(Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10)
Way back when I was a student in divinity school (it’s been about 20 years now!), I was standing in line to get food in the cafeteria and – lo and behold – I realized that my Systematic Theology professor was standing in line behind me. We greeted each other, and then I asked him a theology question. I figured I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with him while we were waiting in line!
The question I asked him was whether he thought understanding God’s judgment or understanding God’s love was more effective in bringing people to God. In other words, were people more drawn to God by feeling as if they would be judged by God (if they didn’t repent) or loved by God (if they did repent)? Which was more powerful: judgment or forgiveness?
I had thought about this question for some time and, of course, had my own answer to the question, based on my personal experience. For me, it was definitely God’s love that drew me to God, not God’s judgment. I had felt judged enough, already, in my life and was in desperate need of forgiveness and grace! I wasn’t afraid of burning in hell; I was afraid of the hell on Earth we can create when we don’t understand forgiveness and grace! As a matter of fact, I was living a kind of hell on Earth and was desperate for a little piece of heaven. Thank God, I found God, and now have my little piece of heaven on Earth.
I’m not the only person who has felt this way about God’s judgment. Kathleen Norris wrote about a judgment text in the Gospel According to Matthew in her book, Amazing Grace. She wrote about her grandmother Norris’s reaction to the text: “[M]y grandmother Norris seemed to love it for the very reasons that I found it terrifying. She often spoke of Jesus as a thief who would come in the night and destroy the world, her voice trembling with excitement at the thought of a final harvest, when weeds would be burned up by fierce, implacable angels.”
I’m betting grandmother Norris was excited about the last judgment because she was convinced she would not be one of those who would be burned by “fierce, implacable angels.” As a Christian in her time and place, she probably thought she was one of the “saved.” At the last judgment, she would be just fine.
Human beings tend to make these kinds of distinctions between those who are bad and those who are good; those who are condemned and those who are saved; those who are lost and those who are found. And, we tend to put ourselves in the positive category: We are the good, the saved, the found! And those “other” people – well, they’re the ones who are bad, condemned, and lost! But not us! No way!
Our scripture passages for today tell us otherwise, however. Psalm 14 begins, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (1). We live in a time when there are atheists, people who believe there is no God. But back in ancient Israel, there were no atheists (or, at least, very few). Pretty much everyone believed in the existence of God or gods. The issue that the psalmist is writing about is not atheism as we know it today, but something called “practical atheism,” which is acting as if there is no God. If we are honest with ourselves, all of us act as if there is no God at some point in our lives! Instead of turning our will and our lives over to God at all times, we take back our will and our lives from God, realize we have done so, then give them back to God, then take them back, then give them back to God, and so on. We live an endless cycle of turning toward and away from, toward and away from God. It turns out that we are all “fools,” as verses 2-3 state: “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Our American culture supports practical atheism. Americans love when people are self-sufficient and self-directed! We hate to need other people. Even to need God is to appear weak! Essentially, then, we are raised by our culture to act as if there is no God, and we are praised for doing so! What’s a favorite phrase in America? “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” In other words, get yourself together and get going on whatever it is you have to do!
Of course, it’s impossible to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps (that is, boot laces). If pulling up on bootstraps would work at all, someone else would have to pull up on the bootstraps, not the person wearing the boots. [demonstrate] This phrase reveals the myth of practical atheism, otherwise known as self-sufficiency. If we’re stuck in a tough spot, we can’t get ourselves out of it; someone else has to help us get out and get going. Trying to save ourselves is a no-win situation. So, when we try to do it ourselves, or expect someone else to do it for him-or-herself, we’re engaging in a futile, destined-to-fail enterprise!
Which brings us to God’s love and to the Gospel According to Luke passage. Yes, we are all “fools” who act as if there is no God. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not one of us is exempt from God’s judgment and condemnation. Not one. (Not even Kathleen Norris’s grandmother, who had such glee when reading the judgment passages in the Bible!) But the story doesn’t stop there. It continues with the God revealed in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
The God we worship is a God who will not leave us lost in self-sufficiency and sin. Our God will not say to us, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” No. Our God is a God who will become uncomfortable so that he can seek us, find us, and hold us close. Our God is the shepherd who leaves the flock to find his lost sheep, or the woman who cleans through the night to find her lost coin. And, once we are found, our God is a God who will hold a heavenly party, a party at which the angels will dance and sing and rejoice that the one who was lost is found!
Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who were offended that Jesus would deal with tax collectors and sinners. They muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Just as all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God and thus deserve God’s judgment and condemnation, so all of us are forgiven by God and thus receive God’s love and mercy. Not one of us is free from sin and judgment, and not one of us is refused God’s love and forgiveness. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:24, “[A]ll are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Even those tax collectors and sinners. Silly Pharisees and scribes: You were sinners, too, not just those who look like sinners!
We are human beings, all of us, and all of us are subject to the vagaries of life on this Earth. We are tempted at all times by practical atheism to turn away from God. As a matter of fact, on the day I began considering these scripture passages, my daily devotional reading was about the fallacy of works righteousness, which is being made righteous by our own efforts. Sarah Young, the author of the devotional, writes from the perspective of Jesus, and on Wednesday, September 7, the devotional states, “I [Jesus] approve of you continuously, for I see you cloaked in My Light, arrayed in My righteousness. There is no condemnation for those who are clothed in Me! . . . I grieve when I see grace eroding, with weeds of anxious works creeping in. I want you to relax in the assurance of My perfect Love. The law of my Spirit of Life has freed you from the law of sin and death.”
We will be tempted to take back from God the control of our lives, but we are powerless to control them. We, literally, cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Only God can pull us up and put us on our way. We need only relax in the assurance of God’s perfect love, for the law of the Spirit of Life has freed us from the law of sin and death. Grace abounds, and we are free to wallow in grace, trusting that God sees us, knows us, loves us, and will save us, even from ourselves.
Ultimately, I think I may be onto something with thinking that God’s love draws more people to God than God’s judgment. After all, when all is said and done, it is the love of God the Father that created the world; it is the love of God the Son that redeemed the world; and it is the love of God the Holy Spirit that sustains the world. When all is said and done, only love remains. What the fierce, implacable avenging angels finally burn in the fire of the last judgment is everything in the world and in us that is not love, so that all we and God are left with is the fierce, implacable love of God, that will leave no stone unturned in seeking us, finding us, and holding us close. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, September 11, 2016, the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost.
 Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. 1998; p. 316.
 Insights about Psalm 14 are from Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C. By Cousar, Charles B., Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, and James D. Newsome. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 510-512.