Is there love in Las Vegas?
My colleague Carolyn has written a sermon for today, which I've exchanged with her. She's written the first part, and I've written the last part. So this is a bit of a "choose your own ending" sermon! Which is rather like the gift of life-- what will you choose as your ending? Carolyn says:
As someone who just preached last Sunday about God taking our transgressions, our sins, and casting them into the deepest part of the ocean, I’m struggling with what God will do, will say to the man who, later that evening, fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd at a concert in Las Vegas, killing some 59 people and wounding nearly 600 more.
Corrie ten Boom forgave the guard from her death camp, but the man had repented and asked her forgiveness. What about the shooter? Just before he killed himself, did he regret what he had just done? If so, perhaps, just barely, we might be able to accept that God forgave him.
But what if he didn’t? And, of course, we will never know.
So what if he didn’t? Did God … could God … would God, looking down on the devastation, on the bloodied bodies scattered in the crowd, the terrified survivors huddling behind whatever protection they could find, what would God feel?
Certainly, the pain of the people below.
Certainly, a great sorrow at such loss of life and ability and future.
Certainly, the tragedy of the moment must overwhelm even God.
Certainly, God’s tears mingled with those below.
But then God is called into the judgment chamber, and the man who appears before him is the very man who committed those atrocities.
According to the news, he was not a religious man. No ties to any particular religion. In our scenario, we’ve already determined that he is not repentant. Standing before the judge, he shows no remorse, even though his lawyer suggests that to show some such feeling might make his sentence lighter. No, he simply stands there, no pleading for mercy, no phony tears of regret. He just stands there, waiting for the verdict.
In the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, the landowner exacts revenge for the mistreatment of his servants and the death of his son. Such a response would be appropriate here.
But what if, instead of comparing the landowner to God, the intent of the parable was to contrast the two?* This is what the landowner would do, the human landowner, the landowner who lives by the ways of the world.
Landowners in Jesus day were often, as in this parable, absentee landlords, people who might plant a vineyard, prepare it carefully, and then leave it in charge of someone else. The only contact he would have with the farm after that would be to send his servants to collect the rent.
People in Jesus’ day had plenty of experience with absentee landlords. Many of them farmed for them, not managing, but doing the actual farm labor, perhaps even working what had been their own land before they couldn’t pay back the mortgage. And the mortgage interest was always high, deliberately so, intended to make it impossible to repay the loan, allowing the wealthy to expand their land holdings.
Jesus was not telling a parable about God. He was telling a parable about the way the world works, about the way humans treat each other. “This is what you folks do,” he was saying. “This is NOT the way God works.” The tenants who beat the servants and killed the son deserved justice. Any court in the land would consider that to be a capital crime, deserving of equal retribution, with the death penalty the appropriate response.
But John 3:16 tells us something different for God’s response. God loved the world so much … the only begotten Son …
God’s response to the crucifixion? Not the death of the religious leaders who pushed him to Pilate. Not the destruction of Pilate’s palace. Not raining hellfire on Jerusalem.
God’s response was two-fold: the tearing of the curtain in the Temple, the curtain that separated the public part of the Temple from the Holy of Holies, entered only once a year by the very high priest, the dwelling place of God. The curtain torn in two. Torn in grief, as they might have torn their own clothing upon learning of the death of a loved one? Torn to let the people in, to remove the veil of separation from the people? Whichever, the tearing of the curtain was not a violent act, not a punishment, not a retribution. No violence. No one was harmed.
We Christians don’t focus on the tearing of the curtain, because what was more important to us is what happened three days later, the opening of the tomb, the resurrection. Where humans would respond with death, God responded with life. Life everlasting.
For the disciples huddled behind locked doors, no condemnation for abandoning their teacher. Instead, “Peace be with you.” For Peter, who had denied even knowing Jesus, no condemnation. Instead, an assignment, “Feed my sheep.” For Saul, who persecuted the early Followers of the Way, no condemnation. Instead, a name change to Paul and a new vision of the world, a world in which both Jews and Gentiles would work together to bring about the Kingdom.
The human response to the death of the landlord’s son in the vineyard? Death to the tenants. God’s response to the death of the Son? Resurrection and life.
So where does this leave the shooter standing in the judgment hall? Certainly he deserves justice. From God, what might he receive?
Carolyn has nailed this; she faces us with the uncomfortable truth of the gospel: The man will receive from God what all of us have forever received: mercy, forgiveness, and love.
This is the gospel: all have sinned. Christ died for all. All are loved. ALL.
The question is not so much what God will do, but what I will do.
Because the love of God shown in Jesus' death tells me that I am that man.
Yes, quantitatively, his sin is much more obvious.
But qualitatively, he and I are the same, cut from the same cloth, stained with the same self-serving rivalry, envy, violence, and fear.
He is no worse than me. He is me— sad, lost, filled with anger and hatred.
The cross says that he and I are no different. God loves us equally.
And that's the scandal of the cross. It's why we don't listen to Jesus.
Because we want, we need, for that man to be so much worse than us.
Because then… we can live with ourselves… because at least we are not that bad— not as bad as the others...
So how will I respond to God's love for the shooter?
If I— even a little… even if I would just accept in principle, and with reservations… J that I am equally loved and equally fall short, like that man… then I am free. I can get over myself. I can just be me …
instead of having to try to be good…
instead of having always to categorise other people as worse than me…
instead of having to worry because I am not as good as other people…
instead of having to fear being rejected…
I am just me.
God loves me.
God gives me life.
God will not let me go. God never lets go of anyone.
I will never be rejected
I can double down on the hate I have for myself.
He deserves to die.
He must be punished.
No one can be forgiven that…
Whenever we say those things, what we are really saying is that, deep in ourselves, buried under the blinders, is that this is what we fear— what we believe we know— to be true about us. Indeed, this potential for evil is a part of us!
That's what hatred and condemnation is! It's projecting our half hidden hatreds of ourselves onto others so that we can live with ourselves.
And— if this is how we live— we will never be free. Because we are no different. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If God cannot forgive him, God cannot forgive us…
and somewhere in our hearts we know that, and will always fear God.
But what's the point of it all if God lets him off scot-free?
Firstly, God doesn't. There is a great cost. Jesus died, and countless other thousands have died, for and from our sin as human beings.
But here's the point:
You see, I think Carolyn's story might not be quite true. In the presence of God, I think… no one will just "stand there waiting" for their verdict.
We will meet God and know either great joy— know that we are home at last in the presence of utter goodness, or… we will know utter fear. The great danger for us is that we may— still!— even in the presence of God— know only fear and condemnation. This is what the parable of the wedding feast**— next week—- tells us: the man has been invited to the wedding, but is so convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary— wine and feasting— that he has been brought to condemnation* that he does not even put on the wedding gown! [A true insight, I think, but see here on parting company with Alison's interpretation as support for it.]
The longer and harder we fence God out
the longer and harder we double down on our self-hatred
the longer we condemn other people—
then the longer and harder we make it for us to simply accept the gift of love which has been given to us.
Pray for the people killed in Las Vegas, and the many times more killed elsewhere last week.
Pray for that sad, lost man.
And pray that you may know in every fibre of your being that God loves even that man… so of course God loves you! Amen
Andrew Prior (2017)
* Andrew Prior
** James Alison
and with many thanks to Rev Carolyn Dickinson