Ever Faithful, Ever Merciful

+ A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on August 23, 2020 +

Text: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-36


“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups.”
So began each episode of Law & Order, the first series in perhaps the most prolific television franchise ever.
One of its spinoffs, Law & Order: SVU is a favorite of mine focusing on now Lt. Olivia Benson and her office of detectives solving crimes in Manhattan.
But really, the Law & Order franchise is not unique, but part of a hugely popular genre of television and film entertainment: the crime procedural.
In many ways, the shows are all the same—a crime is committed, the police investigate, the perpetrator is tried in court, and more often than not is sent to prison.
And I think it’s such a popular genre because it gives us a sense of, well, order.
It plays into our ideas of right and wrong.
That if you break the law, you get punished.
That justice means that criminals go to jail and pay for their crimes.
That any moral ambiguities should be wrapped up within 42 minutes of airtime.
That the sides of right and wrong are easily identifiable and can be definitively distinguished.

Now for many of us, these television shows are as close to the criminal justice system as we will personally get.
And maybe we just assume that our criminal justice system works like it does on TV—that the good guys punish the bad guys, that right triumphs over wrong.
But for some reason, we have also projected this sense of law and order, this binary of right and wrong, in so many other aspects of life, haven’t we?
In politics, where you must think the same way I do or you’re wrong.
Or onto our view of the world where mine is the greatest country on earth and all others must certainly wish they live like we do.
And we even project it onto our God.
We assume that our God must operate with the same vision of justice as the detectives and judges on a crime show: that you must do the right things, believe the right things, or God will punish you.

Now, I don’t think it will be shocking to hear that our justice systems do not often work the way they do on TV.
That the complexities and failings of the criminal justice system don’t often make it onto the screen.
Just witnessing the happenings of the past few months, we have clearly seen that policing and the judicial system work differently for people of color than they do for white folks; that it treats wealthy elites differently than those with less money.
We’ve seen the brokenness of this system from Minneapolis to Louisville, from Georgia to right here in Seattle.

Perhaps the past few months have shaken some of those other assumptions as well as we’ve experienced the toxicity of a binary, right vs. wrong mentality in political beliefs.
As our standing as the supposed best country on earth seems shakier than ever.
And yet, for some reason we so often cling to this idea of God as the eternal judge who blesses some and sends them to heaven while damning others to hell.
Perhaps it gives us the same sense of order we crave from our TV shows, of right and wrong, of blessings and punishments…but I wonder if that is really the nature of God.
And if it is, what does that mean for us?

As we’ve been hearing for the past three weeks, this question of God’s nature is nothing new and this reading from Romans is the conclusion of a 2000-year old extended argument Paul has been making spanning chapters 9-11.
After telling the Romans about the love of God, the healing love that cures our brokenness, the love from which nothing can separate us, Paul asks a crucial question: What happens if we don’t accept Christ or follow his teachings?
Specifically, what happens to Paul’s own family, the Jewish people—the original beneficiaries of God’s promise and blessing?
Will God punish them?
Or will God remain faithful to God’s covenants and promises?
But even this question boils down to something even more basic, more fundamental: what is the nature of God?
How does God respond to our failings, to human wandering, to unfaithfulness?

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot this week.
As we near the end of this sermon series, I have realized how much I’ve been talking about brokenness in terms of external factors like disease, civil unrest, uncertainty about the future.
But what about the brokenness we participate in?
What about the brokenness we cause?
What about the ways we participate in and promote the institutionalized structures of white supremacy?
What about the times we vote in our own interests rather than being mindful of our marginalized neighbors?
What about when we build up our own wealth while ignoring the needs of those around us?
What about the times we stoke fears or increase division or uphold the systems of injustice?
Does God abandon us when we fail to follow Jesus’ example, when we wander from Christ’s teachings, when we are unfaithful to God?
Because, if that’s the case, we all are in trouble.

There’s a reason we start worship with confession, my friends.
It’s not to make you feel bad about yourself.
It’s not to pile on guilt and shame.
It’s to acknowledge our own failings, to admit our sin, to confess our own brokenness, yes, but even more, to hear those words of assurance that God has forgiven us.
That God is faithful to us.
That no matter our sin, God’s mercy is greater.
Just think about that—no matter our sin, God’s mercy is greater.
And that means that the larger our failings, the more we see our need for God.
The greater our sins, the greater we can experience God’s mercy.
That when we confess our sins, we open ourselves to feel God’s gift of love and mercy that heals the brokenness of our souls, of our lives.

As I’ve said before, these chapters ultimately tell us a lot more about God than they do about us.
And the truth that we find when we examine these chapters is that God’s fidelity to us does not depend on our fidelity to God.
But our hope, our faith, our trust completely depends on God’s fidelity.
The Apostle Paul wants nothing to do with a God who cannot be relied upon—and frankly I’m not sure I do either, because how could we ever put our trust in a God who would go back on God’s word?
But Paul assures us that God’s very nature is faithfulness, that God responds to our failings with mercy, that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable, and that God will never go back on God’s promises.

How fundamentally different than what we have assumed God to be.
How foreign to what we have expected, to our sense of order.
How incomprehensible to our understanding of what is normal and just in our broken human world.
But, as Paul says, the depth of the riches, the wisdom, the knowledge of God is so much deeper than we can comprehend.
God’s judgments are beyond our understandings and God’s mercy is wider that we deserve.
God’s love is larger than we can imagine and God’s faithfulness is without end.
God sees our sin, our failing, our brokenness and responds not with punishment, but with mercy, working to bring us all closer to God’s vision for our lives.

So, we return to Paul’s question: Has God rejected the people?
“By no means!”
As Paul has told us throughout these three chapters, the same God who chose Israel as God’s own, who blessed them, who liberated them from slavery, who taught them the law, who send judges and rulers and prophets, this same God has not forsaken God’s people—because God does not forsake anyone.
And, as God promised Abraham, this blessing of God’s people is intended to be a blessing for the whole earth.
In the parts of chapter 11 omitted from our reading today, Paul tells us us—in an admittedly confusing way— that God has grafted us, the Gentiles, onto the metaphorical tree of Israel’s blessing.
We Christians don’t replace Israel as God’s chosen people, but in an abundance of love, we are joined into the same promises and covenants God first made with them.
We have been united into God’s blessing for Israel, not by our own merits, but purely by God’s mercy and love that stretches farther than we deserve, that is wider than we imagine.
And just as Christ came among us to show the world the vastness and the way of God’s love, we who have been joined to the body of Christ, who have been grafted onto the tree of God’s blessing, are intended to be a blessing to the whole world as well.
That through our lives and actions, the whole creation should experience the same love and blessing we have received until all the brokenness of this world are healed.

And this chapter of Romans always begs the question in my mind: if we have been included out of the abundance of God’s mercy, who could possibly be excluded from God’s love?
Our scriptures tell us that all people have been made in God’s divine image and breathe the same Spirit of life in their lungs that God has breathed into each of us.
All creation has received these pure gifts of life from a God whose very nature is mercy and love—so why would we even assume that there is a limit to God’s love, a boundary to God’s mercy?

I realize that I’ve asked a lot of open-ended questions in this sermon, dear Church.
And I acknowledge I haven’t always provided answers.
I admit that I don’t have the answers to sufficiently explain God’s unsearchable justice and inscrutable ways and won’t fully comprehend until God calls me home.
But I hope these questions help you experience wonder at the vastness of God’s mercy and the depth of God’s love.
In the end, we may not understand how everything will work out, but Paul assures us that we can trust that God will be faithful, that God’s mercy will always surpass our failings, that God’s love will never fail.
We can receive this message of pure grace, a freely given gift of God that will never be taken away.

And we may wonder—what are we to do with all of this?
How could we possibly respond to such a gift?
We start by praising and glorifying God’s goodness, like Paul does.
We share this good news through word and deed with the same wideness with which it has been shared with us.
And we work to reshape our lives to live as a response to the love, mercy and grace we have received.
We live lives of love and service to our neighbors and the whole creation—not out of fear, not in an attempt to earn God’s love and favor, but as a free and grateful thanksgiving for what we have received.
As a living response to the unmerited grace God has given us.
In recognition that this is how we live into the love we have experienced and as we work with God to heal the brokenness of the world.

Well, my friends, I hope you have been enjoying this sermon series in Romans because we’re going to extend it one more week to explore chapter 12, in which Paul lays out what that life can look like when we reshape our lives according to God’s love and work to heal our communities.

This is the sixth part of a seven-part sermon series entitled “Broken: Good News for Tough Times.”
The other sermons in the series can be found here:

  1. Broken Bodies, Healing Spirit” – July 12, 2020
  2. Groaning in Labor Pains” – July 19, 2020
  3. Nothing” – August 2, 2020
  4. All-Inclusive Love” – August 9, 2020
  5. Fulfilling the Law” – August 16, 2020
  6. Ever Faithful, Ever Merciful” – August 23, 2020
  7. Not Waiting on the World to Change” – August 30, 2020

6 thoughts on “Ever Faithful, Ever Merciful

  1. Pingback: Broken Bodies, Healing Spirit | Paul On Grace

  2. Pingback: Groaning in Labor Pains | Paul On Grace

  3. Pingback: Nothing | Paul On Grace

  4. Pingback: All-Inclusive Love | Paul On Grace

  5. Pingback: Fulfilling the Law | Paul On Grace

  6. Pingback: Not Waiting on the World to Change | Paul On Grace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s