To Be Made Just

Luke 18:13 (used for contemplative prayer in Eastern church)
Do people change? Can they change? Is it possible to go from being all about me and ignoring others and their plight and their needs to becoming the opposite, changed to someone humble, compassionate and just?
We live in a world that seems to dismiss the possibility of true, real transformation and heart-change. But we follow a way, Christ's way, that preaches that transformation, a heart-change indeed is possible. 

Not only that, it is inevitable. Philippians 2 reminds us that in the end all knees shall bow and all tongues confess that a God who is Love is real and that God's beloved, Christ, changed it all. And how our world needs a heart-change!
This morning’s story from Luke 18 gives us an example of transformation, a transformation that takes someone from the chief of the lowly and unjust to someone justified and lifted up.
The word justified is especially pertinent. It is certainly a word maybe like me you heard a lot growing up in church. Justify, justified, justification, these are words that are firmly a part of the Christian theological lexicon. To be honest, I haven't thought a great deal about these words in a while. But it's a good idea to take a re-look at things in life and to even rethink them. That’s how good things often happen. The lectionary reading from the gospel of Luke has given me the chance to do just that, to give a re-look at the word and idea of justify or justification.
Our reading from Luke 18 ends with Jesus basically saying that the lowly tax collector, because of his sincere show of humility, is justified.
Some might see the term justified and believe it is just another synonym for the word saved. Justified in this view is the same as being saved. In some ways, this is true. But it is much more nuanced than that.
The word in the original Greek is dikaioo. It is quite a rich and complex word. As the English translation of dikaioo indicates, the idea of “just” as in justice is related.
The word justify literally means to be made just. Dikaioo can also be translated as to be rendered righteous. Dikaioo we might say means to en-righteous someone, as in deeming them upright.
Anyway, if I justify you, I declare you as just or righteous. Or put another way, if I justify you, I declare you as just and oriented toward justice. If I en-righteous you, I declare you as righteous and oriented toward doing the right thing, as Spike Lee advises.
If God is doing this justifying, this making just, this en-righteousing , then we are talking big stuff... as in eternal stuff. And that's what we have in Luke 18. Christ justifies, makes just, en-righteouses a tax collector.
Remember, a tax collector in many ways is the chief among the unrighteous in his society. Tax collectors are in a category all their own when it comes to the unrighteous. They were seen as traitors against Israel because they worked for Rome which occupied and oppressed Israel. They collected taxes from their own people, and skimmed some off the top as their form of pay. 

So, justifying, declaring a tax collector righteous and just means a whole lot of grace going on. To en-righteous, to make upright a lowly tax collector, and to at the same time degrade a religious leader, which a pharisee was, was truly a radical thing to do. But God's grace is a radical thing, a radical gift that keeps giving.
Now there is another side to this radical act of grace-moved justifying. Not only is the tax collector made just and righteous in God's eyes, the transformation that naturally comes from this influences a new orientation, a reorientation, a new way of being in the world. Being justified means being made just in God's eyes, yes. But it also means being reoriented towards justice in the world. To be justified, we are turned and reoriented toward justice. When we are truly made just and righteous, our eyes are open to better see injustice and the need for justice.
When it comes to the tax collector, if he is made just in God's eyes only to keep on as a henchman for Rome, the justifying would be contradicted. Being made just means a transformation both inside us but also in how we see and act in the world. The presumption in the text is that the tax collector is made just, and his life is changed.  The presumption is that because of his transformation, he goes and is unjust no more, no longer unjustly robbing from the poor to give it to the rich in Rome.
All that said, we cannot fail to realize what moves Christ to justify the tax collector. It was the tax collectors humbling of himself. It takes a transformative humility to do what the tax collector did to admit he was wrong with no excuses or equivocation and to cry out for mercy. 

I love the phrase in verse 13, he would not even look up to heaven. Instead, he cried with his whole body. Have you ever cried so hard that you are brought to your knees and cannot help but to Pound your chest so that it keeps beating amid your heartbreak? 

That's the picture in Luke 18. The tax collector is a picture of transformative humility and a life changing brokenness. Such humility gives way to God's grace, With God saying it's alright it's alright. And this all rightness this justifying turns our eyes toward justice and righteousness.
We hear a lot about justice in the UCC. It's preached about often. I've been known to preach about justice, in fact. But seeking justice, being oriented towards justice, is part of a process according to Jesus. It begins with humility, transformative humility, and with internalizing God’s love.
There is a spiritual transformation involved in being made just or being oriented toward justice. It is God who opens our eyes to the world and the needs in the world, the needs for justice and peace and inclusion. It is God who makes us just. It is God who en-righteouses and enlightens us. We need to be humble enough to let go of our ways and allow God’s ways to work through us. We need humility, a falling to our knees knowing we cannot do it alone. We need humility so that God can work his mercy in us.
Preaching humility, a letting go of self, in other words, is just as important as preaching justice. For they go hand in hand. If we want to change the world, we need humility to know we cannot do it with God’s love infused in us just as much as we need insight into the injustices in the world and the ambition to create a just world.
I close with a verse from the Hebrew Scripture, one that Jesus surely knew. It was a favorite then and remains so now. It comes from the book of Micah, chapter 6:
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with a [perfect offering,
    a perfect sacrifice, a perfect word of praise
and a perfect song worship, a perfect life?]
He has told you, O humanity , what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Law of the Heart

Did you know there is a new testament within the old testament? Marsha read about it. The word translated covenant in Jeremiah 31:33 is the same word translated testament. In fact, some translations of the bible separate the bible with old and new not testament but old and new covenants.

Jeremiah 31:33 offers us a new testament in miniature. Jeremiah 31:33 can be read this way. 

“This is the new testament: I will place my law within them, inside their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.”

If only the new New Testament were as simple and straightforward. Let’s look at this new testament in miniature.

A couple verses earlier in Jeremiah 31, the stage is set for this New Testament, this new covenant. The covenant of old is the one handed down in tablet form to Moses. Verse 32 says, this new covenant, this new testament will not be like the covenant I made with your ancestors.

You've seen it in the news in some form. A big, heavy monument usually in granite of the 10 commandments is placed in front of a courthouse in small-town USA. A battle ensues between the churchgoers and the church state separatists. Churchgoers say our law is based on the ancient law given by God and we need to remember that and God. Those claiming a wall between church and state say our government is a secular government and should not preach religion.

Jeremiah says something valuable here in the context of this perennial debate. Jeremiah suggests God's way of human living, the way God wants us to live, at its profoundest level is not something etched into granite. God's way of human living, the way God wants us to live at it's profoundest level is something etched where? It's etched in us, on our hearts. The 10 commandments and the rest of God’s way is within.

God's law of love is not an external thing really. God's law of love is meant to be an internal reality living in us and through us and into the world. There doesn't need to be symbolic reminders of God's love. We don't need to look outside ourselves or in front of courthouses to know God's ways, God’s love and love-soaked justice. We just need to sit and reflect and remember in our quiet moments whose heart we belong to.

The figure of God says, I will be your God and you will be my people. We should note the context of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is written in the context of exile. The Jewish people have lost their temple. It has been destroyed by the Babylonians. The symbolism wrapped up in the temple is gone. The symbol of God's covenant is gone.

So, what does God do? God says the temple was just a symbol. God is God, seen and experienced everywhere and beyond. The world, the universe is God's oyster.

Second of all, the new covenant, the New Testament that God gives, is a matter of the heart. To be clear, so was the old covenant a matter of the heart. Its physical tablets with its written law and the temple just fingers pointing to the moon, not the moon of God. But people got wrapped up in the external stuff, instead of the internal reality and the eternal reality from whence the law and the temple came. God's law of love lives in our hearts first and foremost.

And no matter where we are, even if we're in exile thousands of miles away from our homeland, God is with us. You are my people, God says. You always have been and always will be, no matter what, no matter the temple's destruction, no matter where you are scattered, and no matter the exile from your home place.

God is basically saying I am as close to you as your heart is. I am your home, your temple, your law, and I am with you. What a comfort to an exiled people!

“…Having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit them and their desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away and wander to myths.”

From a cursory reading of this verse, you'd say that Paul is saying you have the real truth, you believe the right things, you have the correct religion. The other truths and religions are incorrect, so stay away from them.

This cursory reading doesn't get to the essence though. Paul is less concerned about getting human knowledge and intellectual thinking right. It is a modern mistake to see faith for Paul as just a matter of what we intellectually think and believe about something.

Faith, true faith, means a true life, a life that is righteous, just, compassionate, humble. Good faith and good works are inextricably connected for Paul. If one wants to show good faith, one shows good works. Paul's critique of false doctrine focuses on the unhelpful way of living it creates. False for Paul means fake, inauthentic. False means unrighteous unjust, hardhearted, selfish. We see this in second Timothy from our lectionary reading. Paul uses language focused on external practices of faith, on how a faith is lived out in a life on the ground.

Our outer actions should mirror our inner faith, Paul teaches. A false faith is an internal faith that remains internal and self-focused.
Yes, true, righteous faith means a true, righteous life. Our faith should be evident in how we live and love in the world, how we interact with people, how we treat the vulnerable and discarded among us. If our focus is mostly on our self, our comfort, our life, our well-being, if our faith’s focus stops with us, then that faith and focus is false and misguided. 

 “and will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out? I tell you he will. And yet, when the son of God comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus’ words in Luke 18 overlap with what Paul says in second Timothy in many ways. For Jesus, faith and justice are tied together. A faithful person is a just person for Jesus. This is true for God. God is faithful to his people and God is just based on an eternal love for us. Christ was faithful and perfected justice based on his love and compassion.

We are called to be faithful and just. Another word for just is righteous, which is the word Paul uses in 2 Timothy. Being just and being righteous are one and the same. For Jesus, being faithful means being just and compassionate. Faith without heart is merely a thesis statement.

That said, Lord knows we are imperfect. We are humans who in our struggle to get by and experience happiness sometimes fail to live up to the standards our faith teaches. Thank God for the gift of grace. God never gives up on us. We see this again and again in scripture. God’s chosen people, the Israel people of the Old Testament, again and again fail God. But God remains faithful. Christ embodying God forgives even those who execute. Great is thy faithfulness. Great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see.

So, I close with a prayer:

O God, your child and your conduit, Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to love you and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus taught us that these two commandments summarize the whole of your way for us, the way we are to be and live in the world. Gracious God, though you’ve Simplified it for us, you also know how difficult it is to keep the faith, to practice what we preach, to walk the talk. We thank you for your grace that strengthens us along the way, that uplifts us when we fall, that continually brushes us off, washes our feet, and encourages us to keep on keeping, that provides us a guiding light. Help us to be active in our gratitude, thanking you by helping others in the ways we can.

Within our hearts moves God’s glorious light.
Go forth. Let its spark help you understand yourself and others;
Go forth. Let its wisdom guide in your discernment and decisions;
Go forth. Bring its ray of hope to those in need both body and spirit, that they may find healing;
Go forth. Fan the flames of passion to help heal our world;
Go forth. Spread the warm glow of love, pushing back the darkness of the world;
Go forth. Share God’s glorious light with the world.

Faithful Heart Inherited

2 Timothy 1:5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

I grew up going to church. My mom dragged us 4 kids and eventually 6 to church. Sometimes with my dad home on the weekend. Sometimes with him gone on the road working.
My pastor was my first mentor. His name was Morgan Jones. Morgan was an interesting man. He was not your stereotypical pastor. He wasn't especially warm or sentimental. Friendly in his own way, with emphasis on “his own way.” He grew up in the Bronx In New York city. He saw a lot as a veteran of World War 2, storming the beaches of Normandy. He had an edge to him even in his 60s. His Toyota Tercel actually had a matchbox or maybe a Hot Wheels sized toy motorcycle glued on the dashboard. I asked him about it. He answered that his ideal vacation, which he never took, was to drive a motorcycle across the country all by himself. A true introvert.
Morgan was more a teacher than a pastor, I'd say. I never experienced a pastoral visit from him per se. But I can't imagine his bedside manner being Mister Roger-ish. But I could be wrong. He could have surprised me. On Sunday mornings, like in his many Bible studies throughout the week, Morgan would open his orange hard-covered Bible and teach from it. The only difference was that he was standing off now that he did offer app an application piece. That orange hardcovers Bible always intrigued me. I once asked him about it. He said, I never understood why bibles were black. The Bible points to the light of Christ it is a light provider. Why is it dark and black. So he had his Bible rebound a couple times, always orange.
Morgan was the greatest teacher/preacher I've ever heard. I wanted to be like him. From an early age this was true. I'd practice to be like him. I put one of those flat tape recorders in front of me, hit record, and practice preaching with my cat Tigger and my dog Cinderella staring at me blankly. This practice beginning at a young age still never got me anywhere close to Morgan’s level. I'll never be the preacher he was.
When it comes to pastoral care, Morgan was not my primary model. My models for pastoral care came a little closer to home and not from a pastor at all. And these influences did not even register in my mind and heart until many years later when I was a pastor serving as a chaplain.
My grandmother's name was Mary. Her husband was named Joseph. She was my mom's mom. And she was the epitome of a true Christian for me. She was humble, compassionate, and simple in the best sense of that word. Not simplistic. Not simple as in not intelligent. But simple as in all about living life in a pure and straightforward way. No frills. No fakeness. Just solid, honest, kind living.
My grandmother was introverted like me. She never advertised what she did or the difference she made in people's lives. It was something I did not find out about until much, much later.
After graduating seminary in 2004, I was a bit lost. I was in the proverbial wilderness. I was 33 and still deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I contemplated life in the academic world, aiming to become a professor of religion, which would require a PhD, as in more schooling. I also pondered becoming a pastor. To be honest, becoming a pastor was Plan B. But I was not settled one way or the other. And my faith was in the weeds. Questions about God, Christ, the church pervaded that face. Doubts about who I was, where I was going, and what it all meant seemed the only things I was sure of.
Then my grandmother died. At her memorial, I experienced profound grief and at the same time comfort only my Christian faith provided. I experienced a balm and solace in the songs we sang, the prayers we prayed, and the words we heard recited. Then I listened as people shared their stories of my grandma. How she weekly visited strangers in the hospital and nursing home and did so until the last couple weeks of her life, how she late in her life befriended an ill black woman who became a dear friend, how she actively saw and lifted up the best in people and in the process touched their lives, how her quiet presence and deep friendship comforted people. She was for me the model of pastoral care.
And then there is my mom. Her recent bout of serious illness and surgeries has made my mom's gifts and the gift of my mom abundantly clear and true. Thank God she is in recovery, at home and doing well. In my visits home when she was sick, I was able to see something powerful in my mom. You learn a great deal about a person when they endure serious illness. I watched her face surgery, rehab and profound weakness and grave setbacks. I watched her interact with health care givers. As I observed, I saw my mom's heart. She exhibited such deep kindness and grace through it all. And accompanying this Christian kindness and grace was a tenacious spirit set on getting better and avoid becoming bitter.
My mother models for me grace and strength, under-girded bye humility. Her years of being a wonderful caregiver both as a CNA is the mother was moved by that grace and strength.
Each of her 3 boys are pastors. It wasn't in the water we drank there in upstate New York. It wasn't the angelic childhood we have, or should I say didn't have. It wasn't the faithfulness of Christ alone. It was the model of shepherding grace, a mothering strength, and Christian humility we saw embodied in our mom.
Now, she’d tell you herself that she is far from perfect. She's made her mistakes like we all have. But she always turned setbacks into steps forward and seeing God and God's love. Through it all, she taught us how to turn failings into vulnerability, compassion, and perseverance. She taught us that faith is all about getting better instead of bitter, and turning to help others.
For certain, there is so much in this life that lends itself toward becoming bitter, isn't there? Watch the news, read the paper, look around, and bitterness and callousness is all around and waiting to happen. That is why we need faith. That is why we need God's love, God's faithfulness and forgiveness. That is why we need to see God's redeeming compassion and take into our heart and into the world. It is a real faith that combats the world's bitterness. It does so with Christ's betterment. As my mom says, it is God who makes it all better. Not just better, but beautiful.
So, I end this sermon by playing a recording of a song that my mom loves and used to sing to us as kids a lot. “In God's time, God makes all things beautiful in God's time.” So here is the group Common Destiny singing their rendition of “In His Time.”