I love to play games. Board games, video games, card games…
One of my favorite ways to spend time with family is to grab a deck of cards and play all evening long.
Pinochle and 500 in particular. In both, there is some luck involved in the hand you are dealt, but also a lot of strategy during the card play. The games involve bidding, communication with your partner, and risk taking. Because you never know when your cards might get trumped.
You see, in both games, there is a trump suit. And that means that whoever wins the bid gets to pick the suit… whether diamonds, hearts, clubs, or spades… that will automatically win anytime they are played.
No matter how high of a card you play… a trump card can beat it.
In our life of faith, there are a lot of trump cards we can play. Actions we take or words we say that stop a conversation in its tracks or change the trajectory of a person’s action.
As James writes to the people of God, he is basically telling them that they have two kinds of trump cards to choose from: Mercy & Judgment.
The question is… which is more faithful? And which are YOU going to play?
Each of us were handed a card as we walked in this morning. For the purposes of our message this morning, I want you to ignore whatever the number or suit is of the card you were handed and instead I want you to pick your own ranking.
I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done in your life. The biggest sin you have committed. That one that stays with you. Maybe, it is the one others keep reminding you about. Maybe, the one no one else even knows about.
How would you rank that sin?
Is it a four of stealing?
Is it a jack of adultery?
Is it an ace of lies?
No matter how we have ranked our sin, no matter what suit it is, God has a word for us today.
Because no matter how high of a card you have or you play… a trump card can beat it.
And in our life of faith, we can choose between two suits of trump: Mercy & Judgment.
First, let’s look at what it would mean to play the trump card of judgment.
When you choose judgment as your trump card, then when you see sin in the world, you choose to name it. You choose to treat others based upon their obedience to the Law of God, because you are playing by the rule of Law.
And that means that every one of the Ten Commandments Moses chiseled into the stone tables, every one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament, every single rule of the scriptures applies.
Not just for other people, who you are judging…. But for yourself, too!
This is the same message Paul shares with the Roman community. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans, he speaks about the difference between living under the law and living under grace… and specifically is speaking to a Jewish community. “Those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law… If you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law…. Then why don’t you who are teaching others teach yourself.” (Romans 2: 12, 17, 21)
If you choose to judge others by the Law, you are choosing to live under the Law. And that means all the Law applies to you.
One of the big problems that James sees with this is that Judgment is often arbitrary.
We pick and choose which laws we are going to judge by.
As The Message translation of James 2:1 puts it: “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.”
The laws we tend to judge by ARE influenced by the changing tides of culture. We can see how the important sins of the day have changed through time… whether we are focusing on slavery, prohibition, child labor, sexuality, abortion… some sins get elevated to the top and are THE standard by which we judge other people.
If we go back to the game of cards… they are the ones that we think are the Aces, Kings and Queens of sin.
But as James writes, “you can’t pick and choose in these things.”
If you are going to live under the law, you have to live under the ENTIRE law. And Paul says it is impossible: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 2:23)
But we keep trying to play the trump cards of judgment, and we point out to others the exact rank and suit of their cards.
The problem is, we tend to use our life as the measuring stick, rather than the law. We pick out their suits by the Laws we choose to follow and rank them based on our own obedience, success, and failures. Who is rich and who is poor… who is deserving and undeserving… all of these distinctions depend on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves…. Not how God sees them or us.
And God sees all sin equally. It doesn’t matter if you are a serial killer or committed adultery or if you stole a candy bar when you were seven… we are all sinners.
Every single sin, no matter how we rank them… whether it is an ace or a three… they are equal. They all get trumped by judgment.
The other option is to choose mercy as your trump card. When you do so, it is grace that sets the rules of the game.
A very simple definition of mercy is to give someone something they do not deserve.
And as we just heard, none of us deserve grace. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” Paul writes… and then continues, “but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24)
The Law of God helps us to see how far away from God’s intentions we have fallen, but it is only the Grace of God that gives us the freedom to get back up and reclaim who we were truly meant to be.
On Tuesday of this week, Pastor Todd and I were in Ames to hear a presentation from Bishop Ken Carter who presides over the Florida Annual Conference.
First and foremost, Bishop Carter reminded us that we were all made in the image of God. Before the fall, before sin entered the world, we were made in God’s image.
And in our tradition, we believe that no sin, no matter how big, can ever take that image of God away from us. It is there… deep within our lives.
Every person has it… whether they are aces by the world’s standards or fours and fives.
And God’s grace enters our lives while we are still sinners and sets us free.
In our tradition, we talk about the justifying grace that saves us, but again, grace has nothing to do with anything we have done, with our gifts or our merits…. It is simply our acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us.
It is our decision to stop playing by the rules of Law and to start living by the rule of grace.
Or as James puts it, “talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.” (2:12)
When we live by the rules of grace and play the trump card of mercy, then again, we have to treat every person in this world the same. No kings or threes here, either.
And the trump of mercy allows us to see others not as the worst thing they have ever done, but instead to see the image of God in their lives.
Bishop Carter also shared with us this past week a really concrete picture of the difference between playing the trump of judgment and playing the trump of mercy.
He pointed to two well-know, important people of faith: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.
Both of them are holy men. They have both dedicated their lives to God’s word.
Yet, their words of response to one of the big “sin questions” of our time are striking.
In regards to homosexuality, Pope Benedict said: “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil.”
Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”
The world saw Pope Benedict as a continuation of a church that was declining in relevancy, pointing out the sins of the world and judging without paying attention to its own sins.
But we have seen the world respond in a different way to Pope Francis, and his focus on mercy has everything to do with it.
He washed the feet of prisoners on Good Friday. He lives a life of humility. He has declared a season of mercy and forgiveness of those who have had abortions. He is calling the church to treat every single person with mercy, love, and grace.
He has not abandoned the churches official positions on any of these controversial subjects, but he has let go of the trump card of judgment. He refuses to play it.
Bishop Carter pointed out that the more we approach holiness, the more humility we should have and the more we leave judgment in the hands of Jesus.
And what we see is that others’ lives are transformed not by playing a trump card of judgment and pointing out their sins.
No, transformation happens in the presence of holiness and grace and love… when the trump card of mercy wipes away whatever suit or rank has defined us and allows us to remember the image of God that is in our lives.
Mercy or Judgment?
James is pretty clear… Mercy trumps everything…. Even Judgment.