Sermon illustration in the news

Sunday, August 25, 2019


This sermon from last year contains a story about 

Lt. Alaric A. Piette, former Navy SEAL and military lawyer. 

It is in the news again this week:


The Defense of the Defenseless

Sermon by Fleming Rutledge                                     Second Sunday in Lent 2018

What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.                                                       (Romans 4:1-5)

While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.                                                                                                              (Romans 5:6-10)


Last week, when I was thinking about the Epistle to the Romans in preparation for this sermon, I was struck by something in a newspaper article. I guess I should tell you that the article was on the front page of “the failing New York Times,” but I hope you won’t hold that against me…!

The article is about a defense attorney on a prominent case involving a terrorist. This young man is woefully unprepared for his difficult duty.[1] His name is Alaric Piette, a former Navy SEAL with only six years experience as a lawyer, and no experience at all with a capital case. He himself agrees that he is unfit, but it seems that the whole legal team resigned from the case, and he was the only one lawyer willing to stay. Lt. Piette says, “There is no way I qualify as learned counsel, but leaving the client without a lawyer to defend his rights could be even worse. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, but I don’t think I really had a choice.”

Now this is a very complicated case with a lot of background that I’m not going to go into here, but the central fact for the purpose of this sermon is that the client is Abd al-Rhahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian accused of orchestrating the bombing of the US destroyer Cole in 2000. This is a person that almost any American would assume deserved conviction and a harsh penalty. The case is complicated, though, because some of the evidence is tainted, having been gathered through years of torture at CIA “black sites.” In any case, Lt. Piette’s stance has earned him the scorn of many.

Here’s what caught my attention in the article. During Lt. Piette’s last year at the Georgetown law school, he decided that he would not become a prosecutor as he originally thought. He shifted his emphasis to the criminal defense clinic. Raised Roman Catholic, he described representing destitute, often mentally ill clients as the moment he really understood the teachings of Jesus. He said, “It was the first time since (I left] the SEALS that I found something really meaningful. I was standing between a person and the system.” Many of the members of the team that left the case expressed extreme disdain for Lt. Piette, but one of his professors at Georgetown put his photo up in her ethics class as an example of “a courageous and ethical representation. He’s pretty gutsy. This legal train is in motion and he steps out in front to protect his client. I don’t know that all lawyers would do that.”

Let’s assume that the accused Saudi man is indeed guilty of plotting the terrorist act. Is he deserving of a defense? Does he have “rights”? Our system teaches us to presume innocence until proven guilty, but what does guilt and innocence mean, ultimately, in the sight of God?

As Jesus Christ was being nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” Luke 23:34). Whom exactly is he interceding for? The Roman soldiers were doing the immediate hands-on deed.[2] Or was he forgiving Caiaphas the high priest and his kangaroo court? Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands of him? Peter, who denied him three times? It’s an open question, isn’t it? In any case, this saying sets forgiveness at the heart and center of Luke’s passion narrative. But to what extent does Christian forgiveness extend to those who know exactly what they are doing? These are not easy questions.

A few days ago I had lunch with three clergy friends and we discussed this matter. One of them described a poster he had seen in a pacifist church not long after American special forces ambushed and killed Osama bin Laden. The poster had an illustration of Jesus greeting and embracing bin Laden. All four of us agreed that this was offensive, but we agreed also that it sharply raised the question of exactly how far Christian forgiveness should go and who should receive it. Did Osama bin Laden know what he was doing? Should only people be forgiven who don’t know what they are doing? Did the young man with the AR-14 at the Stoneman Douglas high school know what he was doing?

The book of Leviticus prescribes various religious sacrifices that should be made by people who have “unwittingly” broken the laws of God. The emphasis here is on the guilt of those who have disobeyed, even if they “knew not” what they had done.

Significantly, there is no provision made in Leviticus for deliberate sin. Isn’t that interesting! If you commit an “unwitting” offense, you have a remedy. But the person who commit sins “with a high hand,” as we read in the book of Numbers, has no remedy, but will be “utterly cut off” from the community and “his iniquity will remain upon him”(Numbers 15:30-31). We’ll get back to “high-handed iniquity” in a few minutes, but for now we’ll just note that the basic idea in the sacrificial rituals of Leviticus is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the animal sacrifice, and a sense of awe at the shedding of blood, represents this payment. This is what the book of Hebrews in the New Testament means when it says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). The blood represents the ultimate cost to the giver. There is something powerful here that grips us in spite of ourselves.[3] We are left, however, with the problem of the person who knows what he or she is doing.

            I have often told a story about a man I knew in one of my former parishes. He was very well-educated and prominent in the community, but he was not at all self-important. I had no idea that he had been in the fabled 10thMountain pision during World War II, and I certainly didn’t know that he had received the Silver Star until I went to a veterans’ gathering and someone told me. I started oohing and aahing to the veteran about his Silver Star but he cut me off. He said, crisply and definitively, “Nobody knows who deserves what.”

            The more I have thought about that, the more profound it seems to me to be. Depth psychology in the 20th century revealed what the great writers like Shakespeare knew all along: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”[4] Every one of us is a tangle of mixed motives, most of them entirely unconscious and inaccessible to us without psychotherapy and even then, largely mysterious. An act of great courage performed by one person might be nearly impossible for another person with a different psychological makeup. Only God knows who deserves what. Again Shakespeare: “Use every man after his deserts [his deserving], and who shall ’scape whipping?”[5]

            What about “high-handed” iniquity? What forces make a person deliberately do evil things? We know so little about this. Certainly people who commit terrorist acts are doing it with a high hand. But then so was the CIA acting with a high hand in setting up black sites to torture people. Torturing another person does profound damage to the soul of the one doing the torturing. Human justice is necessary for human life to exist, but human justice is exceedingly imperfect and can never restore what was lost. In speaking of God, we must seek other dimensions. In certain cases, Christian forgiveness seems almost immoral. The picture of Jesus embracing Osama bin Laden is a very superficial image of the nature of Christian forgiveness and the justice of God. There is something missing from this image and that is the righteousness of God.

            The righteousness of God is the justice of God. They are the same word in Hebrew and in Greek (dikaiosyne). The righteousness of God is the root of Paul’s favorite word justification. The two words, justiceand justification, mean essentially the same thing. It’s noteworthy that Paul hardly ever speaks of forgiveness; instead, he says that God justifies. But what does that mean? Is it the same thing as forgiveness?

In Romans 4 and 5, Paul says two startling things. It’s amazing that very few people pay attention to these remarkable verses. Maybe this isn’t true of you, since you have such excellent teaching here, but most people that I meet, even very devout churchgoers, don’t seem to know these words. I have known many biblical interpreters who think they are the heart of the gospel.

            Admittedly, Paul is difficult to follow sometimes! Here’s the first passage:

Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

This was one of the passages that jumped out at Martin Luther 500 years ago. The contrast is between “work” and “faith.” Abraham did not trust in the “works” that he did; he trusted in God who justifies —wait for it—justifies the ungodly.

Now every single religious idea the world has ever seen depends on a concept of becoming more godly—more religious, more charitable, more spiritual. What would be the point of religion if not to make people godly? Here is where the Christian faith perges from “religion,” and here the gospel preached by the apostle Paul appears in its most radical form. God is the one who justifies the ungodly.

The ungodly. Who are these ungodly people? Well, of course, they are you and me. They are Abraham and Isaac, Sarah and Rebekah. They are Peter and Paul, Mary and Martha. We are all the ungodly because we have all been born under the sign of Adam, as Paul goes on to say in chapter 5. But before he writes about Adam, he makes sure we understand about our ungodliness. In these verses, Romans 5:6 and 8, we have as clear and concise a definition of the gospel of the grace of God as we are ever going to find:

While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly

…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us….therefore, we are now justified by his blood

Paul couldn’t have known that the great American gospel was going to be “God helps those who help themselves,” but he couldn’t have demolished it more succinctly in these words: “While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

In the book of Job, there is a lot of talk about God. Job talks, the so-called friends talk for thirty-seven long chapters. But when God actually shows up in person in chapter 38 and speaks uninterrupted for four more chapters, Job says

I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees thee;

therefore I…repent in dust and ashes.”

It is only when we meet the Lord Jesus as a living Savior that we understand the true meaning of repentance in the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday.

There are elements of myself that are indefensible. There are elements of yourself that are indefensible. If you don’t know that, you do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of Sin and Death, we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the one who justifies the ungodly. Forgiveness is too weak a word for what God does. Justification is the word. It is not up to us to determine what God is going to do about Osama bin Laden. We can only say that God is able to do mighty works of making right what has been wrong. Never mind Osama bin Laden. God is going to make right what is wrong with me—I look forward to that day!—and he is going to make right what is wrong with all of us. That is what justification means: Not just forgiveness, but making right all that has been wrong. Luke wrote a beautiful, luminous Gospel, but we need Paul to tell us that forgiveness alone is not enough. To be forgiven by God is to be justified: remade in the image of the new Adam, who is Jesus Christ, the great Defender of the defenseless. In this sense, the defender of the ungodly in the earthly court of justice is a reflection—a very dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection nonetheless—of the justice of God.

While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Many people know the hymn “Abide with me,” but do not recognize Paul’s words in the words of the hymn: “Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”…We are going to sing a hymn from the Evangelical Lutheran tradition, by Johann Heermann who wrote many of the texts for Bach’s chorales. This supremely moving hymn is typically used during Holy Week in my Episcopal tradition, but I asked that it be sung today so that, as we sing it, we will recognize ourselves in it. We are the ungodly for whom Christ died. In the same moment, we will recognize two things as once: we will recognize ourselves as guilty and condemned, and at the same moment we will recognize that we ourselves are the ones for whom Christ died—for he is the One who justifies the ungodly, the One who defends the defenseless, the One who will incorporate us into himself and remake us so that we are fit for his eternal embrace in the company of all the saints and our Father in heaven.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,

That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?

By foes derided, by thine own rejected,

O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,

I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;

The slave hath sinnèd, and the Son hath suffered;

For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,

God interceded.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,

Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;

Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,

For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,

I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;

Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,

Not my deserving.

¾Johann Heermann(1585-1647)

[1] Dave Phillips, “Lawyer in Terror Trial Is Seen as Unfit. He Agrees.” The New York Times, 2/6/18.

[2] Certainly, the soldiers did not know what they were doing, although, according to Luke, when Jesus drew his last breath a centurion declared that Jesus was innocent.

[3] The use of the phrase “blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in a primordial sense; we cannot root out these connections even if we want to.

[4] All’s Well That Ends Well, IV, iii, 83).

[5] Polonius: My Lord, I shall use them according to their desert.

Hamlet: God’s bodkin, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?…The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)


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