Court Is In Session – Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 21:23-32

By Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy

In 2007, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers filed a lawsuit against God, accusing the Almighty (in a fit of alliteration) of “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues. Lawsuit was dismissed. God doesn’t have a legal address, the presiding judges argued, so he can’t be summoned to appear in court.

Frivolous lawsuits! There are two frivolous lawsuits in our Scripture lessons today. In Exodus, Israel sues God for not providing them water to drink. In Matthew, the Pharisees sue Jesus for not having clergy credentials. God has been subpoenaed by his own people, God in the dock, as C. S. Lewis said it. People are talking trash about God.

The trash talking is gaining momentum and volume in our time. God is on trial and God has been convicted and sentenced without a fair trial. After all, where would you find a jury of God’s peers? The people doing the most damage to God’s reputation make a truly odd couple: preachers from mega-churches and television on the one hand, and an assortment of secular atheists on the other are bludgeoning God to death on the witness stand. But then again, we should remember that humanity is experienced and skilled at putting God on trial, securing a guilty verdict of traitor, and nailing God to a cross.  

To put it bluntly, it’s the preachers in this odd alliance that sicken me the most. Their pronouncements are more unsavory and dipped in the nasty waters of ignorance that they then ascribe to belief in God. I’m tired of it. The sadistic bellowing of preachers that hurricanes are the wrath of God against the heathen and the sinful is hard to take. The preachers who exult in what they believe is the spectacle of God’s sublime cruelty is even harder to understand. Another preacher explained the tsunami in the Indian Ocean as God’s punishment of countries that had persecuted Christians. “A Calvinist pastor, positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster – like everything else – was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge.”  

If the apocalyptic crazies are to be believed, the last days of the church and the world seem to be just around the corner. The Rapture Index last week was at 183 and any number over 160, according to means we should fasten our seat belts for the end. Then there are the preachers that insist on announcing after every natural disaster that God did it to punish cities, nations, and regions for their sins. I have trouble knowing which is the more telling criticism accusing the preachers of sadistic bellowing or sheer silliness. In every case, however, God’s reputation is damaged and more people line up to blame God for all the bad, evil, and monstrous events in the universe.  

If the atheists are to be believed, the intellectual assaults they have unleashed against God have left God seriously compromised and on the point of death. The atheists blast out the message that the materialist creed has been confirmed: the horrors of hurricanes and earthquakes and fires are too vast to be reconciled with belief in a loving god. The line is getting longer for those who wish to batter Christians with the message that the last slender supports for our irrational religious allegiances have been ripped away. 

God is being bludgeoned to death by alleged friends and foes. The atheists are proud, arrogant, and as certain as a tribe of fundamentalist Bible-thumpers. The publishers and the press fall over one another to print the words of journalists, biologists, minor philosophers, amateur moralists, and assorted fringe kooks eager to denounce the savagery of faith, the non-existence of God, and the virtues of a completely secular, godless culture.  

And to think this all started with some murmuring from God’s people way back in Egypt. It started with one complaint: There’s no water to drink. One murmur led to another and to another until it sounded like a swarm of murmurers all angry and filled with accusations. When the official complaint of the lawsuit is filed, it reads: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us with thirst?” 

What happens? God says, “You want a trial? Fine, you will have a trial. Meet me at the cleft of the rock at Horeb.” Isn’t it refreshing to see God respond to the lawsuit by his own people with a sort of playfulness? Instead of anger, God shows up for court and provides water. Water from a rock – how’s that for an answer to your lawsuit? By the time the psalmists get around to praising God, there’s honey coming from the rock. And by the time of the New Testament, Jesus is the Rock of our Salvation.

God shows up at God’s own trial, of God’s own free will, because no one can make God do anything God doesn’t want to do. God shows up knowing he is accused of not being a good enough God! God shows up voluntarily, freely, and stands before us. And guess what? God is not guilty of neglect. “Has the jury reached a verdict?”” Yes, your honor.” “What say ye?” “We the jury find the defendant not guilty.” Did you hear? God is not guilty. The judge says, “The court apologizes for wasting your time, Lord.” Now, we shift to the New Testament and another trial has commenced. The Pharisees haul Jesus into religious court. They are suing Jesus for practicing religion without a license. “By what authority do you do these things?” 

Of all things, Jesus flips from defendant to prosecutor when he tells the Pharisees a story about a man who had two sons. He told the first son to work in his vineyard, but the son refused to go, then later changed his mind and headed for the fields. Not knowing this, the father told his second son to do the work. This son said he would go, but then changed his mind and never set foot in the fields. “Which son did the will of the Father?” Jesus asked. Always be careful when someone tells you a story in a hostile environment.

The Pharisees are forced to admit that they are the second son – the one who said he would go to work but then didn’t go. Do we notice how many of our promises to God slip off the altar? Which son did the will of his father? The son who did what the father asked is the hero in this parable. We don’t have to choose between grace and good works; we only need to get them in proper order – grace followed by good works.

The kingdom of Jesus comes from those who show up – with the casseroles, the notes, the ones giving folks rides to church, the ones working in the church garden, fixing the plumbing, redecorating the children’s wing, the ones who whisper, “I’m praying for you.” These are the ones who show up and give their offering every Sunday. These are the living sacrifices that do not slip off the altar.

Garrison Keillor recently said that he thought the gentle people shall prevail. I still admire those who cling to the belief that niceness will at last carry the day. “In spite of everything, I still believe that the gentle people will prevail over the bullies and braggarts, fascinating though they be.”

Someone read a copy of the bulletin from Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School there. In the bulletin, under Announcements, was a list of volunteers for the next week: Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery. The one who shows up and does the work makes the world a little better for Christ’s sake.

This is where we enter the story. Instead of being a bunch of complainers, we are going to speak up for God and the gospel. This is who we are and this is what we are supposed to do. I imagine you have heard the story of the one hundredth monkey. Well, it is so remarkable it bears repeating.  

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, was observed in the world for a period of over 30 years. In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant.  

An 18-month old female named Imo found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother and her playmates. Between 1952-1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes. Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement. The other adults kept eating dirty sweet potatoes.  

Then something startling happened. In the fall of 1958, a large number of the monkeys were washing potatoes, perhaps 99 of them. That October morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash sweet potatoes. 

THEN IT HAPPENED! By that evening everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of the hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough! Then, of all things, the habit of washing sweet potatoes then spontaneously jumped over the sea – colonies of monkeys on the other islands began washing their sweet potatoes! 

It is the high calling, said William Sloane Coffin, Jr., of every Christian to be, if not the first, at least that hundredth monkey – the one that provides the breakthrough, that shows that things can change for the better, that dispels a destructive lies by replacing it with a life-enhancing truth, demonstrating the amazing phenomenon that if enough of us become aware of something, all of us will become aware of it.  

In the world, the gospel, which started out as the sweetest of the potatoes, has been covered in dirt, the nasty dirt of ignorance and disgust. We now need a tribe of 100 monkeys, what St. Paul calls, “Fools for Christ’s sake,” to teach the world how to wash sweet potatoes. In other words, to see that the purpose of the gospel is to spread the good news of God’s mercy, grace, love, and goodness around the world. Einstein said that our task was “to widen the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  

Listen, the gospel is liberal. Look at God’s love: “For God so loved the world.” The world – the whole world. God’s love is so wide it extends around the globe to embrace everyone. God’s love is so long that it goes the distance to save absolutely everyone. God’s love is so deep that it extends into hell where Jesus broke open the gates of that prison and set the prisoners free. God’s love is so high it extends to heaven where Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Liberal, meaning generous, is a good word for God’s love.

The gospel is liberal. Look at God’s grace. Paul insists that God’s grace is abundant and overflowing. He speaks of the “riches of God’s grace. Everything is grace, grace. It’s all grace.  

The gospel is liberal. Look at God’s mercy. The gospel insists that whosoever will may come. It is our purpose to spread as much of God’s mercy to our fellow human beings as possible. Mercy, mercy, mercy. What a beautiful thing it is. God have mercy. Lord have mercy. I am glad that the gospel is liberal. It is liberal enough to include sinners like me — and you!  

There’s nothing in the gospel that is cheap, selfish, mean, hurtful, demeaning, prejudiced, off-putting. There’s nothing in the gospel that excludes, walls off, turns down, turns away, rejects, refuses, or condemns. “Neither do I condemn you!” Jesus took in all comers from the woman at the well to the notorious tax collector Zacchaeus to the dying thief on the cross. Our task is the same as it was 2100 years ago – get the word out about the good news.

Jesus wraps up his defense by telling the religious people, the Pharisees that the tax collectors and prostitutes will lead the parade into the kingdom of God. Why? Jesus says they are the ones who showed up down at the river, heard the good news, accepted it freely, and went to work.

Cut God some slack. Lighten up on the criticism. The time has come for at least 100 monkeys to teach the rest of the world how to live on live, grace, and mercy.