GREETING: The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
READ: Let us read, together, Psalm 37, verses 1-4 [read]
- Not to be provoked by evil-doers who seem to get away with the murder! Not to be envious of those who, in our mind, don’t deserve the glory but a penalty rather! This is counterintuitive, if not impossible – just as it is impossible for us for us to feel safe knowing that the evil-doers and ungodly are loose. Do we know, really, that “they shall soon whither like grass and fade away”? Is that what our hearts desire?
HYMN-PRAYER: Let us pray with the words of Hymn 750, the first verse [#750:1]:
Lord, thee I love with all my heart, Pray thee ne’er from me depart, with tender mercy cheer me. Earth has no pleasure I would share, yea, heavn itself were void and bare, if you Lord were not near me. And should my heart for sorrow break, my trust in thee can nothing shake. Thou are the portion I have sought, the precious blood my soul has brought. Lord Jesus Christ, my God and Lord, my God and Lord, forsake me not! I trust they word.
READ: Let us read, together, Psalm 37, verses 5-11 [read]
- Well, that’s what the Psalm says. A godly act of discipline is to be expected, for all the wrong and all the wrong doers. Thus we should feel “free” and not preoccupy ourselves as “judges” of others and let God be the renderer of divine justice. That’s probably very good. How could we render divine justice – we have enough to worry about “worldly” justice, failing miserably in that often times – the idea of us having to do God’s job of justice is … scary. (That’s why the Donastist controversy was so important, and why wise folks like Augustine and Luther or Elizabeth of England thought it a bad idea for people to imagine they have windows to people’s souls, the inner realm for the battles of good and evil.) Besides, we could not bear it – not doing it, or receiving it. Divine justice, that is.
In the movie “Django, Unchained” there is a powerful scene where a liberated slave blows some stuff down. It seems right and well-deserved, and yet … even in a movie, watching the ungodly/ wrong-doers, the unrighteous suffer, bleed and die, doesn’t necessarily feel quite right, because … we feel empathy. Empathy may just be the most divine quality humanity has.
Empathy makes it hard to rejoice when bad things happen to anyone. With our blessing and burden of being empathetic creatures, we grieve even when the most atrocious war criminal is gunned down. We feel for the ‘godless’ because, perhaps, on some level, we recognize that we too are ungodly and unrighteous; we recognize in them and in ourselves the ugly part of humanity. NONE of us is undeserving of damnation. None of us is pure. None of us is infallible and able to make only right choices. None of us is godly on our own. EACH of us is human and capable for great evil. Each of us is in need of grace and God’s justice.
I remember growing up next to a prison. My father was a prison guard – when he was not skiing, that is. My father never spoke ill of the persons he supervised. He was never mean to anyone, that’s probably why he was never beaten up by a person released from the prison. So told me one of the inmates I became friends with after his release (We played in a Christian rock band; that did cause some anxiety to my father who wanted assurance that the man had indeed “reformed” his ways and was no longer violent. My father did not quite trust him, while he did no judge him. I understand now why my father would do surprise stops at the Christian bookstore where this man worked, to buy … pencils, and note books, and just chat!). The prison guards saw a lot of stuff inside the prison walls. It was not uncommon for the guards to come home after night-shift hiding bruises. But that’s not my predominant memory. The pretty “prison crafts” are! We got so many beautiful things made by the inmates. Over the years my family bought all kinds of crafts from the prison store, from a toddler rocking chair to candle holders to scarfs and jewelry boxes. They brought a little bit of a prison to our home. Also, in my hometown, prison was in the middle of the town, sort of by the main square, not tugged away in the woods. That kind of closeness to prison life certainly was a factor when I had a chance to do an internship in a high security prison in Helsinki - I ran for it.
I remember THE interview question: “WHO do you think are here, behind these walls? Who lives here?” the interviewer asked. “People?” I guessed. And people I met. Three months in jail permanently shaped my understanding of humanity and grace and justice. Even those guilty of merciless acts of terror, murder, abuse, cheating, bootlegging, they were people, first and foremost. Thinking of the Psalm for today, I don’t think I could rejoice in the annihilation of any of them, while I would like to pray for their repentance and reconciliation and God’s mercy on them.
Some of the prison guards played a nasty game at times. Trying to limit the time inmates had to speak with the pastoral-care-provider. “What would be the point? They’ll be back here in no time.” And those words were unfortunately often true. The point of visiting with them was … the CHRISTIAN POINT.
There’s reason why Christians through ages have seen prison ministry as an important service. We go where humanity is, at its best and at its worst. We go where the crosses are heavy, where it seems there is no hope. We go and embody the hope, hope in humanity, hope for humanit; we wish to embody unbending trust in God’s care, God’s mercy, and God’s justice (that makes us all tremble, not just Luther...)
Let us pray together with the words of Hymn 750, the second verse [#750:2]:
Year, Lord thine own rich bounty gave, my body, soul and all I have, in this poor life of labor. Lord grant that I in every place, may glorify thy lavish grace and serve and help my neighbor. Let no false teaching me beguile, let Stan not my soul define. Give strength and patience unto me, to bear my cross and follow thee. Lord Jesus Christ my God and Lord, my God and Lord, in death thy comfort thee without end.
-It is easier in theory than in real life to forgive. Especially when we personally are the target of evil intent. When we or someone near us is treated unjustly and mercilessly. It happens, also in the church. It is very hard in real moments of danger to do what Jesus tells us in Luke’s gospel ch 6: LOVE the enemies and do good for those who hate us and give them even more than they take. That is the impossible cross to bear. We canNOT, on our own. In those moments when we canNOT, we CAN take comfort in the Psalmist’s trust that the ultimate deliverance of us all is in God’s hands (that God is paying attention and is in charge).
READ: To conclude, let us read together verses 39-40 in Psalm 37 and then sing the last verse of hymn 750…. [read]
Lord let at last thine angels come, to Abraham’s bosom bear me hoe, that I may die unfearing; and in its narrow chamber keep, my body safe in peaceful sleep until they reappearing. And then from death awaken me, that these mine eyes with joy may see. O Son of God, the glorious face, my Savior and my fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend, and I will praise thee without end.
Go in peace, serve the Lord of hope.