursuing justice in our society and that is what Christianity in this day, as the emerging Christianity that we’ve become, does. The emergent church is profoundly shaped by justice work. The church of every age, and this age especially, is in the business of doing good. So the nagging widow that we heard in today’s story who keeps nagging the judge until he gives in, that’s our prototype for today. How can the church become a louder advocate for those on the margins? How can you learn to make such a noise for those who can’t speak for themselves, foster children, women, aliens? The key according to our parable seems to be that you have to be uncomfortable. If you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing it hard enough. If you receive praise for what you’re doing, you’re not pushing the right buttons. We need to feel uncomfortable with ourselves doing what we do and we need to make others feel uncomfortable when we call out injustice, otherwise we’re just pleasing ourselves.
The widow keeps nagging the unjust judge while the judge stands for God. And Jesus says if even that unjust judge helps that widow, how much more will God be on your side? The widow stands for us. Keep nagging, keep scratching your fingernails on that blackboard, make some noise. Wow, that widow could nag God so hard that we are given justice for free. That’s how hard we ought to nag the powers that be to show girls and young women that everything is possible, to provide safe and nurturing environments for all children, to provide all immigrants with affordable and speedy options. Let’s be loud. Let’s be uncomfortable. Let’s speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Amen.