Transcribed from the sermon preached March 23, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Romans 3:19-29, John 3:1-17
I mentioned last week that land is not the only thing that designates privilege or membership into a particular “chosen people”. Historically, land, law, blood and language typically delineate who is in and who is out. Law represents culture, or what culture says is proper. Law can be a foundation wall for society or a wall closing people from justice or both. It generally tries to protect land and blood, that is, health and property. It may be thou shalt not kill or though shalt not run a red light or thou shalt not eat pork; thou shalt not jump on the bed, or commit fornication, or thou shalt value private property or thou shalt be circumcised.
Paul says, “Through law comes knowledge and sin. Laws are created by authority to solve a problem. The problem exists, causes trouble, people recognize it, and then make a law to solve or prevent it. The law comes after the action that harms. There are accidents at an intersection, and then they put in a sign that says, thou shalt stop. A daughter is impregnated by someone who is not committed to her, the father loses the political and economic leverage of a marriageable daughter; there is no protection or support for the daughter or her child, or the family blood line, so a law is created against fornication.
The problem is that there are so many different ways we can sin, or hurt other people, so many methods of getting around the law, that more laws always have to be created. The law is always chasing sin. Law is like the antivirus software. The antivirus software only works on viruses that are known. Every time someone creates a new virus, a new antivirus has to be created.
And, as we know, people are very smart at finding ways to get around the law. We send kids caught in possession of small amounts of drugs to prison for years, yet Guatemalan judges are found guilty of war crimes against humanity and the president simply shuts down the execution of the trial.
Elizabeth Warren expressed exasperation at the inability of the government to enforce the law against leaders of large financial institutions whose policy and action led the financial collapse which hurt millions of people.
“…I believe very strongly that if a regulator reveals itself to be unwilling to take large financial institutions all the way to trial — either because it is too timid or because it lacks resources — the regulator has a lot less leverage in settlement negotiations and will be forced to settle on terms that are much more favorable to the wrongdoer.
The consequence can be insufficient compensation to those who are harmed by illegal activity and inadequate deterrence of future violations. If large financial institutions can break the law and accumulate millions in profits and, if they get caught, settle by paying out of those profits, they do not have much incentive to follow the law.”
Part of the problem is that corporations and banks fund the politicians who write the laws so that there are ways to get around the law without officially breaking it. Another problem is that very few individuals within corporations feel like possible immoral actions are their responsibility.
We just have our little job to do; it is our job to make a profit, to protect the company, and it is someone else’s job to determine what is legal or illegal, moral or immoral. If I speak up, or suggest a less profitable but more moral way of doing things, I may lose my job. Besides, I don’t really have power; it is not my place to speak up. I am unselfishly sacrificing my moral integrity to protect my family, my company, my nation. I am justified because I have a wife, children, and a mortgage, two cars and a boat.
Nations too, easily justify their actions in economic and military pursuits by claiming they are doing it unselfishly to protect and prosper their people. We easily see the sins of the other, but then justify the very same sins when we do them ourselves. Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat who helped orchestrate the “Final Solution” or holocaust against the Jews in WWII. Arendt reported that Eichmann displayed neither guilt nor hatred, and claimed he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job”. He obeyed orders and obeyed the law. At a certain point, when Eichmann realized what he was being asked to do was immoral, he rationalized that he was no longer master of his own deeds, and that he was unable ‘to change anything.’” As he witnessed rank and file Nazis enthusiastically embrace the final solution, Eichmann felt the wave of racism and hatred was so great that it was beyond him, and therefore his responsibility was relaxed, as if he were “Pontius Pilate,” washing his hands of the deed and crucifying. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichmann_in_Jerusalem Rank and file Nazis just followed orders, did their job, obeyed the law, and went home to their families and went to church as if they were upstanding Christian people. Arendt concludes that Eichmann shows the “banality of evil.” Banal means run of the mill boring, common, unexceptional, wishy-washy, lacking originality. Recent commentary has criticized Arendt, her phrase and commentary on Eichmann, wanting to find a more calculated, intentionally racist evil within him. But I think her idea is very important and accurate in many cases where evil and sin are executed. It is descriptive of how we see and justify ourselves in sinful systems. We get sucked into sinful, harmful actions and ways of living, and justify it by saying we are just obeying orders, just doing our job so we can support our family. It helps us to think that we are powerless or ignorant, that we go along because we don’t have all the information and can’t change anything.
The Nazis were such an extreme case that it is easy to disassociate ourselves from them. But we dare not name sin so dark that we think we are exempt from its temptations. As we fought the Nazi racist regime, we still enforced the Jim Crow laws here in the United States, and turned ships of Jewish refugees away from our ports. And now we have laws which imprison African American men for petty crimes and find no guilt in the rank and file banker who is just “doing his job” and “obeying the law” while the result is that millions lose their homes. The same banal justification shows with regard to environmental pollution, unfair trade, gambling, pornography, or violence in the media: we are just doing our job, producing jobs, enabling transportation, giving people what they want, affirming freedom, everybody is doing it. It is like the old frog in the boiling pot of water metaphor. If we are dropped into the pot already hot, we recognize it and jump out. But if we are already there as the water begins to get hotter and hotter, we get used to sin until we are cooked. If we get a little bit more sinful, in small steps, we justify it along the way. We see the same banality in persons executing and permitting the racist, dispossessing and oppressive Israeli policy against Palestinians. We see it in Americans’ uncritical support for spending massive amounts of money and human lives in one war after another across the world. I am not equating the level of Nazi evil with America or Israel, but I am equating the banality.
Nobody is exempt from sin, nor from finding convenient, boring ways to justify it. There is no distinction says Paul, we all fall short of the glory of God. Most people, whether American, Israeli, Lebanese or Guatemalan just want to do their job, get paid, have a home and raise a family. We don’t want to concern ourselves with how others are being oppressed, how our living or consumption negatively impacts others.
Make no mistake there are those who are calculatingly evil. History is full of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, kings and lords, priests, communists, nationalists, drug lords, warriors, mercenaries, or selfish business persons who are so certain they have the truth, or that their needs are so great that they justify harm to anyone or any law which gets in their way or tries to argue otherwise.
But most of us are not that way. Most of us go along to get along. Most of us find ways to justify our sin. Most of us follow the law of government, culture or religion, and like to point out the difference between ourselves and those who do not. We use our inness to justify, if not our hatred, then our lack of compassion for those who are out. Frankly, we think, we just don’t have time or power to make a difference. But at least we are in; at least we follow the law. Very often for very many, evil is banal. Law can’t define all the ways we can sin, nor can it prescribe all the ways we provide service or love.
Now Nicodemus is pretty high up in the Jerusalem hierarchy. He is a leader who has a pretty good position, family and social standing. He benefits from the way things are. But he senses Jesus is someone special, a man of God, so he goes to him at night. He wouldn’t want to jeopardize his position. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” Land or blood is not enough. Fitting in and following the law are not enough. We need water, which is the water of baptism – which after confession of sin, washes us clean with forgiveness. And we need Spirit; Spirit blows where it wills, free and above land, law and blood and language.
Jesus is a Pharisee, a Jew, just like Nicodemus, but he realizes that land, law and blood do not and will not save. Our connection to them does not mean we are free from sin or connected to God. We need forgiveness and we need the Spirit. Forgiveness frees us from past sins; the Spirit gives us power to live with God into the future, into eternity. Jesus calls us to a higher calling than land, law or blood. His integrity of love and grace are such, that even when his life and message threaten the status quo, and he is in turn threatened with death, he remains faithful, loving and gracious. He would rather sacrifice his life than sacrifice his integrity or the holiness and completeness of God’s love. God the father would rather sacrifice his son, than sacrifice his love. Jesus calls us to allow the Spirit of God to guide us, even where the law has not prescribed for us the way to go. He calls us to confess our sins, receive forgiveness, and commit by the power of the Spirit to live and work for a new day, a new way.
Until fifth grade I thought I was a combination of David and Sampson. I tried to do everything right and for the most part succeeded. Then one day a friend of mine, who was always being picked on, cried out for my help. When I went over I found that the two strongest, coolest 6th grade boys were picking on him. My friend said, if you don’t give me that ball back, Max is going to beat you up. I was set up to back him up. The first problem was that I doubted my ability and I was afraid. And second, I wanted to be thought of as cool and to be liked by these two guys and all their friends. They gave the ball back, but that night I sat in my bed and contemplated, if God was so great and powerful, why did he need me? I was angry at and doubted God for the first time, but I also felt ashamed and guilty for feeling weak and for caring about popularity more than standing up for what was right. I wanted God to let me be, to let me be a regular guy who didn’t see and didn’t care.
I decided I was inadequate and weak, and that if God was strong He shouldn’t need me anyway. So I started rebelling against God and my parents. I put up a wall between myself and God. Six years later my girlfriend became pregnant and had our daughter Amy. Now there was no way I could or would marry Amy’s mother, so I shouldn’t have been sleeping with her. I felt horrible and depressed, a sinner if there ever was one. On my way from San Diego up to the court house in LA to determine child support, I broke down. I was a sinner worthy of condemnation. While the train sped through the city going North, I cried. Then the train suddenly slowed, drawing my attention up and out. We crept through the estuary in Encinitas and out along the coast. As the sun rose shimmering pink off the blue water, I saw pelicans in formation gliding along the crest of a wave, I felt God’s grace wash over me. Yes, God said, regardless of what the law decides, you are a sinner worthy of judgment, but I love you anyway. You are small and weak, but I need you anyway. You do not understand me. You cannot see me. But I am here loving you anyway.
Stop whining in self pity, there is no virtue in punishing or crippling yourself without working for love. No self-flagellation, please. I am breaking down the dividing wall between you and me.
Receive the grace of Christ, get up and walk, do what you can. This estuary is my holy land.
This was my born again moment, when I felt God’s love despite myself, and decided by the grace of Jesus to do my best to share God’s love and peace. God so love the world that He sent His only begotten son, that whosoever shall believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
No matter where we come from, what we have done, what our station, land, law or blood, we all fall short of the Glory of God. And yet God offer us forgiveness, the power to repent, and to know a new life of joy, peace and love. Allow God’s grace to wash over you today, confess your sins, and receive forgiveness that leads to new life. With God’s grace we don’t need the law to tell us to be loving, kind or just. At the base of life is the foundation of the God of love, who loves us and calls us to love others. Jesus says all the law and the prophets are summed up in this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.”