We Lutherans, we’re the grace people. It’s a basic Christian doctrine that we cannot make ourselves right with God or save ourselves, and whenever someone says we can, we Lutherans rush to be at the front of the line to say, those things are gifts from God. We’re willing to stake the Church on it. So, what do we do with this troublesome text in 2 Corinthians? Here is Saint Paul—Mr. Justification by Grace through Faith himself—saying, “For all shall be made to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each receive according to what was done in the body, whether worthy or worthless.” That sounds an awful lot like “works righteousness.” Sounds like a reckoning of accounts. It is not. Paul is not denying that Christ has made us right with God. Paul is saying that the life of those justified by faith does not end with justification by faith. The justified still have work to do and lives to life. That’s a lesson from our First Reading.
We get the tail end of a bigger story in Ezekiel 17. Ezekiel says an eagle once planted a tree, and the tree bent toward that eagle for a while. Then, another eagle came along, and the tree bent toward that eagle. As a result, the tree will be torn up. Then, in today’s reading, God will replant the tree. Ezekiel is talking about what are for him current events. About 600 years before Christ, Babylon defeated Judah in battle. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, took the King of Judah hostage, and appointed a new King of Judah named Zedekiah. He made Zedekiah swear by the name of the Lord God that he would serve Babylon. Not everyone in Judah liked this arrangement, and Egypt—Babylon’s rival—offered military support to Zedekiah. Zedekiah accepted. He tilted allegiance from Babylon to Egypt, tilted the “plant” from one “eagle” to the other. As you can imagine, the King of Babylon was not pleased with this. His army descended upon Jerusalem. Pharaoh never came out of Egypt to help Judah. The Babylonians crushed Jerusalem and took the people into exile.
Ezekiel says that this happened because Zedekiah broke an oath made in God’s name. This defeat was not a foregone conclusion of geopolitics. When Zedekiah swore in God’s name to serve the King of Babylon, Ezekiel says he entered into a sacred obligation. God doesn’t let God’s name be used lightly. It’s in the Torah. It’s number two, for crying out loud! “Don’t take my name in vain.” Ezekiel says, “You are supposed to be a great tree in which birds of all nations can shelter; this was no exotic bird, no foreigner or alien who caused defeat and exile. This was much more mundane. You violated God’s Torah (albeit on an international scale). That violation of the faith tradition condemned Judah.
That tradition had always been about serving others. That’s the point Ezekiel makes in the First Reading. God’s people were always supposed to be a tree in which the birds could shelter. God called God’s people to be a witness to all nations. God wanted Babylon and Egypt to know that God was God, period. Not just God of Jerusalem or God of Israel. God. That was the plan before Exile, Ezekiel says that remains the plan despite Exile, and in the Gospel today Jesus says that remains the plan. The work for God’s people was and remains bearing witness to God in word and deed. Our mission, our purpose, our reason for existing as God’s people is to share God with every nation. We have work to do. That work won’t save our souls—the Eternal One takes care of that. The work won’t impress God enough to declare us righteous and justified—we are not going to impress God; we don’t need to. God loves us already and declares us justified. Rather, God says, “I love you and I hold you forever and I have work for you.” The justified have work to do: sharing God with everyone. Want to quote scripture? Fine. It’s God’s word. The only proper use of it is to share a loving God. Jesus describes the work in parables.
As with the First Reading, we only read the end of a longer section of Mark. Jesus opens with a story about a sower sowing seed on every square centimeter of ground. Some lands in good soil, some in rocks or thorns. Jesus explains that the seed is the word, not all people receive the word well, but some do, and when they do they bear fruit. Then, he tells the disciples to get out and share the word, even if people appear resistant. Share God. Tell people God loves you and God loves your neighbor, so go love God and love your neighbor. Show people what loving God looks like. It’ll be fruitful even if you aren’t sure how.
Jesus likens the word to mustard seed: notoriously invasive, not always welcome, something growers of other crops wish would keep its distance, something that spreads despite the efforts of others to stop it, something that—when it grows—offers shelter to the wayward and wandering. That’s our message. People don’t always want it. It does tend to upset things. God usually has different plans than we do. And yet that upsetting unwelcome message is shelter to us. I rest in the shade of a very irritating shrub. And it is shelter to others. Others will come as we share the word.
Perhaps what they seek is physical shelter, maybe a roof over their heads for the night, maybe a community where human beings can afford shelter every night. Our Christian vocation will call us: time to go spread our notoriously invasive not always welcome message up close and personal with people who don’t want to hear it…and who also need to shelter under it. Or perhaps those who come here for shelter seek a spiritual shelter they cannot find elsewhere. So, we find that our irritating shrub is invasive, not welcome, up close and personal and asking us to share its shade. The faith tradition from Ezekiel to Peter to today is providing God’s shelter to all people. Lots of birds will nest here. Many people will call.
We stand before them as before God. That’s what Paul means with his troublesome comment in our Second Reading. Paul writes, “For we all shall be made to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each receive according to what was done in the body, whether worthy or worthless.” And Paul continues, “Therefore, knowing and fearing the Lord we appeal to people. We have been made to appear before God, and we hope to be made to appear in your consciousness.” Paul hopes to appear before people with a worthwhile message. Paul knows God loves him and that he cannot undo God’s love. Paul knows that he will appear before a loving God. Paul hopes he appears before others with a loving God. That’s our work to do: appear before other people with a loving God. Everyone’s work includes this. Whether corporate president, receptionist, teacher, carpenter, nurse, lawyer, housekeeper, cook, artist—appear before others with a loving God.
By now most of us have heard the statement made Thursday by the US Attorney General and the President’s Press Secretary, claiming Christian authority and justification for the policy of separating families at our southern border. I am not an immigration agent or expert, and won’t comment here on the policy in those terms. I will say that the attempt to justify the policy with Christianity is misplaced. The policy fails the Christianity test. We are to appear before others with a loving God. When people come to our country seeking shelter, like birds seeking shelter in the shade of the mustard tree, we as Christians are supposed to appear before them with a loving God. Separating families and subjecting them to appalling and unnecessary conditions is not appearing with a loving God. I won’t say if it is good immigration policy; I will say it is not Christian.
Do that, and the kingdom happens. We don’t always (or often) know how. Attempts to force the issue don’t work. When someone tells you they will bring about God’s will by ruining or destroying others, that person is not appearing before others with our loving God. They need to know about God. They could probably use some of God’s shelter right now. The kingdom comes. The farmer sows and the kingdom comes as the farmer sleeps and rises. The kingdom comes even while the disciples sleep. In Gethsemane while Peter, James, and John sleep, Jesus the Son of God is faithful and is handed over to the mob who will inadvertently bring about the defeat of sin, death, the devil, and themselves. And the kingdom comes when Jesus rises and leaves the grave and we’re left with a young man’s words: he’s out there, somewhere. When we appear before others with a loving God, we set Jesus’ victory in motion for others. We set Jesus’ death and resurrection in motion in the lives of those we meet. When we offer them shelter from sin, we offer them God breaking the power of sin, death, and the devil in their lives. Christ’s victory may just become real for them. That’s offering grace. We Lutherans, we’re the grace people. Let’s bring it with us. Let’s not be afraid to cast that notoriously invasive seed, and to shelter with others in the loving God we carry.