27 February 2011

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany - "Foundations"

How many of you have seen a sign like this in the various places you’ve worked or studied so far in your life?

I’ve had a couple of industrial jobs in my life, and the “lost time accident” sign is pretty common to all of them.  (By the way, image searches for “lost time accident” can be gruesome.  Consider yourself warned). 
We understand the concept, don’t we?  Safety is important – so much so that it’s worth promoting through public reinforcement.  The problem is, what happens when someone does have an accident?  What happens when the foundation of your efforts to promote safety blows up in your face?  Worse yet, imagine what it would be like if our churches operated on the same principle?
We’re talking about foundations today.  There’s a human foundation built on justice, balance and fair compensation under which most of us operate on a daily basis – and some of us can do it quite successfully most of the time.  Until we can’t, at which point the foundation begins to shift, and you engineering and architecture folks know better than I do what happens when foundations are no longer solid.  Jesus and Paul both looked at this human foundation with criticism, and in their words to their listeners, we can see that both Jesus and Paul knew the weakness of our foundation, and they wanted to see our lives rebuilt in a better fashion.  Getting there, however, requires giving up much of what we think is so essential to our communal existence as God’s people.
Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  Jesus isn’t just talking about common knowledge:  Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy all provide casuistic principles under which some crimes are to be handled in this way.  Casuistic law is the type of law that says, “If X happens, the punishment should be Y.”  The passage in Deuteronomy goes so far as to say that if an accuser brings a charge against his neighbor, but is found to be doing so with malicious intent, the punishment inflicted on the false witness is precisely what the accused would have received if the charge had been proven true.  The Bible reads, “So shall you purge the evil from your midst.  The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shal never again be committed among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” [1] 
This is just.  It’s fair.  The preventative effects of laws like this work both ways: a guilty criminal is justly punished, a false accuser gets punished for injuring his neighbor’s reputation, and in all cases retribution is limited.  The injured party can only go so far in extracting justice from the situation.  One could even make the argument that in a society where those in power often killed their enemies AND that enemy’s entire family to prevent vengeance, this seemingly harsh law could actually be considered merciful and prudent.  But this “fair justice” is also limited: no casuistic law can ever cover every eventuality, no matter how well-written or well-interpreted.  When God’s people choose to bind their lives to strict interpretation of the law in this way, there is very little room for anything resembling pity or mercy.  By way of example, let me tell you about Randy Reeves. 
Randy Reeves murdered Victoria Lamm and Janet Mesner in 1980.  Reeves had known Mesner his entire life – there was a connection of sorts between Reeves and the Quaker Meeting where Mesner was a member.  At the time of his arrest, Reeves had a BAC of .24 and said he did not remember anything that happened that evening.  He was sentenced to death and spent the next 18 years filing appeals for commutation of the sentence to life in prison.  As his last appeals were being denied, the families of his victims decided to act – on Reeves’ behalf.
“Gus and Audrey Lamm [Victoria’s husband and daughter] made numerous public appearances at churches and schools, spoke to community groups and gave dozens of press interviews. Lamm said that 'execution was the antithesis of what my wife would have wanted.' The Mesners and the Lamms asked the tough-minded Parole Board to recommend commuting Reeves' sentence to life imprisonment. The Parole Board made a non-binding recommendation to spare Reeves' life, but the final decision was left to the Board of Pardons, consisting of the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general. The panel decided not to hear testimony from the Mesners and the Lamms and denied Reeves' clemency request.
Having devoted two months to trying to save Reeves's life, Gus and Audrey wanted a face-to-face encounter with him. Unbeknownst to them, Reeves had written a letter to them. He gave the letter to his attorney and asked her to give it to the Lamms after his execution. But the attorney  decided to give them the letter just before the encounter. Reeves wrote, "Your presence, your words, your actions, have brought your wife, your mother, alive to me in a away that has not existed for me before ... I have never been able to heal the pain inside me over my actions ... I would not ask for your forgiveness, let alone your pity. I do not have the right, nor the courage, to ask for it. All I can do is tell you of my sorrow. Thank you so much for what you have done."
In May 2000, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Reeves. Four months later, the Prosecuting attorney decided not to pursue the death penalty. A three-judge panel sentenced Reeves to two life sentences.”[2]
What’s the most popular image of justice you can think of?

Precisely.  We want this to be the foundation of our communal existence, because it’s fair and just.  But it is also blind.  Blind to anything but the weight in the scales and the sword in her hand.  Blind to the forces that place us in those scales, all of us, with no hope for escape.  Blind to everything but cause and effect, action and reaction.  Blind justice demanded that Randy Reeves pay for his mistakes with his own life regardless of the circumstances or the wishes of those against whom he had sinned.  Mohandas Gandhi once said that “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”  This is the blindness of limited perspective, fear-filled reaction and the pursuit of purity over charity.  A kingdom built on this foundation is a kingdom built of stone so heavy it will not and can not be moved – a kingdom which will crush anyone unfortunate enough to fall underneath its weight.  This is not the kingdom Jesus came to establish.  This is not the foundation on which Paul built his church in Corinth.  This is not the foundation on which we as God’s children are called to build our lives today.
Paul exhorts his friends in Corinth to build their lives on the foundation God intends:  Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our living foundation, calls his followers to lives built on mercy, sacrifice and forgiveness.  Mercy isn’t fair.  Sacrifice isn’t just.  Forgiveness isn’t balanced.  In terms of human wisdom, Paul says, building on the foundation of Jesus Christ is foolish – but human wisdom is not the Christian’s primary concern.  In fact, human wisdom can be the very thing a Christian must avoid if she is to build a life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. 
When Jesus tells his followers, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he most certainly does not mean, “Don’t ever mess up.”  There is no “112 days since a lost faith accident" sign in the temple Christ means to build.  Jesus does not keep a record of wrongs.  He does not remember how many days it’s been since a lost time accident.  He is not particularly interested in balancing the scales of justice at the expense of those who have fallen short of perfection.  Jesus Christ does not want to be so blind to those around him.  What Jesus wants is for his people to be whole, to be mature, to be lacking for nothing – to be, in themselves, so integrated that no crime, no sin, no disappointment can make them forsake him as their foundation.  To prove that it is this way, this life he desires, Jesus goes to the cross, loving his children completely and perfectly, all the way to the end.  This is the kind of love Paul exhorts us to keep as our foundation.  Instead of insisting on what we are due, Paul implores us to realize “all things are yours - for you belong to Christ, and Christ belong to God.” 
I’d like to send you on your way with a little memento today.  Take one of these cards, and don’t flip it over – just read the top portion and consider it for a while.  (The assembly receives a card which says "Jesus is the foundation of our lives.  But we resist.  We evade.  We forsake.  We choose other foundations which are false instead of the one that is true.")  We all have false foundations on which we build our lives – foundations that will invariably crumble beneath our feet.  Take a minute to think about it, and if you like, write a false foundation down.
Now, flip the card over.  (On the other side, the card reads, "You are God's Temple: you belong to Christ, and God's Spirit dwells in you.")  This is life, both sides, both true.  We build our lives on false foundations, but at the same time, in Christ we are God’s Temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in us.  The wholeness to which Christ calls us is a wholeness that knows we are sinners who build on false foundations and saints in whom God’s temple is built.  There is no escaping the truth of our sin, but there is also nothing which can keep the Spirit from dwelling within us through the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This is what it means to be whole, to be “perfect.”  It doesn’t matter if you’ve sinned so badly there’s no way you can ever balance the scales:  in Christ you are God’s temple, and God’s spirit dwells within you.  It doesn’t matter if it’s been 112 days since your last lost faith accident, or 12 days, or 12 minutes:  in Christ you are God’s temple, and God’s spirit dwells within you.  See yourself and this world through God’s eyes.  Build your life on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Live with the wholeness of God’s spirit dwelling within you, for you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God, and in God all things are made perfect and new.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful word of wisdom as we face Easter. It describes Christ's true gift - freedom from our sins ; firm foundations when we rely on Him for the Truth. This is helpful for all to remember when making decisions in their lives.