A sermon: The ambiguity of Judgment and Grace


“The Ambiguity of Judgment and Grace”, a sermon preached by Pastor Jeff on March 11, 2007, based on Luke 13:1 – 9.

We human beings like things clear. Ambiguity tends to make us uncomfortable. We like to be able to make generalizations that bring order to our experience and thought. (Come to think of it, sermons, by their very nature, tend to do this routinely: in one sense my job is to make generalizations regarding life that can help you make sense of ambiguity of your life.) But generalizations overlook the exceptions to the rule.

Here’s a generalization I’ve heard a number of times over the years: The God of the Old Testament is all about the law and is judgmental and vengeful, while the God of the New Testament is all about grace and is merciful and loving.

This morning’s scripture lessons challenges these generalizations. The Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah starts off with an expression of pure mercy and grace:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

The basic law of life that requires that you pay your way, is hereby thrown out. Come, receive what you need, without paying for it. Pure gift — pure grace.

This morning’s New Testament lesson has some harsh words that sound pretty judgmental, and they come straight from the mouth of Jesus, not once, but twice: “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”

Here’s another generalization: Fundamentalist religion, whether Christian, Moslem, or otherwise, focuses on God’s holy law, spelling out exactly what is believed to be good and what is evil. The emphasis is all on judgment for failure to keep the law. (You will, however, find fundamentalists who on occasion act in a truly merciful and gracious manner.) Liberal religion, reacting over against fundamentalist religion, tends to put all the emphasis on mercy, love and grace. (And yet here is another curiosity: it is not unusual to find liberals acting quite judgmental.)

What if both expressions of religion are missing something?

The Gospel lesson this morning is fascinating and frustrating. It seems to weave judgment and mercy, mercy and judgment, all the way through. It begins with a conversation that took place between Jesus and some unnamed folk regarding some recent events that suddenly took peoples’ lives. Jesus explicitly rejects the common interpretation that says that the people who lost their lives were getting punished for their sin, which would sound like Jesus is clearly rejecting judgment in favor of mercy.

But wait a minute: He finishes with those disturbing lines about how, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Is he back to judgment?

He proceeds to tell a parable. A vineyard owner plants a fig tree in his vineyard and for three years, the tree produces no fruit. The vineyard owner wants judgment to be rendered on this fruitless fig tree. Cut it down. Sure sounds like judgment.

But wait, the gardener steps in and gives voice to mercy. “Let’s give the fig tree more time. I’ll put manure around it.” Ah, so Jesus it would seem is coming down in favor of mercy and kindness over judgment, right? Except that the gardener finishes his speech by saying, that if no fruit comes forth from the fig tree after a year, well, go ahead and cut it down.

So I’m thinking that maybe this parable is saying something about living with ambiguity, or maybe a better word, with “mystery”. What does it mean to live with both the voice of the vineyard owner and the voice of the gardener, with both judgment and mercy, carrying an ongoing conversation inside our heads?

This, it would seem goes along with faith not as knowledge but as trust. Faith isn’t having all the ambiguity and mystery worked out; its trusting God in the midst of it all, and forgoing the temptation to resolve the ambiguity and mystery prematurely.

(And if you think about it, where there is no judgment, no accountability, how can there be grace? Without judgment, grace is simple entitlement.)

This morning we baptized little Ryan Joseph. This parable seems to me to be a wonderful scripture to contemplate on such a day.

If we ask the question, where did Ryan come from? How is it that he is here? There are a whole host of answers that could be given, many of which are provided by science. But here in the church as we celebrate baptism we declare that the deepest answer is this: That Ryan came from God; that God wanted him to be here, and God gave him life. Ryan is a gift of pure grace. We didn’t make Ryan, nor did we earn Ryan. Ryan is God’s free gift of love.

When we baptized Ryan, the liturgy spoke often of the forgiveness of sin, again, emphasizing God’s graciousness. So baptism is all about grace, right?

There is grace, but there is also judgment, or perhaps at this stage it would be more accurate to speak of accountability. (The failure to live up to accountability renders a person liable to judgment.)

And so who exactly is being held accountable here this morning as we baptized this Ryan? Well, first off, our whole congregation. This child has been given to us, not just to Patti and Bob. We all bear a responsibility now to see to it that Ryan grows up in God’s love. If we were paying attention, we couldn’t help but notice that we just made promises to God and to little Ryan to stay connected to him in this regard.

Then of course, Patti and Bob, Ryan’s parents are held accountable. They’ve made vows as well to God, on behalf of Ryan.

And finally Ryan, himself, will be held accountable.

At the end of our lives (and quietly along the way, if we listen) God will address each one of us with these questions: What did you do with the life I gave you; and with the blessings I bestowed upon you? At the end of our lives, when we look back, what will we see? The fruit for which we were designed by God to bear? Or wasted good soil?

I heard about a recent poll of young people; teenagers and young adults, I believe, in which they were asked what their primary goal was in life. A striking 80% said there goal was to become rich. Only 4 % offered, “becoming more spiritual”, a rather vague goal to be sure. Somehow kids are growing up these days without any awareness of how the great themes of judgment and mercy, expressed in this parable, play out in their lives.

You are a fig tree planted by God to bear fruit. A life devoted to getting rich would seem to miss that basic point, unless, of course, the goal in getting rich is to be able to give most of it away in doing good. (Which I very much doubt is what most of the 80 per cent had in mind.)

Now it is easy for those of us who are older to point a condemning finger at the self-indulgence of the younger generation, but we were the ones who raised them, and we were the ones who helped form the society in which they came to the conclusion that getting rich is an adequate goal in life.

I want to conclude by talking briefly about what it means to bear fruit for God. We could say that bearing fruit for God means doing good, and there sure is a whole lot of good that needs doing in this world.

But our gifts are not all the same, and it is important, I think, to pay attention to direction provided by the shape of our particular gifts.

One of the commentators I listened to in preparing this sermon called attention to the fact that it is a “fig” tree that is planted in a “vineyard”. Was there some suggestion here that the vineyard owner was looking for grapes to come forth from this fig tree, which made it all the more difficult for the real fruit of this tree to come forth? Who knows.

Where and how we offer ourselves in service to the world will be determined, in part, by what gifts God has given us. Otherwise we will be trying to hammer round pegs into square holes. If the “good” we attempt to do we have no gift for — no passion for — well, we won’t last very long, and our service will be undercut by our sour disposition.

I know that for myself, God has given me a certain creativity, a bit wacky, perhaps, but one that can be expressed in a variety of ways. If I am not finding ways to express that creativity, well, I get depressed.

There’s a story connected with a therapist named Milton Erickson who operated out of one simple premise, which was that everyone is unique. He was flown by a wealthy family to a town in the Midwest to treat a chronically depressed woman who been treated by many doctors with no success.

Milton Erickson spent less than an hour in the woman’s home. He noticed to things about the woman: there were purple violets throughout her home: apparently she found pleasure in growing the purple violets, and had an eye for their beauty. The other thing he took note of was that she went to church everyday.

He gave her an assignment. She was to get a hold of a few thousand purple violet bulbs, grow them up, and start presenting them to people in her church on any kind of special occasion: a birth, a baptism, a wedding, a graduation, any sort of celebration, In six months there was an inspiring article in the local newspaper about “the purple violet lady.” She had come out of her depression, by connecting her gifts to a calling.

What gifts are hidden inside of Ryan? What gifts are hidden inside of us as well? One important way to love on one another is to be attentive to the signs of gifts emerging from the soil in another person’s life, and go about the encouraging work of spreading manure.

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