The Unfairness of Grace

+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)/Lectionary +7C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 20, 2022 +

Text: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38


I remember learning something when I was in kindergarten: “treat others like you would like to be treated.”
How many of you learned that lesson?
How many of you have taught that lesson to your own children?
It’s been called the Golden Rule and while we hear Jesus’ version of this teaching in today’s gospel text, it’s a principle that far predates Jesus and is found in writings from Ancient Greece to Confucianism to Judaism.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions has even called it part of a global ethic and a fundamental principle to many religious traditions.
From kindergarten on, this simple rule becomes a foundation of our society, that we should treat each other as we would like to be treated.

But what happens when that Golden Rule isn’t followed?
Well, in kindergarten, breaking this rule would probably result in a timeout or a note sent to your parents.
But in the rest of our grown-up lives?
The consequences are likely far worse.

We are a society built on an idea of cause and effect.
Our world steeped in the ways of retribution, revenge, and getting even.
A world obsessed with keeping score of who’s wronged who in order to settle that score later on.
A world where violence is met with violence, where wrongs are met with more wrongs, where an eye for an eye is the norm.
This is just the way things work here.
Tit for tat.
Quid pro quo.
If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But when I’m wronged, I seek justice.
When our country is attacked, we strike back.
When a criminal hurts someone, we seek the maximum punishment.
When a celebrity says the wrong thing or a politician thinks differently than we do, we are all too ready to hold it against them forever.

But as we listen to Jesus continue his Sermon on the Plain, which we began last week, we hear a very different rule.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus tells us. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again… love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

‘Ok, Jesus,’ we may think.
That sure sounds like a good story, a great ideal to aspire too.
But we know it’s so impossibly naïve, right?
That it’s just too idealistic to make any real difference in our lives.
That’s just now how this world works.
And really Jesus?
This teaching?
It’s not even fair!
When someone hurts me, they deserve to be hurt back.
When someone offends me, it’s only fair I get my revenge.
When someone opposes me, it’s only right that I oppose them too.
It sure sounds like Jesus wants me, wants us, to be weak.
It sounds like he wants us to be a doormat, here for others to walk all over, like he doesn’t want me to stand up for myself. 

We also can’t just gloss over how these teachings by Jesus have been twisted and weaponized throughout history.
How they were used to keep slaves submissive to their masters.
How they have been used to pressure women to stay in abusive marriages.
How they have been used to dismiss Jesus as a meek and passive idealist.
But really, that doesn’t sound much like the Jesus I know.
That doesn’t sound like the one who works with the downtrodden and stands with the victimized.
That doesn’t sound like the one whose mother defiantly sang of casting down the mighty and uplifting the lowly.
That doesn’t sound like the one who used his first sermon to boldly announce freedom to the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind and release to the captives.
That doesn’t sound like the one who just last week gathered a large crowd of his followers together on the same level, into one equal community, to love and care for each other.

And remember who is in this crowd that has gathered?
People from all over the region who were seeking the good news Jesus proclaimed to them.
Those who were poor, those who were hungry, those who were mourning and reviled as they lived under military occupation.
Those whose hearts had just been filled as they heard Jesus call them blessed.
And now it’s to those people that Jesus is revealing something new—a way for us to live into the great leveling we experience in his sermon.
A new vision of God’s perfect future where enemies will be reconciled and goodness and love will reign.
It doesn’t come through violent revolution or hatred.
It cannot be achieved through reciprocity—by keeping score and getting even.
It certainly won’t look like our idea of fairness.
Instead, it will come through our imitation of what we have first experienced through our loving God.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Jesus asks us.
Though that word “credit” could probably be better translated as “grace.”
If you love those who love you, what is grace to you?
If you do good to those who do good to you, what grace is that to you?
And if you lend from those who can repay you, what is grace to you?
Jesus is showing us that even though our understanding of fairness is steeped in the idea of reciprocity—that if you do good, you should receive goodness in return and if you do wrong, you should receive punishment in return—our God doesn’t operate fairly.
And thank God for that, right?

Like we heard last week, most of us likely don’t fall into the categories that Jesus has just called blessed.
We’re more likely to be among the rich, the well-fed, the well-regarded.
Rather than being among those who are experiencing poverty, hunger, and oppression, we’re more likely to live in comfort benefiting from the toil of our siblings Jesus has called blessed.
And this, along with so many other reasons, is why we began this morning’s worship as we do nearly every Sunday, with confession.
To name before God the explicit and implicit ways that we have failed to live as God intends.
How we’ve been complicit in violence and oppression.
How we benefit or participate in systems of oppression.
How we have fallen far short of the level community Jesus has called us into, both individually and collectively.
How we’ve neglected our siblings in need.

But then, in a moment of pure, unmerited grace, we heard an assurance of God’s forgiveness.
That the weights that were holding us down have been removed and we can live freely.
And while this certainly does not excuse us from reconciling with those whom we have wronged, while we are still called to take action to correct our sins and our failures, we are promised that our God is not keeping score.
Not because we deserve it.
Not because we can ever repay it.
And certainly not because it’s even close to fair.
We are forgiven because that’s who God is, full of grace and mercy.

So perhaps the heart of Jesus’ teachings is not “do to others as you would have them do to you,” but rather “do to others as God has always and continues to do for you.”
“Be merciful, just as your God is merciful,” Jesus says.
Be imitators of your God who is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.
We—who are so quick to keep track of all the ways we have been wronged, who are all too willing to pass judgment—are the recipients of divine grace far beyond our deserving.
Shape your lives by God’s unmerited love alone, Jesus tells us.
Transform your worldview to see as God sees.
It’s not fair, but it’s what God has designed for us; to live into a new world full of love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Full of God’s grace that has been lavished upon us so we can help spread it with reckless abandon.

Our society is full of stories of reciprocity.
We love to tell the stories where the bad guys get what they deserve, and the good guys live happily ever after.
We keep anxiously checking the news to see if Russia has invaded Ukraine and how our country will respond if that happens.
It can be harder to find examples of living into the teachings Jesus is preaching to us today.
But they’re there.

We see this grace enacted in the story from Genesis this morning, where Joseph forgives his brothers.
If you don’t remember the story, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery as a child and he wound up in Egypt.
But many years later, when Joseph had become a powerful official in the Pharaoh’s court and his homeland is in a deep famine, his brothers come searching for help, for food, and unknowingly found their long-lost brother.
But rather than giving them the recompense they justly deserved, Joseph extended the grace he never received from them and invited his entire family to come and live in the bounty of Egypt’s abundance.

We see this grace enacted in our own times, during the Civil Rights Movement and the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who took Jesus’ teachings seriously and refused to meet violence with violence but rather knelt in the face of water hoses and police dogs.
Who spent his time in jail praying for his enemies.
Who refused to be disregarded as a mere victim of injustice but held firm to the active and powerful love that bent the long arc of history just a little bit closer to justice.

We see this grace enacted in the compassion of two parents after men took their son, a young man named Matthew Shephard, out to the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, beat him mercilessly, and left him for dead.
All because Matthew was gay.
When those two men were later convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecutors sought the death penalty, which was the fitting punishment under the law for their crime.
But in an extraordinary display of unmerited grace, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shephard, went to the judge and asked him to spare their lives.
Dennis Shephard, Matthew’s father, told the men who killed his son that they wanted to start the healing process, “to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.”[1]

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” the Golden Rule teaches us.
It’s simple, engrained in us since childhood.
But Jesus asks us to do something far more difficult.
To love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.
To be as merciful as the God whose grace for us knows no bounds.
To root our lives in a powerful, transformational love that comes from God alone.
There’s no doubt that this is a difficult teaching for us.
It goes against so much of what we know.
It doesn’t even always feel good.
But if we want to actually change our society, we must let go of the things that hold us back.
If we really want to create a community where the hungry are fed, the houseless have shelter, and all people are finally and truly treated as equals, we have to let go of our sense of fairness, of animosity against our enemies and cling only to the love we have from God.

The future begins with each one of us looking to see how God has met our scorekeeping and merit-based approach to life and flooded our scorebooks with abundant, extravagant love.
To see how each one of our failings has been met with unimaginable grace.
And then, strengthened by that love and emboldened by that grace, to come together as a community joined by Christ with our eyes set on the day God has in store for us all.
No, this isn’t a simple teaching Jesus gives us, beloved, but it can and it will change the world.

[1] Grant Kenworthy, “‘I’m Going to Grant You Life’: Parents of Slain Gay Student Agree to Prison for His Killer,” Washington Post, November 5, 1999.

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