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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Works Righteousness and Cheap Grace - 11/22/2020

These judgment parables from Matthew are hard work.

We have spent the last three weeks in this 25th chapter of Matthew … three parables about the kingdom of heaven is like this … and this is what judgment looks like in that kingdom. I think it’s hard for at least a couple of reasons. It’s hard for us Lutherans because it comes uncomfortably close to the idea that there are certain things we must do to be welcomed into that kingdom of heaven – works-righteousness, the kryptonite of Lutheran theology. We have an aversion to it like little else. And I make a little fun here, but it has worked very well for us and our Christian witness.

These judgment parables are also hard because they present us with an image of God, or Christ the King, that seems contrary to the steadfast loving, forgiving, all-inclusive God we typically like to talk about.

First, we had what is usually called the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids … in which we hear from Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like the promise of a spouse, a life partner. Those who await this arrival with excitement and anticipation guess this spouse will arrive shortly, surely by nightfall. And so, they prepare for the arrival of this life-changing partner. It may get dark before their promised lover arrives, so they bring their lamps and the more fastidious among them bring extra oil in case it gets completely dark.

And it does, and the time gets long. Those who wait get tired and they fall asleep. In the middle of that night their beloved arrives, the kingdom of heaven has come, and those who have remained prepared enter, while those who were not prepared try to make up for where they had become complacent. But the moment had slipped by and they will not meet their beloved or see the kingdom of heaven.

So, are we to understand that we must work to keep the equivalent of our “lamps” trimmed and burning to assure our eternal happiness? And if we don’t, that’s it? One chance and we’re locked out of the banquet forever?

And then we heard the Parable of the Talents … in which Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a place where servants are gifted in unexpected and abundant ways by their Master, who then leaves them on their own for a long time and expects them to be creative, industrious and generous with these gifts, to be self-motivated and self-disciplined in the stewardship of these gifts.

And on the day the servants see their Master come home again, they celebrate all the ways the servants used their gifts to make life and love multiply and flourish in new unexpected and abundant ways. But those who do not steward their gifts well are thrown into the night of nights, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 25:30)

Okay, then. Does this mean our eternal life is conditional? Is it based on how well we steward what God gives us? And if we fail we will live in a sea of tears and never-ending anguish?

And now, on Christ the King Sunday, we have this Parable of the Great Sorting of Sheep and Goats.

I remembered a sheep and goat experience I had when I was writing an update for the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. It was at an exhibit I saw at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago – one of the “Body” exhibits, showing plasticized human bodies and organs in a variety of ways and conditions. It might sound strange, but it is a fascinating way to view human muscles, and movement. You could plainly see the absolute miracle of our circulatory and nervous systems. It left me in deep awe of God’s creation of the human body.

The exhibit also included animals. And I recall stopping to read the placard in front of the bodies of a sheep and a goat. I thought of this parable as I read that the only physiological difference between a sheep and a goat was that one had an extra little muscle that allowed it to not only move its tail up and down, but also left to right. The difference between the two is so extraordinarily slight and yet, through the lens of the parable, so critically significant.

In the parable there is another point of twinness between the sheep and goats. When they hear the king speak about how they are sorted – which is to say, how they responded when they encountered most people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, shivering, naked and vulnerable, sick and oppressed – when they hear this, their answers to the king are identical. “Lord, when was it that we saw you …” (Mt25.37,44)

The same response. That’s interesting isn’t it? And I think it answers that little Lutheran red flag about works-righteousness too. Because if this really were a case of having to do, say, experience or proclaim specific deeds in order to earn eternal life, well then the sheep and the goats would have had to know that.

It’s not about motivation, it’s about authenticity. It’s about who we really are in our identities as Jesus-following people. It’s about the outpouring of love and grace that comes from living in this Jesus Way. We don’t respond to others in kind and loving ways because God is keeping track on some cosmic scoreboard. We do it because it’s impossible not to, whether we are driven by our conscience, a tendency to root for the underdog, or a w3orldview of hope and joy instead of damnation and fear. We respond as Jesus would do as best we can.  

This isn’t works-righteousness. This is who God has intended us to be from the beginning – our authentic selves.

That leaves us with the uncomfortable question of these images of harsh judgment – permanent exclusion from the banquet, cast into the night of nights, weeping and gnashing of teeth – and now: Goats facing eternal punishment.

Ugh. I must confess, I wondered if maybe I could just skim over this part – stick to what I think this text implies about works-righteousness and leave it at that.

This is hard and honestly, I continue to wrestle with the tension between the harshness of the judgment in these parables and the God we typically talk about  … who is endlessly forgiving, and continually conspiring and re-creating in our best interest.

I will say this though, there is another Lutheran lens we can employ as we continue to wrestle with Holy Scriptures, with ideas of judgment and the kingdom of heaven … and I pray we do wrestle like this our whole lives. The lens is that of cheap grace.

The Lutheran theology of grace is as fundamental for us as our aversion to works-righteousness. It provocatively and powerfully proclaims that there is nothing we can do or avoid, say or withhold, be or not be that makes us deserving of God’s grace. That grace has come to creation, for us Christians, in the person of Jesus Christ, in the forgiveness of sin and adoption into God’s family forever. It has come to us already and only because that is what God has chosen for us.

That is how much God loves you.

That is Lutheran-born theology that has the wings of an eagle. It is a Lutheran strength.

I’m going to use my favorite coin analogy here – If you think of a strength as one side of a coin, the flip side of the coin would be the challenge associated with that strength. If a strength of a corporation is that it is large and can cover a big market, a challenge might be that its largeness means it is less agile and able to change.

If my strength is confidence, flip that coin over and perhaps my challenge is that I’m also too cocky sometimes, or bullish or vain.

Flip the Lutheran theology of grace coin over and you find our challenge: cheap grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said cheap grace is “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…”

He said in truth, this “grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs (us our life), and it is grace because it gives (us) the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of (God’s) Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

And so, although I cannot deliver a dissertation to you today on what to understand exactly about these pictures of harsh judgment, which you are probably actually relieved to hear, I think we can still use parables as mirrors of sorts … how do we see ourselves, this faith community, our families, our nation in the mirrors of these parables, harsh judgments and all?

I think we can use these challenging images associated with being ill-prepared for the coming kingdom of heaven, of being unmindful of the gifts God has placed with us, of being numb to the suffering of others – we can let these images stir us from complacency, from keeping God’s abundance to ourselves, from turning blind or disapproving eyes to those who suffer, we can use them to  stir us from cheap grace.

Perhaps in the face of what we cannot know fully, we are wise to simply let these things turn us back toward God and the authentic Jesus-following people God intended us to be from the beginning. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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