the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

09 September 2018

Isaiah 35. 4-7a

We don’t live under threat of punishment, 
but on promise of love!

A carrot and a stick.  That, about, sums it up.  A carrot and a stick.  That, pretty much, is what it takes.  On the one hand, we need reward; on the other, punishment.  There are consequences to our actions.  Prices that must be paid.  The one draws us; the other drives us.  And, truth be told, the reward part isn’t all that important.

For us, in this place, at this time, it’s the stick that matters more.  The bigger, the heavier, the thicker, the better.  Spare the rod, they say, spoil the child.  Three strikes and you’re out.  Tough love.  Beginning to end, start to finish, it’s all about punishment.  Always about punishment.

It’s no accident, no coincident, that the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world!  And of the fifty states, Texas ranks number seven.  We believe in sticks!  We believe in punishment!  With all our heart!  With all our mind!  With all our being!  We rely on it!  We depend on it!  Time and time again, we stake our lives on it!   It’s the stick that inspires us! The stick that motivates and moves us!  Fixated on the punishments!   Obsessed with the penalties!

So, I guess it’s natural, instinctive, when we read a passage like this one from Isaiah, that our attention should be drawn, enticed, to one word. . .  vengeance!  VENGEANCE!  It’s just another word for punishment!  Stick!  Vengeance is retaliation!  Vengeance is payback!  Vengeance is revenge!  It’s something we understand!  Something we believe in!    The threats and the warnings!  The uncertainty and fear!  Vengeance possesses us!  It inhabits our souls!  And in the end – as at the beginning – it gets blown all out of proportion!  Until all we see and all we hear and all we feel is the stick!  “Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”  But this is not faith.  This is not believing.

Step back. Take a broader look.  A panorama, if you will.  This passage, first and foremost, isn’t about vengeance.  It’s not about recompense.  It’s not about retaliation.  It’s about redemption!  New beginnings!  There are ninety-two words in this passage.  The word vengeance occurs only once.  The overwhelming majority is about promise and hope!  Vengeance is there only to bring about that brave, new world!  “He will come and save you!”  That’s the message of today’s First Reading!  “He will come and save!”  The eyes of the blind opened!  The ears of the deaf unstopped!  The lame leaping like a deer!  The tongue of the speechless singing for joy!  Waters breaking forth in the wilderness!  The desert blossoming and turning green!  That is faith!  That is believing!

It’s knowing that love has the last word!  It’s being certain that life always rises from the dead!  We believe in vindication, not vengeance!  We believe in redemption, not wrath!  The arc of history – or, at least, the arc of god’s story – always bends toward love!  Always toward charity!  Always toward grace!  And punishment – that stick – has nothing to do with it!  Luther speaks about two kingdoms.  The kingdom of god and the kingdom of the world.  The church and the state.  But think about it.  The kingdom of god, the church, doesn’t have an army!  Or a navy!  The kingdom of heaven, the church, doesn’t have a police force or a court system or prisons!  We’re not the world!  We do things differently!  We don’t use carrots and sticks; we use compassion and forgiveness!  We use love!  Or rather, love uses us!

But, unfortunately, as Americans, we don’t believe that.  And so, we need something to work for.  Something to purchase.  Something to earn.  We need that carrot dangling just out of our reach.  But even more than that carrot, we need that stick.  Ominous.  Threatening.  At least, we think we do.  To drive us to do what is right.  To prevent us from doing what isn’t!  As people, we need the ultimatum, the or-else.  We need punishment.  Even though it isn’t faith.  Even though it’s not believing.  We need that stick even if our “Christianity” becomes a religion without Christ, a church without the cross.  We want it.  We need it.  That bulletin board just north of the loop.  “Repent,” it says!  “Return to God Now!  Judgment is at the door!”  “Here is your God.  He comes with vengeance!”  We shudder!  And we shake!  And we pretend to believe!  But we don’t.  We can’t.  Because, you see, real faith, real believing, has nothing to do with that.  Has nothing to do with any of that.  Not the wrath or the rage.  Not the fire or fear.

You see, god comes only to create. . .  and to redeem. . .  and to make new. . .  And if there is vengeance, if there is recompense, it is in service to love! It’s in service to love!  Vengeance against anyone and anything that gets in the way.  Recompense against anyone and anything that tries to hinder or to halt god’s amazing grace!  That prevents the wasteland from blooming!  That keeps the desert dry.

But then, that’s what makes it so hard to be the church!  Especially in this part of the world!  As a people of god, we believe in charity!  We believe in charity with all we have, with all we are!  But as Americans, as West Texans, we’ve been taught to believe in punishment!  We’ve been taught to believe in vengeance!  We’ve been taught to believe in the power of the stick!  No turning the other!  No going the extra!  We’ve been taught only eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  We’ve given up speaking and trust only in the stick, only in the bigger stick.  But that’s not the church.  That’s not the kingdom of god, the kingdom of heaven.

We are about holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and dying.  We believe in crosses!  in crosses and in resurrections!  We stake our lives on it!  Boldly!  With confidence!  Out there!  Out there in the “real” world, we want to hear what we already believe!  We want to learn what we already know!  Out there, it’s all sticks!  But in here, in the church, it’s all love!  Unearned!  Undeserved!  Unending!  Love, forever and ever!  Amen!  Sure, now and again, we may see a dim reflection, we may hear a faint echo, of how it once was.  But it doesn’t distract us.  We aren’t tempted or confused.  Instead, we go to Christ!  To Christ and to the cross!  And we trust!  We believe!  We have faith!  In a love that breaks and bleeds!  In a love that suffers and dies and is buried!  In a love that rises to do it all over again!

My friends, god loves you!  God loves us!  Not just to the moon and back, but to hell and beyond!  “Be strong!  And do not fear!”

Midland Lutheran Church