How do I know I am justified?--It is a question which crops up a few times a month among us. Certainly, there are different permutations. Have I done enough? Can I be certain of my destination? Are you sure He loves everyone who repents? I imagine the questions have been asked by His people since the Fall. While I would have loved to have shared how Naboth’s vineyard and God’s judgment played out in modern times among us this week, I think it wiser to wait a few years for the events of this week to play out and for us to focus on whether we evidence that faith that worries us.
Today’s readings have three different responses to the grace of God. Four people give those responses, but each are informative to us and to our own questions. Look back in our reading from 1 Kings. God’s people have turned things into a real mess. To remind you, there was a certain way in which the people were called to govern one another. Village elders sat at the gates managing the smaller disputes. Those disputes which proved to be “above them,” were supposed to be passed to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the “experts” resided. There, those in power in the Temple were supposed to pronounced “more learned” judgments. If they were stuck, the king was supposed to be consulted. Remember, God’s king was supposed to meditate on His torah day and night. And on those days when the king found the question too difficult, he was supposed to consult the prophet. Now, I way over-simplify for the time constraints, but hopefully, you get the gist of what is wrong in our passage with the way things are working.
Another problem, though, is the king’s seeming expectation that Naboth will give up his vineyard. As we have remarked time and time again, ownership of the land was nearly sacramental. It was, in modern confirmation language, an outward sign of the inward and spiritual condition of living in God’s favor. If one had possession of the land promised to Abraham, then one was clearly being supported by Yahweh. If one was dispossessed of that land, one was clearly cursed and cut off. Imagine the shock of Naboth at the king’s request. God’s own ruler and descendant of David is asking him to sell the land! It would be even worse than the President of the United States coming to you, were you high Anglo-Catholic, and asking you to sell him your turn at the Eucharist for ever! No more Eucharist for you! Is there a price which would cause you to give up the Eucharist for ever? Certainly for Naboth no such price existed.
Typically, Ahab goes back and pouts. His wife, Jezebel, mocks him. Then she tells him she will fix the problem. She perverts that appeal process we talked about earlier. The elders conspire with the queen and scoundrels to convict and murder the faithful Naboth. Jezebel tells Ahab that the vineyard is now unowned, and he heads to the vineyard to claim it as his own. Like David before him, he thinks he has gotten away with murder, and he’s gotten a prime vineyard to boot!
One response that comes from within to the offer of grace from God is enmity. Ahab, Jezebel, the elders, the scoundrels, and anybody else in the conspiracy choose to reject God and His ways. Their response to His love, His torah, is to pervert His holy instructions for their own personal gain. There is no fear, there is no love of God. There is only scheming and plotting and selfish aggrandizement. Think of the interior rejection of God in their lives. Each of those mentioned, save the scoundrels, has a unique responsibility to God and His torah. Each has taken an office that requires, requires that they submit to and teach God’s ways. And in a quick swoop, they reject His torah and violate two of the Ten Words for their own selfish gain.
Fast forward to Luke’s Gospel lesson today. Jesus has been invited to dine with a Pharisee. While there, a woman who has sinned comes and washes Jesus’ feet and anoints His head. We will look at her response more in a moment. Right now, we need to look at the Pharisee’s response. To the woman’s ablutions, the Pharisee comments that if the “prophet” knew this woman and her sins, the “prophet” would never let her touch Him, let alone be in the room with her. In the mind of the Pharisee, Jesus’ unwillingness to separate Himself from sinners is a sure sign that He is not really of God. After all, God loves only the righteous! A prophet would know this. Jesus, we know, asks the debtor question of Simon Peter. Peter rightly answers that the one who has been forgiven more will be all the more grateful, all the more thankful. The point is that the Pharisee has walled himself off from the world around him. The Pharisee has convinced himself that he is deserving of God’s grace. He truly thinks he should be loved by God.
We see attitude this play out in churches today. There are lots of churches out there who have walled themselves off from the world. They convince themselves that they exist to serve themselves because they deserve God’s grace. Such an attitude does not describe most of us, but there are individual pockets among us where such a tacit understanding festers. If you have ever found yourself thinking that that you are somehow more deserving of God’s love and grace and forgiveness than, say those whom we serve at the Community or those whom we serve at Winnie’s Place or those whom we serve at AA or maybe even another church community that does not serve God in ways that meet your standards, then you are dangerously close to the position of the Pharisee. If you believe that you and they have gotten what they and you have deserved from God, be careful! The one forgiven little loves little. Such an attitude, though, evidences itself in other ways. Many of us know that churches exist for those not yet a member, but when the rubber meets the road in our own parish, look out! Are we sure we want people like them worshipping with us? Have they been members long enough to learn how things work around here so they can serve on the Vestry? Why does this exist to serve them and not me? I could go on, but we get the idea. If you find yourself thinking, let alone expressing, such thoughts, be careful! You may be like the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson today. If we truly understand what God has done for us in Christ, such attitudes are impossible. Each one of us, each and every one of us who gathers here to worship God, has been one of those people in our past. It was only His transforming grace which saved us and turned us into those who can love much!
Speaking of loving much, let us look at the last response. You already know one. It is personified by the response of the woman who has sinned. Though she should never have reached out to Jesus, she dares to touch Him and wash His feet. Unlike the Pharisee who neglects even the basics of hospitality in the face of the Anointed One, she washed His feet, anoints His head with oil from her jar, and generally rubs the road-weariness from His muscles. She has nothing left to offer Jesus except the contents of her jar and her hair. Those of us gathered here understand that a woman’s hair in the ANE was her crown. Her head of hair was, in very real terms, her glory. This lady has sullied herself. We do not know how, nor do we need to know. She, the Pharisee, and Jesus accept that she is a sinner. All that remains to her is her hair. And she uses that to wash the feet of the One who offers forgiveness. She gives up that which she most values because she realizes that she has been given everything by the Lord Jesus. The difference between her response and that of the Pharisee is profound. She is overjoyed to the point of tears at the prospect of forgiveness. Like those who gather in the our churches around the country and pray the Prayer of Humble Access, she knows her true worth and the true meaning of grace. And to dwell in that grace forever, she will give up all that she values!
One other character, though, shares her response. We have looked at Elijah the last few weeks in our readings. I have sometimes remarked how much he whines. He calls down the fire on the altar, and he whines that he is driven into the wilderness; he calls down God’s provision of oil and flour for the widow and her son, and he whines at the death of the son. Look at his response to the Lord today, though. Even though Ahab and Jezebel have pronounced a death sentence on this, their enemy (God’s prophet, in case you have forgotten), Elijah does not hesitate to do as God commands. No whining. No crying. He simply obeys faithfully and does as instructed. God says “Go to Naboth’s vineyard and tell the king.” Elijah knows what he has been told to do is dangerous. And worse, although we skip much of his prophesy, the words the Lord gives him are not going to be well-received by that king that hates him. Yet he obeys without complaint and goes to Naboth’s vineyard, reminiscent of his prophetic forebear, Nathan. Having dwelt in the presence of God, Elijah has come to understand better the Lord whom he serves. Literally, through trials by fire and trials by flight and through the experience of God’s provision, Elijah has been transformed into the mouthpiece of God. Where God sends him, he will go; what God tells him to say, he will say. He will trust that His Lord, who has the power over death itself, will not fail him.
Both the woman and the prophet share in that faithful obedience. Both, in wildly different ways, have come to appreciate the grace that God has offered them. The woman responds by washing the dust of the Lord; Elijah responds by silently obeying the Lord. No questions are asked. They simply trust that He will accomplish all that He purposes, no matter how crazy it must seem to them, nor how much the world testifies against them. Notice, the woman continues to wash Jesus even as the Pharisee criticizes Jesus because of her ministrations and Elijah speaks God’s judgment against Ahab and Jezebel, even though he knows that judgment will only incite them against him and God all the more.
Brothers and sisters, which response best characterizes your own response to God’s grace in your life? You have dragged yourself to church on a hot humid day to listen to a boring sermon, so I am going to bet you are not inimical to God at this point in your spiritual life. But are you more like the Pharisee, or are you more like the woman or Elijah? When you ponder all that God has done for you, when you ponder the gift that He freely offered you from the hard wood of the cross, are you driven to thankful tears and adoration? Are you compelled by love to offer that which you value you most in thanksgiving and wonder? Or are you, instead, tempted to pat yourself on the back thinking you deserve that offer? That He died for others but really only took a thorn or two for you? Are you excited to be hear listening to the saving works He has done and worshipping Him for His works, or would you rather be in bed, on a golf course, hanging out with friends, or maybe fishing? If we know what He has done for us, if we know like the lady and like Elijah that we have redeemed, only one pattern of behavior is truly acceptable. The rest is a warning that we might not be the people of faith we suppose ourselves to be.
Now, I could leave the question hanging and send us all from here rightly afflicted. Such, of course, is not His ways. Even were we, upon prayerful reflection and discernment, to recognize we are in His enemy’s encampment, God always offers a way out. If you find yourself fighting Him or thinking yourself deserving of His grace when compared to others, the solution to your dilemma is the same: repent. Like the woman in our story, repent of your sins and embrace the forgiveness He offers. It really is that simple. His grace really is that sufficient.
One last thing: today is Father’s Day. I would be remiss to those men who decided to start their day by honoring and worshipping God were I to forget to encourage them as I do the moms on Mother’s Day. Dads, you and I have an especially important role to play in salvation history. I know we live in a world which likes to think that parents are interchangeable, that anyone can fill in for another in the life of a child. We even live in a world where some of our brothers have bought into the myth that they are not that important in the life of their child. Too often, fellow dads walk, if not run, away from their responsibilities as father. But you and I need to be reminded that we are called to model the love and patience and doing good and grace for our children of our Father who is in heaven. Nowhere is that modeling more important than in the practice of repentance and forgiveness and the extension of grace in our relationships. As dads, you and I are called to forgive our children when they sin. Often, they know the wrong that they have done, and they feel the shame of disappointing a loved one, especially a parent. So much of their early lives are spent trying to earn the praise of a parent. You and I are called to model the very behavior which leads ultimately to the Cross and His offer of salvation. There is no better gift we can give a child than to love them for who they are, forgive them for when they do wrong, and to praise them when they try to do right. By instilling that pattern of life in your children, and by bringing them to church for worship and education, you are demonstrating pre-Kingdom life at its absolute best. You are helping to narrow the chasm that we put up between ourselves and God. You are uniquely positioned to teach your child or children about their Father and the incredible love with which He loves them. It is an incredible responsibility and gift to be a dad, one that should drive us to our knees in wonder and joy much like the lady in our reading today. You and I dads, have been tasked with the responsibility of leading our children to our Father in heaven. There is no greater responsibility. Period. And there is no greater joy than knowing we have planted our children firmly in the Kingdom soil. One day, the golf courses and fishing holes and dark rooms for sleeping will pass away, but those who love and serve the Lord will live for ever, no longer weeping or fearful, but full of joy and awe.